4 min read
I remember the initial excitement I felt when I first discovered blogs like Mr. Money Mustache, Early Retirement Extreme, and Mad Fientist. I was captivated by this idea of “Financial Independence Retire Early”, commonly referred to as F.I.R.E.
I felt like I had stumbled upon a hidden formula that held the key to happiness in life: Grind for 10 years, save 70% of my income each year, then quit my day job in my early 30s and never work again.
But as I began to research the psychology of happiness more and more, I kept noticing three variables show up. To live a good life, you need:
Autonomy: freedom over your time
Mastery: working towards becoming an expert at some type of work
Connection: meaningful relationships and belonging to a community
F.I.R.E. certainly promotes the idea of having the financial means to have autonomy over your life. It also grants you the free time necessary to develop connections and become a member of a larger community.
But F.I.R.E. doesn’t have much of an explanation for “Mastery.” It even contains the words “Retire Early” in the acronym, implying that you shouldn’t engage in active work or work towards mastery in a field.
The words “Retirement Police” are even thrown around in personal finance blog posts to suggest that you would be breaking some law if you declare yourself retired and yet still work in some capacity.
In recent months, though, I have noticed a trend in the personal finance community. More and more bloggers (myself included) are beginning to acknowledge that work isn’t the enemy, but rather meaningless work is the enemy.
I have recently seen a plethora of tweets and blog posts that promote a new idea that is beginning to take hold in the community:
F.I. is essential. R.E. is optional.
More people are beginning to see that financial independence (or even partial F.I.) is essential to gain freedom over your time. Retiring early, however, is entirely optional. In fact, avoiding work entirely may have a negative impact on your well-being.
One book that supports the idea that work is essential to a good life is Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. In it, he argues that we actually experience life at the fullest when we’re doing deep work, attempting to overcome challenges, solve problems, and push beyond our limits.
“Contrary to what we usually believe, moments like these, the best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times—although such experiences can also be enjoyable, if we have worked hard to attain them. The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”
Csikszentmihalyi points out that engaging in a difficult task forces us to concentrate deeply on that task, which helps us enter a “flow” state. This state is highly correlated with a sense of well-being and purpose. And the best way to enter a flow state on a regular basis is through doing work that we find meaningful.
It almost feels weird saying “you need work to make you happy” because many of us have negative feelings associated with the term “work.” We associate it with 9-5 schedules, deadlines, meetings, performance reviews, micro-managers, and frustrating commutes.
This doesn’t mean work is evil, though. It just means that most of us have never been in a situation where we look forward to work. After all, it’s tough to get excited about projects when we we’re sitting in soul-sucking cubicle environments with deadlines and managers looming around us.
Personally, I surprised myself when I found a certain type of work that I looked forward to each day in the form of blogging. Each morning I sit at my desk genuinely excited to write an article or work on code for a new visual.
I probably enjoy blogging so much because it’s the exact opposite of my day job in many ways – I have no meetings, no manager, and no performance reviews. I choose my own projects. I can work from the comfort of my own home or go to my favorite coffee shop. I work when I feel like it and take breaks whenever I want.
I can imagine that most people could find enjoyable work if they had complete control over their schedule, with the freedom to choose exactly what projects to work on.
Perhaps the biggest perk of finding enjoyable work is that earning active income can help you exit your cubicle years sooner. Personally I earned over $1,000 in April alone from blogging. If I consistently earned $1k per month, that’s $12k per year, equivalent to a 3%-yielding stock portfolio with a value of $400k. That’s $400k I no longer need to sit around and accumulate through a day job.
This is why I think it’s a good idea to spend your “wealth accumulation” years finding out what type of work actually interests you. Experiment with starting a blog, making an Etsy shop, setting up a tutoring side hustle, or whatever else piques your interest. I think you might find that it’s easier than you think to earn income from work you enjoy.
I think we’re witnessing a major philosophy shift in the personal finance community and I couldn’t be more excited. More of us are beginning to see that the end goal is happiness, not just a fat bank account.
And it turns out that work plays an essential role in happiness, as long as you have the freedom to dictate what that work looks like. If you can create a situation where you can do work on your own schedule, on your own terms, at your own pace, and produce meaningful products and services, it can simultaneously add value to the world and boost your own happiness.
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