Over the past two weeks I’ve argued why it’s important to intentionally transition from full-time employment to early retirement for those who are on the FIRE journey. And I’ve invited you to explore your conscious and unconscious beliefs about retirement. I’ve also encouraged you to take on two daily practices to support your self-reflection: 1) 15 minutes of journaling first thing in the morning and 2) writing about (at least) three things you are grateful for at night.
If you’re reading this blog series I assume it’s because you’re far enough along in your FIRE journey that you’re starting to ask some important questions:
- Once I’ve hit financial independence, will I choose to retire early?
- If I do retire early, what will I do with all the time that was filled by my job? and
- Who will I become in this new chapter of life?
Answering these questions doesn’t happen overnight and it requires a directed process of self-reflection. This nine-week blog series is dedicated to sharing the step-by-step process I used to transition into early retirement. So each week we tackle topics designed to stimulate the kind of inner work that will break you out of limiting beliefs, inspire unrestrained imagining, and try creative experiments.
The Big Question: Who Am I?
Now that we’ve warmed up by exploring our unconscious beliefs about “retirement” it’s time to start asking a deeper question: who am I?
This is one of those questions that feels enormous. So much so, that it’s hard to know how to answer it. For me, the best way to approach any overwhelming and complex thing is to break it down into manageable parts. And because I’m a social scientist by training and intuitive by nature, I took a mixed-method approach. Specifically, this week we will be collecting and analyzing internal data. Next week we will collect and analyze some external data. And we will continue to stay open to our intuition and inner-wisdom through the practice of daily journal writing.
We’re in the process of building a data set on you and for you. This data set will support your early retirement transition because it’s true to who you are (not who others want you to be), allows you to test hypotheses (about what you’ll do in early retirement), and provides you with something you can return to (when you want to assess your progress, make adjustments, or solve problems).
Your Life Is Data
To answer the “who am I” question, the single best data you can start with is your life. I don’t mean this in some vague, abstract or philosophical way. I mean that your life provides important data on who you are, what you love and where you will find meaning in early retirement.
The five steps below will help you to generate, organize, analyze and interpret your life as data.
Step 1: Draw Your Timeline
This step is simple! Just grab your journal and do the following:
- Draw a line from 0 to whatever your current age is today (my line spans from 0 – 47).
- Mark every year in between with a hash and label them (1, 2, 3, 4, 5….)
- Below this, write down the actual calendar years (my lower line spans from 1971 to 2019). If there are any major historical events that impacted your life, write them down below the years for context.
Step 2: Identify Your Chapters
Now take a step back and consider: what are the chapters of your life? When I’ve led this exercise with others, chapters are generally 5-7 year periods of time (give or take) that are organized around a central role, activity, educational experience, job, or significant family event.
Don’t let your perfectionism stop you by trying to come up with clever names for the chapters. A word or two is just fine. For example, my first draft of the chapters in my life were titled:
- elementary and middle school
- high school
- graduate school
Yours are likely different than mine and that’s okay. I organize my life by my education and professional stages. You may organize yours in a totally different way. The only things that matter are that you divide your life into chapters and that they make sense to you.
Step 3: Generate Data From Each Chapter
Now that you have your life divided into chapters, take some time to ask yourself a few questions about each chapter:
- What did I love?
- What brought me joy?
- What were my biggest challenges?
- What were my biggest fears?
- What communities did I belong to?
- What was I passionate about?
- How did I feel about myself in this chapter?
- What was the most important event that happened in this chapter? (that event may be good, bad, ugly or beautiful)
- What was the most important lesson I learned in this chapter?
- If I had to give this chapter a brief title that summed up my experience, what would that title be?
If you have more memories in some chapters than others, that’s perfectly normal. And if some chapters leave you unable to answer a few of the questions, that’s okay. If it feels like too much to come up with a title, don’t worry (we’re not publishing your journal!). We just want to flesh out a rough outline of what mattered most to you in each chapter.
I recommend you do this work during your journaling time each morning. You may want to take several days to sit with this exercise and I encourage you to do so. There’s no rush and it’s worth the time, effort, and energy involved.
Step 4: Analyze Your Data
When you’re done answering the questions about each of your chapters, re-read all of them in one sitting. This will help you to see what patterns emerge. The patterns may appear as consistencies across a specific question. Or there may be a pattern that repeats across numerous chapters in terms of how you respond to challenges. Or it may be that there’s an identifiable through-line that you never noticed before.
For me, several unexpected patterns emerged. For example, the most salient event of every chapter of my adult life was a painful incident that involved explicit racism and/or sexism. I also saw clear patterns in how I responded to these challenges and how they drove my passion to help others.
I’m sharing the patterns I observed to illustrate different types of patterns you my spot in your own data. The beauty of this part of the exercise is that your patters will be utterly and completely unique to you.
Step 5: What’s Your Story?
This is the most important part of this exercise. You’ve generated data, you’ve put in context, and you’ve spotted the patterns. Now it’s time to interpret the patterns. Or more directly, it’s time to create a story about the patterns you observed. The best part is that you get to choose how you interpret your patterns. You get to create your own story that connects the dots.
Here’s my story: In every chapter of my adult life I’ve entered spaces where I’m “the only” person of color or “one of few” women or minorities. After facing external obstacles and struggling to figure out how to navigate the new space as an “only”, I sought out a mentor (or group of mentors) who taught me the unwritten rules and how to successfully navigate the space. I learned the secrets, I shifted how I played the game, and I became successful. Then I made the secret knowledge widely and openly available to others so they can use it to be successful. I could not rest until the secret knowledge was available to everyone who wanted it. Not only was the pain of my own struggle healed by helping others, but I found extraordinary joy in empowering others to succeed.
Once again, your story will be different than mine. Just notice how you connect the dots, what role you give your own agency in the story (were things done to you, by you, or through you), and how it feels to be the author of your story.
Why Your Story Matters
You may have noticed a few things about my story. First and foremost, it is redemptive (something good came out of bad experiences). It’s framed as a hero’s journey (that reveals my identification with the hero archetype). And most importantly, the process of analyzing my data provides a possible answer to the “who am I?” question.
But that doesn’t just apply to me.
How people connect the dots between the important events of their lives is what psychologists refer to as “narrative identity.” It matters because your story provides you with a unifying sense of who you are and it is the well from which you can discern your purpose. That’s why researchers find that people who tell redemptive stories tend to live more meaningful and purposeful lives.
The reason this is such an important exercise in the early retirement transition is because your story is who you are and it gives direction to who you will become in retirement.
The Weekly Challenge
This week, I challenge you to:
- Put your journal, pens, and whatever else you need on your bedside (if you haven’t done so already) so you can start and end each day with a little writing.
- Draw your timeline
- Identify your chapters
- Answer the 10 questions for each chapter
- When you’re done with all the chapters, re-read them all and ask yourself: what are the patterns?
- Write your story
- Do another one of the 25 things you love and notice how you feel while you’re doing it.
I hope this exercise is as illuminating for you as it was for me! If you want to chat about it, feel free to join our Facebook group. And I look forward to sharing the next step of the process next week.
p.s. – if you missed any of previous parts of the series, here are the links: