There is a man from my hometown who has been working as a grocery store cashier for over 30 years. I know this because I used to work with him at the same store when I was in high school.
This particular man is the epitome of happiness. He is constantly in a cheerful mood and greets every customer with a smile. Simply being around him for a few minutes is enough to put most people in an uplifting mood.
This man clearly enjoys his job. He loves seeing the same people day in and day out, chatting with customers, helping people find what they’re looking for, and generally being social.
Simply put, he seems content.
And while the enthusiasm and cheerfulness this man brings to his job is admirable, I can’t help but think: with his consistently positive attitude and uncanny ability to strike up a heartfelt conversation with virtually anyone, could he be doing more with his life?
Could this man be a teacher, a coach, a motivational speaker, a therapist? Could he have more of an impact on the world if he shared his upbeat attitude with people outside of a minimum wage job?
I am in no position to judge this man and I don’t know his backstory, but I can’t help but think there must be millions of people just like him around the world – people who are seemingly not living up to their potential, but are completely content with their life. This brings up a question I think about quite a lot:
Is it better to be ambitious or content?
Is it better to have ambition and constantly strive for a higher quality of life, for more knowledge, for more growth? Or is it better to be content with where we are in life and have no deep desire to reach the next level?
Is Immediate Contentment the Answer?
In particular, for those of us seeking early retirement I’d be willing to bet that we’re a highly ambitious group. We have a desire to live differently, to embrace an uncommon lifestyle, to accumulate enough money to walk away from a 9-5 job decades before our peers. It takes at least some degree of ambition to pursue early retirement.
But our ambition isn’t fueled by our desire to amass an impressive pile of money or receive attention for living differently. We’re ambitious because we want freedom. We want control over our time, and consequently our lives.
But doesn’t this mean we’re just striving to be content? And do we even need early retirement to be content?
Do we have it all wrong? Should we seek to be content now and not worry about early retirement? After all, if the sole reason behind early retirement is to maximize our contentment with life, surely there are ways we can change our life now to find more contentment without having enough money to retire.
The Problem With Immediate Contentment
While the temptation to pursue contentment in the short term while ignoring future implications is enticing, there are several flaws behind this line of thinking.
Just because we’re content with our lifestyle, our jobs, and our relationships we have now doesn’t guarantee that we’ll be content with them in the future. Circumstances change. Great bosses leave. New employees join. Customers come and go. Businesses close. Unemployment strikes at inopportune times. Relationships change. The future is unpredictable.
This is why choosing immediate contentment and ignoring future implications is a slippery slope. It’s entirely possible to be content with the present for several weeks, months, even years. But the moment misfortune strikes, we can be caught completely off guard if we’ve been focusing so much on present contentment that we have been completely ignoring the future.
On the flip side, if we are constantly discontent with our position in life and always striving for a better livelihood it’s challenging to be content in the present moment.
For those of us on the road to early retirement, ambition is our best friend. It pushes us to save more, earn more, invest smarter, and pay down debt faster. All of these actions are hugely beneficial to us – they help us gain more freedom in life.
But if we’re not careful, this ambition that builds up our financial fortress can carry our minds away from the present moment. It’s easy to be so ambitious that we forget to find joy and happiness in the present.
So it seems there are benefits and drawbacks to both ambition and contentment, which begs the question:
Is there a way we can combine the benefits of both ambition and contentment – is there a way to be content now and still have ambition to strive for a better life?
I think the answer is yes. In fact, I think the entire idea of early retirement offers a wonderful way for us to be content in the present while still allowing us to be ambitious for a better future.
Finding Contentment in an Ambitious Journey
The biggest misconception about early retirement is the idea that we must be unhappy in life for a short period of time (pre-retirement) in order to be happy for a long period of time (post-retirement). It doesn’t have to be this way. We don’t have to sacrifice present happiness for future happiness.
When we choose early retirement, we are making a choice to pursue a long-term goal that will offer us an incredible amount of freedom. Freedom to live however we want each day. Freedom to maximize our happiness in whatever way we see fit.
The long-term nature of an early retirement goal is the reason why it’s possible to be both ambitious and content on our journey towards it. When we know ahead of time that this journey will take several years, we give ourselves time to experiment with different ways of living. Like laboratory scientists, we tinker with different techniques to cut our expenses, raise our income, and improve our financial situation.
But even more so than becoming financially astute, we experience increased mindfulness.
We learn what we can live with and without. We learn that we need far less than we think. We discover what truly makes us happy. We find joy and happiness in meaningful work, in the people around us, in nature – we find that the best things in life really are free.
Through this ambition to reach early retirement, we accidentally stumble upon happiness along the journey.
By choosing early retirement, we’re not sacrificing present happiness at all. In fact, we’re actively choosing to live in a way that lets us discover what does and doesn’t make us happy, long before we even attain early retirement.
The journey to early retirement is really just a multi-year exercise in finding what makes us happy in life.
This is why early retirement is a hilarious and beautiful contradiction. We pursue it in hopes of gaining the freedom we need to find happiness, but more often than not we find happiness in the journey itself.
So is it better to be ambitious or content?
Neither. We can choose both.
We can choose to pursue a path that will take us to early retirement while simultaneously experiencing contentment in the present moment. We can be highly ambitious for a better future while finding happiness in the present.
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