With my borderline obsession about saving and investing for retirement in the last year, I read a lot of stuff. "The Algorithm" suggested an article recently written by a guy who retired a couple of years early, reflecting on his assumptions and reality since making the decision. It was less about the financial implications of retirement and more about the way you actually live. He had a particular narrative that made me feel pretty self-aware and not great about my personality when it comes to follow-through.
The short story is that he spoke about how he imagined that there are a great many things we say we would do, if only we didn't have to work. As he put it, we make a great many excuses about what we don't follow through on in the name of work. I totally do this. He then just calls himself out: If it were really important to you, you would prioritize it and figure out a way to do it even with a day job. That stings, because he's totally right. Or at least, mostly right. I'll get back to that.
I've been thinking about the subject a lot in a miniature fashion, asking myself, if I could do anything for my next vacation, what would it be? Some of the time, the answer is, "As little as possible," or some kind of excursion that would require as little of me as possible, like cruising. But beyond that, what are the leisure activities that I would want to pursue? The reality is that I just don't know, and that's horrifying. Have I become that dull, that I can't even point to fun things I like to do? Was I always like that?
Now, before I tear myself down, I acknowledge that I'm being a little dramatic. Out of hobbies came my entire career, a published technical book, a bunch of teenage volleyball teams that played above their perceived ability, contributions to philanthropic causes and an entire community that may not have obviously come together were it not for things I did two decades ago. A lot of good came out of things I pursued out of interest, not just for me, but for others. But this acknowledgment also shows how I value my spare-time pursuits, largely by impact and scope. Few things that I do are wholly for my own satisfaction, like building a chair or doing a crossword puzzle.
I've tried some new things in the last year for fun, and I created a lot of things. I don't give myself the freedom though to not keep doing them, which is weird (and something to ask my therapist about). Last year, I started doing a radio show, for free on PRX. After about six months, I just stopped. I really feel bad about that, though it doesn't help that some random program director keeps asking me to make more. I made a bunch of Lego and drink videos, some of which are still sitting unedited on my computer after five months, and that feels bad. After two straight years of weekly commits, I stopped regularly working on my open source projects early this year.
All of this comes back to priority. The author of that retirement story wrote a lot about change, but he never connected change to prioritization. Our priorities do change, even for the things that we do for fun, and we have to be cool with that. I think what feels icky is that when your priorities change and they aren't replaced by new priorities. This, in a nutshell, describes the midlife crisis: What do I do with myself next to create meaning in my life?
There's a healthy way to explore that, I think, because the infinite range of possibility that is your life is exhilarating. I have to keep reminding myself that I could not have predicted where I am today, not even three years ago. Sure, I had some high level goals and things to drive toward, but there is so much chaos in the intervening time that today is nothing at all the way I expected it to look.
What will I prioritize? I don't really know. I've been talking about writing another screenplay for almost 20 years, and making a movie for 15, and I'm not really any closer to that because I haven't prioritized it. But there are things that are starting to percolate to the top. I'm ready to get back into the open source projects, update them for all the newer technologies. I vaguely have some ideas about but home decor (which may result in gutting my bathroom). Maybe I'll get that tattoo that I've been thinking about. I definitely want to get out of the country.
Getting back to that idea that you can't use work as an excuse for all of the things that you haven't done, I agree with that author to an extent, but I do believe we have a finite capacity to engage with the world. Work and parenting together takes a lot out of me. Retirement would eliminate both of those, and the exploration that sometimes I don't have any energy for I think will get easier in that case. At the same time, I'm hyper-aware that you can glean a lot of wisdom from people like that author who are living what you can only imagine. In other words, the truth is likely somewhere in the middle between prioritization that available mental bandwidth.