Helping front office teams grow better

What's the end of your career? - #388

So far as I can tell, these email's last check-in on the financial independence movement was in 2018. Email #97 had three links under the "frugality" heading. First was a nice story about how some diligent savers helped their 13 (!) children go to college, debt-free. Then, we had two competing headlines:


The people who retired at 32 were two Cambridge, MA non-profit and tech workers. They said they saved their pennies to abandon city life and retire to a homestead in Vermont. They would have us believe this is a path to a more meaningful life. Their story doesn't feature their $300-500k annual incomes, as that at least somewhat belies the frugal message. The second is a vicious and realistic takedown of those same people, arguing that the only way to embrace “extreme frugality” is to start with and continue to make a lot of money. Points and counterpoints like this echo across the "financial independence" parts of the internet.

While the argument is interesting, both sides assume the same thing: it's better to be rich; it's required to be rich to be happy; the people who have more money are better for it. I don't think that we really sure this is the case, but we behave like it is.

Take, for example, this week's recommended reading. Here we find the Times reviewing the state of those who are at the top of the financial independence leaderboard: the people who run its various subreddits. Maybe they built some early mobile apps that went viral; maybe they calibrated their savings to quit their normal jobs at an absurdly young age; maybe they continue to slightly work, but only a the stress-level and hours they prefer. Whatever their specific angle, they're the ones who won the race in order to, allegedly, opt out of it completely. They made their pile, now they're living exactly as they'd like: material excess abounds. While a little judgmental, the piece isn't too savage about the ridiculous spending or the decades of do-nothingism ahead: these are the winners! What do we really make of this new class of idlers? The Times writer seems surprised that they're about as insipid, uninspiring, and frustrated as any of your average Victorian novel's "gentlemen."

Speaking of, my train reading this Spring has been William James's The Varieties of Religious Experience, published in 1902. Based on a series of lectures in natural theology, James writes as a psychologist analyzing religious experience. After long surveys of the religious experiences, he turned in the last part of the book to considering its merits. In a chapter on the value of saintliness, he describes some of the silliness of poverty among the early saints, things like refusing to sleep laying down or opening the windows in a snowstorm. These behaviors, he explains, aren't the sort of thing you can build a civilization on. They only draw our attention because they're wild outliers. In broader review of poverty, though, he draws those outliers in as an overarching example to correct a fatal flaw of the late Victorian age.

James's flaw for the Victorians is exactly the same as the flaw of the Times's financial independence types. James says that "wealth-getting enters as an ideal into the very bone and marrow of our generation." He goes on:

We have grown literally afraid to be poor. We despise any one who elects to be poor in order to simplify and save his inner life. If he does not join the general scramble and pant with the money-making street, we deem him spiritless and lacking in ambition.

This fear of being poor, expressed then, resulted in a wealth-getting and status-upgrading and material conditions-improving energy may never be equalled. In the US, at least, those born in 1840 and who lives until 1920 experienced impressive material upgrades. Likely only their children, the generation right after, exceeded them in this kind of result. And yet, that motivated fear of poverty, turning into greed, becomes unmitigated disregard for any other value. Their impressive wealth-generation gave us robber barons at the top and factory deaths at the bottom. James argues, convincingly, that the blame goes all the way down.

This same fear of being poor, expressed now, results in impressive motivation: the guys slinging mobile apps for 20 hours a day or the people making giant incomes and living like paupers are impressively motivated. I'm not sure the things they do are all that valuable. But it's really the things they aren't doing that cause the most harm. You have to choose not to have a family, spend time with people, be kind at work, be generous with your money, etc. in order to accumulate this sort of wealth. Will our descendants look back at this age in the same way we look back our selfishness in the same way we look askance at the factories, slums, and robber barons of the Victorian age?

James finishes the section with haunted warning, "it is certain that the prevalent fear of poverty among the educated classes is the worst moral disease from which our civilization suffers."


12mag-FIRE-digitalextras-03-superJumboYour Neighbors Are Retiring in Their 30s. Why Can’t You?

Meet the schemers and savers obsessed with ending their careers as early as possible.

(Free link to read.)