It’s been just over a year since my husband and I retired at 46. While there are a number of great essays about early retirement (such as 10 Things I Didn’t Expect in Early Retirement, 6 Lessons From the First 6 Months of Retirement, and One Year of Early Retirement: Lessons Learned), when I reflect on the past year, it doesn’t naturally lend itself to lessons learned or surprises. My biggest takeaway is how different my actual experience was from the pervasive myths about early retirement.
Myths are shared stories about social phenomenon that get repeated until they are understood as fact. When it comes to early retirement, the myths reveal how people think about it, provide warnings about the dangers (or “dark side”) of it, and often include cautionary tales of people who have tried and “failed” at it.
For me, these myths surfaced immediately and often. They came flying out every time someone asked me “what do you do?” and I replied with “I’m retired“.
Those two simple words elicited mostly negative responses, unsolicited advice, and predictions of forthcoming doom. In all fairness, the responses came from people who have never heard of the financial independence/retire early (FIRE) movement. And I can’t expect anyone who doesn’t know that we have been working for 18 years to retire early to understand how or why that was our goal.
But the responses had clear and consistent patterns. The stories told to support them were eerily similar. And the overarching myths about early retirement became clear through unending repetition. Person after person felt compelled to tell me that I was in for a big (and mostly unpleasant) surprise by retiring early.
I’ll bet that I’m not the only one who has heard the myths about early retirement. So for my year 1 reflection, I’ll simply compare the 5 most common myths to my reality.
Myth #1: It Won’t Last. You’ll Become Bored Out Of Your Mind And Start Looking For A Job In A Few Months.
I heard this most frequently from men in their 50’s and early 60’s who had been C-level executives before retiring. They retired, became bored, and quickly returned to work in 3-6 months.
I listened to these stories closely because they came from my mentors whose advice I greatly respect. But these declarations felt more like projections: It didn’t work for me, so it won’t work for you.
- “I drove my wife crazy and she told me to go back to work”
- “I tried to retire and it didn’t work” or
- “Smart people shouldn’t retire, they get bored too easily”
As I asked clarifying questions about these “failure” stories, I learned that these men found playing golf 5 days a week, watching tv all day, or being at home alone boring. They were not actively learning anything new, meeting new people, re-discovering their purpose, reading, writing, or engaging in any form of self-reflection. For these men, retirement was boring because the arena of work was where they felt most alive, challenged and respected. And they were sharing it openly to let me know that: it’s okay if you fail at early retirement, we all did.
But after a year, what stands out to me is that I have never felt bored.
In fact, it’s quite the opposite. I’m busier now than I ever have been. And it’s not a frantic fill-up-my-time-with-random-activities kind of busy. Or a frenzy of I-finally-get-to-do-all-the-things-I-didn’t-have-time-for-so-now-I’ll-do-them-all-this-week kind of busy. It’s simply the I-am-intellectually-curious kind of busy.
I read Earnie Zalinski’s The Joy of NOT Working at the beginning of my retirement. He argues that boredom is a choice. And it did not strike me as a desirable one. In contrast to my mentors (who were challenged by boredom), my challenge has been learning how to live with freedom. And for me that means the freedom to learn, grow, and evolve.
At times, it felt like everyone wanted me to get over this whole FIRE nonsense and start my “next company”, “next job”, or “next big thing”. But despite their active recruitment efforts, I have found the taste of freedom to be so delicious that I have no desire to return to a job.
Myth #2: You Must Figure Out What You’re “Retiring To” BEFORE You Retire. If You Don’t, You’re Doomed.
The most common advice I heard about early retirement — from experts, books, blogs, and coaches — is how important it is to retire to something, not from something. If you don’t, you’ll experience years of confusion, mental decline, isolation, and wander around for years trying to “find yourself”.
In an ideal world, gaining clarity on your next chapter would be part of everyone’s pre-retirement planning. But many in the FIRE movement (myself included) focus all of our energy on the financial aspects. So much so, that we tell ourselves we can figure out our next chapter once we have time (i.e., after we’ve retired). Alternatively, some people find themselves presented with an unexpected early retirement package from their employer. This type of involuntary retirement means they may not have had the time to even consider what they will do or who they will be in retirement.
In my case, I didn’t just retire from a job. I retired from serving as CEO of a company I founded and ran for 7 years. The truth is that I was way too busy growing my company to spend much time planning what was next. And the result of that relentless focus was that my company grew AND I retired without any plan for my future.
- I was doing it all wrong (by retiring from something instead of to something), and
- I read just enough to know that I was taking the wrong approach.
Luckily, I was a professor for 12 years before starting my business. So I borrowed a concept from that chapter of my life and decided to treat the first year of my early retirement as a sabbatical. As a former academic, I had a clear mental framework for sabbaticals: they have an official start and end date, they have a project-specific focus, and they allow for rest, rejuvenation, and self-discovery.
So I spent the first months leaning into the resting and rejuvenating part because it was the “honeymoon phase” of my early retirement. I needed time to detox from work stress, attend to deferred maintenance, and experience the glorious pleasure of sleeping without an alarm clock. We went on retreat, I learned how to play golf, and I slept 10+ hours per/night.
Once the honeymoon phase ended, I turned towards my sabbatical project: transitioning from intense full-time employment to early retirement. I read voraciously about retirement, the nature of work, the challenges of life transitions, and the components of a meaningful life. That reading helped me to design a transition process for myself (I will share more details about this process in future blog posts). By the end of my “sabbatical year”, I had a clearer sense of who I am, why I’m here, and how I want to live in this new chapter of my life.
While it is certainly ideal to spend time considering these important questions before you retire, it’s not the end of the world if you don’t. Yes, it will be messy, challenging, and you may feel lost. But by definition, major life transitions are messy, challenging and destabilizing while you’re in the midst of them. Giving myself a designated year to transition, allowing myself to enjoy the honeymoon phase, and designing my own transition process provided me the space, time, and support I needed.
Myth #3: Your Marriage Will Suffer (You Will Drive Each Other Crazy)
This common response to “I’m retired” both surprised me and struck me as, well… a bit rude. When people who don’t know anything about my marriage predicted our early retirement would lead to marital problems, I didn’t know what to think. So I tried asking questions and listening deeper for understanding.
I learned that when early retirement is unplanned, involuntary, or involves only one partner, it can add stress to a marriage. And when two people are working outside the home every day and suddenly shift to being home-based, there is an adjustment period individually and relationally. And partners may have different versions of retirement (generally and in terms of daily activity) that causes conflict.
But in our case, early retirement was voluntary, simultaneous and something we had been working towards for 18 years. We also both worked from home for significant lengths of time (7 years for me, 16 years for my husband) so we didn’t experience any radical shift from office to home as our daily base of operations. And as entrepreneurs, we were both accustomed to creating a structure for our work days. We’re the kind of people who do Annual Planning, 90 Day Action Plans, and Weekly Plans even after we’ve retired.
In hindsight, these feel like advantages because they meant we had a solid foundation for the transition and were moving through the process at the same time. So it’s no surprise to me that early retirement has greatly enhanced our 23-year marriage because we:
- no longer talk about work all the time
- aren’t constantly irritable and short-tempered with one another due to work-related stress
- have new and separate interests that create a deep well of topics for conversation
- created collective interests that we have the time to pursue as a couple
- have way more time and energy for sex, romance and emotional intimacy that we didn’t have when we were consumed with work.
Clearly, early retirement can put a strain on a relationship but that strain is context-specific and doesn’t have to be a foregone conclusion. Relationships adapt and change during all significant life transitions and deterioration is only one (of many) possible outcomes. It’s also possible that the time-freedom early retirement provides can greatly enhance the quality of a marriage.
Myth #4: You Should NEVER Retire! You’ll Fall Into ____________ (Laziness, Depression, Addiction, etc…) and/or Die Quickly
At first it scared me when I repeatedly heard this reaction to my early retirement. I’m a Type A, high-energy human being in good physical and mental health. So it was jarring to hear people imagine that the absence of 40 hours of work each week would send my life into a tailspin, turning me into someone I’ve never been, and/or lead to my untimely demise.
To be clear, I wrote this post, so I’m alive and well as of the publish date. I haven’t developed patterns of laziness, substance abuse, or isolation-induced depression. Maybe it’s because I devoted my 30’s to therapy and personal development. Or maybe it’s that I didn’t have an expectation that retiring early would solve all my problems or save me from a job I hated (actually, I loved my job). Or maybe it’s because I hadn’t dreamed of a retirement life that was completely different than the one I led while working (moving to a farm, off the grid, traveling the world, etc…) that turned out different in reality.
The truth is that we live the same life we did before we retired. It’s just slower and simpler. As a result, I’m in better health because I have the time and energy to run 5 days a week, shop for healthy food, enjoy time with friends, stimulate my brain, and cook from scratch at home on a regular basis.
I don’t believe that early retirement either solves problems that already exist or creates new problems out of nowhere. Instead, it feels like freedom provides the time and space for whatever already exists to expand. Whether that’s healthy or unhealthy habits, positive or negative mindsets, or the intrinsic or extrinsic nature of our motivation. Whatever is there has the space to grow when 40 hours of work are removed from your week.
Myth #5: Life Will Be A Breeze Once You Retire. There’s No More Stress And You’ll Live A Blissful Life of Leisure
While most of the responses and advice I got about early retirement were negative, I must admit that there’s one more myth that is qualitatively different. I’m heard this response mostly from people who are in their 20’s and 30’s, haven’t saved a dime for retirement, hate their current job, and are dreaming of their future. They say things like “you’re so lucky” because they imagine I’m living a life of carefree bliss, sitting on a beach, sipping margaritas.
Guess what? This not only isn’t my reality, I will go a step further to say that retirement is hard work!
It’s not that I imagined spending the rest of my life on a beach, but I believed that a transition into retirement would be far easier than previous transitions in my life (such as shifting from graduate student to professor in my 20’s, or from tenured-professor to entrepreneur in my 30’s).
But fo me, the transition from employment to retirement has been a challenging one that has required significant work. Specifically, it’s required:
- Replacing my professional identity (CEO) with a new identity (Mentor)
- Developing a healthier lifestyle (in terms of food, exercise, eliminating negative coping mechanisms to stress) and developing active leisure activities (instead of passive leisure activities)
- Replacing the social relationships that were tied to my job
- Creating structured opportunities for intellectual engagement and ongoing learning
- Evolving my relationship with a spouse who retired at the same time
- Engaging in self-reflection and experimentation to discover a new sense of meaning and purpose.
- Unplugging from the achievement-machine to construct a new definition of success.
For many people, the challenge of early retirement is imagining everything will be awesome once they are free from a job (especially one they dislike). But transitioning from paid employment to retirement is work that requires taking risks, experimenting with new activities and relationships, getting outside of your comfort zone, making mistakes, failing frequently, and continually asking (and answering) hard questions. Too often, people don’t realize there’s work involved in a successful transition. And even when they do, it’s too often invisible labor, carried out in isolation without any community, support or accountability.
At the end of our first year of retirement, I can say that it’s not perfect (and neither are we) but so far, the freedom is far better than we ever could have imagined.
Did I miss any other myths about early retirement? If so, let me know in the comments section below