Life After FIRE: Creating A Full and Meaningful Life

Welcome to Part 8 of a 9-part blog series on Life After FIRE.

If you’ve been following the series then you’ve walked through a powerful process to answer the question facing people about to FIRE: what will you do with all your free time once you retire? We explored the core challenges in transitioning from full-time employment to early retirement and our unconscious beliefs about retirement. You’ve answered some important questions (Who am I?, What are my gifts and talents?, What do I love?, What is my purpose?, What are the many possible expressions of my purpose in the world? and, Who are my retirement role models?). And you used the answers to those questions to design a series of early retirement experiments.

Underlying this process is an assumption that some form of purpose-driven “work” is an important component of a meaningful life. It doesn’t matter if your post-FIRE work is paid or voluntary, part-time or full time, alone or in a social setting. What does matter is that your “work” is aligned with your gifts and talents and that you test drive it (via experiments) to see if it’s a good fit.

As important as it is to discover what “work” you will do in early retirement, work is only one piece of building a fulfilling life in retirement. This week, I encourage you to take a step back and examine your life as a whole.

What’s Your Current Model of Living?

Many people conceptualize their existence as having only two parts: 1) work and 2) everything else in life. Given the long hours that most people put in each week preparing for work, commuting to work, doing their job, and worrying about work, it is unsurprising that work consumes most of our waking hours. And because our jobs consume so much time and energy, the challenge pre-retirement is to find some semblance of work-life balance.

How Most People Think About Life

While a work/life dichotomy is a common pre-retirement framework, it has a number of limitations. It disproportionately weights the role of our jobs in who we are and how we live. It shortchanges the additional dimensions of life that can provide extraordinary fulfillment. And when we dump all of the non-work elements of our life into a generic bucket labeled “everything else” we lose the ability to pinpoint specific areas of life for growth and development.

As you imagine early retirement, I invite you to experiment with a more expansive model for thinking about your life. I’ve shared previously a simple model that I use to assess my life and make regular adjustments. I belief a full and meaningful life has four domains:

  1. Health (including physical, emotional, spiritual health)
  2. Relationships (including family, friends, and community)
  3. Purpose (including work, legacy, and money), and
  4. Growth (including intellectual, experiential, and creative growth)

A Full Life

Thus far in this series, we have focused entirely on one dimension (work) within one domain (purpose). That was an intentional choice because the core challenge for most people in retirement — especially for those who FIRE — is replacing paid employment with some form of meaningful “work” that is aligned with their purpose. I believe it is important to invest time on that project up front because work is many people’s primary form of identity. Once they have some exciting prospects for replacing that identity and several concrete experiments for their post-retirement work, they are free to unpack the “everything else in life” bucket.

And as you can see from the diagram below, there’s a lot more to a full and meaningful life than work!

I recognize that you may have a completely different model of what constitutes a full and meaningful life. You may have different domains that matter to you. That’s perfectly fine. This model is what works for me and I encourage you to use whatever works for you. There are plenty of different frameworks out there and you can Google “areas of life” if you want to choose an alternative. The main point is that you: a) identify a model that works for you, and b) expand beyond the work/life binary in planning your life after FIRE.

Step 1: Assess Your Life

Now that we have a broader and more holistic framework for thinking about your post-FIRE life, you can use it to assess, adjust, and plan how to move forward.

The first thing to do is to go through each of the four domains of your life and assess each of the three dimensions. This doesn’t have to be a long or complicated process. Just grab a piece of paper, set a timer for 15 minutes, and ask yourself a few simple questions:

  1. How satisfied am I (on a scale of 1 – 10)?
  2. What’s working and what’s not working?
  3. What do I truly desire for this area of my life?

I recommend assessing one domain per day and using these questions for your morning journal writing. For example, the first morning you could focus on relationship domain and ask yourself the previous three questions about your familial relationships, then about your friendships, and then about your community relationships.

A word of warning: when I’ve worked with others on this step, I’ve noticed that asking someone to write down what they truly desire for their health, relationships, purpose, and growth triggers a lot of initial resistance. Often, people jump straight to avoidance (“I’ll do this exercise later when I have more time”), denial (“I don’t think this part applies to me”), or anger (“this exercise is so stupid!”).

It’s fascinating to me how the simple act of assessing your life and stating what you desire can trigger so many intense responses. I imagine that what’s underneath that resistance is some of the following:

  • it feels strange to name what you desire because you have been so busy taking care of everyone else’s needs that you never asked yourself: what do I truly desire?
  • acknowledging what you desire feels scary because what comes up sounds too ________ (big, small, silly, selfish, grandiose, etc…)
  • objectively assessing our current status across the various domains of our life elicits an initial wave of intense feelings (disappointment, frustration, shame, overwhelm) that are uncomfortable.

I mention all of these struggles, questions, and resistance because they are both common and a normal part of the process. So if you experience them, congratulations! You are a perfectly normal human being. I also know that any discomfort you experience in this step will pass. So just set a timer for 15 minutes, take a deep breath, connect with your inner wisdom, and ask: what do I desire in each of these areas of my life?

Step 2: Identify The Gaps

Once you spend time assessing where you are, what is (and is not) working, and what you desire in the four domains of your life, you’ll be able to identify the gap between your current and desired reality. There’s no need to judge the gaps as “good” or “bad”, engage in self-flagellation, or fire up the “should” machine. They are just two data points: 1) where I am today and 2) where I desire to be in the future.

Personally, I enjoy finding gaps between my current and desired realities. That’s because anytime I spot a gap, there’s an opportunity to explore:

  • How accurate is my current self-assessment?
  • Is my desire a genuine desire, or something I’ve been told I “should” desire,
  • What is the underlying cause of the gap? and/or
  • How serious am I about doing the work to close the gap?

Each of these questions are worth exploring before moving forward because there are so many potential inaccuracies. When I’ve done this work with groups, there are always some people who judge themselves far too harshly. Their perfectionism has a tendency to skew their self-assessments in the negative direction because they are unconsciously comparing themselves to the standard of perfection. There are also people who realize their desires are more a product of pervasive marketing and media messaging than what they actually want for their life. And there are always some people honest enough to acknowledge they aren’t going to do the work to close the gap and subject their desires to a reality check.

When I did this step of the process myself after retiring, I found the greatest gaps in my growth domain. That’s because before retiring, I ran a training company for university professors. So my opportunities for creative, intellectual and experiential growth were both abundant and part of my job. But post-retirement, I had to redefine what growth would look like for me and my stated desires needed to evolve. The short version of my desires in the growth domain were the following:

  • [Creative Growth] I have many joyful leisure pursuits.
  • [Intellectual Growth] I am regularly involved in growth opportunities that challenge my intellectual and personal development.
  • [Experiential Growth] I am a global nomad with a loving home base.

Needless to say, the gaps between what I desired and my current reality felt enormous. For example, I had no leisure pursuits at the time of my assessment so the gap between “zero” and “many” felt like a chasm. And of all of the domains of my life, the growth domain had the largest gaps between my current reality and my desired reality.

But where there are gaps, there are also opportunities for experiments.

Step 3: Design Additional Experiments

Once you are objectively clear about your current state and confident that your stated desires are genuine, you can start designing experiments to bridge the gaps.

That’s right, more experiments!

I described how to design experiments last week, but as a quick reminder the whole point of an experiment is to identify the most efficient way for you to try something out and see if it’s a good fit for you. Experiments get you out of your head and into action as quickly as possible. And once you try an experiment, you have data you can analyze and use to choose how to move forward.

I designed a number of experiments to start bridging the gaps in my growth. For example, my desire was to have “many joyful, leisure pursuits.” Since I had no leisure activities, it was easy to design a simple experiment: try one new leisure activity every quarter.

I must admit, this was a fun experiment that led me to golf lessons, cooking classes, a yoga challenge, hiking for the first time in my life, getting a library card so I could explore genres of fiction, traveling in new ways, and creating this blog. Amidst all this experimentation, I learned how to love leisure, instead of feeling guilty about it.

And that’s the great thing about experiments. You design something simple that allows you to open up to new things. Then the experiment itself reveals how you feel about whatever it is you’re trying. I learned that I love golf, hiking, reading fiction, traveling with strangers, and blogging. But cooking and yoga aren’t my jam (they’re just leisure activities that I think I “should” enjoy). I also learned that active leisure leaves me energized while passive leisure leaves me drained. And while I favor solo leisure activities, it’s good for me to balance them with leisure that involves other people.

And more importantly, it’s only when I started to experiment with leisure activities that I uncovered the fact that I had a wide range of limiting beliefs about leisure and felt guilty when I engaged in it. Those beliefs only surfaced when I pushed myself to experiment with leisure activities. And once they surfaced, I could ask myself: are those beliefs serving me in this new chapter of my life? And if not, what’s an empowering belief that will allow me to enjoy leisure?

I hope it’s clear by now, the mere act of assessing the domains of your life, stating what you desire, identifying the gaps, and designing bridging experiments is a powerful way to build a full and meaningful life after FIRE.

The Weekly Challenge

This week, I challenge you to:

  • Continue starting each day with journal writing and ending it with gratitude.
  • Consider a holistic model for assessing your life that goes beyond the limiting duality of “work” and “life”.
  • For each of the life domains, ask yourself how satisfied you are, what’s working and not working, and what you truly desire? Don’t just think about it, write it down in your journal.
  • Identify the gaps between your current reality and your desired reality.
  • Design experiments to bridge the gaps.
  • Do another one of the 25 things you love and notice how you feel while you’re doing it.

I can’t wait to hear what experiments you design for yourself and what you learn from them!


Kerry Ann

p.s. – if you missed any of previous parts of the series, here are the links:

  1. Life After FIRE: Now What?
  2. The Inner Work of Early Retirement
  3. Who Am I?
  4. What Are My Gifts and Talents?
  5. Finding Your Purpose
  6. Who Are Your Retirement Role Models?
  7. How to Design Early Retirement Experiments
  8. Creating a Full and Meaningful Life
  9. Mastering Transitions

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