Financial Freedom Can Make You Just as Miserable as Your 9-5 Job—Unless…

by | BiggerPockets.com

For the longest time, there was an unwritten pact in America. It went something like this: First, you attend school, show up on time, and listen to your teachers so you can get good grades and a reputable college degree. Then, there will be a nice corporate job waiting for you where you show up on time, work for 8-12 hours per day, and get a nice paycheck every two weeks.

You can even learn to climb an imaginary ladder for higher paychecks, bigger responsibilities, and increased time commitments. Finally—and this is the critical promise—if you do all these things, the company will take care of you. You could work there all your working life, get a nice pension, and retire right when you’re old enough not to enjoy most things besides fishing and golfing.

Over the last few decades, that unwritten pact has been shredded and set on fire. You know that college degree that plunged you into that ridiculous student loan debt? That doesn’t guarantee you will be hired right away. And so much for working for the same company all your life. These days, your employer will pink slip you without as much as a thought if that can improve their quarterly performance slightly—your years of service be damned!

But that’s not all that’s changed. We’ve smartened up. We’ve realized that the imaginary ladder keeps you climbing inside the same trap that leads to being overworked and overstressed. We don’t want to wait until we are too old to enjoy wonderful experiences like traveling or pursuing meaningful work. The curtain has been lifted, and we don’t want to trade the best years of our lives so that we can have a few restful and relaxing years toward the end. We don’t want to live to work; we want to work to live. We seek to build work around the lives we want, not build our lives around the work we have to do.

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Related: Are Your Children Stopping You From Achieving Financial Freedom?

Enter the FIRE (Financial Independence/Retire Early) Movement

We pursue financial independence because we want to escape the rat wheel. Employment becomes a rat wheel when we need to keep working to pay for and maintain things we’ve made part of our identity. For instance, “People like us live in a house like this, wear clothes made by that company, and drive a car like that.” As we choose to purchase more and more things to solidify that identity, we lose the choice. We’ve gone too far, and now we must pedal to keep the wheel going or everything falls apart. And we risk losing not just our accumulated stuff, but the very identity we’ve adopted.

We slowly come to the realization that the things we own actually own us, and we decide to make a drastic change. We let the pendulum swing the opposite way. Instead of getting rid of our attachment to a ridiculous identity, we feel the need to get rid of “employment” as a badge of dishonor. So we cut our living expenses down, increase our savings rate, and invest the savings into income producing assets. At some point, we reach critical mass and income from our assets meets or exceeds the expenses. We are financially free.

These are all great moves—until we attach to another identity. “People like us don’t work for a living. People who do are suckers. The whole point of employment is to cover expenses, and I’ve already mastered that game.”

And so we start pedaling on a different, shinier rat wheel with its own identity.

Work Provides Structure and Meaning

I have a major issue with the thesis that the only purpose of work is to provide income to cover living expenses. I believe that work provides two additional benefits that are necessary for a happy and satisfying life. To quote the late great Jim Rohn,“The purpose of life is not to rest, but to be productive.”

Work provides identity, structure, and meaning to life. If you don’t believe me, just pay attention at the next social gathering or holiday party. As people get to know each other, they ask “what do you do” and their counterpart quickly responds with “I am a (fill in profession here) with (organization)”. Furthermore, if you were to take an account of all the conversations you have with the people in your life, you will quickly realize that the majority of them deal with your work and situations related to it.

As many people who have achieved financial independence will tell you, after a period of decompression where you catch up on the deferred rest, there’s usually a void and an emptiness that is challenging to fill. Because if you’re not Jeff the Senior Accountant at Deloitte, then who are you? You quickly realize that through work, you don’t only get the income you need to cover your bills, but also social interaction, praise, goals, and objectives. Or put differently, work provides a system, a structure in which you operate with relatively clear rules for success and failure, rewards and consequences. Now, freshly financially independent, you must create that structure yourself from scratch. It’s no easy task, and it will have you questioning your decision to ditch work altogether.

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Related: No, You Are NOT Going Too Far in Pursuit of Financial Independence

How to Substitute Obligatory Work With Meaningful Work

The problem with most people pursuing financial independence is that they are 100 percent focused on generating the passive income that will cover their expenses. They have made the job they hate the sole culprit of everything they don’t like about their life. If they could only create enough of an income stream so they don’t have to work, they’d be happy and they’d live just like the successful folks on Instagram: traveling to tropical beaches, eating delicious foods, and humble-bragging.

They fail to ask the question, “And then what?” Travel is great, but then what? Trust me, if you traveled all the time for 40 years straight, you’d hate it as much as you hate your current job.

Don’t fall for the same trap. Ask yourself:

  • If I didn’t have to work for money because my needs are covered, what work would I do?
  • If financial outcomes were irrelevant, where would I spend my time?
  • What profession did I shun in favor of a more lucrative one that would light up my days?

There are no easy answers to these questions—they are hard questions that require reflection and contemplation. I believe that the biggest damage we suffer from an existence solely focused on earning money to live is that it keeps us from asking and reflecting on these bigger questions.

If you make the creation of passive income the sole objective of your life, that’s just a shinier version of the rat wheel of employment. By any means, build that portfolio that will produce passive income so you can be financially independent. But as you are doing that, make sure to create and build your future life by asking yourself the hard questions.

What’s the ideal life you’d create if money were no longer an object?

Let us know with a comment!

About Author

Erion Shehaj

Erion Shehaj is the founder of Investing Architect. I help successful professionals design and execute a custom Blueprint Real Estate Investing™ strategy so they can achieve financial independence, retire early and gain the freedom to live the life they always wanted. Side effects might include: Early retirement, wealth and piece of mind. Follow on Twitter if that’s your thing.

13 Comments

  1. Christopher Smith

    Despite the endless stream of attempted philisophical resets (this article case in point), in the end there is only the inescapable rat wheel for all of us (of one variant or another).

    Just don’t let the sound of yours drive you crazy while you are here.

  2. John Murray

    As an entrepreneur and a multimillionaire coming from a working class background the rat wheel is nothing but a capital accumulation tool. Once capital is accumulated now the hard work begins. Most will never understand freedom especially the upper middle class, they build their own prison and serve a life sentence. Those of us that come from the working class know more about freedom and growth as an individual. The trap of scholarly achievement, high taxes and competing in the corporate world is a fate worse than death, it’s true boredom with no parole, you must serve the entire sentence.

  3. Rebecca Jackson

    I wonder why the default is always escaping that “awful” job. I happen to enjoy my line of work- I’m in healthcare and it’s very gratifying. The difference is being in a position where I don’t need to live on my paycheck. No island life for this millennial!

  4. Ajay Kumar

    Very insightful article – I faced the same existential dilemma when I left a high-stress job which was making me sick to my stomach (literally & figuratively).

    Having a few rental properties and a low-cost lifestyle allowed independence, but after a few months of R&R, I was bored out of my mind. Morning workouts, healthy cooking, walking the dog around the park, reading…all good things to do but I still lacked a purpose in life.

    Became a consultant and now working 6-7 months a year – seems to be the ideal compromise between both extremes.

  5. Mark JOhnson

    Great article. I did exactly as you described: school, college, job, climbed ladder to the top. All that was good but I also started buying rental properties 18 years ago because the “real job” could never fill my inner need to build things my way. I retired at 50. I’ve hit the financial freedom point. It’s now about the challenge.and.drive that keeps me going. Plus, I take 5 or 6 vacations a year and don’t feel guilty doing it. What’s next? Currently it means I spend much more.time with my family. As you become older you realize time doesn’t stop and family is everything. I have zero regrets leaving the rat race of a 9-5 job!

  6. Elaine Hester

    Great article Erion! I rarely ever comment because I am no writer or philosopher … I am merely a person coming from a working class background who is still trying to figure out my own life purpose. I believe your questions are spot on though for moving towards purpose. They are the questions I’ve asked myself most of my life. And though I still don’t have the answers, I firmly believe that we are all here for a greater purpose beyond satisfying our own individual needs and wants, and that’s the very reason why all the money in the world can’t buy happiness. Ask any person who finds satisfaction in their work where the satisfaction comes from and, if they probe deeply enough, they will find that true satisfaction comes from serving someone or some thing outside of one’s self. Maybe we all need to find the courage to ditch that rat wheel from time to time to get in touch with our greater self and see what comes of it.?

  7. Dani Sung

    As someone who used to work a 9-5, then started drinking the Financial freedom Kool-aid and eventually escaped the 9-5. Three years into “retirement”/Financial freedom, I’ve traveled to 55 countries, sat on too many white sand beaches, I agree with you 120%, it’s boring as F*. My philosophy is that for us entrepreneur minded people, escaping 9-5 is step 1, step 2 is experience passive income and “retirement”, step 3 is find your true life purpose and pursue a greater good because at step 3, you can without having to worry about income (accomplished in step 2). It’s just evolution of a person’s life.

  8. Kevin Moules

    Erion this a fantastic article! I have followed the FIRE movement for a while now after finding Mr.Money Mustaches website. I totally agree with you on this. Folks make getting out of the race their sole driver and then when they get there, then what? As I state in my profile, and as Simon Sinek put so eloquently, “Start with Why”! Why are you investing? What is your bigger purpose? What can you do with the time you gain by not having a 9-5? My WHY is farming. It is my ultimate goal in life to farm full time. I want RE to help me work 60 hr weeks on my farm but have the passive income to always be there just in case mother nature decides she has other plans for my crops. I would go bat crazy not having something to do! Thanks for sharing!

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