I quit work about a year ago. I still consider it to be a very good decision, but one with mixed feelings. Is doubt creeping in?
My story of quitting work at age 41 is not unique. There are plenty of people who leave their jobs every day. But one category of ‘work quitters’ always spoke to my imagination before I stopped working myself. It is the group of people who decided that they were going to live life on their own terms. ‘You only live once’ (yolo), so carpe diem (seize the day) and have fun! It seemingly is the only way to live a meaningful and fulfilling life.
Over the last couple of years several bloggers have emerged belonging to the so-called FIRE-movement: financially independent, retired early. Often around age 40, they have secured a passive income that they now live off. When they still worked they lived frugally, saving as much as they could from their earnings. With their savings they bought real estate and/or (dividend) shares, which generate so-called ‘passive income’ that now funds their living costs. This has given them the opportunity to quit work and ‘live life to the max’, supposedly.
I’ve read some of these blogs and what I can definitely relate to is that these people seem to live much more ‘in the moment’. Their minds are not distracted by always pressing work obligations. Their ‘quality time’ with their kids is not overshadowed by nagging thoughts about what needs to happen after it’s over. Instead of working time being interrupted by bouts of ‘quality time’, weekends and holidays, ‘living in the moment’ is merely interrupted by a few chores. Why is this such a different mindset?
I and thou
I’ve recently read Martin Buber’s booklet ‘I and thou’ written in 1923. It is a short philosophical book, yet I think still very accessible to lay people. So I wholeheartedly recommend it for your summer vacation reading. What it boils down to is that Buber describes how our minds continually switch between two modes of attention which modes he calls ‘I-it’ and ‘I-you’ (or ‘I-thou’).
We customarily are in the ‘I-it’ mode in which we think of ourselves being surrounded by other ‘things’ through which we try to navigate our way forward, by using them to our benefit. In this mode our thinking is ‘instrumental’ or functionally oriented: ‘How can I achieve goal X?’; ‘What can I use to get there’?; ‘Who do I need to get involved to help me?’. As this last question already indicates, an ‘it’ can also be another human being. It’s just that we approach this human being more as a ‘tool’ (means) than as a ‘person’: the baker is ‘a tool’ I need to get bread.
However, all of this changes when we are in the ‘I-you’ or ‘I-thou’ mode. Instead of being driven by an urge to fulfil some need and look at ‘objects’ around us as means to do so, in the ‘I-you’ mode our attention is merely receptive of what we perceive. We engage in a kind of relationship with what we encounter and our mind is temporarily absorbed by simply being in that relationship. This ‘I-thou’ mode can occur not only in relation to people (e.g. the baker turns out to be ‘a personality’), but also in relation to nature, art or music for example. For Buber it was also the defining element of religious experience.
“Alles wirkliche Leben ist Begegnung” [All real life is encounter]Martin Buber
I believe that Buber tried to describe something that we now call part of ‘living in the moment’ (although that term doesn’t fully do it justice). It is always temporary, because we also need the ‘I-it’ mode to make sure we physically survive (we need the baker in his capacity as a source of bread; we can’t just marvel at his personality). But shifting the balance more towards ‘I-thou’ definitely makes for a more fulfilling experience of life I have found.
What I find so valuable in Buber’s thinking is that I now often ask myself in which mode of thought I am. When talking to another human being I ask myself the same question. I often find myself in the ‘I-it’ mindset. But when I challenge myself to listen more attentively to my interlocutor I discover other aspects of that person: his or her personality as such. And I start to enjoy being in a ‘relationship’ however briefly so. In the same vein I try to appreciate the beauty in the things around me. So what perspective does this give on the desire to quit work?
Focussing on ‘I’ doesn’t bring one closer to ‘thou’
A lot of stories about living without work obligations centre around being able to do what you always wanted to do. As if only things that ‘I. WANT. TO DO.’ will make you happy. The reason that I capitalised those words and added stops is to allow us to scrutinise the meaning of them.
Focussing on ‘I’ often leads to think of others and other things as an ‘it’. Only chasing what I ‘want’ forces me into I-it thinking in order to fulfil it. Thinking that life is mostly about ‘doing’, prevents me from stopping to simply observe and receive.
Let’s bring this back to work. Work is inherently instrumental. It is about finding the means, and applying yourself (like a tool), to achieve certain ends, which requires ‘I-it’ thinking. As such it is quite obvious then why there is a natural tension between being treated as an employee (a means) and being treated as a person (an end of itself).
But does it mean that work prevents us from experiencing meaningful relationships with others? Of course not. There often is time to get to know other people and enjoy their personality, other than just seeing them as a means to help getting your job done. But also in the work we perform we often serve other people. And serving other people can be deeply fulfilling or meaningful.
The question however is: which people do you serve at work and what kind of relationship do you have with them? The people we serve by working are of course our family, who we support with our income; our colleagues, who we may come to see as friends and who as such are ends in themselves; our organisation, which may feel like our tribe that we feel part of and as such is worthwhile sustaining.
Why I really quit work
After four reorganisations in as many years, relationships with my colleagues had become rather superficial. The organisation I worked for had ceased to act as a tribe, as it merely regards the people working there as ‘employees’ (means) not deserving of much loyalty beyond the obligations of the labour contract.
For me, the real reason to quit work was not that I wanted to finally do what I always wanted to do. The reason was that it seemed pointless to do work for people that had come to mean very little to me; and I to them. At the same time I had the good fortune of being able to support my family through other means. What I find regretful about the whole situation is that it could have been avoided with a slightly different attitude towards people in the company (culture).
Yes, I do now pursue more of the things that I like doing and I am very happy for it. And I could not have done that to this extent had I been working (fulltime). But what I still miss is being part of something bigger that is worthwhile working for. If you feel that you’re serving a bigger purpose, doing chores is not really a problem. You’ll do it with a smile, because it is nonetheless meaningful to you.
Of course I want to keep doing things that I like to do. But I would also like to find a group of people again for whom I find it worthwhile doing it for. I’m essentially looking to find back my tribe.
I’m confident that I will succeed in doing this within a couple of years’ time. So I am indeed quite content with my decision. I don’t consider myself retired, evidenced by the fact that I’m (part-time) self-employed. Doubt is definitely not creeping in. Quitting work does liberate you from having to peddle your talents for money in an effort to please people who don’t really care about you. And it gives you the freedom to get out of bed only if and when you want to.
But what is left to get out of bed for, if you’re only focused on self-satisfaction? This is why I think ‘having fun’ is overrated. Being part of something bigger is at least as important. That does sometimes require making sacrifices. Because isn’t that a prerequisite for something to be meaningful in the first place? Like Viktor Frankl said, experiencing happiness is a side-effect of leading a meaningful life – not the other way around.