Putting Out a FIRE Part II: The Happiness Problem

We have already seen how FIRE is mathematically flawed. The “4% Rule” and other such heuristics used to build up a pot big enough to RE are not as safe as FIREees think they are.

Here, we leave the mathematical criticism to one side and focus on the non-numerical parts of life. I explain that FIRE is not only financially risky, but also the wrong philosophical and practical approach.

Wasted time

The most obvious downside of sacrificing enjoyment in years 20-40 is that, well, those years aren’t all that fun. Think about that time spent at a job which is sort of ok, doing stuff you sort of don’t mind. Now think of this time spent working towards causes that you care about, developing skills that you enjoy using. By the end of the same time period, you would be a master. You would be an expert on programming/writing/selling/music producing/etc. Instead, you’re an expert on the copper market or project management or making a really good PowerPoint presentation.

There is also something deeply psychologically damaging about delayed gratification to this extreme extent. We much prefer a constant positive drip to receiving nothing and nothing and nothing followed by a large payoff at the end. This is made worse by the fact that you don’t know for sure when/if this payoff is coming or not. You can forecast, sure, but shit happens.

Life after RE

And this gratification might not be all it’s cracked up to be. Imagine sacrificing 20 years of your life to discover that the R life doesn’t suit you. That you don’t know what you really like doing because you’ve spent the last 20 years of your life head-down, in the trenches, squirrelling away any extra cash and never taking the time to pause and think and explore to determine wait what do I actually like doing and what do I actually want out of life? There’s no time for that. Set goals, achieve goals…but then what?

I hate to break it to you, but if you’re a miserable bastard or bastardette before you RE, you’re still going to be a miserable bastard or bastardette after you become FI and RE. Happiness is a learned skill, not something that’s given to you in a gift-wrapped box with a bow on top after you achieve some life goal.

FIRE can remove your money problems, sure. But our brain has a knack of highlighting other problems to fill the gap in the money-sized hole in the Corpus Callosum or wherever problems are stored. In fact, some philosophers believe the amount of commas in your bank balance increases your total number of problems. Old anxieties get replaced with new ones. Example: you now have to deal with the brand-spanking-new worry of running out of money. Of having to go back to work after 10 years of retirement. Imagine that. I’m getting second-hand anxiety doing so.

Even if you do locate inner peace, you will find that relaxing on an island all day every day gets boring. Quickly. FIREees get itchy feet. This is why many of them work on new “projects” which eventually become income-generating. So what exactly was the point of saving aaaaaall that money to RE if you’re going to be working and generating income, anyway?

I know the response: “So that I don’t have to worry about generating income. To support my family. So that I can work on what I want, when I want, with who I want.”. These are fair points. But it seems to me that 1) is a) not really fixed by RE (see above) and is b) better fixed by dealing with anxiety by learning to be more mentally robust and healthy and happy. And 2) doesn’t require FIRE (see below).

A better way

FIRE gurus present inductees with a false dichotomy – work hard for 20 years at a job that you don’t love, fascistly save, retire on a low-ish income OR work for 50 years at said job, whilst not being able to save enough because you spend too much on stupid shit. Ok, if this was my choice I would pick option A. But it’s not. FIRE is outdated; it was a good option when there was no such thing as independent consulting or part-time work or remote work or solopreneurship or the ability to take sabbaticals or genuinely fulfilling jobs. But now we have these things. Now income generation is flexible. A better approach is to use this flexibility to construct the life you want. Sure, some may review all the options and still choose FIRE. But I don’t.

When Paul Graham thought about how to do what you love, he came to the conclusion that we have 2 routes: the emergent route and the two-job route. In the emergent route, you try lots of different things to find what you might like doing, then you gradually increase the parts of your job that you like and slowly move towards working towards a cause that you care about. Your ideal work/life just sort of emerges out of this iterative process. In the two-job route, you work on things you don’t like in order to get money to work on things you like. You sacrifice enjoyment in the initial phase to have freedom in the second phase.

Which of these two sounds more fun? Which of these two sounds more fulfilling? Which of these two sounds better for society?

I know my answer.