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“I’m setting a good example by working at a job”

by Doug Nordman

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I read an interesting forum thread about the conflicts between living life on your terms or meeting society’s expectations. When you reach financial independence and can choose whether or not to work for a paycheck, there may still be other issues affecting your employment decision.

Here are some (anonymous, edited) quotes from the post that started the discussion. The quotes eloquently state the issues faced by so many military veterans:

“By most people’s standards, I could retire if I want to. We’re financially independent.

I’m in my 40s. My wife and I have no debt other than our mortgage. We have investments in the stock market and I’ve always lived well below my means. I have a military pension and another source of passive income (outside of my investments) plus military health insurance.

My dream used to be to never work after I left the military. Somehow that didn’t happen.

The reasons:

So I focus on finding as much joy as I can every day while still working, trying to enjoy what I have without becoming consumerist. I’m raising my kids to grow up with a healthy attitude to work and a sensible attitude about what money buys and what it doesn’t buy.”

I’ve seen several variations of this discussion over the last decade, so here are some thoughts to consider as you make your own transition.

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“Filling your time”

In Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers” his ideal occupation includes autonomy, complexity, and fulfillment. Personally if I was a doctor, lawyer, university professor, or financial advisor then maybe I’d see no reason to quit working. (However I saw no reason to start those careers, either.) Writing certainly delivers those three factors to me, although if I was doing it for profit then I’d be a starving author.

All retirees worry about “But… but what will we DO all day?!?” There’s not much comfort from trite answers like “Whatever you want!” or “Every day is Saturday and every night is Friday night!”. Those answers state the facts, but they’re just not detailed enough to be reassuring. Most military veterans have spent an entire career with their operating tempo at max throttle, and they’re not even able to imagine slowing down. Add in the clichés of “golfing all day” and “rusting rocking on the front porch“… there doesn’t seem to be much to look forward to.

Yet six months after these worried veterans leave the workplace, every retiree with whom I’ve spoken has said that they wonder what the heck they were worrying about. They’re finding plenty of autonomy, complexity, and fulfillment in their lives without having to go to the office.

The reality is that your retirement days will fill themselves. You already have your own goals along with the military skills and the personal discipline to make it happen. You’ll sleep better and you’ll be able to exercise “when you want” instead of “when there’s time”. You have a home to take care of (and maybe a yard) and you know how to build a maintenance task list. Your military occupation might translate directly to “handyman” or “domestic executive”, only without ammunition or midwatches. “Weekend duty” becomes “family time”. You might enjoy cooking & cleaning, or you’ll find a way to minimize the chores you despise. You’ll spend more time with family, neighbors, & friends. You’ll spend more time relaxing with a cup of coffee to read a book. You can run your errands at 9:30 AM on a Tuesday (while the rest of the world is at work or in school) instead of with the weekend crowds.

You’ll explore your interests whenever you want, and as much as you want, without having to get back to work and empty your IN box. This could be more of a problem than you might expect: when you’re responsible for your own time then you’re in charge of your own schedule. During your working days when you had too much to do, you could blame it all on work and the boss. If you overcommit yourself during retirement then you have only one person to blame.

If you’re still concerned about filling your time, author Ernie Zelinski has you covered: you can jumpstart your thinking with his “Get-A-Life Tree”. It’s a straightforward mind-map of your interests and ways to turn them into activities. I’m pretty sure that it works because I’ve had a blank copy on my desk for over a decade. I’ve never made the time to sit down and fill it out because I’m too busy doing other things.

The job’s not THAT bad

Military veterans have plenty of employment challenges before we even hang up the uniform, and you’ve probably already read about them many times in the media. I’m not going to repeat the common ones here, but there are two which you don’t read about very often.

The first issue is a powerful internal motivation to serve. When you’ve been taking care of the mission and your troops for years, even decades, then it’s hard to turn off that compulsion. We military veterans have a commitment to service. After the military you’re not only looking for a new purpose in life, but you’re also trying to find a cause and a group of people to take care of. When you’re financially independent you may still find yourself serving with nonprofits or the schools or local government. You’re not alone, either– retired civilian corporate executives also struggle with the constant desire to lead a major project with a big group.

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The second issue is a little more controversial: the military inferiority complex. We’re our own worst enemies, and we all do it to each other. For years you’re told that you’re barely capable of functioning adequately at your current rank, let alone worthy of a promotion. Even when we’re alone we have a little internal drill sergeant that’s critiquing our performance. I’ve watched a senior submariner O-6, a future admiral and an instructor of other prospective commanding officers, tell his dozen steely-eyed killer-of-the-deep students “You’re never as good as you think you are, and you’re never better than your next mistake.” We may be in the military’s top units with the nation’s best people, and we’ll still beat ourselves up over every error. It’s a relentless drive for perfection that’s been keenly honed by centuries of combat, and it’s a type of teamwork that’s been elevated to an art form. It keeps us humble and it keeps us alert for surprises or ambushes. It’s one of the reasons that puts the U.S. military among the world’s best.

However it’s also a problem when you’re thinking about leaving the service. Your chain of command is concerned about retention, and they’d like to keep you around for a few more years: “How can you find a civilian job in this economy? What makes you think you can hack it in the corporate world? What possible skills do you have that an employer wants?” When we finally leave active duty our own competitive spirit kicks in, along with that little internal drill sergeant: “Do I have what it takes or am I worthless & weak? Am I still relevant? Do I still have a dog in the fight? What do I need to do to succeed in this strange civilian corporate culture?

Any military veteran knows that the civilian transition can be treacherous, but we bring plenty of skills. We can evolve into great corporate employees and executives. However our competitive spirit, our constant drive for improvement, and our military inferiority complex all make us work at careers we may not particularly enjoy– for far longer than we should. “Heck, the job’s not so bad. Why, compared to this one time in Iraq…”

If you choose to quit the job then it’s even more intimidating: you have to be responsible for your own entertainment. A workplace can form a social structure to provide that stimulation, as well as giving you a reason to get out of bed in the morning. But back in 2006 the creator of Early-Retirement.org used to describe the workplace with an analogy: You go through your working career with one bucket in each hand, labeled “Financial Independence” and “Workplace BS”. Both fill slowly over the years, although you have some influence over their fill rate. When the FI bucket is full, however, something odd happens to the BS bucket. It suddenly fills more rapidly than ever and begins overflowing.

If you’re getting autonomy, complexity, and fulfillment from your workplace then maybe the BS bucket doesn’t overflow. But FI certainly gives you choices. Once you’re financially independent and have no compelling fiscal reason to show up for work, the dissatisfiers quickly become worse. You suddenly can no longer tolerate the rush-hour commute, the workplace uniforms, the meetings, the mandatory training seminars, the boss, some of the co-workers or customers, the business travel, or even the poor timing. When the surfing is good, you want to be able to just go surfing instead of having to rearrange your work schedule.

If you enjoy your work so much that you’re willing to put up with all of those dissatisfiers, then you should keep working. But if the BS bucket is getting too full, then you need to figure out if there’s a way to change the way you work. Maybe you need to shift your schedule to avoid rush hour, or cut back on your hours, or be excused from further meetings, or otherwise re-define your job to your new expectations. If your office claims they “can’t support that” then you could tactfully let them know that it might be time for you to find a new office– or no office at all. When they understand that their choices are “less of you” or “none of you” then they may reluctantly accommodate your desires. If they cannot negotiate then you’re getting a strong signal that your BS bucket will shortly be sloshing over the edge.

You can run the experiment for yourself. See if you can get 30 days off (or a minimum of two weeks). Treat it as a financial independence sabbatical. Instead of cleaning the house and your desk, doing the yardwork, and catching up on your To Do list, treat it as the rest of your life. Spend a day or two getting caught up on sleep, but then put some thought (and spouse discussion) into how you’d spend your day. Get your exercise, do 20 minutes a day of chores, work on a project, spend time with the family, keep adding boxes to your Get-A-Life Tree.

At the end of your time off, take that long commute back to the workplace and see where you stand on your FI & BS buckets.

During the 1990s Intel Corporation used to have a very generous sabbatical program for their more senior employees. A high percentage of them did the same retirement experiment during their time off, and when they returned to work it didn’t take them long to realize what a toxic workplace environment they’d been slowly boiling marinating in. That sabbatical benefit led to at least two early retirees who I know personally, and I think the attrition jeopardized the entire program.

I’m doing it for my kids

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Here’s a story that I read on Early-Retirement.org. One of the old-timer members, a military veteran, went on to a successful career and became financially independent in the early 1980s. He decided to stop working, but he was concerned about setting a good example for his teenage daughter so he decided to demonstrate the virtues of work. Each morning he’d get up, shave, dress up in coat & tie, and be at the breakfast table to greet her as she got ready for school. He’d drive off “for work” before she caught the school bus. He’d hang out at the local coffee shop until she was clear, and then he’d return home to change clothes and enjoy his retirement day his way. This continued until she left for college.

Two decades later he confessed this subterfuge to his adult daughter, and she laughed at him. She said that she’d never noticed what he was doing because she was too totally wrapped up in her teenage life (with its drama & angst) to notice what her Dad was doing with his time. She said that even if she’d noticed, she was still too busy with her own drama & angst to care. She never noticed or cared what kind of employment example he was setting. All she really cared about was him being there when she needed him.

Another story: When I retired from the military I told my nine-year-old daughter that I had a job offer. I explained how we already had enough money for the family so that I didn’t need to work, but if I took the job then we’d have even more money. We’d be so rich that we could buy her a horse now and a car for her 16th birthday. She was absolutely thrilled at a “Dad Of The Decade” level. Then I told her that I’d have to be gone every weekday from 7 AM to 5 PM instead of being around when she got home from school. She’d have to get herself up in the mornings, get her own breakfasts, get out the door on her own, come home from school on her own, fix her own snacks, and take care of herself (and her homework) until I got home. I told her that I wouldn’t have midwatches or weekend duty (let alone deployments) but I wouldn’t be able to volunteer to help out at school or chaperone fieldtrips. It took her about 10 seconds to decide that wasn’t worth the privileges of having a horse and a car. She wanted the quality parental time.

Oddly enough, for the next nine years she got herself up in the mornings, got her own breakfasts, got out the door on her own, came home from school on her own, fixed her own snacks, and took care of herself (and her homework). She didn’t need me to do anything for her. She just wanted me to be there for her. Of course from a parental perspective my after-school presence helped her talk through a few drama/angst meltdowns.

She turns 21 years old in a few months, and when I started writing this post I asked her again if she would have rather had my money or my time. She chose “time”, of course, and then went on to say that she thought my retiring so young actually set a better example for her. In her 20-something wisdom, she now has a goal of saving as much as she can so that she’s also financially independent in her 40s.

The only thing your kids want is your time. Younger kids just want to play with you or have the thrill of seeing you in their classrooms and on field trips. Older kids may be a little skeptical that you have enough money to take care of them, but you can explain the family budget and reassure them that their allowance is part of the plan.

Teens would be relieved to see that you’re busting your butt in the workplace to bag the money to achieve financial independence, and then hanging out in your shorts to be successful in the world in your own way. I think they’d rather be judged on fulfilling their own goals than to see us keeping score with dollar bills or worrying how to occupy our time.

My spouse and I see retirement differently

If you and your spouse could handle the military together, I’d hope that the two of you could figure out how to handle retirement together. If you’re working because your spouse isn’t ready for retirement, then the two of you need to communicate and negotiate. Maybe your better half has their own personal struggles with the issues I’ve already mentioned, or maybe they’re concerned about having you underfoot (or in their face) all day long. Maybe you want to do things in retirement that they don’t care for, but does it mean that neither of you can ever retire? Those are perfectly valid issues that need to be acknowledged and then worked through. Retirement can provide a tremendous boost to your relationship– the sooner you have the conversation, the sooner you can reach an agreement.

I’ll leave you with one more thought. On active duty you probably had a set of emergency/casualty procedures that you trained on, held drills on, and critiqued the performance of. No matter what happened or when, you were ready to drop everything and deal with the problem. You should do the same with early retirement for both yourself and your family. The reason is that someday there’s going to be a medical emergency or a family problem. Maybe it’ll be yours personally, or your spouse/kids, or one of your elders. You’ll take leave from the job and deal with the situation. But whatever happens, about 48 hours into that crisis you’re going to find yourself questioning exactly why you’re still going to work when you could be living life on your own terms. Whatever struggles you’re going through will make your own life seem a lot more precious than the corporate routine. You may even be facing weeks or years of potential recuperation, rehab, and caregiving (hopefully not for you but possibly for that loved one). These crises will force you to define and reorganize your priorities.

Your military training and your emergency/casualty procedures got you through the operational crises. Maybe you’ll get through your personal/family crisis just fine, shake off the fallout, and scamper back to the workplace to pick up where you left off. But perhaps you’d have much more time for thoughtful analysis & discussion of this situation if consider it now, just like training & drills, instead of having to go through it when the crisis happens to you.

I think it’s much better to achieve financial independence and have an early-retirement contingency plan rather than to boldly proclaim that you choose to work for the rest of your life. It’s all about giving yourself choices, and being ready for your own personal growth & change.

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(Click here to return to the top of the post.)
Related articles:
When should you stop working?
Financial myths of retirement (part 2 of 2)
Retiring early– with kids?
Raising an ER-smart kid
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