On the Eve of 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. Per the advice of my colleagues, I talked to an employment attorney (who said he would gladly take my case pro bono). However, 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 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 got to see what happens “behind closed doors”, so to speak. (I have no interest in rehashing it; at this point, that knowledge will go to my grave.) 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.

At the time I had a mortgage, a car loan, a small student loan and a credit card or two that I needed to pay off. I did not have the other most common form of American debt: medical debt. (The average American dies $60,000+ in debt!) Though I needed the money, I was definitely not eager to apply for and accept another tenure-track job in philosophy, since I still remain skeptical that other institutions are any different or that the philosophy profession is female-friendly.

I do not believe that I should have to struggle against sexism.  After all, this is 2018. I grew up believing I could do whatever I set my mind to (and 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 election. Not worth the fight, I figured. America needs to do some soul searching, and so do I. I do not regret that decision. It was not worth my time or my energy, the twin currencies of my life.

In any case, I never really had the plan of achieving financial independence. Rather, I was extremely fortunate. I negotiated a good severance package, sold my house at a 33% profit (after four short years of owning a house that was ridiculously too big for me) and used the funds to pay off all debts. (Like the majority of Americans, I did not grow up rich. I have had to work for everything, including my education.) Instead of prioritizing academic publications (which make me little or no money), I self-published my own book about bikepacking the Arizona Trail. I practiced frugality like a madwoman, ridding myself of almost every monthly bill. My profits went toward a small condo, which I purchased for cash. Between savings, my 401k and my book royalties, I have arranged my finances so that I only need to work 2.5 minimum wage shifts a week to live securely and comfortably. I am pretty much retired, at age 33. Yes, my job loss was a very good thing, though it did not seem like it 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 institutional agenda you fundamentally disagree with. (Another influential book I highly recommend: Your Money or Your Life.)

I still have a lot of 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 financial independence? Why spend an entire lifetime paying off your basic shelter? (This is crazy; and yet, we Americans have accepted it, thanks to successful advertising.)

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. 😉 It is a beautiful thing.