On the Eve of (Relative) Financial Independence: How Losing my Job was a Blessing

Approximately two years ago my employer informed me that my tenure-track contract would not be renewed. Needless to say, I was shocked. I cried. A lot. I suspected foul play (though I will never know for sure; was it me or was it them?). I was genuinely heartbroken, as the small college felt like a second family to me. Following the advice of colleagues, I consulted an employment attorney, who agreed to handle my case pro bono. But ultimately I decided, “their loss”. And I walked away. Because it really was their loss.

All the while I ruminated on what I had learned about higher education. Through the college appeals process I learned more about institutional “governance” (or rather, lack thereof) than I ever would have learned had I won tenure. As a young junior faculty member, I saw what happens “behind closed doors”. I was afforded the opportunity to explore the nature of my former institutional home, eyes wide open. At the same time I investigated the interior of myself, and I owned my own mistakes. I am still owning my mistakes, which are many.

When I was “let go” I had a mortgage, a car loan, a small student loan and a credit card balance or two. I did not possess the other most common form of American debt: medical debt. Though I needed the money, I was not eager to pursue another tenure-track position in philosophy.

I do not believe that I should have to struggle against sexism.  I grew up believing I could do whatever I set my mind to (and have had that belief confirmed, time and time again), but then the reality of this weird cultural moment slapped me in the face. I signed my severance agreement the day after the 2016 US presidential election. Not worth the fight, I figured. America needs to do some soul searching, and so do I. I do not regret my decision. It was not worth my time or my energy, the twin currencies of my life. Instead, I set my sights on the regular kind of currency: money.

I never planned to achieve financial independence. Rather, I was extremely fortunate. I negotiated a good severance package, sold my house at a huge profit (after four short years of home ownership) and parlayed those funds to pay off all debts. Instead of prioritizing low-paying academic publications, I published a book about bikepacking the Arizona Trail. I practiced frugality like a madwoman, lowering my monthly bills to almost nothing.

My hard-won profits went toward a small condo, purchased for cash. Between savings, retirement accounts and (meager) book royalties, my finances are such that I only need to work half-time, minimum wage to live securely and comfortably. I am semi-retired, at age 33, and — so long as I invest wisely — I may fully retire at the regular retirement age. Yes, my job loss was a good thing, though it did not seem so at the time. Lemonade out of lemons!

So, the next salaried job I take (if any) will be on my terms. From hereon out, I contribute to society in ways that I define. Because, fundamentally, financial freedom is not about money. It is about having control over your time and your energy, such that you do not have to pursue an agenda you disagree with. You get to live your values, which is worth more than any amount of money. (To learn more about financial independence and living your values, check out Vicki Robin’s Your Money or Your Life, recently featured in Time Money.)

I still have hope in our institutions; but I also believe they will not change until we demand it — and that requires being no longer bound to them through financial (or medical) necessity. Why wait until you are 65 to achieve a measure of financial independence? Why spend an entire lifetime paying off your basic shelter, vehicle or education?

Is achieving financial freedom easy? Of course not, especially given our consumer culture. But it is worth more than a giant house or a nice car or all the cool vacations in the world. Because you own your own time. And that, my friends, is a priceless thing.

 

Me Trying to Figure Out Me: Reflecting on Freedom and Teaching Freedom

Quite a lot has happened in the last two months. It was a personal drama of sorts: me trying to figure out me. I am sure my friends and family tired of it — me constantly talking about me. I spent a lot of time with Teddy (my dog), friends, colleagues and family.

anita

Me and my good friend Anita at Arcosanti. (I kidnapped her and dragged her to a commune!)

joshtree

Solo camping in Joshua Tree (Black Rock Canyon), on my way to visit family. (What do I do when I camp alone? I read books and drink craft beer. See Part II of this post!)

nau

Wonderful conversations about Confucian ethics with a colleague visiting from China

I also spent a lot of time with my students. My philosophy freshmen completed their final exam, which consisted in conversations about justice, drawing on the ideas and arguments they learned throughout the term. I left the (very spirited) “exam” kicking myself. Why hadn’t I *started* the course in this way, with informal conversations between groups of students? It occurred to me that the best way to teach Intro to Philosophy might be to spend a week or two simply talking about what we all believe and sussing out where the agreements and disagreements are (and what questions they are interested in). Only then can we achieve passionate conversation.

It is odd teaching something like philosophy in an institutional setting, because philosophy is fundamentally about self-examination, i.e., examining one’s own beliefs, attitudes, orientations, etc. And formal education tends to be impersonal, in part because of the power differential created by a grading system that militates against what we are trying to accomplish in the humanities. Humanities students should be in pursuit of the project of becoming more free and deepening their humanity. So, I spend a lot of energy guiding students toward questioning grades and the value placed on grades. Some of them never learn, but some do. Some go on to measure their “success” by their own internal standard. Some go on to question my authority, which I encourage.

I have seen enough in my life to question any external standard of “success”. As grades and rankings become more and more meaningless, I increasingly rely on observing people, institutions and my own self. I form my own impression, and I reflect. And this is what I would like for my students — to think for themselves. I hate telling anybody what to think. I do not enjoy “professing”. I will not discipline students, who are grown adults. I do not even like being the center of attention; in fact, I mostly hate it! Sometimes I wonder whether I even belong in Higher Ed, but I soldier on, so long as I believe I am doing something valuable.

Freedom is a funny thing. I have never been so “free” in my life — zero debt, savings and investments, easy means of transportation, excellent health and a rock solid education behind me. I own very little in the way of material things, but I have so many rich relationships in my life.

At first the sense of unbounded freedom caused me misery. I invented ways to rid myself of it — land another tenure-track job, throw my savings into some real estate, enter the wrong relationships, etc. However, all these distractions made me more miserable.

Perhaps it is better to gratefully accept one’s own freedom as a rare and beautiful thing.

Happy 2018!

Sarah