Why I’m Glad I Didn’t Learn About FIRE in My 20s

I didn’t learn about the FIRE movement until I was 30 years old. If I had learned about it sooner, I might have made many more mistakes.
Adam

Written by Adam on September 23, 2019.
15 min read. Financial Independence, Personal. 8 comments.

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I learned about the whole FIRE idea when I was 30 years old back in 2012. I was browsing Reddit and stumbled on a link to MMM’s Shockingly Simple Math post in the /r/investing subreddit. It immediately clicked and I was instantly enamored with the idea.

At that time I had already been saving as much money as I could with every paycheck and investing it in low-fee, diversified index funds at Vanguard. I had saved up over $300,000 and I was spending roughly $40,000 a year while saving another $10k or so (it would’ve been more, but I spent way too much on my house).

In other words, I was past the hardest part of my financial journey. I still had work in front of me, but I was out of debt, saving money and my investments were already growing more each year than I was putting in.

By this point, I was very well established in my career and in my skillset. The result was a career I was proud of and ended up being successful enough that I was able to retire when I was 36. If I had learned about FIRE earlier in my career I suspect I would have pursued a different path.

I’m glad I didn’t learn about FIRE in my 20s because I believe I would have been more conservative in my job prospects, skill growth and personal growth – favoring a glide path with higher paying jobs, lower responsibility and fewer challenges.

I suspect I wouldn’t have pursued working at startups or growing my professional skills as wide as I have. Instead, I might have pursued the highest paying jobs, knowing that I only needed to work for a short period of time.

Person walking at a university
This is way nicer than my college

By my calculations, when I learned about FIRE I was already within 10 years of my date if the market cooperated – and without drastically cutting my spending or relying on outsized market gains. Suddenly I was looking at 10 years of work rather than 35 more years of work. How great is that?!

The Three Roads

There are a few routes that most people take to achieve financial independence early in life. For that you have three variables to work with:

Expenses. Fewer expenses mean less money needed, that’s obvious enough. If you live off $20,000 a year, you’ll potentially only need $500,000 to be set for life! Cutting this deep is unrealistic for most people (myself included). Every dollar you cut is $25 you don’t have to save.

Income. The more you earn, the more you can save! Income impacts savings rate which influences how fast you can reach 25x your income. You can increase your income by advancing in your career, switching jobs, negotiating a higher salary, freelancing, starting your own business or working on a side hustle.

Time. Not time in the sense of how long it will take you to be FI, but how much time you put into growing your income and reducing your expenses. At one extreme you can work 80+ hours on a startup, while at the other side you can pursue slow FI and plan a path with as few hours a week work as needed to support your lifestyle.

Time and income are at odds here, but so are time and skill. The more time you invest in your income-earning area of expertise, the more you will grow your skills in those areas.

You can only invest so much time in reducing your expenses before you run out of things to cut. You can invest time in increasing your income with no upper limit.

The Role of Passion vs Income

Putting in the time to be great at something can really suck. My generation (millennials) has had the idea pounded into our heads that “we can do anything” and we should “follow our passion”. Steve Jobs even gave an inspiring commencement speech at Stanford about this.

One of my worries about the FIRE movement is it follows this same “you can do it!” mentality. It’s giving a sense of hope about an idealistic future, but it’s missing the grit-filled years needed to get you there. That’s true for passion and that’s true for FIRE.

One of the best books on this topic is Cal Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You. The major premise of the book revolves around the idea that passion follows hard work:

If you want to love what you do, abandon the passion mindset (“what can the world offer me?”) and instead adopt the craftsman mindset (“what can I offer the world?”).

Cal Newport, So Good They Can’t Ignore You

This switches the passion idea on its head. It’s not about finding something you’re passionate about and doing it, it’s about finding something you’re good at and can add value to the world and getting insanely good at it.

What does a shifted mindset look like for FIRE? To me, that’s a switch from asking “How can I reach my FI number faster?” to “How can I increase proficiency in my income-generating skills?”.

It’s less about negotiating a higher salary, job-hopping or networking (although those are all useful!). It’s more about getting uncompromisingly better at what you do.

There are so many great quotes from Newport’s book about passion that I couldn’t limit it to just one:

Passion comes after you put in the hard work to become excellent at something valuable, not before. In other words, what you do for a living is much less important than how you do it.

Cal Newport, So Good They Can’t Ignore You

If you’re not uncomfortable, then you’re probably stuck at an “acceptable level.

Cal Newport, So Good They Can’t Ignore You

This, along with Grit, are two books I can read over and over again. Each time I read them I feel more inspired to work hard on whatever project is in front of me.

Finding your passion isn’t about becoming a master at a subject either. I fully believe mastery is a trap for most people. Instead, this is about finding proficiency and productivity – and letting that drive your passion.

Follow the Money

I was recently reading Millennial Revolution‘s book, Quit Like a Millionaire which touched on a similar topic. Kristy’s story is an absolute whirlwind. One part of it that stands out to me is how she analyzed the value of college. Kristy researched a bunch of majors and calculated the expected cost to graduate and the expected income after graduation for each major.

Even though Kristy’s passion was writing, she calculated the major with the best return on investment that she found interesting would be engineering. She went that route and retired at 31 years old to travel the world.

You see this same story over and over again from people who have reached FIRE before they’re 40: they focused on their careers in their 20s and 30s.

Mr. Money Mustache worked and saved a bunch in his 20s and retired at age 30.

Tanja and Mark worked and saved a bunch in their 20s and 30s and retired at 38 and 41.

Justin from Root of Good worked and saved a bunch in his 20s and retired at 33.

Jim from Route to Retire saved throughout his 20s and 30s and retired at 43.

These are all people who kept their expenses in check while growing the income from their careers. They all also shared one thing in common: they had high-income jobs that only grew over time. They didn’t leave the workforce for semi-retirements, and they mindfully spent money on what mattered most to them.

They were also fortunate to pick a career they didn’t hate. Putting in the time to gain proficiency doesn’t guarantee you’ll love that career path. I’ve read too many stories about people who successfully became lawyers or doctors only to find they hated it and underwent a (very costly) career change.

All of these people reduced expenses, but they also optimized their time in their 20s/30s towards working hard. There was nothing slow about their path. That lines up with my path and the path most who don’t reach FI take.

Finding My Passion

Throughout my 20s I wasn’t thinking about financial independence or early retirement. I spent my days (and nights) learning to program and building out side-project after side project that put that knowledge into practice. While none of those side projects went anywhere (aside from Minafi! kind of…), I did learn a lot from them.

I wanted to build a website for a video game I played so I learned PHP and MySQL.

I wanted to customize my LiveJournal and MySpace so I learned CSS and improved my visual design.

When senior developers at jobs left, I did everything I could to learn their responsibilities and take them on. This was because I loved a challenge (and often because no one else stepped up).

When I found interesting companies I wanted to work for, I found out what programming languages and technologies they used and then spent months learning them before applying for a job. I also made friends with the developers before even applying to make sure I’d enjoy working with them.

When I worked at places that needed strategic direction, I learned more about statistics, learned how to talk with users, did the research and got better at communicating that research (this one is still a struggle though).

By the end of my career, I had a laundry list of skills: full-stack web development, project/product management, data science, data visualization, user research, user experience design, people management, course/content creation, working at startups and working at publicly traded companies. For each of these topics, I read countless books, went to conferences and learned what I could from others at my jobs who knew more.

There are areas I still suck at – there’s no doubt about that. I’ve struggled to get my point across to managers/decision-makers, to keep people on my teams happy and motivated and to help others achieve their potentials.

My suspicion is that if I had learned about FIRE earlier I would have optimized my career around earning money rather than growing my skillset. Had I gone that route, my list of skills would have likely been shorter – or included 10 different ways of saying “manager”.

For every single thing on that list, other people were better than me at every job. In no job was I the “best” at anything on there, but developing that broad skillset was what I loved.

Throughout all of this time, I was building on my skills. These weren’t skills in different areas, but cumulative skills that all helped each other. James Clear calls this the aggregation of marginal gains. Education has a compounding effect just like investing. The longer you spend learning and improving, the greater the impact.

The Power of Tiny Gains from JamesClear

Think about this: how many people in your field spend an hour a week outside of their job improving at what they do professionally? Most people don’t. If you spend 10 years getting 1% better each day this number jumps to 6 x 10^15 gains. In other words – your skills will be in a world of their own.

I didn’t get 1% better every day for 10 years, but I sure as hell got 1%+ better every week. What I didn’t do was look to get 1% better in something completely different. I stuck with one area (building stuff online) and focused on improving at it for more than a decade.

There were many other things I’ve been passionate about that took a backseat. I tried to learn piano and gave up after a few months. I gave up on Olympic weight training after a few months (although, I still do some at CrossFit). I spent the first 6-months of this year trying to learn Japanese before pausing it. I’ve tried way too many diets/exercise routines before. I’ve never successfully monetized any side project.

In all that time I found one thing that I became passionate and got good at: building products that help people learn. That wasn’t what I thought I would love doing, but it evolved from years of creating things, sharing what I learned and then doing it all again.

If I had focused on just making more money, I would not have discovered that was my passion. Instead, I would have continued working at the highest paying jobs I could. Who knows where that would’ve led?

My Recommendation For People In Their 20s

Focus on getting better at something every week for years at a time. If you’re focusing purely on the money, then that’s time not spent improving those skills.

As great at it can be to dream of a perfect future where you’re FI and can do whatever you want with your time, it’s the daily actions you take today that will get you there.

I tend to get somewhat obsessed with things. For my 20s and early 30s, I was obsessed with programming and learning how to build things online. I’m glad that I didn’t find the FIRE movement because I tend to think I would have gotten more obsessed with it. When I did learn about FIRE, I was already in the last job I ever had. Knowing I only needed to work a few more years made me take fewer career risks during those last years than I would have otherwise.

If you get good at a subject, income will follow.

Potential income and marketable skills are tightly related. Your potential income comes from what you can offer to your employer (or to yourself if you’re self-employed).

Instead of focusing on what will make you the most money, think about pursuing jobs where you can learn and grow the most. If/when you decide to leave those jobs, you’ll have so much more to offer your next employer than if you took a high-paying job where you learned nothing.

Not all careers have as clear a path to growth as do startup employees. To grow in other fields you may need more of a creative expansion of your skills to that useful outside of the job. Take a piano teacher for example. Growing to be the best piano teacher in the world is one path you could take. Another could be expanding who you teach to, or what the takeaway is for your students. You can teach online, teach to teachers, create courses, or research history. You can teach to regular piano students, students with learning disabilities, people recovering from strokes or those finally fulfilling their dream to learn later in life.

There’s nothing wrong with having a goal in mind to reach financial independence or to retire early. I’d encourage you to not be too conservative when planning your route to get there – especially if you’re more than a decade away.

If I had learned about the FIRE movement in my 20s, I suspect I would have taken fewer risks and pursued higher-paying jobs (maybe even taking that offer to double my salary).

This isn’t to say no one should learn about FIRE early! There’s so much more material out there now about lifestyle design, growing your skills and planning your entire life – not just the working years. The more you know about where you want to go in life, not just how much money you want, the more you’ll be able to plan a career that hits on all of those notes.

Don’t let yourself get stuck at a job you don’t like, isn’t challenging, or where you’re not learning. Don’t let money be a substitute for personal growth. Don’t base all of your financial decisions around your net worth and how it’ll impact your FI date. Continue learning, continue growing and passion will follow.

Adam

About Adam

Hi, I'm Adam! I help millennials invest to reach financial independence sooner than they ever thought possible. Want to see what you could do to reach FI sooner? You're in the right place!

7 Comments

This works really well as long as you’re already good with money to begin with – for so many, learning about FIRE is the kick they need to start saving any amount of their income (or more than 5-10%). But if you already have a good job and have a knack for saving money already, like you did, then I think you’re absolutely right. You were on the FIRE path for well more than six years. You just didn’t know it right away 😉

Very good point! FIRE as a wakeup call for learning about money is another big angle. I can only imagine how big a 180 it is for those who are going from never having thought about money to suddenly having early retirement as an option.

It’s so hard to run hypotheticals. What if you were even more hard-working and had more opportunities because you discovered FI in your 20s and therefore were more risk-taking ;)? Maybe you would have gotten into real estate before the recovery and benefited from huge appreciation in certain markets? But I get your point, and I like that you emphasize skills over money.

Also, how do you track improving by 1%? Sometimes it’s obvious. But sometimes I find myself spinning in circles and I don’t know if I am improving (even by as little as 1% per week) or if I am just metaphorically (and literally) flailing around.

Good point! I did get into real estate in my 20s (via an inherited home), but I definitely didn’t see the greater picture of how impactful that can be. I do wonder if I had known about that sooner if I would have become a landlord. I had the cash to buy properties, but that could have happened before or after 2008. 😅

Tracking improvement is a tough one. I’ve tried a lot of different things lately. For a while I used Everday.app to keep myself consistent on things I wanted to improve, I’ve used Todoist for that too, or my own custom spreadsheets. It doesn’t measure how much I’ve improved, but it tracks that I’m making progress.

Lately, I’ve stopped doing any kind of tracking though, and I’m still figuring out how much and what I want to measure. At some point measuring/tracking becomes annoying. Also, it doesn’t work as well when what you’re wanting to improve can jump around a lot (cooking some days, programming or writing other days).

One thing that has worked well for me is trying to do 3 things in Todoist. That at least tracks that I’m setting some goals and accomplishing them – regardless of what area they’re in.

Wow, I really love this post – some real food for thought here! I came to FIRE even later than you, and definitely at a worse financial place. In five years, I paid off any remaining debt (school loans, and not much), bought my house and started growing my net worth. I have some time left, and will retire at 50 or so, but still far less than the average person. Woohoo!

I think passion/offer the world is a two-way street. I think if you’re good at something that is useful to the world, then you will get positive feedback which will fuel your drive (I hate the word passion lol). That drive will cause you to work harder to contribute more to the world. Finding something that fits both of those parameters is a challenge but an important one, I think.

For example, I’m a journalist, a notoriously low paying profession. But I’m good at what I do, and am an accomplished photographer as well. Like you, when our paper suddenly laid off our only photographer, I decided to step in and fill the gap, teaching myself. Having both those skills, along with a veteran’s level of experience, has increased my pay to a level most journalists in my area could only dream of. It’s probably still small compared to a software engineer, but it’s exceptional for a journalist, and I really love what I do.

My last raise I got came directly because my boss could not afford to have me leave. There just aren’t people with my skillset and level of experience around, especially in this job market. Most people I worked with early on in my career are working as PR reps now. I’m starting to get headhunted now too, but nothing so far has compelled me to leave.

I might not have gone into journalism had I been following FIRE. I would have missed out on a wild and fascinating career, meeting some truly interesting and inspirational people, and not developed the unique skillset I have no. (I have done photography as a very profitable side hustle as well.) I can’t imagine having done another career. I might have made more money, but no way I would have had as much fun.

I enjoyed this thoughtful post. This is the kind of philosophical FIRE writing I like to read.

Wow, thanks so much for the comment! It sounds like we have a lot in common about our approach to career/skills for sure. That idea of making yourself invaluable at your company by just increasing your skills so wide that it’s almost dumb not to keep you around is a great place to be for sure.

Starting at journalism and moving into photography seems like a completely natural thing for sure.

Thanks for the mention, Adam – very much appreciated!

I never really thought about it, but that would be the same for me. If I realized FIRE was a possibility in my 20’s, I’m not sure if I would have had the same drive that actually catapulted me to FI. It took a lot of years to build up my skills and value along the way.

Of course, it’s also possible that I might have worked harder to reach that goal. I’m guessing not though since it was the years of work that actually made me want to reach FIRE in the first place.

Regardless, I’m so glad I’m there – living and enjoying each day in Panama with my family has been one a wonderful experience for all of us and one we never could have had otherwise.

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