Since I retired, I’ve been having lots of conversations with people about the idea of early retirement generally, and the FIRE movement specifically. While many can’t imagine it’s possible to retire early for financial reasons, it’s also the case that many people scoff at the idea of early retirement because of how they feel about their current job. It goes something like this: “I would never want to retire early, I love my job!”
For people who would love to retire early but can’t imagine how to get there financially, I recommend Your Money or Your Life and share the 3 secrets that helped us. I’m far more curious about people who rule out early retirement — not for financial reasons — but simply because they enjoy their current paid employment. So I thought I might reflect this week on why I retired early even though I loved my job.
I’ve been lucky to have two jobs in my lifetime that many people consider “dream jobs”: 1) tenured professor and 2) CEO (of a start-up). I held each job for 7 years and both provided me with a deep sense of fulfillment, ample growth opportunities, brilliant colleagues, and the power to impact the lives of others. Frankly, I loved both jobs.
I also left both jobs on my journey to early retirement for reasons that may challenge the “I love my current job” objection to FIRE.
Sometimes You Outgrow The Job You Love
My first “dream job” was being a professor. For those unfamiliar with the academic job market, a tenure-track job is incredibly difficult to come by. And winning tenure requires years of jumping through additional hoops and surviving anonymous votes at various levels of a university’s hierarchy. Once scholars win tenure, they typically keep that job for the remainder of their career. In fact, with no mandatory retirement age it’s not uncommon for tenured professors to hold onto their positions into their 70’s and 80’s.
So you can imagine, when I started talking about leaving my tenured professorship (aka my guaranteed six-figure job for life) in my mid-30’s, my mentors didn’t hold back their opinions:
- “That’s crazy, nobody leaves!”
- “Why would you leave? This is the best job in the world!”
- “If you leave, you can never come back.”
- “We’re in a recession, you’ll never survive out there.”
- “Take a sabbatical, you’ll get over this.”
Despite the dire warnings of fellow academics, I left. It was not a difficult decision because I only really loved one part of the job: teaching. The rest of the job (research and service) was the tax I paid for the privilege of teaching in a college classroom. But as much as I loved teaching, over time I enjoyed teaching less every year because:
- I changed: the age gap between myself and my students grew each year, the gap between what I knew in my specialized field and what they knew grew each year, and teaching the same courses repeatedly grew boring over time.
- Students changed: they increasingly brought laptops and cell phones to class and insisted they could “multi-task” while learning which left me competing with multiple screens for their attention. And
- Teaching changed: on my campus we had increasingly larger classes that shifted my teaching load from a mix of seminars and large lectures courses to large courses only.
One reason people leave jobs they love is because over time it’s normal for any job (even a “dream job”) to change in terms of the people, the climate, and/or the expectations. Any of these changes can impact the job in such a way that we fall out of love with it.
It’s also important to note that I was able to leave my dream job because we had already been on the FIRE path for 10 years. We weren’t financially independent yet (so I couldn’t retire early) but our finances were sound enough that I was free to choose to leave without another job. That freedom allowed me to try new possibilities without financial fear.
Sometimes The Job You Love Outgrows You
After leaving my professorship, I decided to try and make a living doing the one thing I love most: teaching. So I started a training company for professors. The purpose was to provide new tenure-track faculty members with all the mentoring I wished I had — and desperately needed — when I was a new professor.
The company grew rapidly and I was invigorated by the challenge of growing a business from scratch. For me, the only thing better than being a professor was running a rapidly growing training company for professors! I travelled to different campuses around the country, taught workshops for brilliant scholars, and built a dedicated support team.
This was truly my dream job: I was doing what I loved most, using my gifts and talents, helping new faculty members, creating jobs for others, and earning good money doing it. But after 7 years, I quit my second dream job.
As much as I loved the job, the company had grown to serve over 90,000 professors and consisted of a large team of employees and contractors. I realized that the organization needed a new leader with a different skill set in order to reach its full potential. That’s a painful and humbling realization for a founder, but I was more committed to the organization’s success than I was to my own ego, so it was time to find that perfect new leader and move on.
But this time, I was free to retire early because we had hit our financial independence number along the way. I was free to choose whether I wanted to find a new job or retire at 46. I was free to not know exactly what the next step would be. And I was free to allow the next chapter of my life to unfold without being panicked financially
And that’s what FIRE is all about: the freedom of choose what you want to do.
So for those of you who currently love your job and would never want to retire early, consider that the only constant in life is change. Your job may change, you may change, and the world may change. And the most powerful gift we can give our future selves is the freedom to choose what we will do with our one wild and precious life.
Financial independence is a hard road and early retirement isn’t for everyone. But I hope sharing what it looks like along the way supports an expanded conversation. I would love to hear from readers who both love their jobs AND are on the FIRE path: What is your goal? Why are you on this path? What do you tell people who imagine FIRE and loving your job are mutually exclusive?
I look forward to hearing from you!