As a child, I was raised to think that being successful meant (1) getting good job that paid well; (2) getting married, and (3) having kids. It’s the well-trodden path and essential ingredient to the “American Dream.” You are bombarded with this message from parents, teachers, Hollywood — you name it. My parents, in particular, were always very focused on making sure I got good grades, so I could attend a good school and land a good job.
For me, this path was easy to follow because all the goal posts are fixed and linear — one achievement leads to another and to yet another. That was the path I walked for many, many years until I got the good job, the promotions, and the big bucks, and wondered “what’s next?” The next goal post was more “get promoted” followed by “make more money” and that just seemed to repeat over and over again. To be honest, it was really anti-climactic and a bit of a shock as I assumed that I was working towards a worthy goal. Like the Emperor’s new clothes, I was hoping to work just a little harder to be able to revel in the glory of my efforts.
Side note: do you ever notice how law firms seem to hire associates that fit the same mold of hard-working academics with good grades? The firms then plug these associates into the same law firm pyramid while dangling the same carrot of raises and promotions at the end of the stick. That same drive that got the associates into good law schools can now be exploited to generate enormous profits for the partners. Just encourage them to bill 2,500 hours a year for eight years and it’s like they exploit themselves to get to the next goalpost.
I don’t for a minute regret spending almost so many years on the path to BigLaw. I’ve developed many skills as a result of working there and I truly feel that, on balance, the relationship was mutually beneficial. But it marks the end of my journey on the well-defined path to success.
At some point (I think it was after a particularly gruel stretch of trial work), I realized that I didn’t know the nature of the path I was on or why I was even on that path. That got me thinking about a different path — the path to FIRE. With FIRE, I would have the freedom to follow any path — including the freedom from 350-hour months and all-nighters.
The road to FIRE is also a well-defined path, but it’s also a transitional path. You spend less, save more, and invest more until you have a withdrawal rate that you feel is safe given your individual circumstances. And so I followed that path until we reached what we considered financial independence. So we are now at another goal post. Instead of feeling anti-climactic like I did before, I feel a little scared since there are unlimited paths before us.
For now, we’ve chosen the path of long-term travel. But that will be over before we know it. The long-term question will be what path or combination of paths do we take going forward? We wanted the freedom of FI. Now we have to decide what to do with it (without losing it at the same time!). Instead of looking at an external metric like a ranking or score as I might have done on the traditional path, the next step will require looking inside at my values and interests and figuring out what is best for us.