Exit Stage Left

Conforming is easy. You don’t have to think that much about your choices. In fact the world provides a lovely little template for you to follow. Go to school, graduate high school and then continue into some kind of post secondary education. Then after picking up lots of debt from that post secondary education, get a job to pay that money back. Oh, but don’t forget you also need to find a spouse, buy a house, get into even more debt and then spend the next 40 years paying it all back and saving just enough money to eventually retire. Yet at that point the script stops. No one tells you what to do in retirement except some meaningless advice like playing golf and relaxing.

Odd, you say? Try having your script stop 25 years earlier. That is the plight of the early retiree. We have abandon our script and walk off stage left before the audience is ready. Then everyone, including ourselves, is wondering: what the hell happens next?

Early retirement only offers the terror of being bound by nothing. The conforming part of your life is gone. The structure of your life is blown to bits when you leave work and your forced for the first time in a very long time to actually face some of the hard questions: who am I? What am I here for?

Facing a sea of endless choices it becomes easy to get lost in the options. What time would you like to get up? What does it mean to achieve something when playing a video game was all you did for a day? Is that productive? Does being productive even matter? Then you finally have to face the big question of your day: do I need to take something out of the freezer at noon to make supper?

In some regards I understand why people continue to keep working. It’s easier to keep pushing back that retirement date and just work. You may not like everything about your work, but it does provide some meaning to your life and some structure to most of your week with no effort at all. You know when you have to get up as you have to plan when to arrive at work, you know how long your lunch break is, you have a series of tasks provided to you by your thoughtful workplace which also provides a wonderful metric on your progress so you know if you have been productive or not.

But the early retiree doesn’t have that so what do they do? There are various ways to impose some order to your life and the most obvious solution is to take the nod from work: borrow order imposed by others. In my case, my wife’s plan to continue working provide a nice excuse to get out of bed and get dressed each day. Of course, after that I’m on my own but at least it’s start. The kids will of course also contribute to the structure of my week by having activities that I can get involved with or at the very least take them to.

The other way to insert some meaning into your life is pick a mission. Unlike your job where that is approved by a board of directors, you get to define your own mission statement. It can be to help save the world or be as minor as been the best napper in your house (beating my dog on that could be a serious challenge). The point is you can choose your mission and then change it as you like. You could spend a year learning a new language and pick a new one the year afterward. Or in my case, you can write stories about things that never happened to people that don’t exist in pretend worlds (see isn’t fiction fun).

Then finally there is the last way to assign meaning to your life: choose not to. Instead just let the days roll past and relax. All this talk of life purpose may make your head hurt. So just get up when you want, do what strikes your fancy and sort it all out later on. While this may work very well as an initial strategy while you detox from work and discover the cool thing of actually having a enough time in the day to exercise, get enough sleep, eat right and finally floss everyday. Meaning after all is arbitrary, what we focus on life is our meaning. You can pretend otherwise, but by choosing to watch TV for 20 or more hours a week you have chosen that as your meaning to life. I didn’t say it was a good answer, but it is an answer.

So dear early retiree, chose wisely. What you do is your life.

The Decision

I’ve done more math on this problem than any other in my life.  I’ve got spreadsheets, data and analysis until my eyes want to bleed saying that I can reasonably leave work this year, but I haven’t actually committed to that yet.  I keep second guessing myself.  I have a plan but I can’t bring myself to commit yet.

Is this the right thing?  Should I work just a bit longer?  One month more or maybe three.  Or can I shorten things by another month, what happens then?  I do stress tests on my assumptions and answer a mine field of ‘what if’ questions.  I know exactly how I can fail at this but I’m still not sure I can do it, because in fact I haven’t make the choice yet.

Then the feeling of uncertainty slowly morphs into something darker over the months.  I’m angry at my job.  I don’t want to be there.  I find myself staring out into space hating being where I am.  I want to leave now, why I am doing this any longer?  Why not just go NOW? My soul blackens and I can barely sit in my chair some days.

Then like a sunbeam from between the clouds it hits me: because I have chosen this.  There are no guns to my head keeping me at my job, no chain on my leg attached to the desk or fence keeping me in my grey cubicle at work.  I can walk tomorrow if I so choose, but I must accept the consequence of that choice.  Besides I realize that despite the frustration of waiting to finish up my last part of savings that there are things I still want to do at work.  I don’t hate my job, and I don’t want to screw anyone over.  I want to leave with my head held high that I set my workplace up to succeed with out me.  It won’t be perfect, but life never is.

And suddenly the tension is gone as I realize that I accept that I will work a bit longer.  I will leave full time work this year.  I have chosen to try my hand at a different life and yes that is a bit terrifying but also very exciting as well.  I have in fact gone from thinking about leaving work to deciding to leave work.  And it is as if the world remakes itself in my head I let go of the anger and frustration and I’m left with a feeling of calm.  I actually smile for the first time in days.

Than a quote comes to mind from the movie ‘Shawshank Redemption’:

He strolled, like a man in a park without a care or a worry in the world, like he had on an invisible coat that would shield him from this place.

It’s going to be alright.  I have made my decision.

Retirement Transitions and Symbols

Perhaps it was odd, but never the less, the other day I was considering some of my major transitions in my life.  The reason was very simple in some respects I wanted to consider how things had changed and how well did I adapt to that change in order to prepare myself a bit better for when I actually quit my day job.

What I realized in a lot of cases in life we mark notable events and transitions with symbols and/or ceremonies.  When I finished my engineering degree I got a ring and attended a little ceremony.  So to this day, a lot of people know what I do for a living by looking at my right hand pinky finger.  Or when you get married you often have a ceremony with family and friends and you also get a ring.  Somewhat ironically I got both of my rings in the same year.  Thus the rings are reminders of part of my identity they tell me and often anyone who looks at my hands that I’m married and an engineer.

Another transition that can happen is when you become a parent, while I didn’t get a ring for that we did receive numerous cards saying congratulations and a fair number of gifts.  Some of the gifts were also more mementos rather than practical gifts which we can keep to again remind us of this fundamental change to our lives of becoming parents and forge another part of my identity.

Yet when it comes to retirement, there often isn’t much for a symbol or ceremony involved anymore.  In days past there used to be a bit of formally around leaving a workplace to enter retirement.  Often there was a gift (ironically it was often watch – when of course you no longer need to look at a clock so much) and a short little speech by your boss during a lunch with some co-workers.  It wasn’t much, but it did mark the end of one phase of your life and moving to another.

Today, while often there is still some kind of gift involved it may not be anything in particularly symbolic.  Some companies will even let you pick out something up to a set dollar value from a catalogue and you may or may not have any particular party at work.  Yet for the early retiree things get even more unclear as most corporate polices won’t even cover that situation and for those doing it on the stealth side of not telling anyone you won’t have anything goodbye gift or party at all.

But it’s just a watch or something, do you really need to get something or have a party to mark the occasion?  Logically speaking no you don’t need a gift or party.  Emotionally speaking, I HIGHLY recommend you do get yourself a gift and throw a little party for yourself.  Pardon, did a personal finance blogger just tell me spending money on a party was a good idea? Yes, freaky I know. 😉

You have to consider that there are really two parts to your mind at play here: the conscious and subconscious mind.  The conscious mind can be reasoned with, you can think about your plans and make the transition in a completely logically fashion and think you are fine with everything.  Until your subconscious hits you with all your repressed emotional content and you have nightmares for a month after you leave work and break out in tears for no good reason one day.  The good news about the subconscious is it responses well to symbols.  Thus it is entirely possible to help your subconscious process everything by having a nice little ceremony with symbols about your transition.  What those symbols should be will be a personal thing: you could burn something you took to work each day or toss it in the trash or bury it in the yard.  Or get something new to remind yourself of your big change to your life.

You have to recall that retirement is a major life transition.  Even for me moving to a semi-retired state is a bloody big shift in my lifestyle and I’m going to be going through a lot of emotions as I adjust to live without a full time job.  You may logically understand it, but you may not emotionally be ready for it.  So having a little reminder as a gift and ceremony can help you emotionally process what is happening and make the shift just a bit easier.

In my case, I’m not expecting anything from my workplace as a gift or even a going away lunch.  If it happens, well great, but I’m taking things into my own hands.  For my gift, I’ll be honest and state I’ve already been thinking about this for a while.  I’ve decide on getting a ring.  I certainly don’t need it but given the importance of some of the other rings in my life the idea just felt right.  Then I started looking online at various designs to get an idea of what I may want and by happenstance I found one on Amazon of all places.  I saw it and it instantly reminded me of a quote from Neil Gaiman

“Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”

Early retirement is like beating a dragon; it seems like an impossible task until you have done it. Getting there is worth celebrating and reminding yourself that just because 99% of people won’t do it doesn’t mean it is impossible.  Rather it is just an unusual feat.

My new retirement ring that I’ve already ordered and it arrived, it’s not very expensive, but it does have a sort of Celtic knot work dragon on it. See below for a picture (the middle one).  Also the ring which is made of tungsten  should go rather well with my current rings which are stainless steel (engineering on the right) and white gold (wedding on the left).  As to the ceremony bit, I’m not done planning that out yet, but I will let you know when I figure it out.


The Three Rings of Tim
The Three Rings of Tim

So would you get yourself a retirement gift and/or do a retirement ceremony or not bother?