One of my favorite Buddhist teachings is a collection of pithy slogans called the Lojong (meaning “mind trainings”). The idea with short slogans like these is that you reflect on them over and over again so that they come to mind when you find yourself heading in the wrong mental direction. One slogan in particular that I find very useful is: “Give up all hope of results.”
The idea behind this slogan is that we spend so much time and energy trying to manufacture certain results, rather than enjoying and being present to what is directly in front of us. This causes us to suffer. For me, this often manifests as “I’ll be happy when…” thoughts. As persistent as these thoughts are, they are a lie. There is no arrangement of external circumstances that will provide lasting happiness. That isn’t how things work. For one thing, nothing lasts. For another, my mood is only tangentially connected to what is going on outside of me. Observing my moods over time has absolutely convinced me of this.
While I certainly see a lot of value in taking a FIRE approach to work and finance, it is challenging to do so while not getting overly attached to results. We have our FI number which, if we’re not careful, can easily become an “I’ll be happy when…” number. We predict rates of return and calculate safe withdrawal rates. All of this is, inevitably, a form of expecting results.
Does that mean we shouldn’t do these things? To me, no. As a layperson (i.e. not a monk), my goal is to be in this world but not of this world. What I mean by this is that I recognize that I’m living in the “worldly” world — I have a job, expenses and retirement savings. To not do any planning in these areas would be incompatible with trying to live an intentional life. At the same time, I need to remember that these things are not, ultimately, a source of lasting happiness. They are not the point.
What does this mean, in practical terms? For me, it means (as best I’m able) trying to hold onto all of these target numbers loosely. It means accepting the fundamentally uncertainty of predicting the future. It also means not sacrificing my quality of life today for hypothetical results tomorrow.
To put it another way, it means remembering that the numbers are not the goal. I need to remember that the purpose of financial planning isn’t hitting our FI number as quickly as possible, or getting a 99% success rate on cFIREsim, or whatever. The point is having the freedom to live the life we want, both in the future AND right now.
In concrete terms, one of the things that means for me is no side gigs. I’ve never wanted to work any more than 40 hours a week, even though that would have enabled us to save more, faster. Focusing on the journey rather than on the destination also meant that my wife took two years of unpaid leave (in addition to a semester of paid leave) when our daughter was born. We would have made more money if she had gone back to teaching immediately after her paid leave was up, but that wasn’t the point. And, finally, it meant that we were free to move to Canada, even though it meant my wife would be quitting her job at a time when my own job had become a bit more precarious. We want to set our family up for the best life now, as well as we can, while also preparing for the future.
Thus, as usual, the answer is trying to find the middle way. How can I plan and prepare for retirement (even an early one) without obsessing over it? For me, the answer is often that I do obsess over it, and I have to very intentionally (and repeatedly) remind myself to let it go, that it is ultimately out of my control. I have to accept that I am doing my best with the information I have at hand today, that it won’t be perfect, and that’s OK. And then I have to turn off my computer and go play with my kid.
What about you? How do you balance the tension between preparing for retirement and enjoying the present moment?
Reading recommendation: If you’re interested in learning more about the Lojong slogans, two books I really like are The Practice of Lojong by Traleg Kyabgon and The Great Path of Awakening by Jamgon Kongtrul.