Cheryl Strayed was recently featured on the Outside podcast. Strayed authored the best selling book, later adapted to a feature film, Wild. The interview celebrated the 10 year anniversary of publishing her book, which was about backpacking the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT).
I read the book last year and loved it. I was curious to hear what she’s learned and how her life has changed since Wild was published.
A few key lessons she shared jumped out to me as directly applicable to our own journey to financial independence and early retirement.
Preparing for the Unknown
Prior to hiking the PCT, Strayed had never done a long through-hike. She addressed the most common criticism that she heard after the book was published. She was unprepared to embark on her trip, maybe dangerously so.
Her responses were telling. “….I did nothing but prepare in the months before my hike, I just made some mistakes.” She later added, “My problem wasn’t….I wasn’t prepared, I was over prepared. I had too much stuff.”
This is portrayed in the book, and subsequent movie based on it, as she describes her backpack. She named the pack “Monster.” It was an epic effort each time she hoisted this beast of a pack onto her back. Carrying all this weight caused pain and suffering with every step (see video below).
As her hike went on, she learned from her experience. She cut unnecessary weight in her pack. As she lightened her load, her days became more enjoyable.
This is common as we prepare for retirement. The future is full of unknowns….stock market returns, interest rates, inflation, life expectancy, personal health, tax rate changes, viability of programs like Social Security, the Affordable Care Act and Medicare.
So we keep adding. Work longer to build a larger portfolio. Find more information. Get the right advisor. Buy more insurance. Add more complexity.
Related: Should You Work One More Year?
None of this is to say we shouldn’t prepare. We absolutely should.
Nor am I suggesting that there is not value in the right financial products or services. There may be.
But all of this leads to a second parallel between Strayed’s adventure and our financial journeys.
Strayed feels her critics’ arguments were often based in elitism and snobbery. These arguments dissuade people from trying hard or scary things. Strayed said, “Most of us learn most of the important things by going and doing them….”
This truth extends far beyond her backpacking adventure. It is absolutely true as we make life decisions, utilizing the financial independence we have worked so hard to achieve.
I experienced this elitism when working with a financial advisor. When I talked about wanting to retire in my 40’s, he would give a subtle eye roll and return the conversation to the fancy financial plan he created.
My early writing was critical of this advisor and the financial industry generally. I needed to own that I wasted a decade waiting for this “expert” to give me permission.
As I found FIRE bloggers and subsequently became one myself, this elitism from the financial industry became more apparent. Most financial professionals scoff at us. What could anyone possibly learn about finance from engineers, health care professionals, school teachers, etc.?
This isn’t to suggest that there are no true experts and that we shouldn’t learn from them. But pay attention to what someone says rather than what letters follow their name.
Are they using their knowledge and experience to educate you or to overcomplicate things? Are they more invested in your success or in selling their products and services and protecting their turf?
In the decade since Wild was published, the internet has given more people permission and knowledge to get into the wilderness. The same can be said of helping a larger number and wider diversity of people using their personal finances to create better lives.
That has been my motivation for writing this blog and creating my book.
What Is THE Best….?
One of the most memorable moments in Wild was portrayed in the opening scene of the movie adaptation. Strayed’s ill fitting boots are killing her feet. She takes them off while taking a break along an exposed section of trail.
While she sits and rests, one boot tumbles over the edge of the cliff. Gone forever. It induces a brief mental breakdown, where in frustration she launches her other boot as well.
In the anniversary interview, Strayed was asked what boots she would recommend for a 1,000 mile journey? She replied, “The boots that feel good on your feet….There is no one way to do anything….We have to find the path that is ours, we have to walk it at our own speed, in our own way. That’s the beautiful adventure of life.”
This is a message frequently conveyed on this blog. Over the years, Darrow and I have shared our personal paths with honesty and transparency. We’ve shared what has worked, as well as challenges.
Over the past few years, I’ve tried to mix in some different perspectives, always taking care to emphasize there is no one “right” way and to avoid dogma.
Since then we’ve shared insights on a number of different paths to help make successful transitions to whatever you determine comes after financial independence. They include:
- Retiring sooner with less vs. working longer and retiring with more
- Working in retirement
- Starting a business in retirement
- One spouse retiring before the other
- Pretirement, and
- What to do if you’re mentally, but not financially ready to retire yet
Choose Your Own Adventure
Take the valuable lessons that Strayed learned backpacking the PCT and writing about it in her memoir Wild. Use them as you navigate this next phase of life.
Take time to understand the unknowables involved in retirement planning. But don’t allow them to overwhelm you and drive you to inaction.
Learn from true experts. But don’t confuse expertise and elitism. Expertise is used to help and educate you. Elitism can be used to trap you in fear and sell you ever more services and products.
Find your own path. It will be different from mine and everyone else reading this. It should be. You are different from me and everyone else reading this.
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org.]
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