I am experiencing a mid-FI crisis. While actively working towards financial independence, I realized that aside from being, well, financially independent, I don’t know what that will look like. I have a full-time pre-FI career that I don’t plan to take with me into post-FI life. Since work takes up the majority of my time, it will leave a massive void that I do not know how to fill. I plan to change that.
Recognizing a pattern of inaction
Two months ago, I was sitting at a bar with some friends from an old job. While catching up, we each gave indifferent “another day, another dollar” updates on our careers, with one exception.
One of our group had retired a few months before and was now enjoying his days. While the rest of us were still staring at computer screens 40 hours a week, he was traveling, managing his rental properties, mentoring kids, and kicking around the idea of moving to Southeast Asia to teach.
The declaration “we should start a business together” comes up almost every time we all get together. This evening was no exception, but inspired by our friend’s freedom, there was more enthusiasm behind the sentiment. We agreed to meet back up in a three weeks and have some ideas ready that we could start building on. The enthusiasm had faded by the next morning, so we did neither of these things. We’re much better at bullshitting than execution.
At some point before parting ways for the evening, I said to my newly-retired friend: “I want to build something of my own. Something I can put out there when and how I want. Something that can earn money even on days I don’t show up.”
He laughed. “This isn’t the first time you’ve said this to me. This isn’t the first time anyone has said this.”
And he is right. I’ve been repeating the same unexecuted dream for years. Many of us have. But this time I’ve decided to start making progress towards figuring out what that “something” will be.
Looking for a change
I’m currently about 8 years away from reaching financial independence. Most days I don’t think I can make it that long. Some days I don’t think I can even make it another week.
Its not even that I hate my job. I don’t. I enjoy what I do, and the work itself is meaningful. The tools I build help improve the mental and physical health of a lot of people. Knowing I contribute to something that improves people’s lives in a very real way is incredibly satisfying.
It’s just that my priorities have changed. I want more freedom in how I spend my hours. Despite being a couple years away from my next milestone birthday, I feel like a perpetual “9-ender” – someone who’s age ends with a 9. 29, 39, 49, 59, etc. I came across this term in Dan Pink’s book When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing. Social psychologists Adam Alter and Hal Hershfield explain that “Nine-enders are particularly preoccupied with aging and meaningfulness, which is linked to a rise in behaviors that suggest a search for or crisis of meaning.”
It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing. So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it… Life is long if you know how to use it.”– Seneca, On the Shortness of Life
Many years ago I came across a Venn diagram that has really stuck with me. I found it in a 2009 post called “Happiness at Work“. Three circles labeled “what we do well”, “what we want to do”, and “what we can be paid to do” meet in the middle at “Hooray!”.
The much younger, more ambitious, more career-oriented version of me that read this 10 years ago had answers to the prompts in those circles. We had all the answers when we were younger, didn’t we? I was doing what I wanted to do, I was good at it, I worked hard at getting better, and I made a good living from it. But somewhere along the line, something changed. I lost my “Hooray!”
This loss is especially frustrating as I inch closer to financial independence. I have always been a goal-driven person, but I don’t have a clear vision of what is on the other side of FI. It is difficult for me to work towards something that feels so ambiguous. I know I will want to work; I’ve never been able to picture anything else. But I don’t yet know what that work will be. It certainly won’t be what I’m doing now for 40 hours a week.
My better half is a private pilot and plans for that love of flying to segue into post-FI job as a local flight instructor. That’s pretty badass. I’m not at all, even a little bit, envious of the clarity that comes with working towards a specific goal like that. Really, I’m fine.
Mal: We’re still flying.“Serenity” Firefly. 2002.
Simon: That’s not much.
Mal: It’s enough.
Since that Venn diagram was created, I’ve watched so many people inventing their own jobs, and sometimes even new industries, out of the “learn to monetize” overlap. It’s part of the reason the “what we can be paid to do” circle is the least important for me right now. Well, that and I am fortunate enough to have a full-time job right now. If all goes well, I could learn to monetize whatever it is and maybe even knock a couple years off of the retirement plan.
My struggle is with the other two circles. The “what I want to do” circle is orders of magnitude larger than “what I do well”. I have put so much time and effort into improving my professional skills that I left little time for becoming good at much else.
My professional development was years of constant, incremental gains. Little things building on top each other to eventually become big things. The process was simple and incredibly effective. It is time to apply this to the rest of my life in a more balanced way. To gradually nudge items from the “things I want to do” circle over the border to “things I do well”.
That is where Better By One comes in. The name Better By One comes from this idea of continual and incremental improvement. Becoming better at something by one percent. Better by one incremental step in the right direction. Continue to build these small improvements over a period of time, and you get a similar effect as with compounding interest. A little adds up to a lot.
This practice seems to be becoming more and more popular. At my office we talk a lot about kaizen, a term used in my industry to refer to a process of continuous improvement of processes and flows. Brian Johnson teaches us +1s at Optimize.me. Stanford’s behavioral scientist B.J. Fogg teaches about Tiny Habits. James Clear writes about Atomic Habits. All of these ideas are about continually implementing small changes to get big results.
Cognitive biases to the rescue
By starting this site, I am committing myself to rebalancing those circles and documenting what I learn along the way. I am doing this by taking advantage of a couple of cognitive biases related to loss aversion. These biases are grouped in the green bottom left quadrant of one of my favorite images – The Cognitive Bias Codex:
The Feynman Technique has taught me that information sticks with me best if I can synthesize it into my own words. This appears to be thanks to the Generation Effect. I also know I’m more likely to follow through on something once I’m financially invested in it, so I bought this domain and hosting through DreamHost.
Better By One will be exploring the barriers, paths, and lessons learned on the way to optimizing life through simplicity, mental and physical health, and financial independence. If we find a way to +1 in some way, we will be sharing it here.
I may not have answers about “what’s next” when I meet up with those friends again, but I will have a new tool to help me figure it out. By growing the amount of things I do well and refining the list of things I want to do, the possibilities grow for what I can be paid to do. The goal for now is just to learn and improve, but I hope to land on something that I can take with me into early retirement. And I hope you will join me.