Happy New Year whoever is out there reading this, whenever.
This letter to the FIRE (financial independence retire early) community deserves re-posting here. It announces my migration to new horizons – destination as yet unknown. I’ve given 2 solid years to the 2018 update of Your Money or Your Life and have said whatever useful I can. This is sort of a benediction, a call to action and an invitation to come with me to new lands.
An open letter to the FIRE community,
Hello FIers everywhere – and all who’ve followed my work for years in some way or another.
I’m writing to celebrate you and the 2 years we’ve had together.
How amazing to find the FIRE (financial independence retire early) sub-culture in February 2017 when Chris Ryba, my millennial sidekick in updating Your Money or Your Life, directed me to something called Reddit where a couple hundred thousand FIRE practitioners were busy sharing, learning and arguing about financial independence. I learned that I (and Joe Dominguez) were accidental gurus of a tribe I didn’t even know existed.
How amazing to then meet some of the FIRE bloggers,
one by one and then in groups at two Chautauquas and a Camp Mustache. And all the practitioners making it work in their lives. So smart. So genuine. So generous with one another. And did I say smart? How amazing to meet Grant Sabatier, a FIRE blogger and such a Your Money or Your Life fan that he built a platform so the decades of fans could find one another.
Besides a seemingly shared love of beer and Cross Fit, they/you impressed me as generally self-responsible, clear thinking (unto nerdy) about money, rational, directed, optimizing (unto smug) everything, and excited to find one another. While millions of people of all ages are C-students in “adulting”, Mustachians (for want of a better label for the followers) seem more adult than most theoretical adults I know.
What an amazing ride we’ve all been on together in the last two years. Major media interest featuring a range of bloggers – including but not primarily me. NYTimes, Money Magazine. WSJ. And on and on and on. FIRE subreddit grows to nearly half a million. Along comes the Playing with Fire film! It’s/We’re a phenomenon!
I’ve been both swept up in the bubbly tide, and also wearing my social change observer hat, like WTF did I stumble into? Why is it on the rise? Like Your Money or Your Life in the 1990s, there’s a sexiness to FI that belies the hard work of ratcheting up income, hyper-frugality and obsessive saving. Why is it so attractive, and why is it now drawing fire to FIRE?
At the same time, I soon realized that FIRE is actually not my tribe.
We applied the same methodology to money but it seems for different ends. For me, FI has simply been the freedom to pursue a higher purpose – to grow spiritually, to learn, to create and to serve. While I’ve met a lot of people reaching for relevance in their lives, not just independence, it’s not what people obsess about. They obsess about taxes and investments. There are probably tens of thousands more in my frame, but of necessity investing the majoring of their time and attention into the “getting out” part of the journey.
I don’t see financial independences as the ultimate goal. I see it as just a ticket to the greatest show on earth – the earth itself with all her beauty, complexity, critters and currently crises. The opportunity to ask the Mary Oliver questions: What are you going to do with your one wild and precious life?
I’m writing this to invite you to look past the numbers to the meaning of life.
Looking back, I can see how long it took me to answer that question. I was self-conscious. Trying to be a better human in public than the one inside me reallywas. I so often felt like a little girl on tiptoes, or an over-eager new hire, or a sophomore going to faculty meetings trying to impress my professors. Because everyone I knew at the time aspired to serve (welcome to a sub-set of my generation: Boomers with big ideals), I aspired too while so many other parts of me were out to lunch. Just saying
In the early years I worked a lot on untangling relationship problems – with my family, with my was-band, with my new partners. I did a lot of self-examination. I didn’t know there were so many me’s inside of me – some decent and admirable and some quite hard to face. I had a glorious chance to travel to beautiful places in a home-built motorhome and meet so many fascinating people on the road. When I’d ask, “What’s my purpose?” though, I’d often draw a blank. I knew I wanted one, that I must have one somewhere, but it wasn’t until I acted, until I found worthy projects that mobilized my latent talents, that I actually felt what living on purpose might be.
It was sharing the financial independence program, first through producing Joe Dominguez’s seminars and ultimately through writing Your Money or Your Life and investing a decade of my life to it, that pulled me through the wormhole into creative meaningful work – and I’ve been on that tangent for nearly 40 years.
I feel some urgency to say this to you.
Something in this world seems to be hanging in the balance.
I believe that you, who now have time to let the striving and tightness of making a dying fall away, can put your fingers on the healing part of the scale, to tip the balance. Entry points to having an impact are everywhere, from helping one miserable family member feel more buoyant… to influencing crowds of thousands who are like baby birds with their mouths open, seeking some guidance from somewhere. If they turn towards demagogues it’s just that people like you and me are not showing up fully to offer something better. It’s easy to organize around hate. Too many these days are doing it. It’s much harder to get millions, like flocks of birds, to respond to another signal and swoop towards love.
Unfortunately, we live in times with a cacophony of voices shouting at all of us from every screen, every shop window, every magazine, every cause, every form of distraction. FIers have learned get one of these voices – consumerism – to shut up. That alone should give us a clue to finding our way. Once we attach ourselves to a worthy ambition, we move mountains to achieve it. When you want something more than you want the postage stamp of a life you have (even it is a huge commemorative postage stamp), then you will do anything to get it.
What do you want with that ardor for your post FI life?
After a necessary period of relaxation, catching up, repairing whatever relationships you neglected (with mate, family, house, car), a few fun trips, then what? I offer from my own experience this list of “where to look for the next adventure”, but the world is wide and sub-cultures are vast and opportunities are everywhere.
You – with time. Accept that getting FI launches you into what may seem an identity crisis but is really a big fat opportunity to find yourself in freedom. You designed a work life. Now design a life work. Lots of online courses can help focus your mind and learn tools.
And then there is the deeper search for the meaning of life. Whatever your faith, or your interest in spiritual paths, give yourself some time in retreat or nature or workshops to help you slow down to the speed of wisdom. I’ve seen hyped-up FI sprinters smooth out and deepen down when they have time for their inner life.
Learning. The sky is the limit on this one. Literally – you might want to learn to paraglide or, going in the other direction, scuba dive. Lots of delayed life pleasures and sport await and you’ve earned them. Sing Dance. Travels the world. Learn how to build things, fix things, invent things. Learn to meditate. Learn to communicate.
I encourage you to also learn about the serious challenges to our world. I started that process in 1989 at the first major conference on sustainable development in the United States. I heard Albert Bartlett talk about the pernicious effect of the very thing FIers depend on: the inexorable march of compounding. In the natural world, that leads to overshoot be it of pine beetles or excess nitrogen in deltas – and collapse -the whole system crashing. Specifically I learned that exponential growth of consumerism was perhaps the driver of all other collapse scenarios and wrote Your Money or Your Life. I also learned about the exponential growth of carbon in the atmosphere and how that would change the climate – right about now. Back then we had enough time to alter our course. Now we are in a desperate race to keep teetering systems from tipping. And here’s where you come in, my super smart friends. You who’ve liberated your time. I hope some apply your systems thinking and analytic capacity and intelligence to this biggest problem on earth.
Family– expanded. Time with kids and grandkids is precious. What a luxury to enjoy it. Perhaps ask, how can I also help other kids whose parents are working 12 hours a day – like you used to. Coaching a team. Organizing a club – be it hiking or sailing or scouts or even safety with guns. Starting some children’s theater classes that could morph into performances. Tutoring. Starting an alternative school where kids learn through nature and adventures. This list is simply what I see around me in my community.
Community. Where I live, retired people fill most board positions for most non-profits. Just about any service project in your town or city could use you, and don’t be afraid to shop around for where you come alive. Given my read of the future, community will be the core survival unit – not just lone people or families in the woods with photovoltaics and prepper stashes. In that vein, I’ve been working on strategies for re-localizing for a decade, with progress in the inches, not even feet. But it’s what makes sense to me so I persist. In the process, I was selected as a Hometown Hero for my service, an honor I wear as proudly as author of a best seller. My go-to sources for this are: Resilience.organd TransitionUS.org.
Political engagement. Politics was the last place I looked for meaning. I was cynical about politicians’ empty promises, the moneyed interests that ran them and the thin nozzle of effectiveness through which huge issues needed to flow to solutions. I banked on cultural change – masses of people exiting the putrid story of more more more and building new ways of living. In the last two years, though, I’ve realized I have to be engaged. Some things can’t be solved by masses of people making personal changes. The scant progress we’ve made on climate and justice issues is now sliding back into the swamp.
We are all political animals because the economic/political/social environment we live in has a lot to do with how secure we are and the opportunities we have. I recommend you also think about how the blessings of financial freedom might be distributed through out society. Less stress. More time. Happier Life. For Everyone. And think about getting into the fray on some level, be it local, state, national or global. At very least, you will meet amazingly courageous, intelligent people who have their whole hearts with the work.
But electoral politics is just one point of entry. I’ve gained a great appreciation for “policy wonks” – systems thinkers who realize that laws, regulations, ordinances, taxes, subsidies, incentives are like the weirs and channels in the flow of money and engagement on issues. When a politician announced a bill, guaranteed there’s been 20 years of tinkering and perfecting and analyzing the policies proposed in the bill that will carry the politician’s name. Here too is where your prowess can make a big difference. It might seem like, jeesh, another job. If you occupy higher level positions you might even earn more money. But you know you can walk away and you don’t have to compromise your integrity to keep the job.
Thinking what policies FIRE grads might reasonably champion,
I’m exploring a set of 4 policies that could both benefit people as they climb the FI mountain, and set the stage for #FIforAll – a world where we all have a a personal and economic safety net that offers security and freedom. While these 4 policies have not caught fire in the FIRE circles, I’m including them for you to consider.
- Eliminate Medical Debt. Some form of Medicare for All., which is gaining traction state by state and nationally by the day in the US. People who live in industrialized countries outside the US look at our health care system – and the stresses it puts on us – with pity.
- Eliminate Educational Debt.Some form of free K-16 education for kids –tech or college education depending on interest and ability. No education debt.
- Enough for All.Some form of basic income for all – call it a citizen dividend. If health care and college were low cost to free and available to all, imagine how much could come off your monthly expenses. Then a $500/month citizen dividend, could make a big difference. It could make housing more affordable. Free up parents to spend more time with their kids. Help entrepreneurs start a business. We’ve gotten to FI on our own steam in a roaring (since 2008) economy and a strong one since WWII. Will generations behind us have that same opportunity?
- Some form of national service for all– be it military, social, environmental, political, medical, artistic, etc. A year of service with a stipend plus a universal basic training that would be a major re-mix of cultures and viewpoints. Oh, and your year of citizen service kicks in your Citizen Dividend.
I hope these forms of service, from inner work to family, community, learning, and being world-changers, feeds your imagination a bit for ripe old financial independence decades. It’s not exhaustive and it’s definitely slanted towards my values. Pete Adeney would have a different set. Others would as well. Homesteading and local production. Writing and speaking to inspire others to meaning and purpose. The small acts of kindness that nourish others souls.
As I said, with your smarts and capacity for focus and skills, and with the world’s precariousness, I see an out-sized opportunity for time rich people to make a big difference in small and big ways.
If you are looking for your path, many teachers have this advice: choose a path with heart. Service without love casts as much shadow as light. Let whatever draws you forth hook a piece of your heart. Let yourself be vulnerable, to care, to risk disappointment or looking like a fool. Let the path not be sourced in rationality, but served by it. Don’t just give to causes, show up with those who are suffering to give what you can from yourself. For me, it is when I put myself in the midst of a problem, when I feel it, when I want to help but don’t know how, that my best service happens.
I’d add, if I can at all improve on the sages, that you choose a path that is a context, not a project. When I do projects without a larger context, I might get good work done but it is not dedicated to anything higher. The context of the first time out with Your Money or Your Life was stopping overconsumption. For the 2018 edition, it was seeing the economic odds millennials are up against and how the economic system was f*cking them over.
Whether we all do something together – a FIRE World Changing Soul Saving Battalion – or we each go our own way after we get our FI certificate of completion, that remains to be seen. I just hope you will all find something you love that calls you forth into service.
Yes, my amazing network, this is a call to action,
a call to find a path with heart and a calling that widens, as Einstein said, your circles of compassion. Think of the odds. Half a million FIRE fans and practitioners. If only 10% actually reach FI, that’s 50,000 free people. If only 10% actually take on a path of service, that’s 5,000 people. If only 10% actually thread the needle of needed change, that’s 500 innovations or inventions or political interventions or discoveries in a laboratory or system changing laws or community resilience scaled up to a regional level or books that become the tipping point of society’s attention or songs like Dylan’s “The Times They are a Changing” that become anthems of movements. Or poems or symphonies or movies or ballets.
The context is global and urgent. It is up to you to find your why and how.
May your lives spark a fire in the world around you – and in your own soul.
My own work is migrating to a new context, one that isn’t linked to any specific project like money or local food or stopping the Navy’s willful overwriting the long, deep, caring traditions and networks of our community. I’m taking time to dream and write and think and stay close to my heart, trusting that this, like everything else I’ve done, will bear fruit in surprising ways. I have no idea where I will land, but my little boat is clearly leaving the harbor .
I’ve done my duty to Your Money or Your Life – again – and with the roaring FIRE community I don’t need to do more. You know everything I do. You actually know way more than I do. Way more.
With that my amazing FI aficionados, I bid adieu to 2018 and welcome you to hang with me in 2019 wherever I roam.
PS – of course. Here’s a poem I wrote 20 years ago when asked what changes I saw as necessary in the third millennium:
COULD WE BE HAPPY?
Vicki Robin – October 17, 1999
And we will all be noisy
We will gather in the streets talking about recipes and politics and philosophy and love
We will show each other our bruises with the innocence of children.
Convinced of our safety, we will wear brightness and smile as though anyone could be a friend.
The malls will be commons of kindness
With shops for healing broken hearts and stands for conversation breaks.
The poor won’t be so poor and will take the rich to lunch.
No one will feel left out.
The natural world will hum with life giving itself to life for the sake of life –
Just like in the old days.
Every species will have a human who, like an older brother,
Helps it cross the divide between death and deliverance.
We will hear the sounds of animals and trees
And have the distinct impression that we understand.
We will see paw prints and want to follow.
We will walk in silence, worshipping.
Oh we will worship shamelessly everywhere.
As we get the morning paper we will kiss the ground and greet the sun.
We will chant morning prayers in a thousand tongues right there on our door stoops.
We will say rosaries and make prayer ties on the bus in the morning.
And do business as if we will live a thousand life times with the outcomes of our actions.
We will admit that we are hopelessly in love with the divine Divine.
Yes, we will be showered with blessings and drip with wet gratitude.
We will all have enough. We will all have hope, even the poor poor who didn’t choose to be poor.
Our imaginations will be on fire with “what if”,
As though no one had told us to forget it and fail gracefully.
No life will be capped with despair. No child unloved and crying naked and dirty.
Even the rich will want to live in such a world,
Will want to come into the street and sing and drink beer.
And the guards and the prisoners will tell stories about childhood until they become brothers.
And that tight place in our chests where our hearts are in hiding will soften and melt.
And we will finally be free.