One of the great ironies of the Financial Independence Retire Early (FIRE) movement is that anyone capable of retiring early is incapable of enjoying it.
Retiring early is hard. You need a lot of planning and discipline to make it happen. Anyone who pulls it off isn’t going to be happy sitting on a beach sipping frozen margaritas for the rest of their life.
Personally, I plan on working for the rest of my life.
This work might not always look like work. In fact, if everything goes according to plan, sometimes it will be indistinguishable from play. But I will be active, not passive. I will be producing, not merely consuming. I will be disciplined, not lazy.
So what’s the point of even trying to retire? Why am I so desperate to walk away from a job if I plan on leaving work to do more work?
While I believe that work is good, I have no such romantic attachments to the rat race. Work isn’t the problem. Toiling away in dehumanizing conditions is the problem.
Let’s look at what makes the rat race so miserable, then talk about three possible escape routes.
The Rat Race is Dehumanizing
Following a dress code. Sitting in a cubicle. Putting in exactly eight hours. None of these are unreasonable.
Yet when you work in an office, you can’t escape the notion that you are being controlled by a bureaucracy. You’ve passed the point where everyone is voluntarily making minor personal sacrifices for the sake of the group. The company has decided what sorts of sacrifices you should make, and you just need to obey.
This is probably a lot of fun if you’re part of the bureaucracy. It’s not so fun when your freedom can be stripped by a corporate memo.
All these minor rules and regulations are stifling. The worst part is when someone tells you that they aren’t a big deal. Just minor inconveniences.
Nothing crushes your spirit more than being told you’re being unreasonable for protesting the minor dictates of petty tyrants.
Corporate Control in the Age of COVID
I’m going to use an example that you might wish I stayed away from: Mask mandates in an office setting are stupid.
However effective you think masks are, they aren’t as effective as working from home. If a company really believed that you were all going to pass diseases around and kill each other, the best defense would be working from home.
Of course, my boss (and his boss above him, and all the bosses above him), don’t want us working from home because they’re worried we won’t be as productive.
But wait, don’t they think we’re all going to spread diseases to each other and die if we’re in the same room? Surely that’s more important than productivity right? If they care about safety, it should be the top concern.
Except they don’t actually care. They just want to limit their liability. Common sense would dictate letting adults assess their own risk levels. It would give people the option to work from home if you really believed the workplace is dangerous. But the desire for productivity + the desire to avoid liability = mask mandates.
Of course, people wear masks all day but then gather in the cafeteria, maskless for lunch. So what good was the mask mandate?
Plus, masks themselves are dehumanizing. We’ve always imagined that there’s some intangible benefit of being in the same room with someone instead of on a Zoom call. But is there really a benefit if you can’t see their face?
We used to distinguish meeting in person from corresponding from a distance by talking about “meeting face-to-face.” Except now we can see faces on the computer but not in real life.
The Rat Race Robs You of Autonomy
Coming up with your own goals and determining how to best achieve them is a critical part of well being.
When you have autonomy, you get to determine when you work, how you work, and what you work on.
At work, you are robbed of your autonomy.
Every year (or every quarter, or every half year, depending on what my company is doing at the moment). I have to set goals. This might actually be my company pretending to care about my autonomy, but if it is they aren’t pretending very hard.
I come up with goals not because I want to, but because I have to. I have to structure them to fit certain categories that my company has deemed important. My boss gets to determine if the goals make sense for the company and change them if he wants to.
Of course, everyone forgets about these goals five seconds after we log them because we just did it because we were told to. They don’t come up again until it’s time for performance reviews, where they are used as a weapon against you.
If you’re getting a good performance review, the goals will be used to justify why you’re getting a “meets expectations” instead of “exceeds expectations.” Yes, you seemed to go above and beyond this quarter, but really you just met the written expectations we had of you. Or worse, you didn’t hit your goals. You get the dreaded “falls short.”
The Rat Race Makes You Fat and Sick
America is the world leader in many arenas. Unfortunately one of them is gaining a bunch of weight while being chronically stressed. Another is developing type two diabetes.
I’m convinced the rat race plays a prominent role in the obesity epidemic.
I don’t know whether it has to do with the hormonal response to stress, or with the disordered eating patterns that come along with high-stress jobs (e.g. eating all day from a stash of snacks in your desk drawer).
Staying in shape while working a miserable job is a herculean feat. Especially given the fact that you’re so beat after eight hours of the daily grind that all you have energy for is eating takeout and watching Netflix.
The Rat Race is an Absurd Trap
Here’s a quote that I’ve shared before, but I keep coming back to because of how insightful it is:
“Normal is getting dressed in clothes that you buy for work and driving through traffic in a car that you are still paying for—in order to get to the job you need to pay for the clothes and the car, and the house you leave vacant all day so you can afford to live in it.”Ellen Goodman
Something’s wrong with this picture.
How to Escape the Rat Race
The way I see it, there are three escape routes to the rat race, and none are easy.
- Go into business for yourself
- Save enough money to never work again
- Beat the rat race at its own game
A Side Hustle That Scales
A side hustle is a great way to reclaim a small sliver of autonomy even as you sell your soul for a paycheck.
But the real benefit of a side hustle is that it has the potential to grow into your main hustle.
For instance, if you start a website (like this one), chances are you’ll earn nothing at first. But slowly your traffic will grow, as my traffic is currently growing.
You’ll go from having one post to 10 posts. And from 10 to 100. And a website with 100 quality posts is much more valuable than a website with 10 (both to the reader and the writer).
Eventually, you’ll be able to make a little money by putting ads up on your site or selling a product.
If you can earn a little, you can earn more. There’s essentially no limit to how much you can earn. It may not be easy to earn big, but at least it’s possible and the work you do today builds on what you did yesterday.
A side hustle prepares you to escape the rat race on two fronts. First, any income you already have on the side is income that doesn’t need to be replaced if you step away from your job. But the money you make can also be saved. The more you save, the safer it is to make the leap to self-employment.
How much money do you need to never have to work again?
It’s an impossible question to answer with certainty. But there’s a rule of thumb called the 4% rule that suggests that you can safely think about retiring once your nest egg is 25x the size of your annual expenses.
As we saw in the post where we reviewed Mr. Money Mustache’s “shockingly simple math,” the key to quickly saving up 25x your expenses is to focus on your “savings rate.”
Your savings rate is just the percentage of your income that you save. So if you make $100,000 a year and save $10,000, your savings rate is 10%. If you save $50,000 a year, your savings rate is 50%. Obviously I’m just using $100,000 because it makes the math easier. Thanks for noticing.
Of course, there’s other ways to gain financial independence besides investing a huge chunk of your income into index funds. For instance, many people have achieved financial independence by investing in real estate.
While I’m a big fan of real estate, I talk more about investing in the stock market because there’s less of a learning curve with buy and hold investing.
Win the Game
What if instead of abandoning the rat race, you could reform it from within?
That’s the dream. But for some people, it comes pretty close to reality.
The key here is to become “so good they can’t ignore you.” To become, as Seth Godin would say, a “linchpin.”
When you become valuable enough, you have the leverage to seek out the best possible work environment. You have the leverage to negotiate your working conditions.
You can win the game instead of refusing to play.
The problem that I have with this strategy is that things can change. You create your dream working situation but a new management team comes in and destroys it. You create a career you love but the company goes bankrupt.
I think Zach of Four Pillar Freedom said it best:
It’s not that I never want to work again. The fact that I’ve been getting up before work to publish five blog posts a week, exercise five days a week, and learn Spanish every day seems to indicate that I value hard work and discipline.
What I want is dignity. I want autonomy. I want freedom.
What I want is best found outside the confines of the rat race. It’s not that I never want to work again. It’s that I never want to work again for someone else.