FI-losophy: Don’t expect results.

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 of my favorites of these slogans 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 remember that the numbers are not the point. The goal of all of this isn’t hitting our FI number as quickly as possible, or getting a 99% success rate on cFIREsim, or whatever. The goal is having the freedom to live the life we want, right now.

In concrete terms: for me, this has meant 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. It also meant that my wife took two years of unpaid leave (plus a semester of paid leave) when our daughter was born. We would have made more money if she’d been working, but that wasn’t the point. And, finally, it meant moving 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.

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.

FI-losophy: Accepting Uncertainty

In Buddhism, there’s a concept called the eight worldly winds. The idea is that these “winds” blow through worldly life in a way that is unpredictable and, ultimately, unimportant. Because they are fundamentally uncontrollable, fixating on managing or avoiding these “winds” is a source of suffering. The eight worldly winds are typically expressed in four pairs, the first of which, gain and loss, is central to financial independence.

The idea of financial independence is, fundamentally, a false premise. There is no such thing as “enough” money in the sense that there is no amount that guarantees that you will never run out. Uncertainty is a fact of life, and it is important to keep this in mind to help moderate our fixation on guaranteeing successful outcomes. For me, this is part of why I always look at FI numbers as a soft target. Safe withdrawal rates (i.e. the 4% rule) are guidelines, not guarantees. We do not know how the wind will blow. We can prepare as well as we can using the information we have, but the future is ultimately unknown.

This uncertainty can be frightening, but it can also be freeing. If it is impossible for me to prepare for every possible negative outcome, then I don’t need to obsess over trying to do this. Years ago, I found myself starting to veer into “prepper” territory, imagining all the different ways things could go sideways. In addition to saving money, I started gardening and learning about off-grid living. While there is nothing wrong with these interests in and of themselves, this was definitely not a source of happiness for me. The more I prepared, the more potential gaps in my preparation I saw. I’ve found much more peace accepting the uncertainty, and just doing my best based on the information I currently have at hand.

True financial independence, to me, means not worrying about money. This has something to do with how much money you have but, in my experience, it has more to do with your orientation to money. I found that, even after hitting our FI number, I continued to worry about money. In some ways, I worried even more because we were finally there and I didn’t want to lose it.

Reflections

There are a number of ways in which I try to cultivate a more financially independent state of mind:

  1. Remember that uncertainty is a fundamental fact.
  2. Remember that my wife and I are both competent, resourceful people who have handled challenging situations in the past and will be able to handle them in the future.
  3. Intentionally keep my material standards low. In other words, avoid hedonistic adaptation.
  4. Reflect on the fact that material things don’t bring happiness.
  5. Intentionally bring more non-material pleasures into my life.

Luck

The truth of uncertainty has other implications as well. Because gain and loss are fundamentally out of our control, we want to be gentle with ourselves and others in terms of how we respond to them. Part of the reason that my family has financial independence is hard work and good choices, but part of it is also luck and privilege. And even the hard work and good choices are the results of countless influences throughout our lives, rather than innate qualities that I can take credit for. And, of course the same is true of folks that are struggling financially or making “bad” financial decisions. In other words, luck is an undeniable component of everyone’s financial situation. Remembering that helps me be less judgmental, both of myself and of others.