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Valuable Lessons from My First Year of Freedom

Valuable Lessons from My First Year of Freedom


Finally, the post I’ve been waiting for.

After starting this site back in early 2012, I dreamt of the day I would write my freedom post.

I imagined it would be published the day after I left my job and would be the grand finale of my pursuit of financial independence.

Well, exactly one year ago today I left my full-time job and yet I’m only now writing about it.

Why?

There are a few reasons but the main one is that early retirement is a lot more complicated than it first appears.

As with everything Mad-Fientist related, I wanted to deeply explore the subject matter before writing about it.

So I decided to capture my thoughts and feelings over the entire first year and write about it after I had the chance to process everything.

It’s been a wild ride and I’ve learned a lot of important lessons along the way so let’s dive in…

First Morning of Freedom

On Friday, July 29th of 2016, I finished my final day of work as a normal career man.

Since my last day was on a Friday, the weekend didn’t feel different than any other weekend.

It wasn’t until I woke up on Monday, August 1st that it really hit me.

And boy did it hit me.

You would have expected it to be the best morning ever but it was actually the only time in the entire first year that I freaked out about the whole thing.

I had escaped the normal life script but now I was in uncharted territory.

I was staring into the vast unknown and the immense gravity of the situation freaked me out (much more than I expected).

It’s crazy that I wasn’t mentally prepared for it, considering early retirement was something I had been thinking about and working towards for over five years.

The best way I can describe it is this…

Have you ever planned a really big trip? Maybe it was your honeymoon or a trip to a place very far away that you had to dedicate a lot of time to plan out.

Even though you spent months booking flights, researching hotels, and telling all your friends about your upcoming trip, the reality of what you were doing didn’t actually hit you until you got off the plane.

That’s what happened to us when we moved to China for three months.

We did a lot of research, talked about it all the time with our families, and thought about it daily but when we landed in Wenzhou and got off the plane, I freaked out and thought, “Holy shit, we live in China now…what are we doing?”.

Wenzhou

Our Home in Wenzhou, China

This was sort of like that.

FI was something I talked about and thought about so much that it just became this abstract concept in my mind and didn’t relate to anything in real life.

It was a long-term goal that I guess I never actually pictured achieving.

In fact, after writing and talking about it so much, the entire idea of it became condensed into two meaningless letters – FI.

So the first morning of freedom was tough because I couldn’t process it all.

Try it out for yourself right now.

Close your eyes, imagine waking up on the first day after leaving your job, and think about the rest of your life.

You no longer have a normal script to follow and you hopefully have 60+ years of time to fill.

Pretty heavy, right?

First Day of Freedom

Although the first morning of freedom was pretty intense, luckily the rest of that first day got better.

To distract myself from the overwhelming task of figuring out the meaning of life, I just got back to work instead.

I had a lot of Mad Fientist tasks I wanted to complete so I threw myself into that.

It felt great. It felt normal.

I filled the void left behind by my job with other work that I wanted to accomplish.

I was happy to be making progress on things that were important to me and I started getting really excited about the idea of doing that every day.

Maybe life wouldn’t look so different, after all? I would still be working but I’d just be working on things I’m passionate about.

That was the whole reason I pursued early retirement in the first place so I’m not sure why I didn’t think about that when I woke up that day.

Lesson #1: Have a project in place that you’ve already started and are passionate about so it can fill the void in your life after you leave your job.

First Week of Freedom

After getting a lot of Mad Fientist stuff done on that first day, I continued getting even more accomplished the rest of that week.

Since I was working normal hours, that first week didn’t feel any different than the week before when I still had a job.

That made me realize how good of a career situation I had worked my way into. Since I worked from home and had a lot of autonomy, I had achieved 80% of the benefits of early retirement during my last two years working and yet I still received a full paycheck.

Lesson #2: Use the power your money gives you to make your job as enjoyable as possible (see the Power of Quitting).

First Fortnight of Freedom

Ahh, fortnight…a word I hear often here in Scotland but one that is underutilized in America (it means “a period of 2 weeks”, by the way).

So although my first week of freedom was similar to working life, my second week gave me a glimpse of what my new life could be like.

New Experiences

I decided to start trying new things – things I had always said I wanted to try but just never got around to trying.

There was a climbing wall right next to where we used to live so Jill and I went and had some climbing lessons.

We loved it!

I thought to myself afterward, “Maybe I’ll become a rock climber or a mountaineer”.

That probably won’t happen but it could.

Anything is possible after financial independence and it was very exciting to think about all the possibilities FI provides.

Lesson #3: There’s an exciting world of things you can learn about and explore and FI gives you the energy, freedom, and time to do it.

Richer Experiences

During that second week, I also decided to dive deeper into things that I already enjoyed.

Coffee, for example, was something I liked drinking every day but didn’t really know anything about.

As my experience with beer and wine has shown me, the more you learn about something, the more you enjoy it so I signed up for a coffee tasting during that second week.

Jill and I went to the cafe that was hosting it and we tasted a bunch of different types of coffee. We learned a lot about growing the beans, how it’s made, how you should brew it, etc.

Now, my enjoyment of coffee has increased exponentially and I can appreciate the subtle flavors that I never knew existed before.

So rather than sucking down cup after cup of mediocre coffee every morning just to survive a normal workday, I now drink one or two cups of really good coffee and fully appreciate the experience.

Lesson #4: FI allows you to slow down and appreciate things on a different level (after reading this great post on Raptitude, I’m trying to expand that enjoyment to even more aspects of ordinary life).

First Month of Freedom

After my first fortnight of freedom, I started to see the possibilities of FI and it made me really excited.

To continue my exploration into new things, I decided to get a gym membership.

Health

I had always said I would focus more on my health after I left my job and now there was no excuse. I had all the time in the world so fitting in a few hours at the gym every day was definitely possible.

Losing your excuses is exciting but it’s also scary because you finally have to do what you’ve said you were going to do.

Luckily, the gym near me was offering a special discounted one-month trial so I took full advantage.

I found a one-month weight lifting program online and I stuck to it for the entire month.

The first week wasn’t fun because I was weak, I got sore after every workout, and I didn’t know what I was doing in the gym.

The next week though was easier because I had more confidence and was starting to feel stronger.

By the end of that month, I felt great, I was actually enjoying the workout sessions, and I was happy with the changes I could see in my body.

Surprisingly, going to the gym also had a positive effect on my eating habits.

Once I started to see positive changes in my physique, I wanted to increase those changes even more so I started eating healthier.

It was crazy…in just one month I went from being an unhealthy, wimpy software developer to a healthy-eating, gym rat.

Lesson #5: FI = Rebirth. What you were before FI doesn’t matter. You can be anybody you want after FI so figure out the type of person you want to be and start being that person.

Less Stress

The gym helped my mental state but so did time away from work.

I didn’t realize it when I was working but I had a lot of low-level stress that was with me all the time.

My job was easy and wasn’t very stressful, so I didn’t think I was stressed, but I definitely noticed a big improvement by the end of the first month. I just felt more relaxed and less anxious.

I still had the occasional work nightmare (where I would be called into my boss’s office to talk about a certain Mad Fientist website that he just stumbled upon, haha) but I felt much calmer than before.

It also helped that I kept getting work emails for a few weeks after I left because it was nice to see all the work that needed to be done and all the problems that needed to be fixed, knowing I didn’t have to worry about any of it!

More Present

Another thing I realized during that first month was that I felt more present in my normal life.

Rather than thinking about the Mad Fientist stuff I wanted to get done while hanging out at my in-law’s house, for example, I would instead just enjoy my time there with everyone and not worry about anything else.

Since I had so much more free time, I knew all that things I wanted to do would get done eventually so it allowed me to enjoy the present more.

There’s less urgency when you feel like you have enough time for everything.

First Quarter of Freedom

While my first month of freedom gave me a taste of what normal post-FI life could be like, the next two months were anything but normal.

Instead, I used my newfound freedom to do something I had always wanted to do – travel around the world.

Kyoto

Kyoto, Japan

Jill and I spent three months traveling through 14 countries on 4 different continents and we went all the way around the globe!

During our trip, we visited Vermont and I got to drive my old commuting route on a weekday but instead of going into the office, we met the Frugalwoods for beer and barbecue instead.

Much better 🙂

Lunch with the Frugalwoods

My New Colleagues

First Year of Freedom

The trip was amazing but it wasn’t until we returned to Scotland that the reality of FI finally sank in completely.

Deep down, I think I expected to return to work after traveling because we had taken multi-month trips in the past and I always had to go back to work after them.

When I realized that I didn’t have to go back this time though, I can’t explain the excitement I felt.

The closest I can get to explaining it is this…

Have you ever woke up thinking it was Sunday morning but it was actually Saturday instead?

It was like that but 1,000 times better because it wasn’t just an extra day off that you didn’t expect but the rest of your life!

Instead of being sad about returning to a job that didn’t interest me, I immediately started making progress on new projects that I’ve been wanting to start for years.

I felt so lucky to be able to dedicate all my time to these things and I can’t remember a time when I felt more invigorated.

Worried Wife

In fact, it was around this time that I started to worry Jill.

I’m normally a solid sleeper and usually fall asleep shortly after laying down and stay asleep until morning.

When we returned from our trip though, I kept getting out of bed multiple times every night and I was also staying up way later than normal.

After a few weeks of this, Jill finally confronted me and asked what was going on. She was concerned that I was stressed about my new jobless life.

In actuality though, it was the complete opposite.

I was so excited about all the things I was working on during the day that I didn’t want to sleep at night!

When I still had a job and was commuting into the office, I hated going to bed because that meant that before I knew it, my alarm would be going off and I’d have to head to work again.

Now, I hated going to sleep even more but it was because it felt like such a waste of time when I could be doing all these other exciting things!

Full-Time Travel is Not for Us

The happiness I felt making progress on the projects I was working on made me realize that perma-travel is not for me.

I had previously assumed that I would be a full-time traveler whenever I finally reached financial independence.

Although eating new things and seeing interesting sights every day is a lot of fun, it’s not as fulfilling to me as being creative and productive.

When I’m on the road, it’s difficult to stay focused and get things done so I now know I need some normalcy in my life every once in a while.

Also, now there’s less need to escape normal life so travel isn’t as appealing as it once was.

Before when I was working, travel was a great change from the boring routine.

Now that post-FI life is so exciting and interesting, there’s no need to break up the monotony of normal life because normal life is so enjoyable.

Lesson #6: What you think you’ll do after FI may actually not be the thing that makes you happiest so don’t fully commit to a new lifestyle until you try it out first.

New Joys

To give you an example of how normal life can be so much better after FI, let’s take a look at food.

Before FI, lunch would be the most annoying and unsatisfying meal of the day because it would be eaten quickly and I would eat whatever was most convenient (when I was in the office, I would usually eat store-bought pita bread and hummus).

After FI, here’s what lunch looks like:

Food After FI

Do I feel like fresh-baked bread today? Sure, I’ll just bake some before lunch.

Poached eggs are so delicious so why not try to learn how to do cook those today?

Since lunch is now a meal to be enjoyed, might as well invest in some of the highest quality olive oil and balsamic vinegar I can find, right?

Health

In addition to cooking more and eating healthier again, my gym activity has ramped up too.

My buddy Doug, who is a professional strength and conditioning coach, put me on a focused weightlifting routine for the last four months.

Since he doesn’t live near me, he just enters my workouts into a free mobile app called Trainerize. The app allows me to see what I need to do each day, watch videos to learn how to do the exercises, message Doug if I have questions, and keep track of my stats while I’m working out (which Doug reviews and uses to plan my next routine).

It’s been great and I like having a virtual coach because listening to podcasts in the gym is much better than having someone bark orders at me.

Bonus: If you want Doug to whip your ass into shape too, he has created a free email course to help you get started so click here to check it out. If you want to work with him directly (like I do), he has kindly offered a discounted price for Mad Fientist readers so take a look at the programs he offers here.

I’ve been going to the gym at least three days a week since I got back to Scotland and I feel better than I have in decades so it’s been fantastic!

Lesson #7: When you realize how good life can be after FI, you’ll want to make sure you have as many healthy years left as possible so you start to see fitness in an entirely new light.

Finances

I haven’t even mentioned finances yet but that’s because money hasn’t been an issue.

I was really worried about drawing money out of the accounts I spent so many years building up but I thankfully haven’t had to do that yet.

The reason is, all the websites and mobile apps I’ve built over the years have started bringing in more money than we spend (it seems the credit-card search tool I created is getting some traction in the travel-hacking community so it’s been generating a lot more income recently).

Travel Credit Cards

Screenshot from My Credit-Card Search Tool

Ironically, the income from this application only increased after I had already quit my job (i.e. when I didn’t need the extra money) but it has made the transition into joblessness much easier to deal with.

I had actually planned to write a lot of articles this past year about various withdrawal strategies but those will sadly have to wait until I actually start drawing down from my accounts.

Lesson #8: Start building a side business while you’re still working (but make sure you do it the right way) so that you have a meaningful project to work on after you leave your job and the potential to generate income without withdrawing from your portfolio.

Biggest Mindset Shift

This leads to the biggest mindset shift that occurred after reaching FI – the realization that money is no longer motivating.

This is quite a shocking and uncomfortable shift for me.

Money has motivated my entire adult life until this point.

I worked hard in high school so that I could get into a good college because I wanted to be able to get a job that paid a lot.

I worked hard at my job so that I could get promoted and earn more money.

I started side businesses in hopes of increasing my income.

I chose where to live, where to travel, and what to do, all based on how much I could earn or how much it would cost.

Now, I have enough money (plus some unexpected income coming in) so it’s not as important anymore.

This is a great position to be in but losing your main source of motivation is incredibly disorienting.

Some of the projects I planned to start after leaving my job were business ideas but now that earning more money isn’t as appealing, I don’t see the point.

If you stop and think about how many of your decisions and plans are motivated by money, I’m sure you’ll find that most of them are.

I’ve had to reevaluate my entire life and all my plans while simultaneously finding a new source of motivation.

Crazy, right?

I still haven’t fully come to grips with this but I’m slowly getting there.

For example, I recently removed all ads from this site. The ads have been annoying me for years because I thought they made my site look cluttered. I left them though because nobody was complaining about them and they were helping to cover the costs of running the site.

Once I realized the money they were generating was no longer necessary, I decided to remove them completely.

It should have been an easy thing to do, now that money is less important, but it was still really difficult. How could I just give up hundreds of free dollars every month?!

Luckily, I was able to power past my old mindset and realize the new reality so I removed the ads and I’m very happy I did.

That struggle showed me that although money is less important to me now, it’s still not meaningless so I still have some work to do.

It’s hard though because I’m trying to undo decades worth of programming and the new mindset seems so unnatural.

Completely Content

Since we have this unexpected extra money coming in, I asked Jill if she could think of anything we could buy or spend money on that would make our lives better.

We thought about it and realized that we love where we live so we wouldn’t want to move somewhere bigger or nicer because our current place is perfect.

Our cheap little car does everything we need it to so no need for an upgrade there.

Honda Jazz

Our $3,400 Honda Jazz – Best Car We’ve Ever Owned

We eat out enough and wouldn’t enjoy it if we ate out more.

We travel enough and actually plan to cut back on travel next year because less travel will make us both happier.

We racked our brains for a while and the only thing we could come up with was to buy a foam mattress topper and a couple of better pillows.

So we bought those two things for less than $100 and now we have everything we want or need.

Feeling like you can buy or do anything, while simultaneously being completely content with what you already have because you know more won’t make you happier, is one of the best benefits of pursuing FI.

New Motivation

Being content with what you have is great but you still need something to motivate you. Otherwise, what is there to get you out of bed in the morning (especially when that bed is much more comfortable, haha)?

I’m not exactly sure what my new main source of motivation is going to be but here’s what’s been motivating me the past year:

  1. Quality – I have an image in my head of what I know the Mad Fientist could be so I’m very motivated to make that happen. Producing something that I can be proud of and is as good as possible drives me to work hard.
  2. Helping People – I save all the emails and messages I get from people whose lives have benefited from Mad Fientist content because it motivates me to do even more.
  3. Creating – When money doesn’t matter, you can instead create things just because they are beautiful or bring people joy. Most of my time this year has been spent working on an artistic project (which I plan to write more about soon) and the act of creating something new from thin air motivates me to create even more things.

Freedom!

Well, there you have it…my freedom post, one year late.

It’s been an incredible adventure and better than I imagined so I can’t wait to see what year two brings.

How About You?

If you’re already free, what was your first year like? What motivates you these days, now that you don’t need more money?

If you’re not free yet, what do you think you’ll do once you pull the plug on work? What will get you out of bed in the morning?

Let me know in the comments below!



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