The biggest financial mistake you can make is pursuing a career you hate

TL;DR: Many people obsessed with the early retirement part of FIRE are driven by a desire to quit a job they hate. They feel that if they can just tough it out in a painful job long enough, eventually they can quit and be free. While this is true, it’s probably not the best path to current or long term happiness and wealth. Instead, think deeply about your career choices early on, and don’t be afraid to make a jump to something different, even if it means taking a pay cut. It could end up being one of the best life decisions you’ll ever make – both personally and financially.

Ramen Retirement is definitely part of the FIRE (financial independence, retire early) movement. In particular, I love the financial independence (FI) part of it, because it gives you the flexibility and options to do almost anything you desire. But I never understood the retire early (RE) part. Sitting on a beach is great for a few days, but Humans are beasts of burden and I don’t believe we can be truly happy unless we’re doing something useful. Something productive, in some way.

Truth is, when most people dream of early retirement, what I think they really want is the:

  1. Ability to work on something they’re passionate about
  2. Time to fit in the things they value and enjoy
  3. Flexibility and control of their schedule
  4. Removal of financial stress and worry

I’ve seen countless people who made changes in their career to satisfy the above goals who then realized their sense of urgency for early retirement was misplaced. They were running from things they didn’t like in their current line of work. They didn’t need to retire to a beach. They needed to work in an industry and role they actually enjoyed. They needed to have the career capital to command the things they needed to enjoy life.

Given this, I believe choosing a career you will hate might just be the worst personal and financial decision you can ever make, no matter how much money you might make. You will literally make your everyday existence unenjoyable at best, you’ll underperform at your job, and you’ll have a limited career life simply because you despise doing the work. In short, you’ll hate your life and earn less for it over the course of your career.

So when I hear people complaining about toughing it out on their path to FIRE, I feel they’ve got it all wrong. By thinking about the path to FIRE as this hellish burden they must endure before reaching the Nirvana of early retirement, they’re making the journey a painful one, and they’re hurting their long term earning power and potential wealth creation.

The reality is that if I were to retire early, I would almost immediately start up on some sort of project, which will ultimately become my next full-time preoccupation… perhaps I’ll get paid for it, or perhaps I won’t, but either way I’ll be doing something productive. That’s the only way to live.

As an example of pursuing a career you don’t really enjoy, take Financial Samurai. He often talks about his experience in the world of finance and how he couldn’t wait to quit the industry entirely. While I applaud his determination and grit, I question whether he needed to hustle his way through the world of finance if he truly despised the work. Why not find a path that is actually enjoyable and sustainable? I guess in some strange sense that’s what he eventually did when he quit his job and started blogging full time. But it begs the question as to why he didn’t get to blogging sooner?

As a counter-point, quitting a job I hated is exactly what I did relatively early on in my career. I was working in Private Equity making big bucks for a 25 year old (over a quarter million a year was a lot back in the aughts for someone only a few years out of college), but I realized the lifestyle of PE had zero interest and attraction to me. The only reason to tough it out in the world of finance was to gain access to the big payday 10-15 years down the road when you make partner. But I didn’t need what was being offered as a partner, and I definitely wasn’t ready to sacrifice what it would take to get there – friends, health, time, leisure, interests… and perhaps most of all, the ability to work on things that I genuinely enjoyed. So, instead of sticking it out on the path of unhappiness, I quit. I took a 50% pay-cut and jumped into the world of tech. Hindsight is 20/20 and I was lucky to choose tech at a perfect time in the cycle, but the choice of doing something I enjoy was a decision that I think will work for anyone, at anytime.

So perhaps my point is that in your pursuit of financial independence, don’t trade something you need to live a good life (i.e. time, leisure, control), for something you don’t need, want or value (i.e. more money than you need to be happy). The path to financial independence and long term wealth can be achieved in a number of ways, and while grinding it out in a high paying industry that sucks is one of those paths, it is not likely to the be the most enjoyable path. If you end up taking a modest pay cut to work on something you enjoy much more, you might defer reaching your FIRE number by a few years (see my lifetime earnings model here to figure it out for yourself)… but if you’re enjoying your work and have control over your time, your FIRE number starts to become a lot less relevant. Keep that in mind as you continue on your journey. It’s never too late to make a change.

Enjoy!

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