The Four Hour Retirement

I’m quite a fan of Tim Ferriss, author of The Four Hour Work Week and the producer of an excellent podcast that is always worth listening to. I recently came across a passage I’d clipped from his book voicing his opinion about “early retirement”:

Retirement as a goal or final redemption is flawed for at least three solid reasons:

  1. It is predicated on the assumption that you dislike what you are doing during the most physically capable years of your life. This is a nonstarter – nothing can justify that sacrifice.
  2. Most people will never be able to retire and maintain even a hotdogs-for-dinner standard of living. Even one million is chump change in a world where traditional retirement could span thirty years and inflation lowers your purchasing power 2-4% per year. The math doesn’t work.  The Golden Years become lower middle class life revisited. That’s a bittersweet ending.
  3. If the math does work, it means you are one ambitious, hardworking machine. If that’s the case, guess what? One week into retirement, you’ll be so damn bored you’ll want to stick bicycle spokes in your eyes.

Hmm. His starting point is a bit of a massive generalisation. Are most of us striving for early retirement because we want to exit jobs we hate? Possibly, but I don’t think that’s quite the reason. I’m sure some of us quite enjoy our jobs (I did) but still have the ambition to get out of it sooner rather than later. My experience is that a job, to a greater or lesser extent, robs you of your freedom of choice, and it’s that freedom that people want to regain. “Retirement” isn’t completely opting out of life, although Tim is trying his best to make it sound like that.

On (b), sorry Tim, you’re wrong on this one. The maths does work. You do need the income, the motivation and the determination to get there, but you CAN save the pot of money you want to fund the retirement lifestyle you want. And the “golden years” becoming “lower-middle class life revisited”, well, that’s a choice too, if you’re not careful.

On his third point, Tim admits he’s being disingenuous about the maths, but twists this round to say that the type of people who can earn and save a self-funding retirement income are exactly the type of people who will not want to “retire”. They’ll be too restless, ambitious, goal driven and creative to sit still and vegetate, and inevitably they’ll return to work. The only question is what kind of work? Which is, of course, the point of his book – his “Four Hour Work Week” is the four hours of money-earning, “have to do”, perhaps traditionally defined, work that most of us commit forty hours a week to doing. If you can get this done as quickly as possible it will free time to allow you to do other stuff that you really enjoy.

It’s at this juncture that Tim Ferriss and, say, Mr Money Moustache, meet up and agree. Quite a few of the Early Retirement bloggers casually let slip that they haven’t completely forsaken the world of paid work. It seems to me that often the work they do could be donated freely, but generally they take the cash. Who knows, perhaps they give away the money they earn? The point is though, they take the pay as validation of the work done.

Although as a blogging community we’ve chosen “Financial Independence Retire Early” as our watchwords, I think that the “retirement” element isn’t what most other people probably think it is – loafing around, doing nothing and waiting for the Grim Reaper. The Early Retirement I think most of us are thinking about is from the traditional career and life cycle that Jacob Fisker calls “The Lock In”, where you spend all your time working for an organisation that pays you money with which you go and buy stuff that you don’t need and don’t have the time or energy to enjoy. So I agree with Tim Ferriss, generally, on his third point. It does strike me that The FIRE community are really not idle drifters or dreamers and are actually quite the reverse. They are objective led, target orientated, have a real sense of purpose and a determination to succeed.

Thus I do find myself thinking – sometimes – that it may well be that the people who do reach FIRE are the least qualified, in a psychological sense, to really be comfortable with it!

19 thoughts on “The Four Hour Retirement

    • It’s worse than you think. The phrase “middle class” in America refers to what we call “working class in the UK” (which is more logical than we in the UK referring to those in the top 10% of income as “middle” anything). Therefore for Tim Ferriss “lower-middle class” is extreme poverty.

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      • I read somewhere that Tim Ferriss’s personal wealth is around $20 million. His regular interviews with internet billionaires, however, makes me think he sometimes sees himself as part of what Felix Dennis categorised “the comfortable poor”.

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  1. Jim,

    Interesting post and many points on which I would agree.

    I ‘retired’ some 7 yrs back. For a large part of my working life I was self employed engaged in what Schumaker would call ‘good’ work. As such, it did not seem like the traditional type of work that many feel trapped by and can’t wait to escape.

    I now have more ‘spare’ time than I have been used to in the past – hence probably the books and blog – not complaining but sometimes I miss the active engagement of running a business along with the sense of ‘purpose’ and social element.

    As for money and wealth – I have probably always felt that I probably should have a bit more but then again, I am lucky to be the sort that knows how to live according to the means at my disposal so have always felt reasonably comfortable at the same time.

    I could have stayed in a job earning a lot more money for 20 yrs and my ‘retirement’ would have been more comfortable but I would not exchange the experience of lower paid but more content self employment.

    My main good fortune is my good health and that of my family – something money really cannot replace.

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    • Thanks diy, coming to terms with “how much is enough” but still having a driving ambition to “do” something that you will find value in is a challenge for retirement. In our society, “value” just generally equals “money” and it’s a very hard, ingrained notion to shake off.

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  2. This all comes down to how you define “retirement.” Tim seems to take the more traditional view that retirement means you stop being productive and just sit around watching Fox News and playing golf all day–that certainly is a terrible goal.

    You are taking the (more reasonable, in my opinion) approach of defining retirement to mean freedom from letting income and finances dictate your life. I suspect Tim would support that goal 🙂

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    • It is a bit ironic that anyone reading his books or listening to his podcasts will know that the last thing on the Tim Ferrriss agenda is a four hour work week. Four hundred hour work week, more like.

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  3. Excellent post – citing and making excellent points. I really agree with the message here. I have reached financial independence in my 40s, but am I ‘retired’ in the stereotypical Old Age Pensioner sense? Certainly not; I work full-time and am a classic Busy Person. But my job pays me (gross) less than my net living expenses, and I do it for the fulfilment – not the cash. Knowing that working is a choice is the ultimate freedom for me but certainly doesn’t imply that I will choose not to work.

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    • Thanks FVL, I think increasingly we are really going to make a massive effort to change traditional notions about the working life, from working nine to five to retiring at whatever age. We like to tell ourselves that we are progressing, but anyone who’s sat in rush hour traffic, has tried to book a holiday on the first day that school’s out, has tried “working from home” or attempted to hold down more than one job will know how little anything has changed in twenty years.

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  4. Interesting three points. I was a hardworking, ambitious, 60 hour a week and no life, MegaCorp Workaholic in a job I quite liked…..until 15 months ago when I decided we were FI and could RE. So now I am learning how to have a life. And assumptions like I would be bored silly and want to go back to working actually got in the way of figuring out “life”. Once I allowed myself to be OK with NOT working, life has actually become fun. I am taking classes to learn things for the fun of it! Getting out & about, for the fun of it – theater, hikes, fairs, and such. Having (long) coffee or dinner with friends for the conversation. I had dinner with an old colleague last night and she commented that she had never seen me so relaxed and happy before.

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    • Hi Pat, I like how your comment about “learning how to have a life”. People might read that as being a throwaway line, but it’s actually quite a serious one. I’m trying hard to be OK with NOT working and trying to sideline the other assumptions too! I’m lucky to have these problems, I admit.

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  5. Interesting post. Everyone is obviously unique, so will have different motivations for FI/RE, I for example, want to be as free as possible, that is the drug that gives me the greatest pleasure & what I live for…..

    Early retirement then, to me = simply the luxury of total freedom, that’s a wold away from waiting to die in front of a TV all day, for longer than the average. Each to his own, but it’s a blank canvas limited only by the bounds of your imagination – workaholics tend to be one-dimensional, so Tim may not be able to conceive of other types of people who are equally active, just not in a conventional way.

    If I am ever catch myself feeling bored when I wake up, I mentally slap myself & remember that I should be grateful for a choice even – then stop being lazy & use my imagination to plan a day that gets me fired up & excited again …..& the only thing that makes this possible is not needing any money. All the activities I undertake interest me, otherwise I wouldn’t do them, I value my time very highly whether it’s paid or not, as you said, health is the greatest wealth & peace of mind is very good for your health.

    If an opportunity comes along to make a but of money, I would take it if it’s something I like to do anyway – that fear that you’ve miscalculated & your capital stash isn’t big enough to coast to the end on interest earning momentum is always niggling in the background.

    Personally I found the hardest thing about FI/RE is the attitudes of others, they can’t understand anyone who goes against the herd & you allude to the character of those who strive for this freedom ….. I think they are quite specific, you need to be quite strong to risk social disapproval & focused enough on the end-goal to maintain the discipline necessary. That’s actually hard to do in today’s world where we are bombarded with subliminal messaging not only to buy sh*t we don’t need 24/7/365, but also on how to be a good citizen/corporate drone. No surprises there really, who owns the media & what kind of people are easier to control, those who need nothing from anyone – even our rich & powerful rulers – or a sea of debt-enslaved plankton who have to do what they say, to pay their essential bills to stay alive?

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    • Hi Survivor, the biggest subliminal message to me is that I should be working! I don’t know where it comes from, nobody ever says it to me directly, but I wake every morning and have to slap myself in order for me to get rid of the little voice telling me I really should be out earning!

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  6. Hi Jim. did I dream a post about ‘how to tell you’re about to be fired’ or did you have second thoughts about posting it? I find your comments about grappling with working/not working very pertinent. I’m FI by accident at nearly 50 and can’t decide whether to quit work – and I think a large element of that is a feeling that I SHOULD be earning an income if I am able to. I suppose it’s essentially the Calvinist culture we live in – together with a dose of guilt at being in a fortunate position compared with most (I know this doesn’t trouble all those who are FIREd, especially if they have worked and saved for it as a goal, but in my case it has fallen into my lap rather than being earned, and this does not feel entirely comfortable).
    I also recognise my disaffection as a warning sign that time may be running out for me in my current role (re your missing post). I am probably unlikely to be made redundant, certainly not with a payoff, but it is possible that I might be ‘managed out’, which having witnessed it, is not a particularly dignified way to exit. Thing is, I’m not sure if it’s my FI that has caused the disaffection – like you, I quite like my job, but that’s not really enough in its own to keep me motivated…

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  7. I am pursuing not early retirement but financial freedom. Freedom from being chained to the desk for 40-50 hours per week for the next 30 years of my life. It’s like a life sentence commuted to 10 years. And people who pursue freedom and slog through the years looking at that one tiny dot slowly becoming bigger and bigger are exactly the type of people who value their time enough not to waste it and get bored. It takes determination to do it and it take grit to stick at it for so long but most of all, it takes knowing what enough looks like.
    I had a talk once with a colleague of mine and we were talking about winning the lottery. He kept telling me what he would do if he won. So I told him that actually, you would only need to win X amount, a way smaller amount that was in play for that lottery. I did the math and told him: you can live quite comfortably with about 2 times what you are making now and that amount times 30 years is amount X. He looked at me like he could not believe it and said: yeah, but if I had that kind of money in the bank, I would not live like I live now. I would want more things.
    That’s the problem in a nutshell. And Tim Ferriss, for all his blustering, has no more wisdom than my young colleague.

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  8. Hey Jim, I think everyone will feel that strongly at the beginning at least, we will differ only in how long it takes to shake that – I still haven’t completely gotten rid of this guilt that I ‘should be useful’ all the time even 4 years into FI/RE …..oh & I wasn’t exactly courageous, my whole company was vaporised to boost the corporation’s share price. I was just so lucky that we still had a half decent redundancy scheme & I managed to avoid being chopped or ‘managed out’ for many years before – I second the view that you should have a section here on your blog on corporate crazy life by the way, people will flood it with jaw-dropping stories. [Have you heard of the success of glassdoor.com?]

    If you think about it, it’s should be no surprise, we are drilled from kids in school to get with the program or you’ll have a sh*t life, so the minute you get a real job, you’re terrified into fixating on your career & obsess on your record on the hamster wheel. If that comes to a sudden jarring halt, of course we’re lost, it’s too sudden for your mind to adjust to after years of being programmed to not have any interests that aren’t work-related. Seriously, the hours people work, even just for a basic quality of life, they don’t have the damn time for ‘hobbies’ …… yet they look at that on your CV at interviews ! If you put in the time people claim on their interests, they wouldn’t want to employ you.

    In your case, you have to give it some time, it’s early days (this blog is a very good way of doing it) for your brain to revert to the happy-go-lucky person you naturally were as a toddler, before the years of ‘teaching/corrections’ from all authority figures excised creativity. I had to try & remember at the beginning of my freedom what I used to enjoy, it was that long ago, then progress to also trying out stuff I’d always been curious at trying my hand at if I ever had the money & time to give it a go. We have lost sight of the fact that paid work is only one of a 100 things that should be in our lives …..no wonder depression is at record levels, when individuals are so one-dimensional they feel wrong – like there must be more to life.

    Finally, I would say be careful maybe how to talk to others about this who are not similar-minded or open-minded …..I was shocked to experience quite a bit of hostility, sometimes from people I barely new, because my new lifestyle disturbed them as they didn’t understand it. They can judge, disapprove, be jealous maybe – it’s natural to only see the upside from their perspective, they don’t see that we made sacrifices too & there are always pros & cons with any situation. Perhaps the contrast between your former & new life is too sharp & you need more of a transition period to be more comfortable until you figure out what you want. You could maybe compromise by doing some work you don’t mind [part-time?] or are really interested in – a startup who can’t pay but could do equity if it works? Something you just love &/or really believe in?

    I love wildlife & was OK with using the skills that I last earned money with, [not my first choice] so I wouldn’t mind working for a little pay or free even on a research project [with those skills & any others I have useful to them] if it really interested me. Rekindle my love of science & discovery that I originally went to Varsity for in the first place before I was forced to pivot to qualifications that were more likely to get a decent job & pay the rent, back in the day.

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    • Thanks Survivor, I am hoping this is just turbulence before I hit the clear air and cruising altitude! I haven’t come across any hostility from people about retiring (maybe because I’m not that young!) more puzzlement over what I’m doing with myself. Which is the question I’m often asking too. As I say though, it’s a nice worry to have.

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