Susan Cain on the Power of Time Away From Work

3 min read


Many people resist the idea of early retirement because they “don’t know what they would do with all that free time.” 

It’s an understandable fear. If you currently have a 9 – 5 job, most of your time each week is spent commuting, working, and winding down from work. Stick with this schedule long enough and it can begin to feel like you don’t have any interests outside of work.

I think that’s a lie, though. Many of us simply lack the time and energy outside of work to fully pursue our interests. The interests still exist, but we have forgotten about them due to the monotonous cubicle schedule.

Early retirement offers the freedom and time to remember these interests and pursue them fully. 

A great example of this comes from the book Tribe of Mentors by Tim Ferriss. In it, Tim conducts mini-interviews with successful people. One interview that stuck out to me was one with Susan Cain, author of Quiet, a book about the power of introverts that sold over 2 million copies in the first three years of publication.

Tim asks her, “How has a failure, or apparent failure, set you up for later success?”

Susan responds with a wonderful story that describes how a leave of absence from a grueling job as a corporate lawyer gave her the space necessary to remember and rekindle her old passion for writing:

Many, many moons ago, I used to be a corporate lawyer. I was an ambivalent corporate lawyer at best, and anyone could have told you that I was in the wrong profession, but still: I’d dedicated tons of time (three years of law school, one year of clerking for a federal judge, and six and a half years at a Wall Street firm, to be exact) and had lots of deep and treasured relationships with fellow attorneys.

But the day came, when I was well along on partnership track, that the senior partner in my firm came to my office and told me that I wouldn’t be put up for partner on schedule. To this day, I don’t know whether he meant that I would never be put up for partner or just delayed for a good long while. All I know is that I embarrassingly burst into tears right in front of him – and then asked for a leave of absence. 

I left work that very afternoon and bicycled round and round Central Park in NYC, having no idea what to do next. I thought I’d travel. I thought I’d stare at the walls for a while.

Instead – and it all happened so suddenly and cinematically that it might defy belief – I remembered that actually I had always wanted to be a writer. So I started writing that very evening. The next day I signed up for a class at NYU in creative nonfiction writing. And the next week, I attended the first session of class and knew that I was finally home.

I had no expectation of ever making a living through writing, but it was crystal clear to me that from then on, writing would be my center, and that I would look for freelance work that would give me lots of free time to pursue it. 

If I had “succeeded” at making partner, right on schedule, I might still be miserably negotiating corporate transactions 16 hours a day. It’s not that I’d never thought about what else I might like to do other than law, but until I had the time and space to think about life outside of the hermetic culture of a law practice, I couldn’t figure out what I really wanted to do.

Susan didn’t achieve early retirement, but she had enough money that she could afford not to work for a while. This time away from work gave her the space and clarity to remember one of her old passions, which changed her life.

Early retirement doesn’t come with a guarantee that you’ll recall an old passion that you can leverage to become a world-class writer. It does, however, provide you with time and space to rediscover your passions. 

Susan is an extreme example, but her story illustrates the power that comes from getting away from the typical 9 – 5 slog. 

Just some food for thought.

Related: Should You Pursue F.I. if You Don’t Have a Passion Outside of Your Day Job?

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