In his book Beginners, author Tom Vanderbilt notes that the label adult beginner “has an air of gentle pity” associated with it. He hypothesizes that most people feel safer doing things we’re already good at. Being a beginner puts you in uncomfortable situations.
But retiring, and especially retiring early, often means walking away from things we’ve spent years mastering. We often become beginners at other things.
Vanderbilt sums up why this can be so hard. He writes, “We can be so put off by being a beginner that we forget we were once beginners in all kinds of things until we were not.”
I recently began my fifth year since leaving my career. I’ve learned embracing this willingness to be a beginner, being a lifelong learner and continuously reinventing yourself, is the key to a successful retirement.
What Do You Want to Be?
In my career as a physical therapist, I worked with many high school students. My side-hustle in the latter years of my career was running a rock climbing wall at a university, which gave me time to talk to college students. I found that many young people struggled with what they wanted to do with their lives.
It is unfair to ask kids in their teens or early twenties to make a decision about what will make them happy and fulfilled decades into the future. Yet that’s exactly what we do.
Kids are tasked with committing to a college major or career path. Then they often bury themselves in debt with student loans, mortgages, and car loans that make it challenging to change course.
I’m 45 years old. I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. Fortunately, I found the principles of financial independence early. Those principles have allowed me to not be trapped by decisions I made early in my adult life.
What Don’t You Want to Be?
Determining “the one” thing that you want to be, if such a thing even exists, can feel overwhelming. A more reasonable approach is to try small experiments to see what you enjoy, to be a beginner.
Observe what lights you up… and pay attention to what you don’t like. Then continue trying new things that play to your likes, while minimizing things you don’t enjoy.
Themes From My Career
As I began to feel burnt out in my career as a physical therapist, I became acutely aware of things I didn’t like. I’ve made efforts to avoid them as I designed this next phase of life. At the top of the list are:
- A lack of control over my time
- Dealing with bureaucracy and regulations
- Not having ultimate control over how things are done while working as an employee for someone else.
However, I did not hate being a physical therapist. I was careful to observe the things that I liked from my career. I continue to look for ways to recreate them in early retirement. They include:
- Service to and connection with others
- The satisfaction of progressing towards goals
- An interest in health, wellness, and movement
- Ongoing learning and mastery in my formal degree programs and continuing education
- The sense of abundance that my income and ability to live below my means provided.
My Experiences as a Beginner In Retirement
Part of my retirement planning process was thinking about how I would replace those positive attributes of my work. However, I’ve continued to grow, change, and evolve. Some things I assumed would fill voids left by leaving my career failed to do so.
I’ve also experimented with becoming a beginner at a number of things. Some of these activities that I never imagined I’d do in retirement have been surprisingly rewarding.
No one thing has been able to fill the void of the positive things I lost when I retired. Each helps to partially fill those voids.
I never tried mountain biking during my working years. I did own an old mountain bike that a friend gifted to me to access some climbing crags that had long approaches along rails-to-trails pathways.
When I moved to Utah, my neighbor noticed the bike and invited me to join him on a ride on the trails above our neighborhood. I was hesitant. I didn’t even own a helmet or understand how to properly use the different gears. But I decided to try it anyway.
At various points on that first ride, I debated internally whether I would die by blunt force trauma when getting tossed off the bike or from a heart attack on one of the climbs. Yet when we got home, I couldn’t wait to go back out.
Over the past three years, mountain biking has become my favorite hobby. I’ve spent thousands of dollars upgrading my gear and hundreds of hours on the bike.
Of the activities I’ve tried in early retirement, it had the shortest learning curve from beginner to advanced and approaching expert status. I’ve also made a number of new friends who I ride with.
Yet I’m still a beginner in learning the mechanics and maintenance of the bike and I continue to discover new trails which keeps this activity novel and exciting.
Another activity that I’d never tried while working and never imagined I would in retirement was gardening. I had never grown anything in my life. In fact, I managed to completely destroy the entire lawn and most of the landscaping at our first home the first year we owned it.
This new activity also started out of a conversation with a neighbor. I was admiring his vegetable garden and commented on how hard it must be to grow and maintain. He assured me gardening is not difficult and offered to guide me if I wanted to plant my own garden. So I took him up on his offer.
I’ve been experimenting and learning over the past three years. Gardening has become another favorite activity in retirement. I’ve gotten more knowledgeable every year and produce a decent variety and quantity of vegetables and herbs that we eat and give to others. Still, I consider myself a novice gardener with a lot to learn and improve upon.
I’ve been an avid skier for years. But living in Pennsylvania there was rarely enough snow to ski anywhere aside from resorts on a base of machine made snow.
One of the activities I was most excited to become a beginner at when moving to Utah was backcountry skiing. In contrast to my experience with mountain biking, the learning curve with backcountry skiing has been long despite my prior experience as a downhill resort skier.
Figuring out the gear was an expensive and time intensive endeavor. Learning avalanche safety is challenging and humbling. Finding mentors has been challenging due to dangerous snow conditions limiting opportunities to get out and COVID making it harder to meet people in general.
Most of my experience over the past two seasons has been solo skinning up the local resort slopes early in the morning prior to lifts opening. This has given me the chance to master my gear and build physical endurance, but has left me very much a beginner with regards to actual backcountry experience.
As a physical therapist, I’d developed an interest in and knowledge about yoga. I’d recommended yoga to patients with a variety of conditions. But I’d never taken the time to develop a practice myself.
Every time I tried yoga, I was quickly reminded how bad I was at it. All the videos I tried were an hour or more, which was a big hurdle for an activity I was terrible at and didn’t particularly enjoy. I was too self conscious, cheap, and lazy to go to public classes.
I stumbled upon Yoga With Adriene on Youtube. She has a series of videos that are beginner friendly. Most are a half hour or less. The videos have become a part of my daily routine.
I’ve become convinced that I’ll be a perpetual beginner at yoga. No matter how much I work on it, I’ll likely never be flexible enough to touch my toes with straight knees, let alone sit in a lotus position. While I’m slowly improving, my advanced balance poses like crow and headstands are embarrassingly bad after over a year of regular practice.
Still, I plan to stick with this activity. Regularly working on flexibility and core stability have my body feeling better than ever. Breathing exercises and meditation practices are helpful in the real world when dealing with anxious moments.
Most important and surprising to me is the importance of having a routine. Many people pursuing early retirement focus on the freedom it provides, which is great in moderation. But I’ve found I need some structure and routine in my life. Yoga helps meet that need.
Another thing I was excited to try in early retirement was working for myself on projects I am passionate about. I had been writing my original blog for about four years while working, but I never monetized it or did much to promote it.
Before leaving my career, I established partnerships and had plans to begin working on this blog and the Choose FI book. Having something productive to spend a few hours a day on was helpful to provide structure as I made the transition from my career.
Darrow was an outstanding mentor not only as a writer, but also as someone who had made a similar life transition to that I was going through. Writing, editing, and promoting the book provided a big project with evolving novel tasks to learn as we progressed through different stages.
Finishing and releasing the book provided a feeling of accomplishment. It also provided exciting social opportunities as I was promoting it.
I made very little money the first three years as an entrepreneur. Yet I loved the mental challenge and social connections it provided.
Feeling Stuck and Needing a New Challenge
We released the Choose FI book in October 2019, debuting as the number one new release in a number of categories and raising my profile in personal finance circles. Around the same time, Darrow and I hired a website designer to give this blog a new look and help us reach more people.
In addition to things looking up from a business perspective, I was finding my footing in our new local community. I was meeting people around my “beginner” activities, becoming involved with our church, and volunteering and taking classes in the community.
Then March of 2020 came. Momentum in all areas of life abruptly came to a stop. Despite being in an amazing position to weather this storm, it hasn’t been easy to make sense of the new world we’re now living in and navigate a path forward.
I initially thought I just needed to keep my head above water until things returned to normal. In June 2021 our family embarked on a month-long cross country trip. It felt like the world was returning to normalcy, and maybe the early retirement plans we made still made sense.
Sadly, by the time we returned in July the Delta wave of the pandemic took hold. As the third wave now rages and the limited effectiveness of the vaccines becomes more apparent, the path forward is less clear than ever and it’s become apparent that it’s time for new plans.
Noticing Past Patterns to Guide Future Beginnings
I’ve been working hard to determine what is missing in my life and what steps I need to take to move forward. I started by looking back at what has been important to me historically.
After a lot of reflection, I’ve realized three things are missing.
The first void is meaningful human connection. The pandemic has massively altered my social relationships. Finding ways to build new ones has proven challenging.
The second is having a big goal that I’m working towards. I continue to learn new things, but at times feel like a butterfly fluttering from thing to thing with no real focus.
The third thing that was not as obvious to me initially is the need to have more structure in my life.
Taking on My Next Big Challenge
I recently decided that I’m going to start coursework with Bryant University’s Certified Financial Planner (CFP®) program.
In a world dominated by uncertainty, this online learning program is unlikely to be disrupted. This will give me a big goal and provide structure for my ongoing learning for the next year.
Although there will be a lot of self-guided independent learning, I elected to pay extra for the instructor-led program to have increased interaction with instructors and others taking the classes.
My decision to start down the path towards the CFP® is part of a long-term plan to develop skills that will enable me to better serve others. That may be through writing, coaching, or actually practicing as a financial advisor if I elect to complete the certification process.
What Does This Mean for the Future of the Blog?
I honestly don’t know the answer to that question. What I do know is that 2021 was far and away my most successful year financially as a blogger. It was also the least I’ve enjoyed blogging since I started.
I started blogging to force myself to learn about complex financial topics at a deeper level, hold myself accountable to take actions to improve my life, and connect with and inspire others. On all counts my experience has exceeded all expectations.
But I spent much of the past year feeling stuck. I started focusing on things like growing my social media following, learning search engine optimization, and monetizing the blog because that’s what you’re “supposed to do” to be a successful blogger. And I hated it!
So I’m going to get back to my roots of learning about something I’m really interested in and writing about it to hold myself accountable, learn at a deeper level, and hopefully help and serve others by sharing what I learn along the way.
I’m still interested in developing a lifestyle business in early retirement. Entrepreneurship provides opportunities to have more impact than volunteering, while having more control than I would have as an employee. But I want my work to be something that I’m passionate about and that truly helps others.
What will that ultimately look like? I’m still figuring that out. I’m a beginner!
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[Chris Mamula used principles of traditional retirement planning, combined with creative lifestyle design, to retire from a career as a physical therapist at age 41. After poor experiences with the financial industry early in his professional life, he educated himself on investing and tax planning. Now he draws on his experience to write about wealth building, DIY investing, financial planning, early retirement, and lifestyle design at Can I Retire Yet? Chris has been featured on MarketWatch, Morningstar, U.S. News & World Report, and Business Insider. He is also the primary author of the book Choose FI: Your Blueprint to Financial Independence. You can reach him at email@example.com.]
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