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My alarm clock taunted me.
3am, 4am, 5 am.
I could barely lift my eyelids. Sleep weighed me down like a thick blanket, but no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t fall sleep. Every time I drifted off; a shot of adrenaline would kick me awake.
What if I don’t get this project in on time? What if I get fired? What if I’m a huge failure?
I don’t think I can do this anymore.
Where’s my life going? What’s the point of all this?
My brain was a broken record player. Play. Pause. Repeat. Play. Pause. Repeat.
At 7:30am, I finally dragged myself out of bed. Even though I’d slept for less than 2 hours, it was time for work. Time to keep running the treadmill and pretend everything was okay.
But I didn’t get on the subway that day. Instead, right after I got up, I ended up on the floor, gasping for air. The room spun, my heart felt like it was bursting out of my chest, and my fingers felt numb.
I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!
Oh God, am I dying?
At age 30, that was my first panic attack.
And after two months of not sleeping, my doctor prescribed me meds. Benzodiazepines to help me sleep. Anti-depressants to help me feel normal again.
I’ve always been an anxious person, but it was never bad enough that I needed to shove pills down my throat.
It was my big wake up call. Because after this, I’d become FI and never need to take pills again.
After this, I thought, my anxiety will be gone forever…
Flash forward 4 years.
I’m staring at the clock again.
What if Quit Like a Millionaire isn’t any good?
What if I don’t sell a single copy?
What if Penguin thinks I’m a big failure and bans me from ever writing again?
It turns out I haven’t beaten anxiety. In fact, anxiety isn’t something you can beat. It’s a beast that stays with you.
4 Years of retirement later, I still haven’t completely tamed my anxiety beast. Turns out, as an overachiever, you don’t just calm down overnight. Turns out, becoming FI doesn’t change who you are. All it does is give you the space and time, so you can fix yourself.
Before I retired, I thought FIRE was the magic bullet. Once I became FI, I was going to be happier, healthier, and never have to suffer anxiety again.
As it turns out, my anxiety didn’t go away. Because as soon as we released our book, Quit Like a Millionaire, it came roaring back.
That’s when I realized I was wrong about what FIRE can and can’t fix.
Here’s what I found:
Ways FIRE Won’t Help You:
It Won’t Turn You into a New Person
Are you a A-type overachiever? Laid back B type person? Anxious and Neurotic like me?
Well, guess what? After you become FI, you’ll still be all those things. An overachiever won’t all of a sudden just be okay with not accomplishing anything. A B-type person won’t all of a sudden turn competitive. And a worrier won’t turn zen overnight. Our demons stick with us. We can’t run away from them.
Passion Projects: You’ll still be Anxious if You Care
One of the benefits of working on passion projects versus a job is that you have the freedom to work on things you care about rather than for money. And if you have autonomy, you no longer have to be anxious about schedules, deadlines, or meeting unrealistic expectations.
But here’s the thing. When you care about something, you’ll still get anxious. If you spend 2 years working on your book baby, once you release it into the world and open it up to criticism, it’ll still feel terrifying. I didn’t do it for the money, but that doesn’t mean I don’t care whether it makes an impact.
So, in retirement, if you work on passion projects, you could still be anxious because you still care. The more you care, the more anxious you become. FIRE doesn’t take that away.
It Doesn’t Give You a Purpose
“I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”
This is the biggest regret from the dying and I’m grateful it won’t be my last regret. FI has given me the time and space to question how I want to live my life. And working long hours doing work to doing work I wasn’t passion about to enrich a big corporation, wasn’t how I wanted to spend my time.
But running the rat race was a pretty good distraction from having to think about the bigger picture and your life’s purpose. Once you’re FI, you no longer have to run this race, and that’s pretty terrifying because now you have to find your real purpose. FIRE won’t automatically give you that. You have to find it yourself.
Okay, so we know that FIRE won’t fix your anxiety, but it does help you in other ways.
Ways FIRE Will Help You
Takes Away Your Fear of Running Out of Money
FI mathematically defines the point of “enough”, so you no longer have to worry about running out of money. This is a life-changing concept that has completely elevated my life and changed my mindset from “scarcity” to “abundance”. I also no longer have to be torn between following my passion and being a burden on my parents. By using the POT score I mentioned in Quit Like a Millionaire and following my passion after FI, I’ve had the advantage of having money and following my dreams.
FIRE will do the same for you. It takes away the fear of not having enough money (which people who grew up in poverty know all too well), so you can fearlessly follow your dreams.
Helps You Find Camaraderie
One of the personality traits that helps you become FI is disagreeableness. This is because it takes a ton of courage to go against the herd, save your money instead of spending it, and retire early. Being a contrarian isn’t easy and it’s also very isolating. That’s why once you become FI, your problems will no longer be relatable to your ex co-workers and existing circle of friends. While you’re pondering the meaning of life and your purpose, they’ll be too busy worrying about the mortgage, TPS reports, and whether they should be buying the newest Louis Vuitton or Prada bag—stuff you couldn’t give a rat’s ass about.
That’s why becoming FI opens you up to a whole new group of people—contrarians who aren’t afraid to question the status quo and want to have deeper conversations (I like to call these “high bandwidth conversations) about the meaning of life, passion projects, and self-improvement.
These are your peeps, and they will elevate your thinking to a whole new level. They will teach you to see the world in entirely new and different ways.
When you’re no longer trapped in the bubble of work, your friend circle will open up, and you will find people who get you. This will significantly reduce your anxiety, because you’ll know that you’re not alone. You’ll be able to have candid conversations in a safe space without jealousy or judgement. One of the best places to find this type of camraderie is at the Chautauquas. In fact, most of our friends are now Chautauquans, and despite never wanting to see a Goddamn snowflake again, we gladly put up with subzero temperatures just to hang out with my Chautauquan family!
Gives You Time and Space to Work on Yourself
I said that FIRE doesn’t fix your anxiety, but it does give you the time and space to fix it yourself.
I have to admit, I had a ton of anxiety leading up to the release of Quit Like a Millionaire. And even after it got published and became a bestseller, I still have anxiety. My brain immediately started latching onto the next thing. What’s the next book I should write? What about a FIRE TV show? What about public speaking?
*sigh*. Stupid brain. Even if I became empress of the world, my brain will still be like “empress of the world? Why not empress of the universe?”.
Turns out even after accomplishing your dreams, if you’re anxious, your brain will just find something else to be anxious about.
The good news is that once I become FI, even if I lose a night of sleep, I can just sleep in the next day. Back when I was working, not sleeping would cause me to be anxious about getting up for work, which would make it even harder to fall asleep. Then I’d have to be “on” all day at work, without any downtime to recover. It was a vicious cycle.
When you’re FI, you can break that cycle. But it doesn’t mean your anxiety will go away completely.
That’s why you have to work on yourself.
What do I mean by that?
I’ve come to the realization that constantly striving for “the next thing” isn’t the key to happiness.
The key to happiness is being present.
That’s why I’ve started reading books on Buddhism and meditation as a way to manage my anxiety. I’m not into religion or general “woo woo” advice, but Buddhism speaks to me because it encourages you to question everything and have an open mind. Its teachings are the only spiritual beliefs that are somewhat compatible with my logical, skeptical brain.
I also love the idea of impermanence. Buddhism teaches us that all life is suffering, and nothing is ever permanent. Good things that happen to you don’t last forever, but bad things also don’t. What’s important is being in the moment.
And since FI gives you the wonderful gift of space and time, I’ve decided I’m going to work on myself by signing up for a 10-day silent Vipassana meditation retreat. It’s staffed completely by volunteers and survives on donations—most of the students even donate a bit more than their expenses so that someone else can benefit from the transformative experience. I love this concept.
Here’s an awesome write-up from my friend and Chautauquan, Clover, who said it was one of the most life changing things she’d ever done:
So, after 4 years of retirement, I’ve discovered that FIRE may not solve whatever internal demons you face, but it does give you a suit of armor to face them yourself.
How about you? Do you have any demons you want to face? What will you do with your time once you become FI?
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