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“So, what do you do?”
How many times have you been asked this question? If you live in North American, I’m willing to bet, a lot. Given that our society places so much emphasis on “live to work” instead of “work to live”, I’m not surprised we believe we are our jobs.
So, what happens if we reach financial independence and quit said job? Who do we become?
My answer to that question has changed from “software engineer” to “author”, but for the first few years in retirement, I had to no idea how to answer it.
Not only that, when I lost my work identity, I also lost my friends. Since we spend so much of our time at work, our co-workers naturally become our main social circle. So, when we retire, it can feel like the circle is moving on without us. They continue getting promotions, raises, and awards to feed their egos while we stagnate.
No longer tethered to society, we could find ourselves alone, friendless, and trapped in a tornado of self-loathing.
Or at least that was my biggest worry before giving my notice. My plan was that I was going to become a “world traveller,” an identity that would be a good distraction while I figure things out.
Over time though, I’ve realized that distractions only work for a little while. You can run away from your problems, but they will eventually catch up with you. You can’t simply run away from your job; you have to run towards something better.
As predicted, now that my values have changed, I have lost touch with ex-coworkers, classmates, and people who used to share my values. It’s not that we don’t get along or they’re bad people, it’s simply that, over time, the things that they care about (moving up the corporate ladder, buying/renovating their home, buying the newest gadget, etc.) are things I no longer care about. Plus, they can’t just meet up with us at 2pm on a weekday. *exasperated sigh*
It’s like we’re speaking different languages. But that’s okay. Retiring changes your values, and you may need to change your friends too. And keep in mind, this isn’t just specific to early retirees. As people get older, their priorities shift, so changing their social circle is just a natural part of life.
From talking to other early retirees, I also discovered that building a whole new identity is incredibly difficult. I started building my author identity for 7 years while working, so in that sense, I ramped my way up to my new identity. Others quit without creating a new identity, struggle, and end up right back at work. Some are perfectly happy with this decision, while others continue to feel unfulfilled and wonder “is this it?” And some never even take the leap, telling themselves “just one more year” while continuing to work out of fear.
For those who are struggling, here are 3 things I’ve learned in retirement that might help:
1) Change Your Mindset
Avoid Black and White Thinking
I’m guilty of this. As an intense person, I tend to like extremes. One time we went to a Jjimjilbang (bath house) in Seoul and while Wanderer was trying out all the different temperature pools, I was oscillating between only two—the scalding hot one and freezing cold one. He called it “insanity.” I called it “best value.” After all, why waste your time in boring, lukewarm water when you can feel exhilarated? Plus, I read that hot-cold therapy is good for your circulation.
But this type of extreme, black-and-white thinking limits your options. Sure, it can simplify things and at times, even help you make decisions quickly, but it also creates unhappiness and paints you into a corner (literally, in my case, since the hot and freezing pools in the Korean bathhouse were in opposite corners of the room).
I’ve missed out on friendships, opportunities, and creative solutions because I deemed them “not good enough”. I ended up putting myself under a ton of pressure, trying to be a perfectionist, because there’s only one maximized “right” way and alternatives are dismissed.
In the case of someone stuck in their job, they may be thinking their only options are to keep working the hateful job or retire and lose their friends and identity.
But in reality, there are other options. They can go down to part time, switch to a lower paying but more enjoyable job, start their own freelance business using their existing skills, or build a whole new community who share their new values.
They’re just not able to see these options because they are stuck in the “black-and-white” mindset.
If you want to be happy in retirement, avoid this type of thinking. Your options aren’t just “keep your job but be unhappy” or “create a better, more impressive identity in retirement or be considered a failure.” There are a whole lot of options in between.
Whenever I catch myself getting stuck in this fixed mindset, I journal about my thoughts, feelings, and fears. This gets the worries out of my head so I can focus on coming up with creative solutions. But even just being aware of these extreme thoughts is helpful.
Fight Fear with Gratitude
As an anxious person, I have a tendency to project into the future. My mind goes into a spiral, picturing all the worst-case scenarios and my body freezes in fear. This prevents me from taking action.
I’ve since learned it’s impossible to feel fear and gratitude at the same time. So, whenever I feel fear (which is 99.9% of the time), I think about everything and everyone I’m grateful for, do some mindfulness meditation (using the free Insight Timer app), and take deep breathes until my body calms down.
No matter what your situation is, there is always something you can be grateful for. Even just being alive, for instance. During this pandemic, so many people have lost their lives, simply being able to breathe is a gift.
Cherish that gift.
2) Change Your Identity
Get Comfortable with Uncertainty
One thing I learned from face planting and getting 200 rejections in the writing trenches, is that in order to build a new identity, you need to learn to cope with uncertainty.
Trying to publish a book takes years (sometimes decades), so I had to learn to tolerate uncertainty and rejection. This meant that even though I was trained by my job to expect a bi-weekly paycheck and a step-by-step approach to projects, I had to unlearn all that in order to build my new author identity.
Because we’ve been trained in school and in our jobs to work on tasks to completion and be financially awarded for them, it’s a real mind-f*ck to put in the effort and get no return. And not only that, but we also don’t know if we’ll ever be rewarded for our efforts. What if we languish without a new identity forever?
Human brains are trained for immediate gratification, so to go against that, we have to retrain our brains. The more you can learn to accept uncertainty, the more likely you won’t give up and feel deflated.
How do you to this? We’ve discovered the best way is to have multiple projects going. Work on something you’re already good at, and then switch between that project and the project involving new skills you’re trying to develop. That way you can enjoy the process, instead of obsessing over results and immediate gratification, because you have the confidence that you can accomplish the first project. For example, I created an author website for a friend while I was working on the blog, so that I could feel confident about my existing coding skills while developing new writing skills. An artist friend of mine, worked on painting and graphics design while she learned how to write a novel.
Pivot Your Identity
Creating a new identify from scratch is hard. So, why not pivot your existing one using all the experience and skills you’ve learned over the years.
If you were a software developer, start an online course teaching people how to code. Give an online talk at your college, inspiring upcoming grads to become financially independent. Or contact your alma mater and help them with recruiting. You can even volunteer as a mentor for programs like Technovation, teaching girls how to code.
Basically, whatever role you had, you can create a course teaching people the skills you learned in that trade or give talks, inspiring others in your trade to reach financial independence or simply to get their finances in order.
No one says you have to throw your identity away. Consider pivoting your identity if building a brand new one seems too daunting.
3) Change Your Social Circle
Change Your Values, Change Your Friends
I know what it’s like to be in a room full of people (before covid, obviously) and still feel alone. I’ve always been a misfit. “Having a flat Asian face,” not speaking English, eating “gross stinky tofu” at lunch, and wearing ugly thrift store clothes meant that I couldn’t join the “normal kids” circle. I was the weird Chinese kid who nodded when the grade schoolteacher told her “don’t climb the fence” and then climbed it because I couldn’t understand what she was saying. Being surrounded by people with the opposite values and not quite fitting in is my norm.
Once I discovered FIRE, my values changed even more. No longer did I care about climbing the corporate ladder, defining my worth with luxury handbags, or buying a big house or a car to keep up with my co-workers.
Yes, it was sad to lose touch with my work social circle, but this provided a whole new opportunity to find friends who “get” me and have similar values.
I’m eternally grateful to be a part of Chautauqua and to the FI community for finding new, like-minded friends who share my values.
If you’re struggling with no longer relating to your old circle of friends because your values have changed, consider coming to a Chautauqua, going to a ChooseFI meetup, or any other FIRE-related event. In addition to the FI community, parents can also join the WorldSchoolers and travellers can go to the Nomad Summit meet ups that are held around the world (or at least, will be once travel restrictions are lifted). We’re all going to have to sit tight until the pandemic is over and it’s safe to meet in large groups again, but in the meantime, to give yourself something to be excited about, make a list of communities you like to be a part of and reach out to some of them online. You can also start your own community by creating a Facebook group, starting a blog, or a creating a podcast.
It’s normal to be sad about losing your work friends, but don’t let that keep you from finding new friends who are a better fit for your new values.
What do think? How would you find new friends and be comfortable with your new identity if you retired?
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