Progress

I remember I came across Financial Samurai’s ridiculous post on the ‘evils of early retirement‘ months ago, and dismissed it as a fluff piece meant to get a few page views. And I never bothered to go back because he just didn’t come off as a serious writer. But a guest post by Mr. Money Mustache had me perusing his site again recently.

With about half of the stuff Sam writes I find myself nodding along in agreement. The other half, I’m wondering what planet this guy is from.

On the one hand, he seems to agree that financial independence and early retirement are great goals worthy of anyone’s ambition. But on the other hand he seems to think life is not worth living unless you notch plenty of impressive achievements into your belt through hard work and dedication. This translates into, “retiring at 45 is ok, but retiring at 30 is ridiculous.” In my own mind, there is a massive inconsistency here.

He seems to think that, for life to be well-lived, it has to include some kind of one-time business success, before you can then happily retire to a life of hanging out on cruise ships. If you embark on the life of leisure without the previous success, then you’re throwing away your potential and are ‘giving up’ when you should be striving to achieve.

But where does that idea come from? It seems utterly foreign to me.

And then I discovered, what I think is, the core difference in our worldviews on his about page. Where he writes prominently, “‘Progress’ is my one word definition of happiness.

Ahh! Well, on that count, we could not be further apart.

The desire to progress, to achieve, to change, in my mind, can only come from unhappiness. Discontent with your current position is what drives someone to take action to change their position. After all, if one was happy with his position and place, he wouldn’t have any need to try to alter it.

Progress is not a blanket good, but just a remedy for dissatisfaction.

Now, sure, I don’t sit still in a room all day contemplating the universe. In fact, I work at making progress in my own life. I make progress towards my financial status, my social status, and my understanding of the world. But I don’t do that because progress is an inherent good. I do it because security, community and knowledge are inherent goods. This relatively small amount of progress I work at is an indication of my dissatisfaction with my current state. The more progress someone feels they have to make, the greater their level of dissatisfaction.

When I think of “progress” I don’t think of happiness, quite the opposite. I think of dissatisfaction.

The end result of progress is valuable, but the progress itself is not. If I could snap my fingers and achieve my goals without having had to do any work, I would have more happiness, not less.

Happiness to me manifests itself in stillness, contemplation, fellowship and gratitude. A happy man doesn’t go in search of a challenge, or to satisfy his ego with accomplishments. He sits untroubled, unhurried, enjoying his pure existence and consciousness itself.

The ultimate achievement would be to progress to where you no longer feel any need to progress.

 

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27 Comments

  1. Posted June 14, 2012 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

    I have often said that if you are addicted to achievement, you are not a good candidate for retirement, early or otherwise.

    Having said that, I find it very small-minded that someone can only find achievement in the work world. Basically, accomplishing something that other people tell you to accomplish (and pay you for accomplishing) isn’t much of an accomplishment in my mind. It’s called doing your job.

    If you are addicted to achievement, it’s much harder to accomplish in retirement, where YOU choose the things you want to achieve (rather than being told what to achieve.) That takes creativity.

    I, myself, am not addicted to achievement, so retirement is quite lovely to me.

  2. Posted June 14, 2012 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    Honest question: Why did you pursue an expensive law degree that takes 3 years to get if you want to retire at 30? It’s very similar to Jacob at ERE spending 4 years or more for his PhD only to retire.

    Are you guys all burning out or something, going from one extreme to another?

    I consistently witness a lot of UNHAPPINESS for those who want to escape and retire early. Tell me I’m wrong, and why.

    Thx

  3. Maus
    Posted June 14, 2012 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

    First, awesome photo of a Carthusian. If I’d been in a cell instead of a priory, I might still be “en la vida”.

    Second, progress is one of those tricky concepts. As a society, we want the sort of progress that delivers clean drinking water and paved roads. But as individuals, it seems much harder to define what progress might look like. As many philosophers have discovered, outward accomplishments (fame, money, power) fail to satisfy ultimately. Perhaps inward progress or greater self-knowledge has a better track record. And it can be practiced no matter what one’s circumstances.

    Finally, @Financial Samurai is indulging in the sunk cost fallacy with his comment about retirement soon after the completion of post-graduate education. Better to ask if the process of education didn’t reveal self-knowledge of a greater value (i.e. inward progress) than the nominal cost of that education. I think Jacob explained it well when he shared that it was ultimately dissatsifying knowing that there were less than 10 people (out of 6 billion) who could understand what it was he was doing in physics. That sort of isolation extracts its price as well.

  4. Posted June 16, 2012 at 6:12 am | Permalink

    @retiredsyd I think you’re spot on. If you crave achievement, then you’d better be creative/self-directed if you want to retire early. Like you, I don’t have that problem though. p.s. I’m a fan of yours.

    @financial-samurai Your question: “Why did you pursue an expensive law degree that takes 3 years to get if you want to retire at 30?” only makes sense if you come at it with a bias that formal education exists primarily for the purposes of getting a job. I have an intellectual and personal interest in how a majority-rule democracy deals with minority interests. I’m particularly interested in the treatment and rights of sexual/gender minorities. Basically, up until I was 20 years old, I lived in a country where I could have been thrown in prison because of who I loved. I wanted to really understand how a legal system could have allowed that. And that curiousity was only going to be fulfilled by having an intimate understanding of the legal process best mastered by becoming a lawyer.

    About 80% of my motivation was pure curiousity, 10% was about the potential empowerment to help promote justice, and the other 10% was that it might help if I ever found myself years down the road looking for other sources of income.

    When I started going to school my retirement by 30 was pretty much already all shored up, so I view education as purely a luxury expense done for fun, not as an investment made for some kind of future return in the form of earnings.

    “Are you guys all burning out or something, going from one extreme to another?” I think a few people might be, particularly the people in the 50+ crowd. But most people looking to retire around 30 are probably retiring to something rather than retiring from something. Not necessarily some big project, or other lifelong activity, it could just be a desire for a certain type of lifestyle not dictated by a calendar, financial necessity, or a supervisor. I planned to retire young when I was a teenager, so it’s not as if I have suddenly had enough and want to pull the plug. This has been a long, carefully-executed plan.

    I’m certainly not going to try to talk you into retiring before you want to. If you want to build things, or improve things, fantastic! Build great things and I’ll come along some afternoon and gawk at them and offer my congratulations. But just because I traded in my hammer and nails for a hammock and a book doesn’t mean I’m unhappy, or running away from something.

    @maus “Perhaps inward progress or greater self-knowledge has a better track record.” I would agree in part. But I will say sometimes people’s focus on ‘self-improvement’ gets to be a little too progress-focused for me. Like Ben Franklin’s journal where he wrote down all his faults so that he might be mindful of them and improve them over time. Well that might be fine for a while in your youth. But at some point you have to forgive yourself your indulgences and just enjoy who you are.

  5. Maus
    Posted June 18, 2012 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

    @MikeBOS
    I get what you’re saying. I like a good cigar every now and then, too.

    Big kudos for curiousity driving the pursuit of the J.D. I had similar non-pecuniary motives back in the day. I still remember how shocked the hiring partner was when I turned down an offer in my third year. I told him I was taking a different fork and entering a monastery. He upped the offer by $3K and I had to laugh. He and Financial Samurai seem to operate from the same playbook.

  6. Jerry
    Posted June 21, 2012 at 12:50 am | Permalink

    As always, your thoughts have been well arranged and are greatly appreciated. After reading this post, my thoughts wondered to the last four years of my life.

    Recently finishing my undergraduate studies, I dedicated my entire summer to passing the Certified Public Accounting examination. Much like undergrad, time had been invested to change my current position.

    It would seem that the majority of my life had been devoted to change my current position, to “progress;” however, I do not view my life as one filled with unhappiness.

    It seems as only viewing “progress” as having a beginning and an end, an investment and a return, merely part of the story. From the words of Emerson, “Life is a journey, not a destination.” If my goals could be achieved at the snap of a finger, would my life be void of what lies between birth and death?

  7. Posted June 26, 2012 at 8:17 am | Permalink

    Admin,

    Who paid for your law education? Please tell me yourself, and not the bank of mom and dad. I’ve known one too many people have someone else pay for their luxuries, and therefore never appreciate it.

    If your pursuit is purely for knowledge, why not just go to the library and read books for free?

    And if your drive is for justice of others, than how can you just quit, when you haven’t helped yet?

    Your reasons are very inconsistent and I think you know this. Please let us know who paid for your college and law degree.

    As for Retire Syd’s comment about being small-minded, it’s the same thing over and over again that I see. Attacking others for trying to succeed to mask one’s own failures, be it in their personal lives, financial, or whatnot. Posts about “look how great my life is” just screams of sadness.

  8. Posted June 26, 2012 at 8:52 am | Permalink

    BTW Admin, you just check out the blog Leave Law Behind by Casey. Pretty interesting perspective about lawyers who realized they made a mistake and want to do something else.

  9. Posted June 26, 2012 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

    My former employer paid my tuition per our collective bargaining agreement. It was money that if I didn’t take through tuition payments I never would have otherwise seen, making my education essentially free to me. Had I had to pay cash out of my nest egg, I don’t think I could have justified the expense, no matter how much I enjoyed the experience. It only really cost me some small amounts of money in books and transportation and things. Though I’m not sure how that should make any difference. If my parents had worked hard and were generous enough to offer me some gratuitous education to enjoy why should they or I have any explaining to do to anyone?

    The library can get you far but like I said, education is a luxury expense. That’s like saying why join a private tennis club when you can just go play in the street or at a public park? The school environment makes it easier and more interesting than just reading all day.

    “And if your drive is for justice of others, than how can you just quit, when you haven’t helped yet?”

    I have helped some already. But that was a small part of convincing myself to go through with the education at the start of it. I may yet still do some work if I find a cause particularly motivating, but right now there are just other things I feel like doing.

    I think my reasoning may appear inconsistent because of the assumptions you’re bringing to the table about the purpose of education.

    “As for Retire Syd’s comment about being small-minded, it’s the same thing over and over again that I see. Attacking others for trying to succeed to mask one’s own failures, be it in their personal lives, financial, or whatnot. Posts about “look how great my life is” just screams of sadness.”

    She wasn’t saying it’s small-minded to be motivated by achievement in a career. But that it’s small-minded to have that be your only motivation. The one on the attack here is you. This post was a response to your post accusing people who choose not to pursue a career as being hopeless, lazy, lacking self-respect, or that they just haven’t found their passion but would if they just looked a little harder (And now you’re insinuating that Syd is ‘masking failures’ when, by all accounts, she’s had a highly successful career and continues to have a fulfilling life in retirement).

  10. Posted June 26, 2012 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

    Mike – Not sure how I’m attacking you for writing a contrarian post on the Darkside Of Early Retirement.

    Just read your post again. You call my post “evil” and say that it is “ridiculous”. Is that not an attack?

    The reason why my post is so widely read is because much of what is written is true.

    I’m glad your employer paid your tuition. I read so many stories about people who “quit” and “retire early” when in fact, they were just fired. What is a collective bargaining agreement?

    I stand by my original assumption. NOBODY quits a job they enjoy doing. Hence, I’m sorry you are “lacking ambition” and haven’t found the thing that drives you yet. Keep on search, like Jacob finally did with his new job.

    Don’t give up!

  11. Posted July 2, 2012 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

    It seems to me that Financial Samurai’s arguments boil down to “people cannot be satisfied in solitude or living outside normal societal bounds for long” which seems to be a poor argument. He also makes many assumptions which could be easily challenged – about the emotional state of FI authors, about the purpose of life for others, or about the benefits of jobs.

    I am also a little non-plussed by the language around achievement. What does that mean? I can think of many companies & governments around the world who have “achieved” a great deal by some standards, with hundreds of thousands helping them do it, but I would argue their achievements are a negative for society, especially in repressive regimes.

    As someone who seeks financial independence & early retirement myself, however, I don’t do it for leisure – I want to free myself from 9-5 so I can work on other important things which may not make significant income, or may require a different method of thinking which companies do not support today. I think anyone with great skills should use them to improve the world, though sometimes one has to be truly independent to devote their full time and effort to such things. It would still be work, but of a different nature than a job, and I think a good argument can be made that many jobs are not work in the true sense of the word – they do not meaningfully aid progress at all, whatever that means.

  12. Roger
    Posted July 2, 2012 at 6:43 pm | Permalink

    Just want to let you know that this blog has very quickly become my favorite thing on the internet. Haven’t gotten all the way back yet, but have been exploring for a few days now and really enjoy your philosophy on life. It’s as if you think the way I think, while living very differently than I live. Makes me think.

    Thanks a lot for keeping this up, I’m really enjoying it.

  13. dan23
    Posted July 6, 2012 at 10:07 pm | Permalink

    I really liked this post and some of your older post on similar lines. There has been a lot of posting on ERE and other sites about retiring in order to do something that sounds very much like a job. People, even in the ERE community seem to have some belief that you have to do something meaningful after you retire– which usually means joblike but with the option to quit at any time. I have absolutely no interest in doing anything that earns money doing in retirement.

    I think that there is something about doing something for money, on a forced schedule or for any extrinsic reason that ruins even otherwise enjoyable tasks. For example, I read a very large number of books, yet in school I generally avoided completing any assigned reading (some of which I later read on my own when not in school).

    Regarding Sam(who has an interesting blog)’s comment about nobody quitting a job that they enjoy doing: I cannot conceive of a single job that I would enjoy doing and do by choice (i.e., jobs that I would do if you handed me $10 million or something) – there are just jobs that are less stressful/better than others. I would not like playing video games for money if it meant I had to play them on a schedule and if I didn’t play them I wouldn’t get paid (not to say it wouldn’t beat my current job). While ERE types who express no interest in any money making activity once retired may be in the minority (seems so based on postings), I would wager that if you handed most people extraordinarily large sums of money and asked if they would they still want to do that money making activity – they would say no. Something about the fact that the money means something (it is not pennies) influences their decision even if they give other reasons for it.

    In addition, I am not achievement oriented, possibly because I count very few things others consider achievements as an achievement that matters in the grand scheme of things and think I am unlikely to achieve anything that meets my standards of worthwhile. Coming up with a vaccine for polio= achievement. I am unlikely to do anything similar – to try would involve a great deal of effort with a very high probability of failure. Doing a great job at work and saving your company $20 million = not a world affecting achievement even if you take personal pride in it.

  14. Posted July 7, 2012 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

    I guess I missed a lot of this conversation!

    For the record, I don’t have anything against achievement, I would say I achieved quite a bit in my 25 years of working (including a nest egg large enough to retire on at the not-very-typical-retirement-age of 44. My point was that if that’s what drives, you MAY not be happy in retirement (that is if you are not creative enough to still achieve in retirement. Something I don’t actually need to be since I’m not actually addicted to achievement, as I said.)

    I’m a simple girl, so forgive me here, but I’m confused by two of Financial Samurai’s comments directed at me:

    1. How have I failed? (The failures that I’m apparently masking.) I’m just asking because I don’t feel like a failure. But perhaps I’m fooling myself.

    2. If I’m happy and I write posts about being happy but that really means I’m sad, then does that mean that when you read posts that are sad, those people are really happy? I don’t know, I’m of the school that if it if it looks like a duck and it quacks like a duck, maybe it’s just a duck.

  15. Posted July 9, 2012 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

    Check out a couple posts today you might like:

    1) Is Being Unmotivated OK If You’re Happy?
    http://untemplater.com/self-improvement/is-being-unmotivated-ok-if-youre-happy/

    2) Taking A Leap Of Faith And Retiring On My Own Terms
    http://www.financialsamurai.com/2012/07/08/taking-a-leap-of-faith-retiring-on-own-terms/

    Would love to hear your thoughts!

    Also Admin, I read through an old post and discovered the answer to my question. Sorry you were laid off. Chin up! We live in North America. Life is easy and anything is possible!

  16. Posted July 10, 2012 at 7:17 pm | Permalink

    Sam,

    I wonder what you would say of ascetics, monastics, hermits, clergy members, tribal people who choose to live primitively, people who choose to live communally without personal property, or any other person who has chosen something other than helping along the progress you so desperately seem to need to strive for.

    Are they all just unhappy quitters?

    You seem to think you have found the One True Way and have concluded that anyone who doesn’t follow it must be lost.

    Anyway, congrats on quitting your job.

  17. Posted July 11, 2012 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

    Not at all. They are seeking progress towards spirituality and their respective own things.

    The thing you have to ask yourself is this, “What is your purpose?” “What do you think you are meant to do?”

    I understand that getting let go is rough, and tough on one’s psyche. But, you’ve got to fight through it and have faith in the human spirit!

  18. Posted July 11, 2012 at 7:24 pm | Permalink

    You keep assuming my life is a result of reactions to failure when I’ve made it clear that my goal since I was a teenager was to spend my days in leisure.

  19. Posted July 15, 2012 at 1:58 am | Permalink

    Sam,

    Looks like I was wrong for congratulating you on quitting your job, as you said in your original post, since now you’re saying actually you got laid off.

    “I understand that getting let go is rough, and tough on one’s psyche. But, you’ve got to fight through it and have faith in the human spirit!”

    Hopefully things will turn around soon for you! Don’t give up! You’ll find a job you love soon! I know it must be tough having worked all the way into your 40′s just to wind up getting laid off, but you’ll overcome it. You can get through this!

    -Mike

  20. Posted July 15, 2012 at 3:07 am | Permalink

    I know it’s hard to accept that you aren’t wanted by your company and can’t find a job or have nothing to fall back on. But, that’s what unemployment is for. The economy is rough.

    Keep fighting Mike. I can definitely feel your pain.

  21. Posted July 15, 2012 at 3:31 am | Permalink

    I know it’s tough seeing a guy make himself FI before 30 when you yourself had to work into your 40′s and then culminate your career with a layoff. I can see why you’d be bitter, I won’t hold it against you.

    You might find it’s easier to address or admit that there were some flaws in your argument than to resort to underhanded insults of your critics. Boy, I can’t imagine why you were laid off with people skills like that. It must be fun and productive to have a manager who insults his critics rather than addresses their arguments.

    I wonder what that e-book on how to get laid off says: “Be a sociopath in the workplace for 10 years, wait for people to eventually figure out that behind all the obfuscation are just some chirping crickets, a bloated ego, and a guy who can’t handle criticism. Then enjoy a large severance because they can’t wait to get rid of you.”

  22. C40
    Posted July 16, 2012 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

    Mike – great post. I always enjoy reading your perspective on things – and I always learn from it.

  23. Rachel
    Posted July 16, 2012 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

    I’m going to have to agree with FS here. Mike, you have a good post and can disagree with FS, but you started it by saying FS’s assumptions are ridiculous.

    I don’t see where FS has attacked you in his post at all. I was laid off once before, and it sucked! I was depressed, lacked motivation, didn’t want to do anything. But eventually, I found new meaning in this non-profit, and became much happier.

    If you are happy for having no ambition, doing nothing, and surrounding yourself with others with no ambition, then great. But, to attack FS for using the word “progress” shows me that you are not happy.

  24. Posted July 16, 2012 at 6:20 pm | Permalink

    Rachel,

    In FS’s original post he says people who don’t want to work don’t know themselves, are quitters, are lazy, hopeless, and selfish. Though none of those labels apply to himself now that he’s retired.

    I responded saying the root of his belief is all based on this idea of progress, which I argue in my original post is wrong. Rather than address that argument he prefers to call retired syd a failure in post 7, insinuate a major life choice of mine was a mistake in post 8, in post 10 I need to just look for something to do, when the entire point of my argument is that doing things is not the answer to finding happiness. In post 17 he says that even a hermit is made happy by “progress”. So he just redefines progress as doing just about anything, essentially making his entire argument worthless. If progress is doing anything with your life, then what’s the point in saying progress leads to happiness? That means doing heroin is is just as progress-oriented as building bridges. And then in 17 and 20 he’s just condescending to me personally despite the fact that he has yet to back up his argument. I think because he can’t. Which he just could have admitted from the get go and made some progress towards better understanding one another. But instead he chose to obfuscate the discussion and reiterate himself hoping that people would just give up before realizing he was wrong about something.

    I’m wrong all the time. I’m happy to admit it because I’d rather know the truth, than be right.

    I think charlie B summarized FS’s logic problem well in comment 11.

    “If you are happy for having no ambition, doing nothing, and surrounding yourself with others with no ambition, then great. But, to attack FS for using the word “progress” shows me that you are not happy.”

    Doesn’t this contradict itself? You say if I’m happy, then great. Then you say, because I want to engage in a dialogue with someone who disagrees with me, I cannot possibly actually be happy. So which is it? You’re glad I’m happy, or you know that I can’t actually be happy?

    This all seems to me to be the Puritan work ethic boiling its way to the surface again. Work is good. Rest is only good if book ended by work. Enjoying the world is for weekends and 2 week vacations, etc. If that makes you happy, great. But to impose it on everyone else is irritating.

    I’m glad a non-profit pulled you out of your depression and made you happy. For me, being laid off had nothing to do with my happiness and wasn’t upsetting in the least because my happiness isn’t rooted in such fragile things.

  25. lurker
    Posted July 22, 2012 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    Much as I love watching you smart guys rumble, and I do! I must offer another point of view. To me “progress” as defined by economic history has nearly always involved the destruction of the world’s ecosystem by powerful white guys for the rapid growth of the human population and the unequal (and unfair?) distribution of limited wealth and resources. If you and FS take a big step back you might notice something extremely significant. It is very possible that you are symbolically/metaphorically? throwing deck chairs at each other on the deck of the Titanic (home planet). Just wanted to toss that out there. Now please return to your entertaining squabble or turn on me and call me an idiot (please don’t unless you can show that my view of the world is completely wrongheaded and uninformed) many thanks!

  26. lurker
    Posted July 29, 2012 at 9:46 am | Permalink

    must add one important point. Mike lives much much lighter on the planet than Sam (three? houses and massive global travel budget).
    Maybe my problem? is that I have kids and worry about the world we are leaving behind. In fact, I worry a lot.
    ciao

  27. Suibhne
    Posted August 27, 2012 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    Nice work Mike. Definitely side with you on this. It really comes down to personality types. Not everyone is a “striver”.