Four years seems like a very short time to reach early retirement. One presidential term. One Olympics.
In another, more real way, the way that involves me going into a job every weekday for nine straight hours, and stressing about work while I'm off the clock, four years is a pretty long time. It's too long to just gut it out: to put my head down and grit my teeth until we're financially independent. I need to find a way to actually make my career more fulfilling and enjoyable, so that these next four years aren't just a slog.
The goals of financial independence and early retirement have been, at least to me, all about freedom: being able to do whatever I wanted with my days, instead of having some employer tell me what to do for the majority of my waking hours. But there's a problem with this approach. Framing financial independence like that, as a way of finally being free, has some obvious connotations for my current situation.
If my desired future is a life of freedom, then my current situation must not be all that free. It's nothing like economic imprisonment or slavery, but it is something I want to escape from. That is bound to have some impacts on the way I see my day to day.
Plus, escape is a pretty crumby goal. It's kind of cowardly. To frame a goal like that means I'm running away from something, rather than towards something. Running away from something I don't like will certainly give me a type of freedom and independence, but it's not particularly admirable. Escape kind of sucks, when compared to the merits of an achievement that you're reaching for.
Rather than escaping from traditional work, or even just enduring it, I want to find a way to really enjoy the few years I have left in this kind of life. As Cal Newport describes in Paula Pant's recent podcast, I want to commit to work deeply in my profession. I want to find happiness and meaning in my career, even if I ultimately leave it. Maybe because I'm going to ultimately leave it.
I can't remember if I've mentioned it here on the blog, but I work in Procurement. It's not as noble as the thing I went to school for. (I studied to be an English teacher, and yet look at all these run ons and sentences ending with prepositions and unnecessary parentheticals.) Still, I find a pleasure in negotiating well, in coming to agreement on terms, in buying the thing my internal customers need at a good price, and in saving the company money. At least, so long as I work for a company that has a mission that I admire and, thankfully, I do. I like thinking about how the dollars I save make it easier for us to do more good, and help us operate more efficiently.
I'd like to get back to that optimistic way of viewing my career: like I'm part of something bigger, that I'm helping my company do more at a lower cost, and that I'm genuinely helping us do good. You know, in our own, corporate overlord sort of way.
I know many of the readers here are likely forging their own paths to financial independence (and maybe even writing about it), precisely because you don't view corporate business culture as something to be admired, or leaned into, or endured any longer than necessary. What if the cubicle really is a kind of prison? If that's the case, then what I'm proposing, looking to find happiness and meaning in working for the man, is akin to decorating one's jail cell. It's a type of self-delusion.
I can't say what traditional work really is at its core, but I do like the idea of defining it for myself. It's not a cell I need to escape from. And it's not just a means to an end, either. It's something I've chosen, something that's worthy of my full attention and effort, at least while I'm sitting at my desk. And who knows what I might find if I really devote myself to my work again?
I've let the allure of financial independence have an impact on the way I see my career over the years: like it's something that I don't need to give that much of myself to, since I'm on my way out the door anyway. But the fact is that I'm not leaving anytime soon: four years more, at least. It's far too long a time to just go through the motions.
But there's plenty of time to work deeply, to be honest with the time that I'm being paid for, and feel some pride about giving my best. I know I'm actually looking forward to a Monday morning for the first time in a long while, and that's something.
Time to get back to work.
*Photo is from frankh at Flickr Creative Commons.