January 1, 2020. This date is fast approaching. In fact, only 55 days remain according to my countdown app. Oh, how I used to obsessively check this countdown clock to our original “Freedom Day.”
If all went according to plan, on this date, our investments, applying the 4% withdrawal rate, would have yielded enough income to cover our basic living expenses. Not all, but enough to not need full-time work. We were on this path for financial independence, and then we jumped off the train.
I thought I could do it – working in an uninspiring job, living an extremely comfortable life, surrounded by great friends. My life was so easy. I practiced gratitude. How fortunate was I to complain about a lack of meaning. Just get on autopilot and enjoy the heck out of it. So many would do so much to be in my shoes.
Comfort is Not Progress
Yet it is precisely because I have such good fortune that I could not waste it on living an uninspiring life. I had told myself that moving to China was to pay off debt. I had done that and stayed on a few more years to build a nest egg. The one-more-year syndrome was too easy to repeat. I desperately needed to be challenged, to feel uncomfortable.
So, we jumped. It’s now been 20 months since I left the corporate grind, and 16 months since we left China. Last week, I returned to Shanghai for a visit. I was hit with a hurricane of nostalgia. My life was so comfortable. Settling into Saigon hasn’t been the easiest. Faced with this wave of comfort, I found myself thinking, “Should I have stayed? After all, the corporate grind wasn’t that bad, and this life was so cushy.”
Revisit the Corporate Grind
That is, until I revisited ground zero – my office. I am friends with my colleagues. In fact, I stayed with one during my visit. I wanted to see my team and see how everyone is doing. These delightful colleagues were the only reason I stayed in the grind for as long as I did. In some ways, nothing has changed. Within minutes, I was being brought to full-speed on the latest office drama. And boy were there many!
Walking the halls of this office, and even sitting in the conference room (the team went the extra mile and video-conferenced in a colleague in Singapore), gave me flashbacks. The frustration I felt sitting in long and often pointless meetings. The never-ending emails. The corporate politics. Office drama is a lot more entertaining when I’m on the outside.
I am eternally grateful for all the opportunities that this office had provided, most of all, the reliable paychecks that granted me financial freedom. But, that chapter has fully closed. Revisiting it served as a closure that I didn’t know I needed. Colleagues dripping with envy at my current lifestyle didn’t hurt, either.
But It Was Only Two More Years! Worth It to Leave?
To answer this question would depend on what I did with those two years, and how I value these experiences. In the time since I left, I had done many of the things I daydreamed about while sitting in boring meetings. I had learned to code, traveled full-time, lived on a farm, moved to yet another country. I’m also learning another language, and finally taking this blog seriously and calling myself a writer.
I’ve learned to prioritize sleep, to live slowly, and to devote quality time to friends and family. The most fortunate of it all is we’ve been able to do it all without money worries. Even now, in Saigon, because we’ve chosen a location with a relatively low cost of living, we survive plenty fine on one income. Instead, I find myself wanting a job because I was struggling to own the writer title. What a privilege to want a job not for money, but for vanity. [Insert eye-roll emoji.]
Remember the old Mastercard commercial that would end with “priceless” to describe an experience? That’s how these past two years feel. It’s impossible to attach a monetary value to personal growth. But for every year that I would’ve stayed in the corporate grind, it would become increasingly difficult to leave. The one-more-year syndrome is so easy to repeat, because monetary reward increases nearly exponentially. I was afraid to get trapped. I wanted time before potentially having kids to try out a different life, and I am glad I did.
Next Phase of Lifestyle Design
So, are we back on the train toward never working again? Not exactly. Primarily because we likely will always do some sort of work. Our year-long travel taught us that we don’t actually enjoy living nomadically full-time. This learning makes me extremely glad to not have stayed 24 extra months in a miserable job, only to discover this later.
We also learned the importance of having a meaningful project. After a while, travel became another routine, and we were yearning for another challenge. For now, this challenge is making Saigon our home as Shanghai had been. Learning the language and attempt to understand this intricate culture. Meanwhile, we are back to fueling the freedom fund, and also back to the drawing board to ideate the next phase of our ideal life.
Take Some Calculated Risk and Get Uncomfortable.
So no, I would not take back these past two years of experiences for anything, not even for never needing to work another day. That’s not the point. The point is freedom. On this journey, I had learned what financial freedom means to me. It’s to be free from misery, to be challenged in a meaningful way, and to grow as an individual.
To be challenged requires being outside of a comfort zone. For us, that meant literally leaving and be surrounded by newness. But one can seek discomfort in a myriad of ways, without uprooting life. It takes understanding our unique risk tolerance, and then push it to the edge of our limits. Calculated risks yield challenges that are uncomfortable, but not miserable.
For us, figuring out how to fund our ever-evolving lifestyle fits the bill. No one knows what the future holds, but to live every day without regret is blissful. A meaningful life isn’t easy, and jumping off the Freedom Train two years early provides just enough discomfort to grow and, hopefully, thrive.