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Debating FIRE: the struggle for the soul of FIRE (Round 2)

Debating FIRE: the struggle for the soul of FIRE (Round 2) post image

In the last round, The Investor and The Details Man responded to The Accumulator’s gentle enquiries about their views on FIRE (Financial Independence Retire Early) by snatching away his life’s dream and ripping it apart before his eyes. Can he turn the tables on the bully-boy cynics and make the case for a better world? Can you tell that The Accumulator wrote this intro?

The Accumulator: Okay TI, for me, you’ve just burst through the doors of the speakeasy shouting, “Freeze, it’s the Early Retirement Police” and popped caps into anyone who’s earned money since declaring FIRE.

The problem is applying the traditional view of ‘retirement’ to the RE side of the equation.

The FIRE version of retirement is retiring from the rat race. It’s not about sitting in your pants all-day or puttering around in a golf buggy like the world is one vast retirement village.

The post FI-life discussed by most of the community is one where your precious remaining days on this Earth are spent as meaningfully as possible. As opposed to meeting targets, sitting in jams, dealing with douchebag bosses, insane deadlines, office politics and generally playing corporate Mortal Kombat.

We’re looking for a quality-of-life upgrade here. If you make some money in the pursuit of purpose then that’s just great.

For example, Jacob Fisker, of Early Retirement Extreme, the FIRE thinker who inspires me the most, spent his first RE decade variously:

  • Repairing bikes for a women’s refuge.
  • Learning how to build furniture.
  • Racing yachts.
  • Getting into top physical condition.
  • Tinkering with mechanical watches.
  • Executing sophisticated trading strategies (including a stint with an investment firm as a quant).
  • Growing vegetables.
  • Launching the ERE blog and a vibrant online community, and publishing his book.

Some of those activities earned Jacob money, most did not and that was generally beside the point. He chose to do those things because they meant something to him, unlike his previous career of writing academic papers that only five people in the world cared about.

I can only hope my RE is so varied. I’m kinda glad about the RE controversy because though it’s responsible for much confusion – and I agree the label is wrong – it forces you to think about what happens next.

FI tells you you’ve got enough to live on, but how are you actually going to live? That’s the RE bit. And if you haven’t given it enough thought by the time you get there, then you could be heading for trouble.

When looking at Jacob’s last ten years, I’m inspired by his range of interests and desire to engage with the world.

I think living life that way requires imagination and willingness to experiment. It takes some fortitude too – not to worry about whether your choices are racking up enough dollars to score you as a ‘success’.

I don’t think most humans are built to enjoy mono-maniacally ploughing a single furrow well enough to compete in a globalised economy. Doing so comes at a massive cost in lost life.

I’d rather spend more time with those I love, playing, tinkering, learning, participating in my community, taking on new challenges, and not worrying about whether that’ll earn me millions, or even anything at all.

Are you both doing jobs that you find interesting enough to sink most of your time into? Would you do those jobs for free?

TI fires his Axiomatic-47!

The Investor: You’ve made some good points about why you believe early retirement is right for you. But I feel we’re discussing the bigger picture here – what RE means for most people, and whether it’s right or useful as a goal?

I’d argue you’ve only tangentially touched on my point that most early retirees don’t retire, and nor do most financially successful people. To oversimplify, you’ve said: “Yes they keep working, but that’s not really work, because they’re FIRE.” We are in danger of running around in circles.

I don’t accept the ‘early retirement police’ label – it’s more I axiomatically reject the RE part of FIRE. What’s the point of calling it ‘early retirement’ if there’s an explicit recognition by all that one might not – likely won’t, from what I’ve seen – ‘retire’?

Just call it financial independence and be done with it!

This is more than semantics to me, because as I said in my first post if we drop the RE baggage then we get lots more options on the journey to financial independence – and potentially more options when we achieve it, too.

Continuing on that note, you’ve said you don’t feel modern work is all that. I agree for many people that’s the case. But core FIRE methodology is to put your head down, grin and bear it for 10 to 20 years while saving as much as possible and living as cheaply as possible to get out as soon as possible, where ‘soon’ is nearly always decades away, realistically. To make all this tolerable, the FIRE-ee typically bolts on a lot of extra beliefs about how most stuff and experiences that cost money aren’t worth it.

I’d fully agree there’s a balance to be struck here. But for me it no more lies with the extreme early retire-er than it does the shopaholic loaded down with bags and debts and regret.

There is a viable alternative option to getting out of a soul-destroying job and that is to move into a less soul-destroying job.

I’ve done a couple of huge pivots (one of which came directly from working for free for the hell of it for several years.) Can everyone? Probably not, but I suspect most readers of this blog can – certainly those without kids who are contemplating effectively taking a pay cut of 50% by saving vast amounts towards FIRE.

Will a more amenable job be as great as being able to do anything you want on any given day? (Leaving aside the downsides of such freedoms, as TDM has already alluded to). Probably not, but it’s a compromise.

Will it mean a pay cut? Perhaps, perhaps not in the long run.

Will it be worth doing so to avoid disliking or even hating how one spends most of one’s waking hours? I think so.

You write passionately about the “massive cost in lost life” of work, but hardcore FIRE-seekers sign up to just that to achieve FIRE.

Of course, the vision you paint of spending time doing more of what you love, with those you love, is universally appealing – who wouldn’t want that? – but I feel you avoid addressing the cost of achieving that vision.

I’m wary of playing men not balls here, but just on Jacob Fisker, I am 100% certain he could have (and did) many of those things before he was FIRE, during, and afterwards. Obviously not all (some seem full-time endeavours) but various things. Similarly, I know lots of busy working people who have at least one or two interesting hobbies or passion projects going, too. I’d say ‘most’ for those who don’t have the time suck of kids.

I’ve the impression Jacob was that sort of person all his life. He didn’t burst out of a life of humdrum wage slavery, throw his briefcase away, and have an epiphany that made him into a poster-child, renaissance FIRE-ee.

Also FIRE, such as he achieved, was well below a material standard of living many would accept and on an income many would struggle with. And of course it didn’t last. I applaud him for pursuing his dreams, but for me it was more an interesting sabbatical, rather than what FIRE claims to do on the side of the tin as most lifestyle shoppers read it.

That brings me to an elephant in the room with all this RE business, but I’ll save that for my last contribution as I’m not getting paid by the word here.

TA readies his elephant gun

The Accumulator: Hmm, you’ve said “the vision you paint… is universally appealing,” and that I haven’t sufficiently addressed whether RE is a useful goal for most people. So I’m going to conclude this is a labelling problem and move on. If the terms ‘retirement’ and ‘work’ aren’t elastic enough for you then make up new terms and let’s talk about what’s possible.

I hear you when you say that a career change can make more sense than FIRE… that is if your problem is the type of work you do, and there’s a viable alternative career that would make you happy. I have a friend in their mid-40s, always worked as a high-flyer for big firms, too conventional for FIRE but no longer motivated by hitting her numbers. I’m convinced she’d be much happier working in the charity sector.

What if I’m in my 20s, perhaps only half a decade into my first career? I feel like I’ve made a terrible mistake with my life. A career change could be worth a go, and faster-acting than a decade-long slog to FIRE. But FIRE is reversible. It could be that a few years on the journey to FIRE, I turn a corner at work, get a promotion, a new sense of mission and control over my life. Now I have mastery and autonomy in my career. Giving it up is no longer necessary, in fact I’m glad I stuck with it, and I’m financially more secure to boot.

In my case neither sticking nor twisting is the answer. I don’t want to devote 8-10 hours, 5-6 days a week to any one thing for the rest of my life. I’ve done the dream job that loads of people would kill for. It grows old. So do you. It becomes time for a change.

Go part-time? Many careers and industries just don’t reward you for having a life. For all the ‘flexible working’ tokenism, things are going the other way. We’re expected to be available on demand. Our jobs bleed into our private lives. If you’re not on tap 24/7 then you’re sidelined, forgotten or cut. Maximising human wellbeing isn’t the goal for most of the economy.

I’m fine with my job, incidentally. But it’s not possible to do it four hours a day, or three days a week. The times when my job has not been fine have been out of my control. I don’t know when the next bad boss will walk into my life. Or when I’ll be deemed surplus to requirements. Or too old. Or my face doesn’t fit anymore. Or I get a diagnosis I don’t want to hear and realise I never did spend enough time with Mrs Accumulator.

Or maybe you want to tread more lightly on the planet, or you take the red pill and suddenly find that climbing the corporate/consumerist ladder really doesn’t do it for you anymore. Or you want to spend more time with your kids.

Sure, you don’t need to FIRE to do any of these things, or to protect yourself from the litany of misfortunes I’ve mentioned. And it’s not a panacea. All true. But it is a good way of dealing with these issues collectively and making you think about how you really want to spend your time.

I didn’t even know that much freedom was within my power until some of the early FIRE pioneers published the recipe.

Sidenote: Re: Jacob. I’m sure you’re right. FIRE didn’t hit him like a lightning bolt and turn him from Saul to Paul. But rather than fitting a couple of passion projects around his work life, he jettisoned the work life and made his entire life a passion project. He’s written about it. He’s never looked back.

You don’t have to accept Jacob’s standard of living. That suited him partly because of his beliefs about what we’re doing to the planet. Partly because he’s hardcore. Jacob’s method was to show you his principles, not to hold himself up as the Holy Template.

Now there’s ‘leanFIRE’ and ‘FatFIRE’ and every degree of FIRE you could possibly want. You strike me as more of a MMM man.

BTW, Jacob is still FIRE. It did work out. I guess you think it didn’t because he took up a job as a quant with a Chicago investment firm. He took that job because, as he said, that was his equivalent of being allowed to fly fighter jets. In other words, he’d do it for free, but if someone wanted to pay him for it, then why the hell not?

But he stuck to his FIRE budget during those four years and he left the job once he’d had enough. He bailed in 2015. He didn’t need it. He wasn’t doing it for the money.

Sidenote 2: TDM, you said that your railing at the corporate world was replaced by railing at other things. To me, this is the human condition. Solve one set of problems and we find something else to worry about. It’s a blessing and a curse. We’re obsessed with improving our world but we’re always unhappy about something.

I don’t think the performance reviews or the delayed trains are really the problem… it’s you. Or me. It’s us. It’s humans. We’re infinite worry-machines. And we carry our baggage everywhere for so long as we don’t recognise that we’re carrying our baggage. That we can put it down. Have you come across David Foster Wallace’s commencement address on this?

Does your return to the corporate world in search of new challenges mean you’re no longer seeking FIRE? Is the corporate world the only place where you can find meaningful challenge?

What’s happened to The Details Man? Has he left the table like an embarrassed house guest caught in the middle of a family row? Is The Investor about to unleash his elephant? Find out in Round 3 – the elephant’s revenge! Comments are turned off until the final post.