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 and Teddy Trying to Figure Out Me, Grand Canyon Version

 

 

 

 

 

Yesterday afternoon Teddy and I travelled to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. We camped along FSR 688, which is dotted with large dispersed campsites. The next morning we hiked along the South Rim (pictured above).

2/2/2018 — Groundhog Day (Journal entry) 

I pitch our tiny tent alongside a giant Ponderosa, but Teddy stakes out a spot farther down the dirt double-track. I drag the tent to Teddy, who squats under another Ponderosa, HIS Ponderosa. We take a brisk walk at dusk, enjoying the last little bit of sunlight and sun-warmth.

In the evening Teddy burrows into my doubled sleeping bags, warming me as the temperature drops below 20 degrees Fahrenheit. Frost gathers on the tent, and the nearly-full moon lights up the sky. Every now and then I emerge from the sleeping bags for a sip of freezing IPA, a Tucson delicacy.

Lately I have been reading two new books a week. I cannot stop reading and thinking! Tonight I read Yuval Harari’s, “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind”. Coyotes howl in the distance, and Teddy stiffens beside me. I learn that Homo Sapiens likely exterminated a related species, the Neanderthals, after mating with a few of these caring animals, a situation canines avoided. I pause on Harari’s reconstructed picture of a Neanderthal girl:

Neanderthal-girl

She looks so peaceful.

I do not romanticize our hunter-gatherer past, as some men do. Rather, the story of how we emerged as the triumphant species tells me something about what we might be in the future. Also, I am curious about what I could be. How do I live in a way that is more true to the story of an evolving, improving humanity?

To some extent most of my adult life has been unusual: eating a plant-based diet, having few possessions (and hating shopping), limiting my exposure to the mass media, studying and conversing deeply, eschewing dogma, and seeking out solitude and adventure in nature, despite the dangers. It is the way of life that feels most natural to me. Meat, tons of stuff, an overstimulating and busy environment, casual relationships, superficial ideas or conversation, dogma of any kind, unvarying routine, constant company — these are my worst nightmares!

Tonight I am trying to imagine a somewhat different form of life — something that works for me but is still recognizably human. I do not know what my life will look like, but I do know that time is the only valid currency in life. I must be careful with how I spend it.

I have lived through much, and now I think I have found what is needed for happiness. A quiet secluded life in the country, with the possibility of being useful to people to whom it is easy to do good, and who are not accustomed to have it done to them; then work which one hopes may be of some use; then rest, nature, books, music, love for one’s neighbor – such is my idea of happiness. And then, on top of all that, you for a mate, and children, perhaps – what more can the heart of a human desire?

Leo TolstoyFamily Happiness