I recently read a fascinating book called “In Order to Live” by North-Korean defector and survivor, Yeonmi Park.
It’s an autobiography, telling the story of 13-years-old Yeonmi fleeing North Korea, becoming a victim of human trafficking in China, and eventually finding freedom in South Korea. To say that she’s “had it bad” would be an understatement. She goes through so much that I wouldn’t even wish it on my worst enemy. I won’t spoil it, but let’s just say it was one of the most harrowing tales of escape I’ve ever read.
What struck me about this book was that, even though she escaped one of the worst places on earth, she found it surprisingly difficult to adapt to freedom in South Korea. In some ways, getting an education, thinking for herself, and finding a job was more difficult than being in North Korea, where jobs were assigned, and the government constantly told you what to do and how to think. The burden of freedom terrified her.
This got me thinking. Is freedom really that scary?
Obviously, despite growing up on 44 cents a day, my experience pales in comparison to Yeonmi’s. Only my parents have tasted that level of suffering. But it did get me thinking about why quitting a job is so terrifying.
I never thought quitting my hateful job would be hard. After all, I’d been crossing off the days on my calendar, secretly packing away my things, and daydreaming about giving my boss the finger for months. But when the fateful day came and I handed in my resignation, instead if jumping for joy, I suddenly had second thoughts and experienced a mini-panic attack.
Even if your job is hateful, giving it up is still petrifying. Because even if it’s a job you hate, it’s at least a job you know.
Security is easy. Freedom is hard.
Little did I know back then this was only the illusion of security that I was giving up. We all know, now that we’ve been through another economic crisis, that job security is a myth. All it takes is one pandemic, or recession, or terrorist attack completely outside your control and your job may disappear.
But still, relying on a job seems much safer than relying on a portfolio. If you don’t believe me, try walking into a bank and getting a mortgage based on the size of your portfolio instead of the size of your paycheck. To the banker, a job is more secure than your portfolio. Even though a job can easily be lost while our portfolio has withstood multiple economic crisis and each time, grown larger than before.
But it’s human nature to be afraid of the unknown. It’s normal to be afraid of freedom and here are the main reasons why:
We’re Afraid of Failure
Entrepreneurs know that repeated failure is not only healthy, it’s necessary. Otherwise, how can you possibly grow and learn?
The best way to protect your ego is to stagnate and never take any risks. If you never try, you never fail. But you also never learn. That’s how you fail by default.
Bravery doesn’t mean that you never feel fear. Rather, it’s feeling that fear and doing it anyway. Writing was terrifying for me, especially with 200 rejection letters plastering my apartment walls. But pushing past the failure is what enabled me to finally achieve my dreams of becoming an author. If you don’t fail, you never learn.
Get comfortable with failure and freedom won’t seem so scary. Try to inoculate yourself by experiencing some small failures from passion projects before you retire. That way, it won’t feel so terrifying when you quit.
We’re Afraid of the Unknown
Our brains have this pesky tendency to jump to the worst-case scenario whenever we face the unknown (at least if you’re a pessimist like me). That’s because our amygdala, the “fight-or-flight” generator, is trying to protect us from making a huge mistake and getting eaten by a bear.
The proverbial bear in this case is dying broke in an alley, with no friends, and no identity. But rarely does that ever happen after quitting a job.
There are many things that are known. The fact that by virtue of reaching FIRE, you have skills. And those skills will never go away. Even if they atrophy a bit from being out of the workforce, you can still learn and create.
To fight the unknown, start writing down a list of skills you have and things you can do. If you quit your job and end up finding early retirement boring, you can always use those skills to find meaningful work. Make the unknown known and it won’t be that scary.
When you sit down at a restaurant, does it take you longer to order when the menu has only 3-5 items or when it has 20+ items? Obviously, the shorter menu. That’s because, as optimizers, our brains are trained to scan through all options before picking the best one.
The more choices you have, the less happy you are. This is because you’re worried you’ll pick a sub-optimal option, and regret it later. In this case, limiting your options and having constraints feels safer and easier.
When we have a job, we have a schedule, task lists, and bosses who tell us what to do. When we’re on our own, we feel like we’re floating around in space, lost. We have to be our own bosses, and that’s difficult, because our brains get bogged down with all the different things we could be doing, and as a result, we end up doing nothing.
Being free from your 9 to 5 is scary, because now you can do whatever you want whenever you want. It feels uncomfortable to have infinite options to choose from.
The best thing to do in this case is to simply make a list of all the things you want to do, pick the top 3 and then go do it. Don’t get paralysed by picking the best option. Just pick an option—any option—and make things happen.
We’re Afraid of Regret
Regret is also related to having too many choices. If we choose to leave our jobs, will we regret leaving behind the extra money and prestige we would’ve gotten from climbing the corporate ladder?
If we don’t quit, will we regret missing out on the adventures we could’ve had? The passions projects we could’ve cultivated? The wonderful people we could’ve met?
The only thing that is certain in life is uncertainty. You will never know what parallel lives you could’ve lived, and which would have been the best one. All you know is you’re taking a chance to improve your current life. Sure, you could be in a worse situation, but if you’re not in love with your current life, you know you can improve it. Besides, we tend to regret the things you didn’t do more than the things we did.
If you died tomorrow, would you have any regrets? If the answer is yes, that’s the first thing you should be working on. A life with no regrets.
We’re Afraid of Falling Behind
This fear is mostly ego driven. We’re competing with our peers to see who has the biggest house, the nicest car, the most prestigious title. We don’t want other people to look down on us, to feel inferior to our friends, family, and colleagues who are still working.
We fear that if we quit our jobs, the freedom will be too much to handle, because we’ll be spending so much of it twiddling our thumbs, while our peers rocket up the corporate ladder. They get richer over time, while we get poorer.
But the reality is that you’re getting richer, not just in money, but in wisdom. You are choosing what’s important to you, versus feeding your ego. The pandemic showed us what life could be like if weren’t able spend buttloads of money or compete with others. What a simple life could be like. What our priorities are.
And in that sense, after retirement, we’ve found ourselves actually ahead rather than behind. We know ourselves better than before. We’ve re-evaluated our lives to figure out what’s important. And now we will no longer feel obligated to be a cog in a corporate wheel just because other people are killing themselves to get ahead. We are already ahead by refusing to be part of the race. We are more than our ego.
Taking the reins of your life is terrifying. That’s why most people get a job instead of becoming an entrepreneur (even though most of the richest people in the world are entrepreneurs with no degrees). Being told what to do is easier than failing again and again and figuring out what you need to do.
I’ve been through it, and it wasn’t easy. There has been a lot of doubt and pessimism whether this whole thing would work out. And not just the money part, but the identity and community parts.
So, I can understand if you’re terrified to never have a job again. It’s easier to be safe, to be told what to do. But, on the other hand, having lived the past 6 years of my life without a job, I have to say it’s the best thing I’ve ever done. I have no regrets and I know I won’t have any on my death bed.
If you don’t try, you’ll never know what life on the other side can be like. And you will die never knowing. If you’re ok with that, that’s your prerogative, but don’t let the prospect of freedom scare you from choosing a life well-lived. I would’ve missed out on so much had I stayed working, simply out of fear.
What do you think? Do you find freedom scary? If given the choice, would you trade your freedom for lifetime job security?
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