Life After FIRE: How to Design Early Retirement Experiments

Welcome to Part 7 of a 9-part blog series on Life After FIRE.

We’re heading into the home stretch of this process of figuring out what you’ll do with all your free time once you FIRE. As a reminder, this series kicked off by examining the core challenges in transitioning from full-time employment to early retirement. And then we explored our unconscious beliefs about retirement. With that foundation in place, we moved through six important questions:

  1. Who am I?
  2. What are my gifts and talents?
  3. What do I love?
  4. What is my purpose?
  5. What are the many possible expressions of my purpose in the world? and,
  6. Who are my retirement role models?

If you’ve been doing the work along with this series, by now you have learned a lot about yourself, generated at least 8 possible ways to express your purpose in the world, interviewed a wide range of retirement role models about the reality of those possibilities, and started to narrow down your choices. And hopefully in the process, you’ve started to get excited about emerging answers to the question: what will I do with all my time when I retire?

This week, it’s time to choose which of your possibilities to explore in further depth. Once you choose, you will design some practical experiments that allow you to dip your toe in the water to see how you actually feel when doing activities that may become your new “work” in early retirement.

Let’s Get Focused

Before we start the fun of designing experiments, you first need to choose which activities from your purpose map that you want to experiment with moving forward. We brainstormed a wide range of activities as an exercise in opening our minds, using our creativity, and reminding ourselves that there are always many different possibilities to choose from.

But we don’t want to design experiments for every conceivable possibility! Instead let’s use what we learned in our role model interviews to choose which possibilities we want to consider pursuing in retirement. When I’ve taught this process to a live group, the moment I say “choose”, many people fly into a panic! They assume I’m asking them to make an irreversible decision by picking one — and only one — possibility for the rest of their lives.

To be clear, that’s not what I mean. You’re not making a final decision about what kind of “work” you want to do in early retirement (much less for the rest of your life). You’re only choosing what activities you want to explore more fully through a series of experiments.

Like any decision in life, there are many different ways to choose. And when it comes to narrowing down which of the possibilities on your purpose map you want to advance to the experimentation stage, just imagine that it’s like ordering off the lunch menu at your favorite restaurant. In other words, there are at least four different ways you can choose:

  • Deep dish: Some people are sure after talking to role models that there is one (and only one) possibility they want to explore. If one of your possibilities stands head and shoulders above the rest, you can choose to make that one the sole focus of your experiment. It’s like ordering a deep-dish pizza. It’s so thick, rich, and delicious that it will be your entire meal. It also means being comfortable with releasing all the other options (for now) and knowing that you can always return to your full map of possibilities any time in the future.
  • Sample platter: Alternatively, you can choose to explore several of your options and design experiments that will allow you to compare them. I call this the “sample platter” because some people want to taste a little bit of several different possibilities for their early retirement “work”. This is a great choice if a few of your options sound equally exciting and you can’t bear to let them go without further exploration.
  • Entree with sides: Another model for moving forward is to choose one main activity to explore and a few others to experiment with, but with less intensity. It’s like ordering a burger with fries and a milkshake. Clearly the burger is the main dish, but the sides enhance the overall meal. People love this option when they want to go deep with their main activity, but also want to experiment with additional possibilities that compliment the main one.
  • A New Menu: Some people go through the steps of this process and when they finish their first round of role model interviews one thing is clear: none of the original options on their purpose map are quite right. That’s a powerful finding! If that’s you, it’s okay. All you do is create a new menu of options. And the best way to do so is by returning to Step #5 of the process and creating a new purpose map.

There are plenty of ways you can choose which of your possibilities to experiment with, so just make a choice and move forward.

Design Your Early Retirement Experiments

Now that you have one (or a few) possibilities that you want to explore as “what you’ll do” once you retire, the question is: how can you design an experiment to test out your possibilities?

When I think about designing early retirement experiments, I’m looking for:

  • the most efficient way to try out my desired activity and a potential new identity, and
  • a low-risk, low-commitment, and low time-intensive test drive that will allow me better understand the social, emotional and intellectual dimensions of any particular option.

Early retirement experiments are a simple and useful way to get out of your head and into action as quickly as possible. And once you immerse yourself into one of your possibilities, you’ll notice quickly how you feel while doing it: Is it energy-enhancing or energy-draining? Did time fly or did every minute feel like an hour? And when you were finished, did you want more or were you happy that your experiment was short in duration?

Once your experiment is complete, you can choose whether you want to invest further time and energy in that particular possibility, or choose something else entirely.

Early retirement experiments are also designed to help you avoid the most common mistakes people make when selecting what meaningful “work” they will do upon retiring. This includes:

  • Overthinking the possibilities without ever trying anything and not knowing where or how to start once they retire.
  • Collecting enormous amounts of data online without ever talking to another living soul who has actually done the thing they imagine will be their new life.
  • Diving head first into a new life without ever testing the imagined possibility beforehand.
  • Burning the ships behind them by making a drastic change and eliminating any possibility of retreat if it doesn’t work out.
  • Choosing leisure activities as their meaningful “work” and then wondering why an early retirement full of _________ [playing video games, golfing, etc…] every day is not as awesome as they imagined.

Experimenting before you retire is a powerful way to ensure you avoid those mistakes. It’s simple. First you choose one (or several) of the possibilities that you generated on your purpose map and vetted through your role model interviews. Then you design an experiment to provide the quickest possible way to try it out without enormous time, energy, or financial investments and without turning your life upside down.

You may be wondering what exactly early retirement experiments look like. Here are a few examples:

  • If you want to write a novel when you retire, then a life experiment would be taking a 3-day novel-writing workshop (not enrolling in an MFA program before you’ve written a single page).
  • If you want to become an organic farmer, then a life experiment would be volunteering for a full day (or weekend) at an organic farm (not obsessively searching online for a farm to buy without ever having set foot on one).
  • If you want to work for a specific social change, a life experiment would be to volunteer with a local group(s) who are working on that issue (not doing extensive online research about how to create a non-profit without connecting to those who are already in the trenches).
  • If you want to become a digital nomad, a life experiment would be to spend a week (or two) outside the US with other digital nomads (not following instagram accounts of nomads and imagining how it will look and feel for you).

I hope the point is clear! For anything you want to do or be in early retirement, there’s a way to stick your toe in the water. And when you do, the experience will give you far greater data about whether it’s a good fit than just thinking about it in your head. As a side benefit, the more people you meet, connections you make, and mentors you cultivate in this new area of life, the more real it will become for your future.

My Journey

I shared last week that I conducted role model interviews on five of my possibilities (retirement coaching, running retreats, blogging, keynote speaking, and starting a community to serve early retirees). I also chose not to contact role models in activities where I already have significant experience (book writing, teaching, and starting a center).

I learned a lot from my role model interviews including the following:

  • Most of the possibilities I explored would require creating a business. Because I’ve been a successful entrepreneur, I know how much time, energy, and stress are involved in getting a business off the ground. And one thing I know for sure: repeating that experience is not how I intend to spend this first chapter of my early retirement.
  • Some possibilities would require extensive travel. And once again, because I spent 5 years as a road warrior (traveling 40 weeks per year), I have no desire to return to new-city-every-week travel.
  • The role models I interviewed clarified important information about the market of retiree services. Every person I spoke with emphasized that most people in this category: 1) are traditional age retirees, 2) are primarily concerned about their finances and health, and 3) have a completely different set of challenges than FIRE adherents. In short, there are few early retirees, even fewer who have FIRE’d, and fewer still who are actively seeking support for their transition into early retirement.

While not at all encouraging, I saw this honest feedback as valuable data. So valuable that it led me to cross out ALL of my original possibilities and start with a new menu. That’s because the pattern in my feedback was that my answer to “what I love” was too narrowly defined. There was no significant community of people who recently FIRE’d (or were about to retire early) for me to serve. Sometimes the world doesn’t currently need what you want to give and that’s okay. But it did mean rethinking who I can serve and how I can serve.

So I returned to Step #5. When I did this, I remembered that I had completed a purpose map for myself the last time I taught about mapping possibilities. It was back in 2016 and I needed an example for my students (who were tenured professors)! When I found that earlier purpose map, my statement of what I love was far more broadly defined. So I tinkered with the options a bit and generated the following 2.0 version of my purpose map.

These new possibilities led to new role model interviews, new conversations and new insights. After processing them, I chose the “entree with sides” approach to my early retirement experiments. Specifically, I decided that “freestyle mentoring” would be my entree and angel investing and strategic philanthropy would be the side dishes.

As it turned out, designing the experiments for the side dishes was easy. Both of them were existing activities that people participate in regularly so there were plenty of ways to stick a toe in the water. For angel investing, my experiment involved enrolling in the Pipeline Angels investing bootcamp. And for strategic philanthropy, my experiment was to attend a 1-week retreat with The Philanthropy Workshop on that specific topic.

But it was more challenging to design an experiment for “freestyle mentoring. That’s because frankly, I made the term up! For me, the “freestyle” part meant that I didn’t want any formal structure, organization, long-term obligation, payment, or any implied commitment (before or after) the time I spent with mentees. And by “mentoring”, I meant supporting people in any area where I’ve already been successful. Somehow this made-up term perfectly captured what I really wanted to do with my time in early retirement: joyfully help others live their full potential.

Once I defined “freestyle mentoring”, I designed a simple experiment:

  • set aside two hours every weekday afternoon (for two weeks) for this activity,
  • post on social media that I had a few spots available for “mentoring” (with no explanation and no contact information),
  • wait and see IF anyone shows up, and
  • look for patterns in who shows up.

During my two-week experiment, every spot was filled and there were more requests than time available. Even more importantly, a clear pattern emerged about who showed up: leaders. They were leaders in business, academia, and non-profits. Some were young, up-and-coming leaders and others were well seasoned (some of whom had been my mentors at early stages of my career). They were entrepreneurs, creators, musicians, speakers, corporate executives, activists, and writers. But their role as leaders was the what connected them all.

My “freestyle mentoring” experiment happened over a year ago, and it was so joy-inducing, that I made the experiment a way of life. Every weekday (when I’m not traveling), I continue making time available to the “work” of mentoring leaders. Most I’ve never met and probably never will meet. Some insist on flying to see me face-to-face (like the person pictured below). But no matter how we engage, we get into the problems quickly and have powerful connections. And every day, I leave those interactions feeling energized, joyful and completely on fire!

Your experiments are likely to be quite different than mine. But I hope this example gives you some of idea of what early retirement experiments can look like and why they are important.

The Weekly Challenge

This week, I challenge you to:

  • Continue starting each day with journal writing and ending it with gratitude.
  • Pull out your “purpose map
  • Pause to reflect on what you learned in your role model interviews.
  • Use one of the choice models (deep dish, sample platter, entree with sides, or go get a new menu) to select which options you will explore further with an experiment.
  • Design experiments for your options.
  • Notice how you feel when you conduct your experiments and use that information to either design new experiments or eliminate options.
  • 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!

Warmly,

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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