After a decade and a half of saving and investing, I’ve seemingly come full circle.
Now that I have enough to retire, and a plan to do so, I’m somehow faced with the same questions I had back when I was a kid, when virtually every adult around energetically interrogated children with the following:
What do you want to be when you grow up?
Back then, I understood that the answers weren’t meant to be given all that much thought. Telling an aunt or uncle what you were going to be was simply a form of entertainment, and I treated it as such.
So instead of taking it seriously, I’d give evasive, constantly changing answers: Interstate Highway Line-Drawer, professional yo-yo artist, intergalactic keeper of the peace.
But you could only avoid reality for so long. Once I started applying to colleges, I could no longer dance around it — most schools wanted to know what my major would be, with the implicit understanding that I would turn this major into most of my identity. Because apparently, people pick a single thing to do for life.
Selecting also meant de-selecting, as picking one choice simultaneously excludes others. Physics majors don’t typically wind up on Broadway in their mid 20s. Sculptors aren’t going to engineer the next breakthrough in fiber-optics.
So I tried to imagine which subjects I’d find personally rewarding, while also including other vital considerations as a part of the thought process: approval from parents, an opportunity to earn a decent living. I worked it out while staring at choices on my admissions forms. Communications, Art History, Sociology — nope, nope, nope.
Finally I settled on computer science because I liked video games and computers all right, and I read a projection in U.S. News that programming jobs would be in high demand for the foreseeable future.
And I knew damned well that I’d need a job. My parents were not well off, not by a long shot. There could be no failure to earn money after graduating — unlike many of my peers, I did not view college as a four year vacation.
It was an opportunity to acquire skills to support myself so I wouldn’t, you know, end up homeless or anything.
With the decision made, I launched headlong out of high school, past the start gate of university, and into the stuff that makes up adult lives.
Doing the Thing
It went well. Unexpectedly well, really – especially considering I had virtually no idea what would be in store. My university experience in particular was fantastic, full of passionate teachers, motivated and friendly classmates, and interesting work across the board. It’s cliche but true: Learning and exploring are fun in the right environment.
Turns out I really liked programming and system building. It requires patience, tenacity, focus, and an ability to solve complicated problems.
The ground covered following university became increasingly uneven, full of good years as well as bad. (I won’t recount the lengthy details of my employment experience as I’ve devoted about a billion words to it on this blog. If you need a one-sentence summary, it’s something along the lines of: Although initially exciting [and well-paying throughout] my IT/programming job became, over the years, increasingly stressful, demanding, and tedious.)
Still, overall, it was a fine choice. I’m one of a minority, a handful of very, very lucky people who picked something good enough on their college applications to sustain them for nearly twenty years — four years of school and fifteen in the workforce. I don’t honestly think I could have done any better, given my own personality and preferences. Even knowing what I know now, I’d make the same selection again, and would sincerely recommend a similar path to others.
And I’ll also be the first to admit that two decades is a long time for something to be consistently engaging, as far interests go. The part of me that codes, integrates, implements, and troubleshoots will always be with me.
That being said, I no longer see much direct nerd-on-computer action in my future. It’s become boring.
Pretty sure this phase of my life is over, for good.
Still Doing the Thing
The fundamental problem with picking a major, and, by association, picking life, is the lack of variety.
Kids know this perfectly well. They don’t know what they want to be when they grow up. Their answers do change every day. About 80% of college undergraduates change their majors at least once — they have trouble settling on any one thing.
Yet the world demands that you pick that one skill. Teacher or engineer, architect or public works official, you’ll have your special area of expertise and you will ply this trade indefinitely (i.e. as long as your industry allows you to) in a continual trade for temporary financial stability.
But only a bug, genetically coded to do a small set of tasks forever, could be indefinitely satisfied with this sort of existence.
And we are not insects.
Doing Other Things
Look, I’ll always be grateful that the world has allowed me to achieve my goal of financial independence. I live a happy, comfortable life by almost any standard.
But just like so many others who have been cranking away in the same profession for decades, I’m also routinely tired of doing what I do.
So if you asked me, right now, what I’m most thrilled about regarding my upcoming early retirement date, it’s this:
I’m at the starting blocks of that old maze again, selecting new and exciting choices, with absolutely no threat of failure or other concerns about the outcome.
And I find that it’s a fantastic place to be.
*** In next weeks’ post I’ll be examining some of my own post-working plans with a bit more detail. Note that I’m putting absolutely zero pressure on myself to actually do any of this stuff. It’s intended to be a simple thought exercise.