Becoming a Beginner in Retirement
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.
Related: Marriage, Mental Health, and Money: Protect Your Most Valuable Assets
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.
Related: Should You Start a Business After Retiring?
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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Wow! That’s quite a challenge getting your CFP. How long does it usually take? And doesn’t that mean the ultimate goal is to then be a CFP and work on financial plans for people? Or is that more of a bucket list item to be more knowledgeable? It will be a great accomplishment.
It took three years to get my MBA part-time while working. It was difficult but satisfying after, and I learned a lot.
What did you think about the overall book marketing experience? And do you feel your status is elevated now?
I have my own book coming out on June 28 of this year with Portfolio Penguin Random House. I don’t particularly like selling anything. And I’m not sure how status will help me spend more time with my kids. Ha. So it’s gonna be a challenge!
But after the pandemic began, it became really clear to me that there needs to be more Asian representation in the Personal finance community and with non-fiction finance authors. Therefore, I will be part of the change I want to see in the world.
Thanks for your thoughts.
The CFP program I’m doing takes about 10 months and would make me eligible to take the exam in November, which I plan to do. Yes it is a bucket list item. To actually obtain the CFP certification you have to fulfill the “4 E’s”: Education, Exam, Ethics, AND Experience. The last one, I’m not sure I’m willing to do unless I am able to do so with a work around. TBD.
Re: the book. I actually enjoyed marketing it. I focused on podcasts with a few live and traditional media events. After working so long and hard on the book, it was exciting to get the word out and I got to meet a lot of interesting people in the process.
Congrats on writing your upcoming book. I agree that we need to hear a wider variety of voices and perspectives, which I’ve shared was a motivation for my own book. https://www.caniretireyet.com/choose-fi/
If you want to shoot me a private email, I’d be happy to connect and learn more about it.
I took one CFP class a few years ago and stopped as my career got back on track. Now, as I am inside of two years to retirement, I am inquiring to CFP’s, reading blogs and books to try to transition to the income investing game and life after work. Just this weekend after reading more of Wade Phau’s Returement Plannjng Guidebook and Kiplingesque article around Robo advisors, I wondered if picking up the CFP courses would be a good idea for myself and if the opportunity were to present itself, perhaps a retirement gig!
Getting ready to retire is more daunting than I thought and paying someone 1- 1-1/2% makes it even harder. We’ll see what happens. Curious what you thing of the Robo advisor services?
Darrow has shared his thoughts about robo-advisors here https://www.caniretireyet.com/is-a-robo-advisor-right-for-you/ and I’ve shared similar opinions at my old blog. https://eatthefinancialelephant.com/why-we-say-no-to-robo-advisers/
Each is a couple years ago so the number of options has increased and fees have generally decreased, but the concepts and framework are pretty timeless. I hope that helps.
Wow, both are from 2016! It’s come a long way since but appreciate the perspectives. Thanks Chris.
I enjoyed your candid thoughts. I think many people have felt stuck. The pandemic has isolated so many of us – I can relate to your feelings of needing more social interaction! I’m a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist who ventured back to the hospital system to work outpatient in Integrative and Functional Medicine for the reason to have a physical presence with staff and patients (I had been working solo in private practice). Then the pandemic hit and I had to go virtual. It’s not the same! I also relate to not being excited about all the online things one has to do to have a web presence. It’s enough just to stay on top of my field with actionable nutrition information, let alone know how to do be a digital wizard too! My husband and I technically retired last year, but we both still “work” on things that interest and challenge us for all the reasons you mentioned: structure to the day, the need to be of service to others, and intellectual curiosity. It is interesting to note during working years, we are very focused and busy to get to retirement and then when you arrive, it is a bit of a let down. I think a healthy way to look at this change is like you have as a “beginner”. In my case, I see it as a transition to the next phase of life.
From what I have read most pandemics last around 3 years. We are in that last year now, so there is light at the end of the tunnel and the world will feel more open soon. I will say to your comment re vaccine effectiveness, most of them have fulfilled their purpose in keeping people out of the hospital or from getting seriously ill. That is what they were designed to do from the get-go. The majority of people hospitalized are still the unvaccinated.
Best of luck in your new beginnings!
Thanks for the thoughtful comment Laura.
To add a little color on my vaccine comment, my mom is extremely immunocompromised. I was first in line to get the vaccine and to get boosted with the idea that a vaccine would prevent me from being infected and infecting others (most importantly to me, being able to spend time with and not harm her). I agree that the vaccines are effective at preventing hospitalization and serious illness in people who can safely use them, and the rapid development and ability to bring the vaccines to market is nothing short of miraculous. But it seems they don’t prevent infection and spread of the disease, and in that regard they have been disappointing because there is little choice but to remain isolated and be extremely careful for the immunocompromised.
Yes, vaccines are proving less effective for Omicron. Before Omicron, there are several studies documenting vaccine effectiveness against infection as well as serious illness and hospitalization.. The CDC posted a recent summary of a large study with frontline and essential workers for the Alpha and Delta variants: https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/70/wr/mm7034e4.htm. Breakthough infections were beginning with Delta, but they were not large numbers compared to now.
The vaccines haven’t changed to address the newer variants, so I would expect there would be decreasing effectiveness.
At least with mRNA vaccines, they can be changed much faster than traditional adenovirus-derived vaccines, so hopefully this technology will aid us the next time a pandemic comes around. In the meantime, my mask keeps my face warm here in frigid Michigan :).
Thanks for the honest and insightful post, Chris. I wish you well with the CFP program, and hope you throw some of those pearls our way, too! ???? I also hope it leads to some of that missing personal fulfillment.
I’ve only started the classes last week and I have a list of blog post ideas that could keep me occupied through at least the spring, so you can be sure that those pearls will be coming soon!
I spent the first twenty years of my retirement in Southern Utah (the Markagunt Plateau). Mountain biking was a big part of life there. Glad you enjoy
Being in control of your time is critical. It is aplenty in retirement and childhood but is something we give up in middle age to achieve some level of financial independence, Besides money and time we must also have a bit of health too truly enjoy a nice retirement.
Thanks Shawn and well said.
Chris, great thoughts on being a beginner. I’m a beginner book author and I’m having a blast! Nothing to do with finance, so I won’t compete with your fine projects. 🙂
I’ve practiced yoga for many years, and I hope you stick with it. Beginning yogis worry about the quality of their positions. But yoga is really about the effort–it doesn’t matter how “good” you are, what matters is simply doing yoga regularly. It’s the best thing for my body that I’ve ever done.
I’m pondering learning to play the piano and would like to tackle either Spanish or Italian. I love a good learning curve. And it’s great for brain health, too.
Good luck on the book and I agree 110% Re: yoga. Among the things I’ve tried and failed at was learning a language. Our family started learning Spanish with Duo Lingo during the early days of the pandemic, but as my daughter’s interest waned that whole project kind of fell by the wayside.
I liked your candid writing… It’s an interesting note that volunteering wasn’t too fulfilling and entrepreneurship is the way to go. I think when you have all this time not working a day job you get a chance to get a taste of both. If you start working as an FA perhaps you will not be able to share your business on this blog because of conflict of interest or not generating enough money for what you see yourself worth at the time. I wish you not to become a type of FA that you ran away from yourself in the past. In the end, money drives things a lot apparently even in FIRE.
I’m not certain exactly what direction I’ll go with things, but I can 110% guarantee that if I decide to utilize the CFP it will not be to be a commission’s based salesman of crappy financial products! 🙂 As far as generating income, that isn’t much of a concern at this point.
I like writing but hate managing the business of blogging. Something I’ve thought a lot about is shifting the business model and removing all ads from the site which would improve the reader experience. I would then use the blog as a way of putting out free information which would likely lead to clients who I could charge for coaching or advice if they need it. To me it’s a cleaner and less conflicted business model and it allows me to both serve many people at a shallow level, while going deep with a few people who I would work with individually. We’ll see?
This was a good read. I have followed this blog since 2017 – I think??? I enjoy your and Darrow’s style of writing. I think I found the blog through a “Money” email link.
I really enjoy your clean- objective break down of complex topics. I have learned quite a bit from you over the years.
One thing that keeps me coming back is you are humble and when you disagree with comments you are polite and not snarky. Do not think this goes unnoticed.
I wish you and your family the best. I am like you in that I love constant learning and new challenges.
Thank you for taking the time to leave that comment Andrea. Greatly appreciated!
“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.”
I’m working through this with my high schooler kid right now. As parents making 6 figure investments in a college education, it’s a joint effort. I’ve only been able to come up with 3 guiding principles to help with this and it’s similar to what you’ve said:
1) Understand/list the things you like to do and align them with potential majors/careers that might fit the bill
2) Understand what you don’t like and figure out which majors/careers seem the be the ones you’d enjoy the least. Don’t pursue those.
3) Determine choices that provide flexibility/options to change directions that align with your likes. Then pursue the best options.
Basically, take some time to study/analyze yourself, go forward with your best guess on what will make you happy but don’t box yourself in if/when you change your mind. Should work with career and retirement decisions too. Sorry if I’m stating the obvious.
Agree and would just emphasize being humble, accepting that you don’t know what the future holds, and so be careful not to box yourself in too much.
I think it’s great you are starting something new. Your honesty is what attracted me to your blog in the first place. I’ve really enjoyed reading it. I read it faithfully. I for one would love to have your insights into the financial planning business. I’d appreciate you continuing to blog about what you are learning and especially advise to those of us that just aren’t interesting in spending a great deal of our time on financial planning when we can spend it with those we love to be with like our kids and grandkids and friends. I was 65 when I retired. Still young in the age we live in. After I retirement I dove into a passion I have for family history. I have just completed my second book. Each of the books is 600 pages and being a social person, I’ve been able to have a lot of interaction with mostly second cousins I never knew before in putting together the books. It’s fulfilled both the intellectual stimulus I enjoy and my need for interacting with others during the pandemic. It is also hopefully creating something that will benefit future generations of our family. I agree that it’s very important to fill retirement years with activities that stimulate and satisfy. I just find at my age some of those things are not as physically challenging as they might have been when I was in my 40s.
I appreciate that Mike. When I started, I was very dogmatic against the entire financial advice industry. And there are a lot of problems with it.
But there are also as you say many people who just don’t have the interest to do what it takes. So my goals are to:
1.) Make it as simple as possible for those who are willing and
2.) Try to provide additional help for those that don’t.
How to best do that? I’m still figuring it out! 😉
Love Yoga with Adriene. Helps with core strength, balance, makes me more confident about staying fit as we age. Did wonders to eliminate back pain. Just have to stick to it diligently!
I had an awful bout with back pain last summer and I started doing yoga consistently as soon as I was able to move comfortably. I’m a believer as well. If only I was smart enough to do these things preventively!
Thank you for another great post and very timely for me – as usual. I look forward the weekly posts from you and Darrow. This blog has my complete confidence and I trust you both. I hope the future includes us continuing to hear from you both. Sincere appreciation for your work.
Thank you for the kind words. I feel comfortable speaking for both of us when I say nothing is more important than maintaining our readers trust and confidence, so reading that means the world.
Wow, good luck with the class Chris. It’ll be interesting to hear your thoughts on the experience!
Thanks Dave. I’m excited to share it!
I loved your article as it shows transparency, humility and also passion to improve yourself and continue to drive.
The CFP is something I have been struggling myself to get not only to provide others with the best advice but also as a passion to learn more about our financial industry and obviously it will help my own family.
I love the comment from DC about doing some blogs about your learnings; as I know it will be really helpful to all of us who might not have the time now to get into the certification.
I have read many blogs and definitely think your blog is one of the best, keep it up and outsource the “bad” stuff or make it simple as you described in one of your comments. We need you and appreciate the time you take to write this.
Best of success with CFP and filling your schedule with positive vibes! Keep pushing on the Yoga :>)
Thank you for the kind words and encouragement Alonso. I look forward to sharing as I learn.
Chris/Darrow I think a great number of your readership would embrace a business model change to zero advertisements. Like many others have noted your subscribers/readers appreciate your insights and writing styles across a broad range of relevant investing and retirement topics. Keep up the good work!
I would love to do this as well eventually, but for now the ads are the most consistent and lucrative income stream. Those ad dollars fund expenses like maintaining the email list, having a technical support provider, etc. that go along with having a blog of this size. Those funds also allow me to invest in activities like enrolling in a CFP program, attending conferences, etc. that result in a better blog and would otherwise have to be funded out of my own pocket. So for now, the ads are here to stay.
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