Cognitive Dissonance

I was reading the book “Sapiens” last year when I came across this paragraph that I noted down:

“Contradictions are an inseparable part of every human culture. In fact, they are culture’s engines, responsible for the creativity and dynamism of our species. Just as when two clashing musical notes played together force a piece of music forward, so discord in our thoughts, ideas and values compel us to think, re-evaluate and criticise. Consistency is the playground of dull minds.

This is such an essential feature of any culture that it even has a name: cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is often considered a failure of the human psyche. In fact it is a vital asset.”

I took some solace from that, because I’m suffering from Cognitive Dissonance right now! As you may be aware, I like the retirement life but I miss the fulfilment I found in paid work too. This is just a fact, regardless of how often I tell myself – or others tell me – to just content myself. Well, I can’t. And I fear that if I do fully embrace the retired life and become “content” with consistency to my days, then I’ll become the “dull mind” referred to in the preceding paragraph.

I do get riled sometimes when people tell me I should be “happy” not having work to go to. Happy? Cows are happy. Being constantly happy would be so depressing. Like being immortal, which is, when you think about it, a fate worse than death. I’ve no ambition to be constantly happy and content because I fear that, if I ever do, then I’ll have lost my ambition for growth. Sometimes, of course, I’m very happy to have no work to go to. And sometimes I’m not. What’s wrong with that?  

People telling me to content myself and “be happy” is like when people used to go on about having “fun” at work. In my book, fun was fun and work was work. The contradiction between the two somehow helped produce enjoyment and fulfillment from each separate activity. I think I enjoyed and appreciated weekends and my own leisure time much more when I was working than I do now. On the other hand, when I was at work and earning money I had some kind of peace of mind that I was contributing to an activity that was bigger than myself and my own preoccupations. Okay, I “had” to go to work, but having obligations that lay outside of myself was a good thing – it helped me appreciate my own time when I had it.

I never really saw work as “fun” though. It was a serious business and why shouldn’t it be? Work can be fulfilling, satisfying, rewarding and a lot of other things too, but fun? Not if you’re doing it properly. Show me someone who’s having “fun” at work and I’ll show you someone who’s not taking it seriously enough. Yes, Bruce Springsteen seems to be having a fun time at his work, but only because he’s deadly serious about it. I don’t know what he does to relax, but I bet it’s not writing or playing music. After all, that’s his job.

In the same way, retired life is not, and shouldn’t be, the soma induced happiness of a Brave New World. What’s wrong in not being 100% satisfied with the retired life versus the working one? For me, the fact is I could go back to work and, while it’s absolutely not a siren song, it can be a distracting tune. If I blot it out, I’ll need something to replace it. I’ve tried voluntary work, but it wasn’t really for me. There seemed to be something missing in it (apart from the money!) Perhaps it was the fact that I knew I wouldn’t even be there if I had “proper” work to go to? Maybe I need to try a few other types, but I’ve got to be honest here: unless it’s a vocation (which I’ve yet to find)  if I’m going to work, as in devote my labour to produce a result, I want to be paid for it.

Sometimes I think I would love to be a Mr Money Moustache, ripping off roofs, excavating Victorian furnaces, working with my hands. Getting paid, maybe with a six pack of beer and a returned favour, but getting material acknowledgment nonetheless. This might be an option going forward, because I know quite a few tradesmen and I could maybe ask them if I could help out. But, let’s be honest, I’m in my fifties and I’m unsure if I’d be an asset to them or a burden!

This is where I can feel people’s hackles beginning to rise. Why, FFS, don’t you go out and try working on a building site if you think you might like it? What do you have to lose? Because, FFS, this isn’t a “Please choose Option A or Option B” situation. This – I now understand – is cognitive dissonance! Out of which I’m hoping a creative and dynamic solution will eventually appear.

17 thoughts on “Cognitive Dissonance

  1. Thank you for this. I discovered your blog last week and it has been prescient, as I am taking early retirement at the beginning of May, and have followed your thinking with interest. I have found some of the thoughts of Anne Morrow Lindbergh in ‘Gift from the Sea’ to be very helpful. She says ‘We have so little faith in the ebb and flow of life, of love, of relationships. We leap at the flow of the tide and resist in terror its ebb… We insist on permanence, on duration, on continuity.’ Sometimes the ebb is so necessary to our on-going development.

    I’ve also found the work of William Bridges in ‘Transitions, Making Sense of Life’s Changes’ to be helpful in understanding how I have coped with major changes such as bereavement or other loss in my life. No doubt these theories will all be tested significantly when I leave work in May!

    I like very much your description of your feelings as being cognitive dissonance, and that they are an essential and creative aspect to life – and that retirement isn’t simply about being happy. A wise person said to me recently that early retirement would give me the opportunity to be the person I am most called to be, and that good would flow from that place. I find this very helpful.

    And yes, to pick up on the thoughts of another comment, these are first world problems: but I live in the first world and am aware of that privilege, and the responsibility that flows from this.


  2. If you had hated your job and early retirement had been your choice/plan, perhaps you would not suffer from cognitive dissonance so much?

    Whilst you may not describe it as ‘passion’, you obviously took your job seriously as you say, as it wasn’t ‘fun’, but there are obviously elements of your job that you miss a lot, be that the social interaction, the responsibility, problem-solving, achievement of targets, etc.

    I think you’ve just yet to find something else that you can be passionate about.


  3. I mentioned before – volunteer at your local CAB. Very challenging and satisfying – and a lot to pick up. They have paid roles as well and you could look at volunteering as your training/trial period. Just sayin’ 🙂


  4. 40-something Brit here who’s just about FIRE-compliant if you’re generous.

    “if I’m going to work, as in devote my labour to produce a result, I want to be paid for it.”

    My thoughts on this are that one needs to consider the other payments that we get from working in a voluntary capacity. For example, you get a sense of purpose and meaning, a social circle of good-hearted people, a way to contribute to the local community and the greater good and so on.

    You get money from your dividends, interest payments and other sources. I think you are actually geniunely getting paid but in a different currency to what you are used to.

    As automation replaces a lot of jobs, your concern will become a wide-spread one. Consider yourself at the vanguard of exploring a lifestyle that will be forced on most of us in a few decades’ time whether we want it or not!



  5. My goal is to try to find activities I find both absorbing and fulfilling. I can very much relate to the desire to be paid, as a way of demonstrating some kind of intrinsic value to an activity. However, I view this as an unhelpful (limiting) belief, which I am working hard to overcome – after all, how perverse would it be to reject a rewarding opportunity (‘work’ if you like, but again these things can be reframed), simply because it didn’t provide me with money that I didn’t actually need?
    I also understand that its not necessarily straightforward to find tasks that replace all the things that work provides. Its something about being involved in an endeavour that is bigger than the kind of thing you can create by yourself, and the discipline and commitment of having to see it through.
    Anyway I look forward to seeing how you work this one out, and what kind of solutions you come up with!


  6. As always I like to get your side of the ER story because you’re showing it from a much different perspective than most other blogs. It brings balance.
    That being said I’m having a hard time trying to relate, mostly because I’m not FI yet. But once I am, man, there are so many projects I put on hold just so I could focus on my career and my family… I just can’t wait for the “career” to get out of the way


  7. Interesting stuff Jim. I am due to ER in July but I have really had enough of teaching. My wife thinks that it is impossible to teach full time for 35 years and stay sane. Will I want to go back at some stage? Maybe, but at 52 it will be nice to have the choice. I have hobbies and plans to travel on my bicycle. “Cthullu vision” (see really takes over my thought processes with work and it is really not healthy. I’ll unwind, relax and do my cycle camping trips. My wife loves the challenge of working (she is an engineering academic) so we are all different and we have to find our own path.

    All the best,



  8. I did the early retirement thing a few years back… of the first things I did was to sign up for a course at the local adult education centre… all I did three years in a proper course with lots of reading and homework requirements and exams at the end of each year…….it gave structure to my week, qualifications and then meaningful volunteering opportunities too


    • What sort of course was it? I’ve found that education is becoming quite costly – I’m currently doing an OU module which is really very expensive. I will try and find more cost effective options, but they have to be sufficiently challenging ….


  9. Volunteering might work, but perhaps you just need to find the right type of volunteer work. Plenty of volunteer work sucks in my view as it tends to be grossly inefficient and time wasting, which should be things that an early retiree isn’t a fan of. If you can find a role where these aren’t issues then perhaps that’s something worthwhile to be doing.

    I sometimes think about my own neighbourhood (well, the one where our new house is that we’re renovating) and how I can make it even better, for example spending countless hours working through bureaucracy to get a lot of private laneways into council hands so that I can then make the council pay to fix them up). This hasn’t been done for the 100 years of the area’s existence because no one had the time or the know how, but I should have both of them once I retire. I’ve already done some of this work for the laneway directly behind my house and it was very rewarding (the neighbours appreciate it too!) so I know it’s something that I could fill my time with, at least for a while.

    Now this situation might not apply to you, but you just need to find something that works for your circumstances. The key , estate is though that I’m sure there’s something out there that won’t pay you any money but will still be very rewarding!


  10. I like what your saying here. Basically without the lows how can you experience the highs in life?

    I’m sure you’ll find something meaningful and rewarding to do with your time soon enough, you have plenty of time to look for it 😉


  11. Pingback: Journey’s End – Simple Living In Somerset

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