How I Got Over My Fear of Early Retirement

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I never thought a Marvel movie would teach me something about early retirement but that’s exactly what happened the other day when I watched Dr. Strange (shout out to my pal and Marvel fanboy Alan Donegan who showed it to me).

For those of you who haven’t seen the movie, the gist of it is Dr. Strange, a world-renowned brain surgeon and with an ego as big as his ridiculous goatee, gets into a car accident, loses the use of his hands, and his identity as a result. In a request to heal his hands, he heads to Tibet to convince “The Ancient One” to heal him.  But instead, he inadvertently finds a purpose bigger than himself (and his hulk-sized ego).

The scene that really stuck with me was the one where “The Ancient One” speaks to him and says:

“You always excelled. Not because you crave success but because of your fear of failure.”

Dr Strange: “it’s what made me a great doctor.”

The Ancient one: “it’s precisely what kept you from greatness.”

And later on, the great irony of the story is that Dr. Strange has to learn to fail over and over again to fulfill his destiny of saving the world.

This scene really spoke to me because at that moment I realized that I related to Dr. Strange. Up until I became financially independent and retired from my 9 to 5 job, all my successes were fear-driven. I only succeeded because I was terrified of failing.

Fear is Useful

I don’t completely agree with “The Ancient One” that fear holds you back. Fear is an instinct we developed over millions of years to keep us safe from predators. Without fear we wouldn’t be afraid of touching strove elements, running into the busy street, or falling off balconies. Some amount of fear is healthy for driving us to accomplish things, to mitigate risk, and simply just to keep us alive.

It was fear that drove me become financially independent, so I’d never have to experience poverty again. It was fear that drove me to get an engineering degree so I wouldn’t have to rely on my parents, who had the financial burden of supporting their parents and family members back home in China.

Fear helped me become who I am today.

But the problem with fear is that too much of it can hold you back. And like “The Ancient One” said, “it’s precisely what keeps you from greatness”

When Fear is No Longer Useful

It was because of my hyperactive amygdala, and all that cortisol coursing through my veins that I nearly gave up on early retiring. I thought I’d be tap dancing out of the building when I gave my notice to at a job I hated, but instead I had a mini-panic attack. I was terrified of failing and never being able to work again. Now, looking back, it seems ludicrous because few things in life are that black and white. But with fear clouding my head, all I could think about was “I’m either an engineer” or “I’m a nobody”. The idea that I could not only become an author, but be successful enough to earn a living wage, was beyond my wildest dreams. This is what happens when fear becomes too strong and takes over.

Had I given in to that fear, I never would’ve improved my health, travelled to 40+ countries in the past 7 years, written a best-selling book, found my FI tribe, and healed intergenerational traumas that have been plaguing my family for the past 20 years.

I would’ve missed out on so much if I’d let my fear take over my life.

When Fear Holds You Back

One of the most frequent reactions from readers regarding early retirement is: “I’m afraid of quitting my job because I don’t know what to do with my life afterwards.”

I’m not talking about readers who love their jobs and choose to continue working after they reach Financial Independence. I’m referring to readers who don’t like their jobs but can’t fathom what they would do without it. So, they hang on to it, like a bad marriage.

And instead of taking the time to work towards something they’re passionate about, they waste that time being afraid and continue to work a job they don’t love just because they’re afraid of failing. If you don’t try, you don’t fail right?

How I Stopped Fearing Failure

WRONG. You’re failing by default. Had I not taken the risk of early retiring, I would’ve failed at life by missing out on all these amazing experiences and friendships.

I now realize that failure is not a foe, but a friend.

After all, we can learn way more from our failures than our successes. I know that sounds way too much like a bumper sticker but it’s true.

I also know it’s easier said than done, given my upbringing. My parents grew up in a time of extreme turmoil, where they experienced famine, civil war, and being forced to work in a labor camp for 10 years. To them, failure meant death. If you fail to forage for food, your entire family starves. If you fail to convince the red guards that you’re not an anti-revolutionary, you get sent to “re-education camps” or executed.

I’m fortunate enough to never have had to experience that level of trauma. I have the option to learn from failures rather than avoid them, because for me, failure isn’t life or death.

What has helped me tremendously, in getting over this misguided in grained fear of failure, is the “failure log table” described in the book “Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life” by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans.

Since I’m not a fan of “woo woo” books and prefer pragmatic advice, this book about lifestyle design, written by a Standford University engineer and a designer, speaks to me.

The single piece of advice that stuck out to me the most is how the authors advocate for “failure immunity”. By writing down your failures, categorizing them, and converting them to growth, over time, you can completely reframe your thinking.

Here’s what their “Failure Log” looks like:

FailureScrewupWeaknessGrowth OpportunityInsight
     
     
     

Here’s how it works:

You describe your mistakes in the “failure” column. Then you classify it as “screwup”, “weakness” or “growth opportunity”.

Screwups are simple mistakes that don’t need to learn anything from. You normally get it right, you just glitched this time, so just acknowledge it and move on.

Weakness are ingrained habits. Instead of beating yourself up over it or expecting never to make the same mistake again, simply chalk it up to “this is just a weakness of mine, I will expect it to happen again, and I need to put systems in place to mitigate it.”

Growth opportunity is a mistake that doesn’t have to happen again the next time if you find the fix and learn from it. Usually this happens when it’s the first time you’re doing something and you simply don’t know what you don’t know. Don’t beat yourself up, learn from it, and move on.

And finally, the insight section is where you put your insights on how you can learn from these failures.

So for example:

FailureScrewupWeaknessGrowth OpportunityInsight
Forgot to pack sunscreenX  Oops. Should’ve checked my packing list more carefully. Will buy sunscreen abroad and check packing list carefully next time.
Paid more taxes than I need to because I didn’t tax optimize my portfolio X I don’t like math and I’m not good with spreadsheets, so I will outsource this to a fee-based financial advisor or use an online calculator.
Missed the ferry going to Finland from Estonia  XDidn’t realize that for ferry travel in Europe, you need to arrive at least 30 mins early, unlike buses where you can just arrive 10 mins early. Will put reminder in calendar 1 hour ahead of time in the future to account for this.

Using this system, you can analyze your mistakes and use them to help you rather than let them crush you and never try again because you’re afraid to fail.  

What I especially love about this system is the “weakness” section. I used to get beat up by my mom for mistakes that I made as a child. At the time I just chalked this up to good old fashioned authoritarian Chinese child rearing. But I’ve since realized that punishing someone for their weakness or habits doesn’t help. It just causes them to have anxiety, low self-confidence and become terrified of trying new things, to avoid making mistakes.

Using this system to analyze my mistakes and weaknesses/bad habits has made me forgive myself and see failure as a learning opportunity.  

How You can Stop Fearing Failure

If you relate to Dr. Strange’s method of achieving success by fearing failure, you can reframe your mind with Burnett and Evans’ “Failure Immunity” technique. Once you become FI, you no longer need to be afraid because financially you have an armour to protect you.

At this point, you can use the Failure log to analyze you mistakes so they can help you learn rather than make you afraid of trying new things.

What are some things you are afraid of doing because of a fear of failure? Can you use the Failure Log System from the “Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life” book to help you analyze your mistakes so you can learn from them instead?


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34 thoughts on “How I Got Over My Fear of Early Retirement”

  1. With all due respect, although you keep saying that you have retired, many of us here would disagree.

    You achieved FI and then you changed careers, from computer engineers to blogger/writer.

    Keeping insisting that you’ve RE is misleading.

    1. Dude. Stop being such a turd. If you don’t like it, move on…

      They don’t have to work, they choose to do what they love which is sharing their knowledge via the blog. Retirement doesn’t necessarily mean you just sit on your ass and do nothing. It just so happens they chose to blog about their experiences and if it generates side income that’s just an added bonus.

    2. Strictly speaking Kristy and Bryce aren’t retired because they are paid to work. Do they need to work? Heck no. They choose to. I suppose they say should say they are in a work-optional stage of life, but most of us know what they mean when they say RE.

    3. I don’t think it is misleading. Does FIREcracker have to sit on a beach and drink martinis for the rest of her life just to please you?

      You need something to do in retirement. You need a purpose and energy and she helps people like you with her writing and books. She gives huge value to the world and I can’t think of a more noble use of her time.

      Your comment shows the confusion most people have. They think that retirement means doing “nothing” where as that leads to depression and unhappiness.

      Retirement to us means the ability to do what we want to without the need to earn money. By this definition they are completely retired and get to choose how to spend their time.

      It is an interesting comment though. What makes you think she is misleading you? What do you think she is doing wrong by spending her time doing things she is passionate about?

    4. Agree, they haven’t retired but they finally found the work that they like to do. If they had initially loved the work they did then they wouldn’t have created this website.
      Youngsters should take note when planning your career. Having said that you also have to realize life is never easy and nobody will ever give you a nice career and life . It’s how you adapt, modify and respond to life’s challenges. You need faith in yourself and your life

    5. Are you the Retirement Police the FI/RE community is always referring to?

      I believe you’ll find that they segregate their blogger/writer earnings from their retirement. And they have been quite transparent with their earning/spending.

      If they didn’t accept money for writing or blogging, or if they donated all of the proceeds
      to charity. Would they then be RE? At what point (or distinction) would they have achieved your definition of RE?

    6. They are retired. They retired TO something else. They did not retire from everything. Early retirement gives them the time and space to pursue other things. Because they retired early, they bought themselves more of that time and space.

    7. In my book, they retired. The extra money they have coming in is a consequence of them just doing something in their retirement, that’s all.

    8. I know society encourage us to be “categorized” in particular boxes. Student ? Worker ? Landlord ? Retired ? Blogger ? Bookwritter ? But what if humans were more than “boxes” to be checked ? Maybe we could let people check as many boxes as they want, or just check some of them partially ? In the end, it doesn’t really matter…

      I agree they are not really “completely retired”, in the traditional sense, if their main activity is to maintain a blog and that they earned the majority of their income “post-retirement” from a book. But this was a decisions they took after leaving the workforce. So, the claim of “having retired from work” could still apply.

      Another thing we would agree on is that they are FI. And I think that’s the most important part.

      Having a side-hustle propably helps a lot when deciding whether or not to quit a job or a career. But it doesn’t replace the freedom you get from being financially independant. If you have both, it’s even better.

      I am not really sure which boxes I would check myself in. Am I retired ? Not really in the traditional way. Maybe not even by the FIRE community standards.

      I manage my investment portfolio myself. I’m doing some form of “active investing”, in the sense that I choose my investments myself. But I don’t do a lot of transactions. I’m certainly not a day trader. Not even a swing trader. So, I might be just an normal “investor” ?

      One sure thing is I don’t think a lot of people would feel confortable to retire with the amount of capital I have. I’ve been very efficient in generating investment returns in the past. And I hope (I do everything I can) this can continue in the future. Otherwise, I will have to find some other source of income.

      So, am I retired if I’m doing active investing ? Can I be considered an “investor” if I am not a majority shareholder in any company ? Does “being retired” mean I couldn’t advice other people with their finances, although I have no interest in doing so ?

      Which box would you put me in ? Please, let me know. I’m still looking for an answer ! 😉

  2. I absolutely love how this method forces you to reframe bad things in a good light. So often when we goof up it just leaves us feeling bad and we end up ruminating in negative thought loops for a very long time instead of fixing the problem. This method makes you deal with your mistakes and put processes in place so you don’t keep repeating them – how cool is that!?

    Before:
    START -> Screw Up -> Feel Bad -> Ruminate on Feeling Bad -> GOTO “Feel Bad”

    After:
    START -> Screw Up -> Feel Bad -> Reframe and Fix Problem -> END

  3. Solid post. The failure log is, in may ways, akin to the advice in the Dale Carnegie classic How to Stop Worrying and Start Living

  4. Love this post and there is always a gem or two in the Marvel movies. Why do you think I LOVE them so much! lol. Shall we watch the next ones when we meet up later in the year? Doctor Strange 2 is about to come out!

    Thank you for the post. I LOVE IT. And you are so right. What got you hear won’t get you to the next stage in life!

  5. I think purpose and identity is important in FIRE.

    I’m not afraid of failure but I am afraid of running out of money or losing my purpose. At the same time, I don’t want to work anymore.

    Just have to keep chugging along, I guess.

  6. Excellent post. In my situation, I used the classic “Psycho-Cybernetics” by Dr. Maxwell Maltz. Still in publication since the first edition in 1960.

  7. I firmly believe RE is the reward for achieving FI status…

    By attaining FI, you now presented yourself with options, opportunities, abilities as well as the freedom, at this point, to follow your passion (whatever this maybe) and be as productive with your time as you so desire by doing something you absolutely love without the fear normally associated with earning $$$. And so by definition, this freedom could literally mean anything to anyone albeit having to downshift to a less-stressful working environment, devoting your time to volunteering doing a good cause, experiencing world-travelling adventures and yes, even relaxing on a remote tropical beach, with a QLAM book and pina-colada drink in hand, and doing absolutely nothing. It is simply limitless! That said, what I think this post is trying to convey to its general audience is an important question most of us are afraid to even tackle and answer… FEAR OF ?!?!?

    I cannot help but think we missed the point entirely…, for me personally, and for anyone who is in this predicament, the post encourages individuals to get over their “hump” so they may be afforded the opportunity to start living life to their fullest (the way they envision it) while still young, healthy and able!

    ImmigrantOnFIRE

  8. Wow, I already think about my mistakes this way, since I naturally love learning and improvement. I never knew there was a framework for this!

  9. Very good post!! Thanks so much for sharing. Handling fear and the paralysis it produces properly is paramount in order to be able to grow and enjoy life.

  10. I do something similar to the failure log. Whenever I’m dealing with something, I always ask myself one question:

    What does this cost me?

    It could cost time, effort, money, etc.

    In most cases, most actions or decisions cost nothing. So if they cost nothing and you can get enjoyment from it, why not just do it?

    I feel very relaxed as a result.

    As an early retiree, I didn’t suffer from a fear of retiring early. I suffered from a fear of spending money. It’s very difficult to change one’s mindset when you have conditioned yourself to save and invest. At least that is/was the case for me. As a result of that, I have spent the last year and a half feeling more and more comfortable to spend. There’s still guilt but it’s so much better than it was at the outset.

    Kristy, Bryce, I know you say you are happy spending what you spend however I suspect you both also have this issue niggling at you in the back of your mind as well to a certain degree.

  11. Similar to the “failure log” idea, I have read elsewhere to create a CV of failures. We focus so much on our successes, especially in a professional setting, that the average CV can give one self importance that might be more propaganda than actual success. The idea of creating a CV of failures is to demonstrate that our failures are equally as important for self growth and becoming who we are. Reminiscent of the fact that Babe Ruth hit 714 home runs, but also stuck out 488 times.

  12. Yeah but what if your biggest fear is having NOTHING you’re passionate about??? That’s me. I work in a terrible job but I don’t want to leave it because I have nothing I want to do. Nothing, zero, nada !
    This is really bad and what I fear the most !!

  13. My Uncle and Aunty retired at age 65 and 64 from their job of almost 45yrs working at a big chain supermarket where they met and fell in love. They never had children and bought a small farm for their retirement. They plant vegetables, have fruit trees, chickens, couple of cows and sheep. Uncle likes working in his wood workshop and Aunty loves baking. They run a small Sunday stall at the Farmers market. A traditional retirement some may say. They were good with their money and dont need to be doing all this work but they want to as they had always dream of living off the land and having this life and the money earned is just a bonus. In my book people are retired when their investment income cover their expenses comfortably and they do what they would love to do and the extra income is a bonus.

  14. Another important distinction to make is between “real threats” and “imaginary threats”.

    Fears that arise from real threats are important to address and be mitigated with proper actions.

    Imaginary threats must be rationalized so we can overcome them with proper thinking.

    The example of your family having to behave in a certain way in order to survive in an authoritarian regime is a good example of a real threat. Now that they moved to a different location, they must “unlearn” some of the survival skills that they developped since the threat in the new country is now mostly imaginary.

    The threat that we face as employee, consultant, investor or entrepreneur are very different. So it’s important to adapt depending on the situation we are in.

    The most important threats for an investor are (1) permanent loss of principal and (2) loss of purchasing power over time. Those are very real threats and must be adressed properly.

    When you changed from “employee” to “retiree” and then “entrepreneur”, you were facing very different threats that you were not yet adapted to. My guess is that this fear was normal and you had to overcome it with appropriate actions.

    Anyway… Seems you were successful with this change. So, congratulation ! 🙂

    1. I forgot to mention one thing in my preceding post.

      I think real vs imaginary fears is what the caracter refer to when she says that fear that lead to success also kept him from greatness.

      Fear of failure is real when you are starting. But at some point after you succeeded and acquired enough knowledge and experience, this same threat become imaginary.

      If you let the same imaginary threat become the driver of your decisions when you are a successful doctor, engineer, blogger or whatever, then I think it make sense to say that it can prevent someone to attain greatness. The mindset needs to adapt and change to something else.

      I think that’s the meaning of the conversation in the movie.

  15. To add to what Alan said about Firecracker being retired. I think Mark Cuban put it best when he talked about the FIRE movement. Paraphrasing, he said he is no longer beholden to no one. There is no one to answer to. There is enough money in the bank that there is no need to work. Firecracker is accountable to no one but herself. If she doesn’t feel like making a blog post, she has no one to answer to but herself. And, that is what we are all working towards as we all move towards FI

  16. OK, I liked they article. The lead in was good, but I was not a big fan of the first Dr. Strange movie. I hope the second one is better. In any case, fear of failure drives a lot of people. However, you need to fail to learn.

  17. You might like The Source – a book by a doctor that explains the brain science between all the ‘woo’ stuff 🙂

    And yes, reframing is such a powerful concept (but not always easy to apply!)

  18. Whatever in life that gives you fear of less than 3 seconds…
    and it brings you long lasting benefits, TAKE IT!

    Otherwise stay clear of anything that gives you chronic fear and anxiety!

    Many mistakenly associated fear with determination and/or competitiveness.

    From the psycho perspective, determination and/or competitiveness is like seeing at a glass “HALF FULL”, whereas, fear is “HALF EMPTY”.

  19. OMG! I LITERALLY just connected the roots of my anxiety to my successes several months ago.

    Fear-based F.I.R.E. hahaha, I coined a new term!

    But seriously, thank-you for your eloquent honesty Kristie! I finally had the courage to write about it on my own blog recently.

    It’s a trait that a lot of us F.I.R.E.-types share, we just turned the fear into productivity, success and ultimately CHOICES – choices that we didn’t have as children. I am grateful for my anxiety now. The being open about it I.R.L., eeeek, not so much- so I am glad we have this platform. Much appreciated!

  20. > Fear is an instinct we developed over millions of years to keep us safe from predators.

    When a fossil is found, all that we know for certain is that it died. We do not know whether it was fearful or fearless. We do not know whether it had offspring that lived to reproduce. We have no evidence that an ability to fear developed over time.

    I have a bone to pick about that comment. 🙂

    And I enjoyed post. Thanks for sharing.

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