Working (for a) Living

It’s been a tough week. Yes, for lots of reasons, but I’m not going to be talking about politics here, nor terrorism, nor the horror and scandal of what happened at the Grenfell Tower in London. No, I’m not discussing those, but suffice to say they help put the worries and troubles of my own little world into perspective. So many others have so much more to worry about than I do.

Having said that, it now seems almost pathetic to state that the reason I’ve found this a tough week has been because it’s been really quiet at work, and I find that difficult to deal with. We all know people who can turn up to work, have one task to complete in the day and then find a multitude of ways to not complete it. That’s not me, I’m afraid, and I’d guess for the majority of FIRE adherents that’s not you either. If I turn up at work at 0900 with one task to do, I’ve usually completed it by 0901 and am looking for the next one. We are the type of people who set goals, take action, push out into the world and make changes in the hope that these will help us attain our ambitions. We’re doers, whether that’s in the world of work or leisure. We fill our days and we’re happiest when we get to the end of the day, pour ourselves a beer, a glass of wine or a cup of tea and reflect on what we’ve managed to achieve in the waking hours.

I reflected on this when one of my recently early-retired golfing buddies mentioned that he’d “Never been busier” since quitting work. He then added, “I’ve just not had time to be bored, not like you were when you were retired.”

Well, I’m sorry, but if I ever did say I was “bored” in my year out, that’s not what I meant. I wish I had been just “bored” because I could have fixed that in a millisecond. There are endless enjoyable ways to fill empty hours – take a walk, read a book, splurge on a Box Set, listen to podcasts, cook, bake, go for a swim, go to the pub, practice your golf…..on and on the list can go. Boredom? Of course there were times when I would admit that I was at a loose end, but it was never a major problem. It could be rectified.

No, filling the hours wasn’t an issue. For me, the problem was filling the hours with things that were, in my mind, constructive. What I was looking for in my retired days was “fulfillment” and, as those days stretched on, that became increasingly hard to find.

It’s funny, because my attitude to this changed over time. In the first month or two of my retirement I was ecstatic about having the ability to take ninety minutes to walk into town from home and reward myself with a nice cup of coffee and a read of the paper in a favourite cafe bar once I’d arrived. I’d listen to podcasts as I walked in and reveled in having the time to think about what I was learning, maybe heading to the library later in the afternoon to find a book on a subject that had whetted my interest. It was fantastic. At first. But, as my diary attests to, nine months in and I was moaning that this self-same activity was a total waste of time and was doing my head in. What was it achieving? How was I growing? What was I contributing? If I was learning things, how was I applying them? Really, what was I doing with my time?

Perhaps this was a legacy of the near thirty years of working life I’d had up to that point. It was never going to be easy to readjust. I thought that in acknowledging this situation I’d find a way to cope with it. The thing was that I expected to come to terms with lazy days over time, that I’d grow to ever more appreciate them and the finer things in life that my career had prevented me from enjoying. But that wasn’t the case. If anything, the feeling that I wasn’t achieving anything concrete with my days began to torment me and I realised that, at the bottom of it, I was missing work.

Was this a bad thing? I came across an interesting TED talk this week, where Mike Rowe laments the way manual work has been demeaned in today’s society. I could argue the same for many white collar jobs too. There’s a cliche that “Nobody on their deathbed ever stated ‘I wish I’d spent more time at the office’”, but in my retirement I found myself thinking that I wished I could spend at least SOME more of my time in the office! “You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone” – another cliche that has an element of truth to it, but that’s not the whole truth either.

So yes, I’ve had a quiet week at work and I’ve found it tough, but it has not been as tough as having a quiet week at home. That’s one of the things I discovered in my early retirement and, for the moment, is something that that I’m happy to have rectified through finding a job.

17 thoughts on “Working (for a) Living

  1. Hello Jim, first time commenter here and just want to say how very much I’ve enjoyed your blog since stumbling across it earlier this year.

    At 54 yrs old I have been lucky (skilled?) enough to have reached FI earlier this year and up until recently was dead set on retiring in May this year upon reaching my FI goal. However, a combination of the advice of my wife, my best mate and your blog has made me reevaluate. So I decided to ask my employer to go part-time, by way as a gentle introduction into early retirement. Amazingly enough they said yes and from July 3 I will be working 50% of my current hours. So thank you for your sage advice on how it might not be as easy adjusting into retirement as we dream about!

    I’m sure working less hours and at a reduced level will help but as I basically will be doing the same job I’m wondering if the same jadedness with the job, systems and dickhead managers will make it just as wearisome for the 2.5 days I will be there. I guess we’ll see and at least I have got some enthusiasm back for the foreseeable future.

    Anyway, to your post. Yes I agree that having not enough to do can be as stressful as having too much. I am lucky that in my job in Research I can just think of an new idea to pursue and go and do it when things get slack. Presumably you have a job which is driven by clients tasks and if they run out you are stuck?

    Anyway thanks again for the great blog, I’ve backread all your episodes and keep it going.

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  2. Well, I’m nothing like your majority of FIRE adherents.

    I can procrastinate for Britain. I procrastinate so widely and so deeply, that it is during my procrastination in which I actually achieve my goals more often than not. Almost by chance, my procrastination will occasionally bring forward a nugget of useful work. And that is my process..

    This will seem a bit rude, but I’ll throw it out there anyway.. Your ‘retired’ past-times seem very superficial. No wonder you were bored?

    Did you read that Ermine post a while back about ‘serious’ leisure. I think that could be relevant to your predicament?

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  3. Yeah I think Jim has touched on this topic a few times in the past already. For some of us who reach FI, what we’re doing next is pretty entrepreneurial, constructive, etc… but Jim has attempted a few of those things (e.g. helping a charity) and hasn’t found any of them particularly interesting if I remember correctly.

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  4. Jim, what is it about your activities at work that create meaning for you as opposed to your ‘retired’ activities that felt relatively meaningless? Is it the fact that you are paid that creates the meaning?

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    • For me, primarily, it was the social interaction I missed. At work, you’re constantly dealing with people, finding ways to work with a variety of personalities and functions to produce some sort of positive (you hope) outcome. When “retired” I lost that peer group. I’m a bit of an extrovert in the sense that I construct my view of the world through interaction with people. I do have an introverted side, but I have a limit of how much time I can spend on my own, in control of the environment. So, what created meaning for me at work was mostly working with other people.

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  5. So is it the way that work-based challenges supercharge social interactions that you find fulfilling? As in, ‘we have to find a way to make this team work because otherwise the project will fail…’ There’s a sense of camaraderie in the face of adversity that doesn’t necessarily exist in hobby or volunteer social interactions?

    I’m asking because I’ve followed your blog for sometime now and I’m very interested in the ’emptiness factor’ you grappled with during your period of retirement. I don’t know of anyone else tackling it directly like you have. Most other bloggers focus on ways of filling the void without returning to a formal work setting, although it’s instructive to note that Jacob of ERE went back to work at least for a time and MMM is effectively an entrepreneur running a number of business lines.

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    • Yeah, I became a bit caught up in what I saw as the definition of work. A lot of focus on FIRE, it seemed to me, was because people hated their work or were essentially not that bothered about working with people. It seemed to me “work” was getting a bad press while “Early Retirement” was this fantastic nirvana where every day was a dream. Well, my experience was different. It also wasn’t lost on me that both Jacob (even before he took a “real job”) and MMM were effectively working but chose not to call it that. I was just trying, and still am in my own head, to find a middle way that works for me.

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      • And, sorry, “yes” to answer your question – I do find work “supercharges” social interactions in a positive way. At best, when a team pulls together, you rise above petty personal concerns, the politics, sexism, macho BS that permeates a lot of social encounters. It might not happen often, but it’s worth striving to try and realise it.

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      • I think the pragmatic approach is to do stuff where you enjoy it, say, more than 50% of the time

        be that work or leisure.

        totally unrealistic to expect to be having a great time all of the time.

        its easy to lose sight of that when reading the FIRE community blog output

        especially the American flavours.

        on top of that I think its nice to constantly attempt to tweak the work/leisure situation to nudge that % upwards. If you’re struggling to distinguish between work and leisure then I think you’re doing very well already.

        I totally agree that MMM is not only working, but he is working full time and hard. But he would probably pass on my 50% rule quite comfortably.

        The less said about ERE the better, whilst I like his blog very much and I’ve even purchased his book.. I could never quite forgive him for becoming an investment banker

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  6. Brilliant TED talk, I often listen to one before going to sleep, missed that one.

    Coincidentally I was talking about the value of manual labour and the satisfaction with someone last week. I started out stuffing (it’s the technical term) containers, with minimal equipment, it was hard graft, dirty, tiring, often cold and wet through. But there was a real sense of a job done when it was truly ‘stuffed’ and the level of teamwork that it took.

    Moving on 30 years and I run a business that in the early days was manual, but less physically demanding to start with than containers, and now sees me at a desk 99% of the time and I rarely get any enjoyment out of it. Hence my haunting of early retirement blogs whilst I dither (procrastination with Rhino obviously) about having enough money (very probably do) and changing the life of my employees.

    I know I’ll do something else after a period of boredom and it wouldn’t be with computers.

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    • I used to listen to TED Talks, but I found the Mike Rowe talk via the TED Radio podcast which knits excerpts of talks into an overview of a defined subject, such as “work”. I now actually prefer listening to that show. I also found the ERE blogs when I became disenchanted with my job. Before that, the thought of early retirement hadn’t even occurred to me, something I’m actually quite thankful for. Reading too much of the ultra-positive FIRE blogs are a good recipe for stirring unrest at work.

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  7. I understand totally where you’re coming from as regards a team pulling together and making things work – it’s a sweet feeling. It would be difficult to replicate something like that in retirement, unless you joined some sort of club or society and actively participated in aiming for some sort of goal or project. Such club or society would have to be something you were passionate about if you weren’t in it for the money.

    “Jacob (even before he took a “real job”) and MMM were effectively working but chose not to call it that.” – oooh, controversial, haha but true! 🙂

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  8. Agreed that FIRE would be a redundant concept if everyone loved their work. If you can’t tell the difference between work and play then you really are living the dream. In a sense, I’m aiming for FIRE so I can do many different types of work (learn a language, code, chop some wood, whatever) without having to specialise in anything beyond the point of sanity.

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  9. well for sure there exists a gap between the idealism and reality of FIRE that this blog is filling quite nicely (and uniquely).
    Work bad, leisure good – no, I think human nature is a bit more complex than that.
    I personally think its all about little steps and tweaks on the work leisure front so you’re not left completely cold turkey on your 9-5 mon-fri institutionalised work-life.
    Slowly slowly catchy monkey.
    I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of FIRE bloggers are just banging out a standard optimistic trope regardless of whether thats really how things are going for them.
    Thats easier than being honest to a large extent.
    This is why I’m so interested to see how things pan out for some of the ‘cliff-edge’ FIRE bloggers. I don’t think that would be quite right for me.. and it wasn’t right for our host here

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