Getting to Know You.

I’ve hit the five month FIRE (financially independent and retired early) mark. I can best summarize the transition so far by saying:

You don’t know how much of your identity is context dependent until the context changes. You cannot know what kind of person you are as a non-worker until you are no longer working.

It is probably easier to never have to figure this out.

The leaving-tech-for-FIRE shift has brought more inner change than I bargained for, which was none. I was so preoccupied with the external aspects of FIRE — if and when to quit my job; all the financial calculations and planning — that I never considered the possibility of internal change.

I like FIRE Me a lot better than Worker Me.

I have no desire to work for money.

Research tells us this is true of other cultures, in which people don’t choose more money or more stuff over other things. It is behind the thinking that more job automation should create more leisure time, so that we can all work less. It’s covered in Juliet Schor’s books.

It’s true.

At age 18 in my first corporate job, I never understood why people put photos of loved ones on their desks. I never wanted to and I never did. I always felt my DH was, even in photographic form, simply too good for a corporate environment and every one of my employers. But I grew to understand why most people have desk photos: the reminder of loved ones who need you makes it so much easier to continue.

For a couple of years, my husband had his own business in which he did not pay himself. I worked at my $145k/year job. This job featured not one but two screaming executives. I would, for example, turn the volume down on the speaker phone and close the door of the conference room and, down the hall in another room, developers could still hear these men screaming. But my sole breadwinner status made it much easier for me to knowingly walk toward The Screaming every day. All I had to do was think of my husband, impending poverty, and homelessness and voila.

Every employer knows this, of course. Without the pressure of loved ones and debt, they’ve got nothing on you. (Fun fact: Did you know that “mortgage” literally means “death pledge”? “Mort” is from the French word that means death, and “gage” is from the Old English word that means “pledge.”)

And then, POOF. My ability to continue working evaporated within weeks of paying off our house. I had enough to stop working, which also meant I had no reason(s) to keep working. Yes, I know that I am the same person who, somewhat proudly even, soldiered in to work for 20 years, which has made it difficult for me to accept that all of my corporate tolerance can just evaporate.

I am no longer a control freak.

In addition to being a good little worker drone, I was a control freak. I had to have a plan. I became uncomfortable if I didn’t know the route we were taking to a particular place, if we didn’t arrive sufficiently in advance of whatever was scheduled.

I thought this was an intrinsic tendency. Now, however, I think perhaps I was made — not born — this way, possibly through structures that control us and structure our days so we don’t have to (school, parents, etc.) and by the illusion of technology we control, that responds to us and, I suspect, makes us less tolerant of things we don’t control.

My control freak personality nicely suited (or perhaps resulted from) my desire to banish the precariousness of poverty that I’d grown up with. I wanted to shore up protection, to become as strong as possible in the face of corporate whims. This made it easy for me to hoard money. I swore I’d never be without savings if I got laid off, that I’d have “fuck you money” so I could walk when I wanted to.

But when you love security as manifested in a steady direct deposit, you also get a sort of Stockholm syndrome: you don’t walk away even though you can. People who can retire early often don’t, or work for much longer than they need to.

After 20 years of working full time I could not conceive of open, empty, unscheduled days. The very thought caused control-freak me tremendous anxiety.

Well, I’m happy to report that I’m fully acclimated to no one day being like any other. I feel I could never stand to go back to each day being the same now.

I am not sure why this surprised me since it is historically normal. Human beings did not, for most of our existence, do the same damned thing day after day, for every month out of the year. We didn’t hunt huge game every single day: that was seasonal, and we couldn’t store or eat enough to do that activity so often. We didn’t harvest or gather the same things every single day of the year. On some days, babies were born, people died, the weather was bad. Some days were for grain milling, others for traveling (and for weeks and months at a time), and still others for canning, mending, hog processing, wheat threshing, shearing sheep, harvesting honey, spinning cloth, and so on.

The industrial model of work — doing the same thing every day, for the same amount of hours each day — is inhuman, inhumane, and abnormal. We’re simply not made for it. Of course we’re sick and stressed out from it: We’ve never done this before.

This time of year reminds me of this fact. Every year, just before Halloween (per my journals), DH and I would feel inclined to sleep more, to snuggle in and nestle down, to eat soups and stews and hot drinks. I knit more. We liked to stare at the flame in our wood stove. A few weeks later, Daylight Saving time would roll around, exacerbating our already seasonal behavior.

Even without Daylight Saving, the days get shorter. It gets colder. People feel inclined to stay inside, to eat warm food, to make sure they have enough firewood. This was always a very, very hard time of year when we were working. We now think a big part of Seasonal Affective Disorder is due to having to do the same thing in winter, no matter that it’s dark when you wake up and it’s dark when you finish working. Somehow, you’re still expected to do the exact same work with the same energy as you are when it’s light out until 10 PM. And that is insane.

When days were shorter and streetlights had not been invented yet (light at night is a very recent development on an evolutionary time scale), people were not out and about and doing things in autumn and winter. They were inside. They were hunkered down, snuggled in and eating soups and stews and sleeping a lot.

I am no longer a control freak. Instead, I am some weird sort of seasonally calibrated, laid back, mellow, calm person.

But…

I’m an entrepreneurial hustler, too.

Unbeknownst to me, I have the capacity to be an entrepreneur and “put myself out there” in ways an office job never required. I thought I wasn’t an entrepreneur because I never had to be, because I just worked for big companies. I was wrong.

Like some FIRE folks, I don’t want to withdraw money from our savings. I expect I may come around to the idea eventually, just like I eventually came around to the idea of retiring at age 38. Not using savings is, after all, at odds with my lack of desire to work for money.

But all work is not created equal. I’ve made a little (OK, almost no) effort to get side gigs doing stuff I love. And I am: $100 for freelance writing here, $150 for teaching a hobby workshop there. But the process of getting gigs has forced me to put myself out there in a way my job titles used to do for me, automatically.

When I was a Woman In Tech at Big Social Network Inc., nothing about me actually mattered. I could have been the worst coder on earth, a terrible public speaker, and mega asshole extraordinaire, and none of it would have mattered. Recruiters from every big tech company and lots of small ones constantly beat down my door trying to get me to work for them, holding out enormous stock bonuses and everything but more vacation, telecommuting, and normal hours. I was asked to speak at conferences and give workshops based on absolutely, utterly nothing besides my resume and what people wanted me to be. My life had the story line they imposed: successful woman in tech, writing code and kicking ass! Girl power, YAY! Somebody call TechCrunch so they can write a fluff piece with a photo of me looking smug (closed lip half smile FTW), and my arms crossed across my chest.

Now that I’ve left tech and am trying to get side work in new areas (fields with shared, observable, and measurable standards and cultures in which people do not suffer self-congratulatory fools), having to assert and prove my competence is a new — and welcome — thing for me. Having to write a pitch email telling strangers that I know how to do something and suggest that they pay me for doing it is new territory. Describing what I do and the value of it in clear language is the opposite of tech work, which is kept shrouded in mystery precisely so it can command more money: “I have rarefied skills and you don’t, you can’t acquire them in time, and so you’re going to pay me bank, not ask questions, and hope I do a decent job.”

My brain would not have become entrepreneurial if I had not quit my job.

I’m a better friend.

This goes hand in hand with unpredictability, each day being different from the next, and being comfortable taking things as they come. In order to be a better friend, you have to be one when it’s needed and not when it’s most convenient. Being a better friend can’t wait for weekends and PTO days.

Being a better friend happens right now, when the break-up or the ER visit or the post new baby exhaustion comes. When the text message comes at 6:30 AM (as it did for me last week) from the mom of a three-year-old and six-month-old that says “Can you come over? So exhausted. Pneumonia.” That is exactly when you need to be a better friend. You get up, make some coffee, grab your pressure cooker, go buy a whole chicken, drive over to that person’s house, take their kids out of the house on a hike (after you and your husband spend 20 minutes trying to figure out how to get a Baby Bjorn on while the baby who expected to be outside already screams, and screams, and screams), and come back and make soup while your friend sleeps, and sleeps, and sleeps.

This is the kind of person I am. This is the kind of family and neighborhood I grew up in. My full time tech job did not enable me to be this person, which was a source of great guilt and shame. If I’d waited five or 10 more years to retire, these years would be over, and they’d be over without me having done what I could to be a better friend.

Now, I’m the friend I’ve wanted to be.