I have known I wanted to be an engineer since I was 10 years old.* It is something that I felt so strongly about that over the years it has become a part of who I am.
I was a part of the inaugural class for a special engineering preparatory program in high school, so even as a teenager I had started to think of myself as an “engineer.”
But ever since I learned about financial independence and the possibility of retiring early, the definition of “Dylan the engineer” sort of flew out the window.
“So, what do you do?”
Even though I still answer the “what do you do?” question with “engineer,” that is really not the only thing that I do, or even the most interesting thing about me.
My discovery of financial independence and early retirement gave me a purpose to earn and save money. While engineering is still my career, it is more or less just a way to get me to financial independence.
Don’t get me wrong – I will always love engineering. But I want to do it in the ways that I choose to do it, and I definitely don’t want it to be the only thing that defines me.
There will be a time in the not too distant future when I am no longer employed as an engineer. Does that mean I am no longer an engineer? Will FIRE strip me of my self-identity?
No, it won’t. Much of my fear of losing my sense of self is based on how other perceive me. Part of my pride in being labeled an “engineer” is dependent on how my friends and family perceive me. That’s just how they think of me. Without my job, how will they label me? Former engineer? Weirdo who quit his job? Lazy?
The thing is, I don’t care.
Welcoming who you will become
I am happy with who I am and who I have become. “Dylan the engineer” may have been one of the most important labels for myself in the past, but it isn’t anymore. I will always be an engineer, but I will also be a teacher, a writer, a helper, a musician, an investor, a manager, an entrepreneur, a father.
I think it is important for me to understand that I am not any one thing. And it is equally important to understand that in order to grow as an individual, I should be willing to let go of old self identities in order to make room for new ones.
All this got me thinking: What are some ways that I can accept change in my life and enjoy my changing self-identity?
Jobs change, and so do you
This is really at the heart of what I’m trying to convey – you spend your entire childhood preparing for college, and then upwards of four years training for a specific profession – it’s hard not to use your career to define you.
But I hope you don’t.
Your career only serves an economic purpose – you make money from your employer, and your employer makes money from you. That’s all it is.
Rather than defining yourself by how you make money, define yourself by your interests. What got you interested in that profession in the first place? How can you apply those skills and interests outside of your job that still brings you joy?
You are influenced by the people you meet
I think many people outside of the FIRE community are confused by why so many people are brought together by the idea of saving lots of money and investing in index funds. Even I can admit that it sounds pretty weird. Who the hell would even want to get together at a coffee shop on a weekend and talk about that?
But so many good things have come from my interacting with the FIRE community. Everyone is very driven to not only achieve FI, but also give back to their community and push themselves to be better. No matter what your goals are, there will be someone in the FIRE community who wants to do the same thing and will be there to support you and cheer you on. There aren’t many Internet-based communities that can say the same.
Financial independence can lead to new identities
One of the great things about FIRE is pushing yourself to try new things to build wealth. For some this might lead to learning to be a landlord. Becoming an Amazon entrepreneur. Teaching yoga.
Suddenly when someone asks “What do you do?” you don’t have to answer with the typical career-based answer. You’re not just a CPA, or a marketing analyst. Now you’re also an entrepreneur, and a teacher. Or just a person.
(I’ve always wanted to respond to that cocktail party question with “I’m a professional human.” I’ve never been able to bring myself to be that unabashedly snarky in person, though. Someday…)
Insights on self-identity from the FIRE community
I reached out to the members of the Rockstar Finance forums to learn about other people’s experiences with changing self identity in the context of financial independence. Here is what some of them had to say:
“People think that they know who they are, but their identity is based solely upon cultural conditioning and their own thoughts. The truth, however, cannot be found until the illusion of ‘me’ is seen through. Who is it that wants to attain FI? Who is it that wants anything? Who is it that sees, hears, thinks, or acts? Find the answer to those questions and then see if ‘what you are’ has ever changed in any way. I promise that you’ll get a huge laugh if you find the truth.”
“I always thought I wanted to manage a group of people, but pursuing FIRE made me realize I’d rather manage my free time to set and accomplish personal goals. The small raises I’d get at work by moving into management do not make up for the extra hours and stress required.
“I started my blog Kiwi and Keweenaw and have found time to work on projects at home. This started with expanding our garden and planting more fruit trees, so we can eat more food grown in our own backyard. I am still very driven, but I’m using the drive to make personally fulfilling choices, instead of focusing on career growth.”
“Pursuing FIRE has challenged me to re-align how I self-identify. Currently, when asked who I am or what I do, my reply includes my job and career. But I am so much more than that. I now try to respond with an answer that does not include my job immediately. Yes, my job and career are a part of my life, but they are not me and should not define me!”
“My plan out of school was to pursue a high-paying career so that I could retire early. I would work like a madman, save like a madman, and get out of there as soon as I had made “enough” to do what I really wanted. But as the 15 hour days started to take a toll, I came to the realization that my goal was counterproductive. I was sacrificing ALL of my ‘current time’ for some illusive ‘future time.’ And the worst part was that I saw everyone around me inflating their lifestyles with each promotion and getting stuck in miserable careers. I realized that flexibility, above all, was my end goal.”
“I think FI has made me beat even more to my own drum. FI has made me realize that what makes me happy isn’t decided by my friends, my neighbors, or the commercials on TV. Just because some advertising executives spend billions of dollars trying to convince me to spend my money a certain way, doesn’t mean I have to.
“The result has been that I’ve become a lot less attached to things. I’ve come to realize that a lot of it is junk anyway. If we have our health, our people, and our life, then we’re unbelievably fortunate. Money’s job then, is not to fill our houses with stuff. It’s to buy us the things that really matter – our freedom from jobs we dread, and time with people we care about.”
“When I was young, I thought I’d be like my parents- own my home, maybe work and if not work, then do some household chores and call it a day. Every day. It didn’t work out that way. I’ve changed my opinion of who I’ve become from who I thought I’d be. I’m more knowledgeable about finances and willing to take risks. I’ve learned that just because I’m nearing age 50, the number doesn’t dictate my bank account. Increased age doesn’t mean increased finances. I have to do some kind of work and risk taking to build wealth.”
“We moved to China from the US on an expat job and were quite miserable the first year. I had always planned to retire early. It started with a goal of age 50, then 40, and now 30 when the China contract ends. We found a quote by Hal Elrod that really resonated with us for how to life:
Love the life you live, while you create the life of your dreams. ~Hal Elrod.
We brought my retire date from 35-40 down to 30 and really got motivated for FI. We cranked up the savings rate and reduced spending as much as possible. The crisis that occurs with this new way of thinking is how to achieve FIRE in the remaining 2 years of working. We are not going to make the traditional 4%, but are working on side income streams. FIRE has come to define many people’s opinions of who I am because I am even more apt to skip out on activities that cost money than I was before. However, my perception of myself remains the same: a frugal fun loving person that just wants to be free to do as I please.”
“It was somewhat disappointing to realize that I was not magically happier or more fulfilled once I chalked up my arbitrary magic (FI) number. There was no medal or trophy awarded, no fireworks, no tickertape parade. In fact it took some time before even I noticed it had happened.
“After reflecting on things for a while it dawned on me that what I had been chasing wasn’t an arbitrary bank balance, but rather control over how I spent my time. “Rich” people could jet off on holidays when they felt like it, attend their kid’s Christmas concerts and school sports days, outsource the stuff they didn’t enjoy, and pursue passion/ego projects just because that floated their boat.
“The ‘existential’ part was learning that money is just a tool, and wealth is measured in time. That said I am grateful I had the money part of the equation sorted before I figured that out!”
If you told me as a teenager that I would be actively pursuing a way to stop my employment as an engineer, I would have been flabbergasted. How could future me not like engineering? Was I not good at it? Why wouldn’t you want to make an impact and leave a legacy?
I am ok with letting go of how I once defined myself. I know that going forward I will learn new things, meet new people, and do new things.
While my primary reason for pursuing financial independence is to gain more freedom with how I spend my time, I have found that there is more to it than that. FIRE has pushed me to find other ways to support myself and my family. It has exposed an entrepreneurial side of me that I didn’t know existed, and given me focus on something productive besides my career.
I’m not promoting FIRE as the answer to all personal, philosophical questions. My hope is that you will find a way to gain focus in your life that ultimately leads to embracing change, letting go of who you once were to welcome in who you are and who you will become. FIRE is just what led me to it.
Have you come to terms with any changes to your self-identity? Was FIRE a part of it? Let me know in the comments!
*As an even younger kid I was obsessed with trains and wanted to drive trains when I grew up, so you might say that I have wanted to be an “engineer” my entire life 🙂