Most people familiar with Jordan Peterson and his work comes from the litany of YouTube videos. From college classroom lectures to podcasts to interviews, Peterson has covered a wide variety of topics. Sometimes he is controversial in his stance, bringing him viral traffic. Most of the time his presentations are extraordinarily deep probes of the human psyche.
Whether you love or hate him, the one thing we should all agree on is that he makes us think. His latest book (12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos) is must-read material. Unlike most books, this one you must own. A library copy will not be enough. You will read and re-read this material again. The message is so deep that one reading only scratches the surface. As I read Peterson’s book I could rarely finish a page without stopping to think about what I just read. Sometime I had to walk away and make sense of what I was just presented. By far, this is the slowest reading of a book for me in over a decade.
For over 730,000 words I’ve been trying to convey a message with this blog. While reading 12 Rules I discovered Peterson said more clearly what I intended in only 500 words. (Yeah, I feel exactly how you would expect.)
For home-gamers following along, we will be discussing pages 210 and 211 of the hardcover edition. Jordan Peterson put into perfect format the essence of the early retirement and financial independence movement (FIRE). In effect, he schooled all of us and if we are smart we would listen.
When I read the two pages listed I was so moved by it I had to take a walk around the block to work it off. It was 11:30 at night and here in the boondocks of Wisconsin a walk around the block is 4.85 miles. When I finished my walk I wasn’t’ done talking it trough with myself so I turned around and walked back. By the time I stopped walking around the block and around the back acres of the farm the eastern horizon was beginning to brighten.
Do You Really Want That?
The issues at hand come under Rule #8: Tell the Truth—Or at Least Don’t Lie. Of all the lessons in the book this was the hardest to internalize. I consider myself an honest person, but Peterson quickly pointed out how I might be deluding myself. Then it got personal. Peterson writes:
I have seen people define their utopia and then bend their lives into knots trying to make it reality.
The yellow highlighter came out. This was important and I knew it. Not only am I guilty of this periodically, but I see it abundantly within the FIRE community. Bloggers and readers alike build this mental idea of what life should be like. Financial independence isn’t enough. Early retirement is the only badge of respect.
I’ve preached a different story from the first day of this blog. Retirement is a trap! This idea of you are a failure if you haven’t retired by age 30 is insane. Yes, Mr. Money Mustache did it. As much as it hurts to say it, he isn’t the gold standard. Early retirement isn’t for everyone! I’ve toyed with quitting for decades and every time I think of it I changed my mind. I’m doing what I want to do and gain tremendous pleasure from my work. I might change gears, but formal retirement isn’t in the cards. (Disclaimer: Mr. Money Mustache is my client.)
This whole concept of retiring as early as possible and traveling the world seems silly to me. I tend to avoid travel whenever possible. Business will get me on a plane. I’ve also been known to travel for pleasure. But in the end it feels best when I’m in familiar surroundings doing what I do best: working with clients and writing.
Here are Peterson’s words that hit me between the eyes:
An eighteen-year–old decides, arbitrarily, that she wants to retire at fifty-two. She works for three decades to make that happen, failing to notice that she made that decision when she was little more than a child. (Emphasis mine.) What did she know about her fifty-two-year-old self, when still a teenager? Even now, many years later, she has only the vaguest, low-resolution idea of her post-work Eden. She refuses to notice. What did her life mean, if that initial goal was wrong?
This encapsulates a lot of what I see in the FIRE community. People setting immutable goals at an early age and feeling disappointed when things don’t work exactly as planned. The real goal seems to be retirement. For some reason the community I firmly reside in has a central tenant of not working. But then what? If the goal is to not work, what will you fill your days with? Idle chit-chat with friends and neighbors?
I’ve been preaching the gospel for some time now. The goal of financial independence is something I understand. Having the financial resources to pursue the path in life that most enlightens you is a worthy goal. Travel is fine. Time off to recharge is also part of a responsible lifestyle. Peterson again:
A naively formulated goal transmutes, with time, into the sinister form of the life-lie.
And this is where I felt the stab of truth pierce deep. How often have we subverted our own desires to satisfy the demands of family or a friend? I was lucky in breaking away from the family business to follow my dream. But I didn’t avoid the entire life-lie! Sometimes I took a path in my business that went against my personal agenda. I did what I thought others wanted me to do. Every time I took such a path I was disappointed. Worse, my performance was subpar and I wasted a portion of my life, a portion I can never get back.
It would be easy to tell you how easy it was for me to follow my path. It wasn’t. I fought hard to find my true meaning in life. I experimented often. People accused me of changing my mind a lot. Well, I did! I evolved and quickly. If I examined a course and discovered it to be wanting I moved on. Even today I am still growing and evolving. What tickles my fancy as we speak might be drudgery in the future. I have the right, no, actually, the obligation to change when reason dictates. More money can’t be the driving force once a reasonable level of wealth is accumulated. Afterwards, my work better do more than add to an already bloated pile of financial largess.
One forty-something client told me his vision, formulated by his younger self: “I see myself retired, sitting on a tropical beach, drinking margaritas in the sunshine.” That’s not a plan. That’s a travel poster.
If you are honest you see this attitude writ large in the FIRE community. The desire to check out is high. The idea is to travel to exotic places while sharing on social media so anyone you have ever known is jealous able to enjoy your good fortune. It also serves to pay forward to delusion life is only an ass planted in the beach sucking down sweet drinks.
But Peterson gets more brutal:
After eight margaritas, you’re fit only to await the hangover. After three weeks of margarita-filled days, if you have any sense, you’re bored stiff and self-disgusted. In a year, or less, you’re pathetic. It’s just not a sustainable approach to later life. This kind of oversimplification and falsification is particularly typical of ideologues.
Can Peterson be more graphic? His point is clear and dead-on. The goal to checking out is not conducive to a fulfilling life. Travel is wonderful in moderate doses. Some people travel better than others. Forcing yourself to travel to satisfy a group is over the line into the realm of insanity.
Sustainable Approach to Life
Peterson’s words probably hit you as hard as they smacked me. If the general goals of the FIRE community are short-sighted, then what should we do? This is what I had to think about as I walked around the long rural block and back. Financial independence is an honorable goal and Peterson did nothing to dissuade my opinion in that matter.
I already knew there was something wrong with this early retirement idea, but didn’t know out to clearly communicate the message. Peterson put it into focus. It took hours of self-debate to reach a coherent meaning on the issue.
Checking out as soon as you can is a meaningless life. If you don’t do something productive and constructive on a regular basis you will lose meaning in your life. Human beings are social creatures. We need to interact and create. When we work, as much as some jobs are drudgery, we produce something of value. Nothing is worse than a dead-end job with days filled with meaningless activities, or worse, no activity at all.
Financial independence gives you additional options. Jumping ship the first chance you get seems foolish to this country accountant. Quitting your job should only happen after you have seriously reviewed why you want to quit. If you hate your job, you need to ask: What would make my job more nurturing? If you have valid reasons for quitting (bad boss, not the kind of work you want to do, only took the job for money), then quit. But don’t bow out. Instead, move up. Find the job that will cause you to jump out of bed each morning excited to be alive. Or, start the business you always wanted to.
Remember, your dreams are not immutable. If you don’t change, evolve, you will decay. Once upon a time I thought it a good idea to own lots of real estate. It was somebody else’s idea of what I should do. I did it for money and hated every step. You may love investment properties. Excellent! Somebody has to do it so it may as well be you. If I ever dip my toe back into investment properties it will be as a buyer only. All the management will be performed by managers.
Your work should have meaning for you. Growing up on a farm I hated cleaning the barn. Pushing manure around for hours wasn’t the highlight of my life. After the family farm dissolved I moved away and started my practice. They say you can take the boy from the country, but you can’t take the country from the boy. Truer words were never spoken. Years later I bought a small farm and raised beef. Then, after a couple decades of cow punching, it was time to evolve. I miss my boys and loved the work. But it was time to move on.
I will always have the memories of each step of my evolution. Plenty of mistakes were made along the way. The mistakes taught me valuable lessons I could apply as I evolved to the next level. (Notice I didn’t say higher level. The next level isn’t always higher. Sometimes a step down is needed to grow to new heights.)
In conclusion, I strongly encourage purchase of Jordan Peterson’s book. It really is that good. Don’t get hung up on dreams you had as a child. Not every dream should be realized. Not every dream will deliver the pleasure you think when you walk the steps in real life.
Find meaningful activities to you. Don’t let anyone dictate how you should live your life. As long as you pursue a legal, moral and ethical path you have my blessing. Meaningful work, meaningful activities, lead to a productive, happy and joyful life. And I think that’s a rule even Jordan Peterson would appreciate.
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