Monday, May 2, 2011

Don't check out

There’s a reason this content doesn’t emphasize goals of “retiring young” or “working less than six hours per week.” I see all kinds of personal finance and self-help resources that promote those sort of ambitions, and while I agree that there’s value in pursuing them, I also can’t help but think: okay, we could do that. But then what?

We as people are programmed to do things – not just superfluous activity, but things with meaning and direction. Research increasingly suggests that one of the critical building blocks of happiness is feeling that you have a purpose, and that your day to day activities contribute to that purpose in an important way. (A recent study indicated that, above the paycheck and even the colleagues, people are happiest when they feel that what they do for a living is important.)

Turns out, a lot of people who enter into retirement – early or otherwise – or secure for themselves a workweek of a mere few hours later experience pangs of restlessness, confusion, or indirection. Even a loss of identity is at stake, given that throughout adulthood, we often identify ourselves by our answer to the question, "So. What do you do?" And so when the answer is, "frankly, nothing," it makes us a little squeamish.

But “don’t worry,” the author of one such self-help book soothes: “this sort of reaction is normal after you stop working full-time. You’re just learning to readjust to all the freedom.”

I disagree.

I think the human mind, being as complex and highly-capable as it is, is programmed for purpose. While many of us think we would thrive waking up every day in state of absolute leisure, with each day unfolding slowly while we nap in a hammock, the reality is that a great deal of our sense of fulfillment is derived from our contribution to the world around us.

We are social beings, and, regardless of the jokes we make about camping on a beach for the rest of our lives or catching and releasing fish every day, part of our psyche was developed by our interactions with society, and that same part draws a sense of gratification from giving back to it in a bigger capacity than doing donuts on the golf course greens.

I know that right now you might be thinking: nah, I’d still want to golf and nap all day.
Thanks but no thanks on that whole “having a purpose” offer.

But throughout history, we’ve seen countless people swear up and down that all they want to do is check out – to consume leisure time, without giving anything of value back – who end up breaking down and trekking it back to the real world. (Even Thoreau tucked himself away in a forest for several years only to end up writing books – for people in general, about how much he disliked people in general – and help define a new philosophy.)

And so, don’t check out. Retire early, if that’s what suits you. Make a billion dollars, too, if that’s you’re thing. And only work for a few minutes a week, if that’s enough. But we should also find something that we’re passionate about and deeply want to contribute to. And when we have the freedom to do whatever we want, we should do something that means a lot to us.

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