On Being Accidentally on FIRE
Posted on April 24, 2020 by Felicity FFF


Shortly after graduating college, I knew I wanted to pursue financial independence, retire early (FIRE). Now I’m 30, financially independent (even with recent crazy market swings), and recently laid off (thanks coronavirus). Am I my goal?

In 2018 I took a three month sabbatical from work (a good deal of which coincided with my husband taking time off before starting his new job), and depending on day-to-day market fluctuations, we were financially independent (FI) (using a 4% withdrawal rate). 

Short story shorter, the sabbatical was not goals; at least, not our goals. 

  • I got hit by a car while biking shortly before the sabbatical. As far as accidents go, this one was pretty lucky: driver stopped, police were called, and I did not hit my head or end up in the hospital, but, you know, still not a great way to start a sabbatical.
  • We spent a month with basically no internet [cue horror movie soundtrack]. Yes, it was in the middle of Acadia National Park during peak leaf peeping season, but for us, that gets old pretty quickly. Plus, when you want to work on things like game development, the internet is pretty crucial.
  • A lot of travel: to the national park, to Cents Positive, and to FinCon. We love travel, but going into the sabbatical I wanted it to be like a mini FIRE experiment. There just was not enough time leftover to see what life day-to-day life without a job was like.

That sabbatical was the signal I used to really realize that I need external structure. My resting point is not jogging because I’m restless, carving a serving spoon out of driftwood, then knocking out 1,700 words for my novel, all before noon. My resting point is staying in bed until noon watching other people play Animal Crossing, then forcing my sims to live optimized lives for ten hours (No! We do not read books for fun! That is what the chess table is for, young lady!). 

Do what makes you happy, though, right? Except that at the end of my couch potato days, I don’t feel happy. I don’t even feel less stressed, usually. I feel more fulfilled when I can look back on things I’ve made, or people I’ve helped. I just really struggle with activation energy and need a motivational catalyst.

Long term Fergus and I are looking to slow travel the globe for a while, and work on projects together in dedicated bursts of time, being tourists one week and digital nomads the next week.

Since Fergus is more risk-averse, we’re looking to save up an extra buffer before pulling the plug together. If the S&P 500 dips below 2,000, like some say it could, we could be talking an extra couple of years even.

Cut to now: 2020, unemployed, and still confused. 

I know more about myself and how I work (or don’t!) than ever before, but I still honestly don’t know what I truly want or need in the short term. 

There’s a type of role I recently learned about that is technical while also emphasizing communication skills. I *think* I want this role, but it means brushing off some technical skills (and acquiring some new ones as well). 

So to get my foot in the door there’s:

  • Generic interview practice: behavioral questions, solidifying my “elevator pitch”
  • Resume / LinkedIn revisions: telling the best story I can, in a tailored way
  • Technical interview practice: drilling problems and being clear about thought processes
  • Technical community outreach: attending virtual events, possibly speaking

It’s a lot, but even more overwhelming when you consider that some senior engineers will spend months preparing for technical interviews, with hours of prep a day. Meanwhile I’m short a few classes for a software engineering degree and have been largely nontechnical for the last year. Yikes.

So what happens when I try some trickier interview questions that I totally don’t get? Apparently I cry, play Minecraft for the rest of the day, and wonder if I’m wasting my time.

Do I need a job for external structure?

I have a literal list of things I want to work on, but left to my own devices, I just don’t work on them. The only times I’ve been so engrossed in a project that I lost track of time have been: on projects that involved other people and occasionally researching and writing for blogs.

The thing is, I don’t need a job for that. Long term I’m hoping to get that external motivation more from Fergus, but he’s not some special motivational unicorn. I could build my external structure outside of work and family, with meetup groups, social media, and organizations.

So, if the answer is “no,” I don’t need a job for external structure, then the next step should be simple, yeah? Just forget work and jump into the FIRE life. 

Two problems:

  1. Would need to pick something to focus on
  2. FIRE life gets trickier after quarantine

I want to do too many things and can’t choose

Things I want to create (the short list):

  • Scifi novel
  • Nonfiction book about travels with family
  • Video game
  • A bajillion FFF article ideas

All wildly different skill sets, requiring different knowledge and communities. To feel accomplished instead of overwhelmed, I need to choose something for focus, but choosing feels like abandoning the other goals. OF COURSE I know this is bunk even as I type it, but it’s another layer of analysis paralysis making life difficult.

FIRE life gets trickier after quarantine

Part of why unemployed life has not been soul crushing so far is that, while Fergus is still working, he’s working literal feet away from me. We just took a five minute cuddle break, for goodness sake. I’m not waking up with him gone, then waiting until he gets back for dinner: I’m not lonely.

After quarantine, that changes. 

In college, for one semester break, I stayed on campus for a few days longer than all my friends before going back home. At the end, I was so emotionally thirsty that it almost physically hurt. Spending most of my waking hours without anyone to talk to is not a good look for me.

Keeping my options open

So you know that one creative project idea on making a video game? Unsurprisingly that ALSO involves coding and would be both practice AND something I could list as part of a portfolio. And who knows, maybe I will fall in love with game development  and stop the job search! If I could build a strong enough network and community within indie game development, wins all around. If not, I’ve still got more experience and a project to add to my resume.

It’s hard not to feel like a “FIRE failure” by admitting that I like being productive. Twitter is full of FIREees glorifying their “doing whatever they feel like” lifestyles. Yet these same FIREees maintain six figure blogs and/or have written books…they’re still “productive” by any sense of the word: they just don’t need the same kind of activation energy that I do.

My goal right now is to simply feel satisfied at the end of the day, and to make my life more ideal as the days go on. How that looks like in practice for me is going to be different from others, and that’s okay. I mean, I KNOW that beach bum life, homesteading life, or van life are not for me without any additional naval gazing, so it makes sense that there would be other differences as well. 😉


11 thoughts on “On Being Accidentally on FIRE

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  1. Absolutely amazing reflection lady. It seems like you’re figuring out things that it takes stereotypically aged retirees years to figure out and that’s super impressive. I love the plan! I have been surprised with the hobbies (including finance) that have created community and motivation around them in my life and I’m confident that indie game development could be that for you. Either way, I’m excited to see what happens! Thank you for sharing.

    • Aww, thanks so much! Makes me feel like maybe my headspace is not a no man’s land after all 😂. +100 to the community in the personal finance space. And to think there’s an alternate reality where we never met or sang Avenue Q songs at karaoke…

  2. Life doesn’t always happen according to your plans that’s why we need to be adoptable. I like the idea of creating an indie game developing community, sounds fantastic.

    And be on the lookout for Dave for using his brand name lol.

  3. I’m sorry you’re thrown into all this decision making. It’s hard. And I’m with you on the “spending my waking hours alone is not a good look on me thing.” I have no practical advice, but can’t wait to see what you get up to! 😉

  4. It’s so interesting to hear someone else’s experience around these issues. I “FIREd” in May 2018 from my full-time software engineering management job (though I never really called it FIRE — I just said I was taking time off with no specific plans of if/when I would go back to work). Jumping to the end of the story, this past January (so, 1 year and 8 months after quitting) I returned to a part-time individual contributor software engineer position at the same company.

    During my time off, I learned a ton about myself! I’m sharing not to say that other people are or should be like me, but just to share that everyone’s experience is unique and there is no one right or wrong path through life or FIRE or anything else! I don’t believe there is such a thing as a “FIRE failure”!

    I struggled a lot with the whole question of productivity and finally came around to feeling that for me, personally, (1) there is a desire to be productive; (2) it’s ok to act on that desire; and (3) external motivation can definitely help me satisfy it! After I quit work I was feeling really burnt out and for several months was perfectly happy not doing all that much. But it turned out that was just a temporary state and eventually my desires to do things and be productive — including write code — came back. (I actually suspect that most FIRE people who say they’re perfectly happy not being productive just haven’t gotten past the recovery from burn out yet.)

    I worked on some personal programming projects on my own, and I did and continue to have a lot of fun with those, but I realized last fall that I was missing being part of a team and working on really large-scale projects that are only really possible when you are in an organization. And, yes, the external motivation and having someone else drive the big picture reason for a project doesn’t hurt, either.

    However, I also learned that I really do best when I have a lot of downtime in my life, and full-time work is just very unappealing to me. So, I decided I was in a position to try to get exactly what I want (since I didn’t *need* a job) and found a way to go back to work on my own terms — as an individual contributor and part-time. So far it has been working out really well!

    Regarding external motivation, one of my hobbies is music, but it is something I struggle with and often have a hard time getting motivated to work on. I discovered that there are a lot of composition competitions offered through-out the year by various musical organizations, and choosing a competition to enter is a fantastic way to motivate myself to actually write and complete a composition. From which I conclude that external motivation can definitely be a good thing and there is a lot to be gained by figuring out what structures to put in your life so that you can have that.

    Anyway, I realize this is a bit long and rambly, but your post just really resonated and inspired me to share my own story/thoughts — I hope this was interesting and good luck figuring out your path!

    • Thank you so much for sharing your own experiences here! We have a lot in common, and it’s good to hear about how other people make it work. Like, reading about the composition competitions that motivate you make me think of the game jam events for indie developers 🙂 . Part-time work honestly does also sound like a perfect compromise between competing needs…maybe I’ll have to look into what’s out there in terms of part-time work now 😀 😀 😀

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  6. I can completely relate to this feeling – having a ton of things you want to do, but then not feeling like you’re actively making progress on them.

    As weird as it sounds, I think I was more productive working on a lot of side projects while I was still working! There’s a lot to be said for momentum. Generating that momentum for yourself is an entirely new challenge, and one I’m still trying to figure out too (let me know if you solve it). “Activation energy” is a good term for it.

    One thing that’s semi-worked for me is creating a setup I love for the task I don’t want to do. Whether that’s comfy running shoes and clothes with an app I like for exercising or setting up my desk just right with a mug of coffee to get me writing. When I go to that specific spot or put on that specific outfit, I get more of that “activation energy” and I’m more likely to do something tough.

    Now if only there was a way to constantly make myself do that first step. 😅 I absolutely haven’t been doing that lately, but I’ve found it helps to do those tasks that some part of you wants to do, but may still feel like work.

    • It’s not weird at all! I’ve felt the same exact way.

      One thing I might try, especially when Fergus is similarly unemployed is to do mini hackathons of sorts: just work on a project, maybe with other people, for a day or a week, building up momentum on that one idea, then resting between projects.

      Love the thought of putting more effort into creating a setup for a dreaded task! I absolutely need to do that more. It is amazing how much better I feel when I put on regular clothes (vs. pajamas) when it comes to writing and creating. 😀