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“You’re going to give away the 60 best prime years of your life for the 20 poorest years of your health.”
-Bob Wells, Nomadland
The story follows a woman named Fern, who leaves her hometown of Empire, Nevada for the open road after losing her job, her house, and her husband after her town’s gypsum-mining company shuts down.
She becomes a nomad, not only as a financial solution, but also as a way to heal from loss and reclaim her identity. It’s a real struggle at first, having to deal with car trouble, the cold, and crapping in a bucket, but then she finds an entire community of nomads out there, just like her. And their leader is a man named Bob Wells, who they refer to as the “Godfather of Van living” (sound familiar?) Through him, she not only finds comfort but dignity in nomadism, and eventually nomadism becomes a lifestyle she chooses rather than one that’s thrust on her.
I didn’t expect so many things in this movie to resonate with me. It wasn’t just the main character getting screwed by real-estate and her reliance on a job, or her free spirit and love of travel, but also how eerily close her journey paralleled our own.
The FIRE community is generally better off financially than the van living community, but what struck me was how many things we have in common. The methods and strategies we use may be very different, but both communities sprung from the realization that something in the modern Western capitalistic society we are all expected to participate in doesn’t seem fair, and both communities attempt to solve this by rebelling and doing the exact opposite of everything we’re “supposed” to do.
In the nomads of Nomadland, I think we found kindred spirits. Specifically, we both realized…
The American dream is broken:
“From a young age, people in the Western world are taught that living a “quality life” means getting a job, raising a family, buying successively bigger houses, and working most of your life to enjoy retirement in your final decades. That’s a quality life, that’s what we’re told. And that’s just one great, big, enormous lie.”
-Bob WellsSource: CBC Interview
I got chills reading this. Seriously. I had no idea who Bob Wells was in 2015, but this was my exact thought back then. I was trying to escape the rat race after watching one of my co-workers collapse and almost die at his desk from stress. The scariest thing is that nobody really batted an eye when my co-worker returned back to his desk the next week. In fact, it had been almost expected of him. After all, he had a house and a mortgage to pay off. How could he stop working?
The American Dream teaches us to first pursue money so we can buy real estate. Then we pursue more money to pay the mortgage. And then somehow, this allows us to retire and be happy.
I had a suspicion that this was a load of BS, but the nomads in Nomadland discovered this the hard way. Many of them had bought into the American Dream and dutifully loaded up on real estate only to see it all blow up in their face in 2008.
You will never meet a group more allergic to real estate than these people. In the movie, Fern is offered a room in a house to stay in and she refuses. She see homes as a trap.
The nomads even have kind of a dark sense of humor about it, referring to their vans as their “wheel estate.”
So obviously, I was slow-clapping these people, gesturing at Wanderer and saying “See? These guys get it.”
Both the FIRE community and the nomads realized the same thing. The American Dream is broken. And that’s why we both wrote a new rule book.
Having a Mission Gives You Life Purpose
One of the themes of the movie is loss and finding purpose. The main character loses her identity after her employer goes bankrupt, taking her entire hometown with it.
But by finding comradery and helping other nomads, she learns that we weren’t put on this earth to buy bigger and bigger houses and compete in a dick waving contests until we keel over. Each of us serve a purpose and finding that purpose makes life worth living.
Many of us in the FIRE community worry that once we give up our jobs, we give up our identity. Then depression and anxiety set in and we regret that we ever pursued financial independence in the first place.
Nomadland proves that simply being part of something bigger than yourself—like a community—is enough to feel fulfilled.
We all have different ways to find meaning in our lives. For some, it’s raising a family. For others, it’s helping other people. And for some it’s creative endeavours that feed our soul.
They are all valid.
Purpose gives you a reason to live.
So those in the FIRE community worried about losing their identity in retirement can find solace in knowing that you aren’t your job. Get involved in something bigger than yourself like volunteering, raising a family, or pursuing creative outlets that help others.
Everyone needs a Tribe
Even though the van living community is filled with introverts, they still find it incredibly rewarding to meet up with each other to discuss van maintenance, job prospects, and help each other out.
This is how the “Rubber Tramp Rendezvous” annual meet up was born. I was immediately reminded of my Chautauqua family and how we’ve been so much closer than any of the co-workers, friends, or classmates I’ve had throughout the years.
It’s amazing to find your tribe and spend time with people who “get” you. Becoming FI isn’t easy. But the journey is a lot easier when you have like-minded friends to share it with.
Those Who Wander Are Not Always Lost
To paraphrase J.R.R Tolkien, those who continuously travel aren’t always trying to “find themselves”. Some people just love adventure and novelty.
From watching Nomadland, I learned there are two types of people:
In the movie, despite being offered free places to settle down multiple times, Fern declines these offers and chooses to continue travelling. She isn’t trying to fix anything. She simply loves waking up to ever-changing, breath-taking scenery and bathing in crystal clear rivers and lakes.
Bob Wells has also been on the road since 2011. At one point he bought a house to live in with his wife because she wanted to settle down. But he soon hated working long hours to pay for never-ending repairs, shovelling snow, mowing lawns, and being confined to one location. It was all just too wasteful. He went back on the road and now, even though he makes an estimated $75,000/year on his Youtube channel and can easily afford to buy a house, he chooses to live out of his van.
Fern and Bob are travellers and they love to wander. They aren’t lost souls trying to find a destination. For them, the journey is what counts. Which, if you think about it, is kind of like how life is. Life isn’t about a final destination. It’s about the moments, the people, and the experiences along the way. Life is a journey and we should savour each moment.
Another thing I love about Nomadland is that it redefines what people consider a “home”. For Fern and Bob, it’s their vans. They aren’t homeless. They’re simply “houseless”. You can be houseless and still be happy (I know, shocking right? That sound you just heard is every Home-Boners’ head exploding.)
Watching this movie taught me that the FIRE community isn’t the only one who sees the world differently. Travelling opens your eyes to many different ways of living. And not only that, you meet communities of other people you would’ve never met being confined to a cubical.
From our experience of travelling and meeting different groups around the world, we found out that the WorldSchoolers and Digital Nomads also have similar beliefs to the FIRE community and the Nomadland community.
Even though we each have our own solutions, we all identified the same problem: the American dream is broken, and we need to write a new rulebook.
What do you think? Have you seen Nomadland? Do you think the American dream is broken? And are you a Traveller or a Settler?
For those who haven’t seen Nomadland, here’s the movie trailer:
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