Back in November of 2017, a tired, burned out version of myself was pushed past his breaking point. After months of mandatory unpaid overtime, morning self pep-talks, stress-eating, and yelling at coworkers, the old Joel finally had enough. He walked up to his boss, and with a surprising, zen-like calm, gave his two weeks notice.
A huge weight was immediately lifted from his shoulders. Life felt, for the first time in a long time, wonderful. Hopeful, even. He wasn't fully FI yet, but that guy knew right then and there he would never work again. He was done. Forever.
…Until a few weeks ago, that is, when I accepted an offer for a new job.
Why on earth would the guy who talked so much smack about work, and gave so much praise for being his own boss, slide back into the golden handcuffs? Is it for the money? Did sequence of return risk finally catch up to me? Were my FI estimates way off? Was it greed? Boredom? A desperate attempt to win a bet??
Nope. The simple truth is, I had enough time (sixteen months, to be precise) to really think about life, and learn more about myself. I had time to de-stress and recover from burnout. I had time to focus on things I actually enjoy, instead of simply avoiding the things I don't. And in that time, I learned something important.
It wasn't ‘work‘ I hated with a passion. It was lack of a work-life balance. It was mandatory unpaid overtime. It was the lack of control I had over my time and stress levels. I didn't hate work in general; I hated my specific job. It's easy to confuse the two when you're down in the trenches. I should have quit that old job months earlier. Or taken a sabbatical or leave of absence. There was no good reason for me to stay in that position as long as I did – it was unhealthy and unnecessary. I should have quit sooner.
This is all interesting, sure, but it doesn't explain why I decided to go back to work. It seems to contradict what I said in the past about having enough. Didn't we already reach financial independence? Haven't we reached the proverbial ‘enough' point described in Your Money or Your Life?
FI Isn't Just About Me
The truth is, while I indeed have enough, I'm just a small piece of the whole picture. The Wife wants to reach more than enough – and that's one of the reasons she kept working even though she could afford to quit, financially speaking. She wants a surplus, so she can enjoy the benefits that come with having ‘more than enough'.
Like the ability to give generously to charity, and the community. The ability to treat friends and family when they come to town, without having to worry about the budget. And the ability to help when tragedy strikes, as we did recently when an (uninsured) friend suffered a stroke during surgery, waking up with no motor control of her extremities, and six figures of unexpected debt.
Our aging parents haven't reached their enough level yet, either. Most recently, my (uninsured) dad found out he needs five figures of dental work, and I want to be able to help him financially without being paranoid about its effect on my portfolio. In my hierarchy of life priorities, family is always higher up than money.
And finally, though I may be FI, I still happen to be young and able-bodied. Unlike my friend I mentioned above, all four of my limbs still function. I'm lucky. And I realize now there's no better time to “make hay” then while the sun is shining, as the saying goes. The good luck streak my wife and I have enjoyed this past decade won't last forever. Our situation (and our parents' situations) can, and likely will change over the next couple of years, so I'm going to get while the getting's good.
Now, I should clarify, I didn't just have this eureka moment one afternoon and apply for a job the very next day. These are realizations that came gradually, over time, as my burnout faded. In fact, I had some sense of this even before I quit my job, when I said that my worst case scenario was everyone else's everyday scenario. But since I'm deciding to go back to work under my own free will, I get to learn from my past mistakes and do things differently this time around!
Instead of focusing solely on maximizing salary, as I would have done in the past, I found a job that respects work-life balance. A job where part-time and remote work is possible. Where “low stress” and “no overtime” are actual conditions of my employment. It's so important for me to have time for things besides work: like physical fitness, visiting family, and my numerous creative projects (like this blog, my podcast, and my music). This new job promises to give me this balance, as well as a few other perks…
Work Can Actually Be Fun!
Since so many of my past posts focus on the negative aspects of work, it's time I admit there are actually a few nice things about it as well (besides the paycheck, of course). For starters – I actually like this job! (I know, these words seem strange for me to say out loud.) But it's true – the technology, the people, the program goals, it all seems perfect for me.
In particular, I'm enjoying the social aspect of the office: running into friendly faces each day, conversations around the water cooler, and of course, afternoon coffee time. As an adult, making friends is harder for me than it was back in school, but work helps. I admit I always took this aspect of the office completely for granted. And I know there are plenty of ways to be more social without having a job, but since starting up this new gig, it's is a feature I'm truly enjoying.
Another thing I realized about myself during my sixteen months of early retirement? I'm not quite as self-motivated as I originally thought. Sure, I still accomplished a lot in my time off of work, but my day-to-day motivation was lacking. Why get up and get dressed early in the morning when you can lounge around in your pajamas until noon? I appreciate this on the weekend. But seven days a week? I don't know if that's for me.
What I do know is that it feels good to be dressed and out of the house early each morning. It feels good to plan my day over coffee and feel like I'm firing on all cylinders. And it feels good to learn new things during my day. Could I have done all this myself every morning without a formal job? In theory, yes, of course. Did I? No. No I did not. Go figure.
Another benefit of working? I like to call it the “momentum of work”. Productivity in one area tends to rub off into other areas of your life. I've noticed that on my busiest days, when I have many things on my plate, I build up a momentum that makes it easier to tackle otherwise overwhelming tasks on my to-do list. For example, I updated this blog almost twice as frequently, on average, back when I was working full-time. So perhaps I'll have the momentum to finish off the dozens of posts that have been accumulating in the FI180 draft folder! 🙂
Here's the thing: everyone is different. Everyone has different motivations and behaves differently when left to their own devices. If you've never taken more than a few weeks off from work, and don't know how you'd act in similar circumstances, I strongly suggest you try it out! I learned more about myself during my year away from work than any other year of my life. Everyone should have a chance to try this.
Why'd I go back to work? Because a pretty awesome opportunity presented itself and I liked everything about it. The extra income to help me better support family and friends in need. The flexible schedule, remote work capability, and focus on work-life balance to help keep me productive in my many creative endeavors. And the position itself – this is one that genuinely interests me!
With perfect hindsight, I would have quit my old toxic jobs sooner. And more often! I needed a break from the grind every few years. Maybe you do too. Not only would my stress levels have stayed at bay, but there's financial incentive to switch companies every few years as well. Each time I've taken a new job, I've seen a salary increase in the 10% to 20% range. If you aren't close to FI yet, and feel like you need a break, I strongly suggest you save up your FU money and take a few months off while you look for that next opportunity.
How long will I stay with this new job? A few months? A few years? Who knows. Whenever The Wife is ready to quit, or our parents have a nice safety margin, or I stop enjoying this job, I can easily transition back into early retirement. But this question sure seems a lot less important now that I know I'm in control! I chose this job specifically with work-life balance in mind. And I can (and will) leave if that balance ever fails again.
Now let's be clear. I'm not endorsing that you work any longer, or go back to work if you've already started early retirement. Nor do I think I need to go back to work with any financial urgency. Taking this job is simply something I wanted to do. It's an amazing opportunity, and it checked all the right boxes for work-life balance. It's what's right for me, and my family, right now.
This is the first job I've taken since reaching financial independence. The first job I picked willingly, without feeling obligated to work. I chose this job, as work is optional for me. This small fact makes working feel… surprisingly different than it's ever felt before. One friend described it as “putting the handcuffs back on while holding the key.” That's a fun analogy, but to be honest, it doesn't even feel like handcuffs anymore.
Because FI isn't about retirement. It never was. It's about freedom. The freedom to work, or not work. The freedom to spend your time doing whatever you damn well please. And the freedom to change your mind.
As many times as you like.