The meaning of life is to find a meaning.
The word “retirement” carries a lot of cultural connotations and emotional baggage. It means something different to each of us. A journalist friend of mine had a fun little argument with me once, because his idea of retirement is going away into some retirement home and not doing a whole lot of nothing. When I listed all the fun stuff I finally get to do now that I don’t have to worry about setting an alarm or appeasing several bosses at once, he was confused and flabbergasted – simply because that didn’t fit his notion of retirement at all. (Bill, if I got that wrong, feel free to sound off in the comments!) And here is the beautiful part: neither of us was wrong. Both of us were right.
There is no single definition, no high tribunal that decided on the true meaning of the term “retirement” in 1736, no way to do it right or wrong. It means something different for every retiree, whether they escape the rat race at the traditional age of 60+ or at a much, much younger age.
I like to use social media for education and entertainment: I avoid religion and politics, and seek out interesting and divergent perspectives. If you’re not on Reddit yet, I highly recommend joining communities like r/leanFIRE, or the non-lean r/FIRE, or one of my favourites, r/ExpatFIRE. (Can you spot a trend here? Heh.) If you’re new to this blog, FIRE stands for Financial Independence, Retire Early, and it’s one of my favourite things in the entire world.
Reading all the different perspectives in those online communities should give you some appreciation for the sheer diversity of approaches to retired life among our strange iconoclastic tribe. To be fair, not all of those folks are happy campers. There is a very unfortunate stereotype of retired expats (usually men) who find a cheap foreign bar to hole up in, and subsequently turn into alcoholics while living in a tropical paradise. As “choose your own adventure” endings go, that’s a big no bueno.
Earlier, I wrote about the importance of differentiating between your wants and your needs. That wasn’t a simple what-if mental exercise to fill you with good vibes and positive juju as you go forth to seize the day. Establishing that mental framework is important because it’ll help you figure out what you’ll actually do once you cross that finish line. (In my circles, that goal is endearingly described as “FU money” – for obvious reasons.) I’m sure that each retired expat who became a sad daydrinker is a unique individual with their own unique lifepath, but they all ended up in the same boat – and I suspect that was because they didn’t really plan that far ahead. (Strategy is everything, at least as far as I’m concerned.)
Everyone is familiar with that old philosophical question: what’s the meaning of life? Your mileage may vary, but for me, personally, the meaning of life is to find a meaning. For me, early retirement means not having to bend over backwards in return for a paycheck. It means being able to use all my remaining time on earth (40-50 years or so, maybe more if I eat my broccoli) to pursue anything and everything. If you view life as a video game (as I often do), I more or less hit the top level in terms of personal finance, or designing incredibly elaborate Excel spreadsheets that are capable of writing almost Turing-level reports. Now that I’m financially independent (even if it’s a lean sort of independence), I’m deliberately trying to develop other aspects of my personality, aspects I’ve overlooked or disregarded earlier.
To provide more concrete examples: I am slowly but surely working my way through all the books, and movies, and especially TV shows I never had time for. Not all of that is pop culture garbage – many of those are classics. (I cannot begin to describe the shame of admitting I never watched any of the Godfather movies.) My artistic skills leave a lot to be desired (much like Randall Munroe and his stick-figure webcomic, XKCD), so I look forward to developing those too. There’s a lot of internal reluctance on that front: when I bought a self-guided art manual a year ago, I followed up by buying all the art supplies it recommended. (Specific sharpies, a small mirror, a bottle of something called “India ink,” etc.) Now I’m the proud owner of a large bag of art supplies that have never been opened. Heh… Someday – maybe even someday soon.
Another thing I’ve always wanted to try was writing. I’ve designated each Friday as my “write day” (I know the rhyme is imperfect but hey, better than nothing), a day where I prepare my blog posts for the coming week and read different books on the art of short-story writing. (Ideally, I would love to get good enough to have a few of my own stories published.) Then there’s music: over the years, I impulsively bought – and eventually discarded – a number of instruments because the learning curve was too steep, and after a long workweek, I had no energy left to spend time with a tutor. I’m still not exactly sure how to tune my guitar in less than 30 minutes, but I’ve discovered the beauty of kalimba: a fun little instrument that requires no tuning at all, and makes beautiful, light-sounding music.
Time is the only thing you can’t buy back. I chose to retire younger to enjoy these next few years of optimal health and energy: I could’ve stayed in the rat race till I was 45 – much more wealthy but also more stressed out, and definitely less healthy. (Stress is bad, mmkay?) The earlier you retire, the more time you’ll have to pursue your own passions. For some, it’s volunteering or teaching. For me, it’s self-improvement and catching up on all I’ve missed. For you, it might be something else entirely. That’s the beauty of the FIRE movement: when you become financially independent, you end up with infinite free time. What would you do if time was not a limit?..
It’s been just over five months since I left Amazon for good. (Unless they back up a truck full of money, that is. I’m not a saint, eh.) I spent the first few months catching up on sleep, followed by overdosing on video games. (That became a bit of an issue when I found a way to get paid to play Diablo II Resurrected – a hobby with an incentive!) September was spent learning about the art and science of setting up an aquarium. I expect to spend this entire year learning the ins and outs of Quebec City: it’s deceptively small, but there are so many hidden passageways, and alleys, and amazing sights. My current obsessions are writing, gaming, a bit of photography (have Nikon D5100, will travel), and slowly but surely learning French.
Each retiree’s routine is different – and yes, it’s quite odd to refer to myself as a retiree when I’m just 35. Nonetheless, here is my own daily routine:
9-10am: wake up, look at my stocks, see if there’s anything fun or interesting on social media
10-11-ish: get out of bed, shower, make a large breakfast (current obsession: omelets!)
11-noon-ish: Power hour! On Mondays/Wednesdays/Fridays, that means 30 minutes of upper body workout, followed by 30 minutes of French lessons on my phone. On Tuesdays/Thursdays/Saturdays, that means going for a long walk outside and trying to decipher French signs and conversations all around me. (While snapping pictures on my camera if the mood is right.)
Afternoon/evening: goofing around with my hobbies, hanging out with my awesome Quebec girlfriend, etc.
Evening/night: do some gaming (I’m trying to make it big on Twitch, but it’s not going so well right now), then fall asleep reading a book on my phone.
Rinse, repeat, adjust as needed. At some point, in two years or so, I’ll become a Canadian citizen (I’m currently a permanent resident) and turn into a snowbird, spending six months or so in cheap tropical countries, followed by six months in Quebec. That will definitely make my daily routine a whole lot more exotic than it is now, but I expect the overall structure to remain the same.
The meaning of life is to find a meaning: what works for me won’t work for everyone else. It might not work for most people. But it’ll certainly work for some of you reading this, and I hope this post helps.
What about you? If you’re a fellow early retiree, what all do you do with your time? If you’re still on your early retirement journey, what do you expect your daily routine to be like after you cross the finish line? Sound off in the comment section – I’m always happy to hear from you, eh.