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.