{ in·deed·a·bly }

adverb: to competently express interest, surprise, disbelief, or contempt

Happy

Monday morning. 8:45am. Streams of excited parents and reluctant kids head towards the first day of school in almost six months. In a triumph of public health theatre, schools had been declared COVID free “safe” spaces, where masks were unnecessary and year group “bubbles” would contain any infection.

Safe spaces are like the notions of meritocracy and “independent” regulators: there is no such thing!

As we walked towards the school gate, my seven-year-old son was firing off questions that were impossible to answer:

How do the bubbles work, when most kids have brothers and sisters in other year groups?

Why do we have to wear masks on the bus to school, but not allowed to wear masks at school?

How can we catch coronavirus at swimming lessons or the supermarket, but not catch it in class?

Why can children play with other year groups at before and after school care, but not at lunchtime?

Why can teachers from all the different bubbles play together in the staff room during break times?”

“When a class teacher gets sick, where will supply teachers come from? They aren’t in our bubble!

I gave him my best Gaelic shrug, and told him the rules were designed to protect the hardworking teachers from all the horrible noisy sticky children. He giggled, as we walked past a bawling five-year-old little girl surreptitiously wiping tears and snot on her mother’s shirt sleeve.

The first day of “big school” was off to a rocky start. She didn’t know it yet, but the school’s social distancing rules would prevent her new reception class teachers from holding her hand or hugging her to make it better.

If they followed them.

We abruptly halted when we saw the vast crowd of parents and kids milling together outside the school gate. The school buildings may have been made “COVID safe” inside, but the mostly maskless parents were ably demonstrating that the general public has poorer self-preservation instincts and survival skills that the average Lemming.

We opted to sit out the scrum from across the road, watching parents jostle and shout like a mosh pit full of teenagers on ecstasy. Given how many of them had noticeably gained weight during lockdown, it appears the government’s newfound fear of obesity was well-founded.

Eventually, the gates creaked open. The new caretaker appeared, his long-serving predecessor having been felled by COVID the week before lockdown commenced. A voice worthy of an army drill sergeant boomed from behind his mask: “Children step forward. Parents stand back!

Those adults closest to the gates physically flinched.

Several young children burst into tears.

The older children tentatively shuffled forward.

A boy racer in a hotted up old blue Mazda screeched to a halt in front of the school gates, scattering parents and children alike. A small tribe of kids erupted out the passenger side of the double-parked sports car. The doof-doof beat of dance music with a heavy baseline thundered out the open car door, disrupting pace-makers and setting off car alarms up and down the street.

As the last of his children clambered onto the footpath, the driver gunned the engine and fishtailed back out into traffic. The song on his stereo changed to the Pharrell Williams song “Happy”.

“…

Because I’m happy

Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof

From our vantage point across the street, we watched the parents start to drift away from the school gates after dropping off their progeny.

The single father of a boy with allergies had a spring in his step as he headed for the coffee shop. Ordered to “shelter at home” throughout lockdown, man and boy had spent virtually every waking moment confined together in a tiny one-bedroom flat with an air mattress on the floor and no outside space.

“…

Because I’m happy

Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth

The young mother, who endured an arranged marriage to an older cousin and now had two special needs kids, openly wept as she looked to the sky and gave praise to her deity of choice. She had aged a decade since I last saw her back in March. Grey. Drawn. Haggard.

“…

Because I’m happy

Clap along if you know what happiness is to you

The old Ghanian guy was literally dancing down the street. His daughter was one of the happiest people on the planet. A ray of sunshine who genuinely brightened up the day of everyone she meets. She was also exhausting. Like the Energiser bunny, her boundless energy keeps going and going!

“…

Because I’m happy

Clap along if you feel like that’s what you wanna do

Happy parents indeed! For many, this would be the first time in months they had time to themselves.

My younger son gave my hand an anxious squeeze and teared up. “I don’t want to go back! Why can’t we keep working from home together, forever?

I gave him a big hug, and told him to focus on how great it would be to play with all his friends again. If the pandemic had taught us anything, it was that life is unpredictable and we shouldn’t take anything for granted because we don’t know how long it will last.

We crossed the road together. He joined the stream of children filing past the glowering caretaker.

“…

Bring me down

Can’t nothing bring me down

My level’s too high to bring me down

Can’t nothing bring me down, I said

…”

I skirted around the assembled gaggle of relieved parents. There were more than a few celebratory grins. High fives. Victory dances. They had survived homeschooling and the initial lockdown.

Finally, they could palm their kids off to the professionals and return themselves to work. Leisure. Or in a great many cases now that the furlough scheme was winding down, job seeking.

“…

Happy! Happy! Happy! Happy!

…”

Self-awareness evolves

The sentiment my son had expressed, of not wishing to return to his pre-COVID “normal” was a recurring thought for much of that week.

Much to my lady wife’s chagrin, I too have little desire to go back, to select a client site for my annual winter working hibernation. The idea of working hard to deliver yet another lucrative but uninspiring “enterprise” software solution to a disinterested audience at an ungrateful megacorp leaves me cold.

This reluctance to return to the old normal is a sentiment that I suspect many share, though few will openly admit to. Understandably concerned about appearing to be tone-deaf or ungrateful, when plenty of unemployed and underemployed folks would gladly trade places in a heartbeat.

Railing against corporate life is a staple within the FIRE community. Challenging the premise that selling life by the day in return for a pay packet, social interaction, and (for a fortunate few) intellectual stimulation represents a good trade.

Some FIRE blogs even maintain a timer. Counting down the days or dollars until they can cry “Freedom!” and avail themselves of the whole world of options that their newfound financial independence affords them.

But here is the thing. Anyone who has watched the FIRE movement for a reasonable length of time will have observed an intriguing pattern.

The vast majority of FIRE bloggers quit long before they achieve financial independence. Blogging can be a thankless game. Shouting into the void, while pursuing a lengthy but uneventful dream. Get the basics right, then set and forget, there isn’t a whole lot else to write about.

Inevitably, most get bored. “Life happens” events occur. Priorities change. Few stay the course.

Amongst those FIRE bloggers who do achieve independence, most quit blogging shortly afterwards. Their race is run. Their focus naturally moves on to whatever comes next. Of great interest to the individual, much less relatable to the audience who had vicariously joined them on their journey.

Of those precious few who do continue blogging after reaching financial independence, many eventually return to some form of work. Often within months. Others never end up pulling the trigger at all, just having the option proves to be enough to remove the pressure of the financial imperative.

Maybe not to their old profession.

Possibly not in a full-time capacity.

But most invest some of their time in forms of recurring organised activity. Doing something they value, in between those holiday activities that FIRE seekers devote so much time to fantasising about.

Babysitting grandkids.

Mentoring.

Non-executive directorships.

Starting, buying, or running a business.

Writing a book.

Volunteering.

That latent desire to escape the workforce isn’t about no longer working, it is about no longer having to work. Being free to decide how and where to invest their time.

They still wish to contribute. Add value. Feel a sense of accomplishment. Make a difference.

Ask the audience

Here is a quick thought experiment for you.

What hobbies, interests, or side hustles do you currently enjoy outside of your day job?

If you decided not to go back to your current job for whatever reason, but were not yet financially independent, which of those activities might you look to scale out into an income-generating pursuit?

For those of you who already earn income from activities outside your day job, perform a quick calculation to determine what the financial reward for your time investment currently is:

Gross income from activity / Total hours invested = Approximate hourly revenue

Once you’re financially independent or traditionally retired, what activities will occupy your days at home, in between those amazing globe-trotting adventures you have long dreamt about?

Use your imagination and have some fun with it.

It will be fascinating to see what readers come up with. Leave a comment below with a one-sentence summary of your activities, and the results of your calculations. Anonymous comments are fine if you’re shy.

To get you started, here were a few responses from colleagues when we recently had a similar discussion.

Activity Currency Hourly Revenue GBP equivalent
Children’s guitar instructor HKD $650.00 £65.22
Children’s swimming instructor GBP £5.00
Handmade timber furniture maker BRL $48.00 £7.08
Residential retreat host GBP £80.00
Residential landlord GBP £825.00
Successful non-fiction author GBP £1.50
Unsuccessful niche technical author AUD $4.66 £2.64
Surfing instructor USD $40.00 £31.11

Back to square one

One week later, my younger son woke up with a sore throat.

In pre-COVID times, I would have dosed him with the magic elixir of Calpol and sent him to school.

According to the school’s “COVID safe” rules, any form of cold or flu symptom results in an automatic one week ban. Self-isolation for the whole family. Until negative COVID tests have been returned.

Except the government’s COVID test processing capacity is overloaded.

As was the case back at the start of the pandemic, testing is currently reserved for symptomatic patients only. In some parts of the country, those without access to a car can’t get tested at all.

Test processing is now being offshored to labs in Germany and Italy, after under-resourced and overwhelmed domestic labs faced a backlog of 185,000 outstanding tests.

This is just week two of school. Commuter life for the majority of the hotdesk jockeys has not yet resumed!   

My elder son’s high school class have already figured out how to game the system. Students who hadn’t kept up with their homeschooling before the summer break were now phoning in suspected COVID cases to get out of exams and public speaking assessments. Class sizes are down by a third, with no home school offering for those out “sick“, quarantined, or self-isolating pending a COVID test result.

The school chooses not to ask too many questions. Under their “COVID safe” rules, two positive tests within a year group bubble would see the doors closed and a resumption of distance education.

They are already short-staffed, after several teachers took ill-advised late summer vacations abroad, only to be caught out by the government’s ever-changing quarantine guidelines upon their return.

If these experiences are any indication of the new normal, then the old normal is a long way away from viable resumption.

Any client work I consider taking one would need to be of the remote working and super flexible variety.

Perhaps it is time to seriously explore those alternative options? To create a portfolio of income-generating activities that keep me entertained, without being tied to a strict schedule that random school closures will inevitably disrupt?


References

  • Adams, R. and Stewart, H. (2020), ‘UK schools to be closed indefinitely and exams cancelled’, The Guardian
  • Lawrie, E. (2020), ‘Coronavirus: Will the furlough scheme be extended?’, BBC News
  • Pogrund, G., Calver, T., and Wheeler, C. (2020), ‘Leaked figures reveal scale of coronavirus test shortage’, The Times
  • Schraer, R. (2020), ‘Coronavirus testing system “falling over”‘, BBC News
  • The Accumulator (2020), ‘I hit my FI number’, Monevator
  • Williams, P. (2013), ‘Happy’, Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC
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9 Comments

  1. Fire And Wide 15 September 2020

    Hey. Loved the question stream from your 7 year old. If only the gov would employ him & his pals to test out any new policy for the large gaping holes of logic we end up with each time.

    To be fair – I get that it is logical – when you want to view it through the lens of “this is what we want to happen so let’s just all pretend if we say it’s ok, it is and clamp down elsewhere”. Sigh.

    Glad to see I at least make the rare blogger camp in starting up after FIRE instead of on my way. Probably because it would have driven me nuts with boredom to do monthly updates, let alone any poor sod reading it! We’ll see how it goes but yes, as a long-time FIRE blog follower the rhythmic up/down wash/repeat cycle can be pretty predictable. I’m glad you are still going.

    I wish more people understood FIRE is about exactly that – not having to work but choosing how to invest your time based on meaning & satisfaction. Whether it pays or not.

    Too often life is presented as a choice of “do what you love & give up your material dreams or do something that pays well & give up on your life dreams”.

    I think most people would have far more success with the 50/50 approach of invest enough to give up the high-earning but dull & life-sucking jobs and do something that pays less but will enjoy.

    Look forward to seeing which way you jump!

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 15 September 2020 — Post author

      Thanks FIRE and Wide, some wise words there.

      Glad to see I at least make the rare blogger camp in starting up after FIRE instead of on my way

      Lol! Some may argue you cleverly gamed the system once the outcome was already known, a real life case study in survivor bias. 🤣

      Now you just need to unveil the “big reveal“, and start taking pre-orders for your exclusive platinum course, luxury residential retreat, and series of e-books that promises to reveal the secret sauce behind immediate gratification, quick riches, and sex appeal.

      I jest, but unfortunately that is the route that far too many former FIRE bloggers venture down once they cross the finishing line and look for what comes next.

      • Fire And Wide 15 September 2020

        Ha, love it. I’m sure there should be a clever pun there about secret sauce and gravy train but I clearly haven’t had enough tea yet to come up with it 🤣

        But ofcourse – did I forget to mention I have a special offer running right now – only £19.99 for the 5-part mini series that will see you sail off into the sunset. Bargain at twice the price. So would you like two for twice the promises?!

        Downside, I’d have to actually write the thing and you know, that’s just too much like actual work for someone like me right now…so how about I promise to send it by carrier pigeon in a bit..

        I jest too clearly but you made me laugh so much I just had to 😀 . But yeah, it’s a real shame when that happens. Undoes all the good work showing it is possible to live a different life. I’m glad not everyone does.

  2. David Andrews 15 September 2020

    My 6 year old managed to returned for a month of school (along with half his class), before the summer holidays started. He’s now been back full time with all his class. We receive daily emails from the school reminding parents to avoid busy drop off and pick up times. Reminders for parents not to congregate chatting in school grounds. Sadly I see people blatantly ignoring these rules daily. I do feel very bad for the school staff who will be trying their best under very difficult circumstances.

    I feel that a significant amount of people are now just doing what they want. probably because they perceive that those in leadership positions have been doing that for quite some time.

    The neighbours over the road consistently ignored the rules on gatherings at home. Some shoppers aren’t wearing masks ( I’m sure not all have justifiable reasons not to ) and I suspect many businesses aren’t turfing out the non mask wearers because they need all the business they can get.

    It’s a pretty impossible situation to manage. My son has also questioned why the rules seem to be so contradictory and I’m also unable to explain why.

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 15 September 2020 — Post author

      Thanks David, glad to hear your boy is back at school and able to play with his friends again.

      I think all those observations you called out stem from a common root cause: trust.

      Trust is hard won, but has been constantly eroded by inconsistency, institutional silliness, and self-serving hypocrisy.

      Once our faith in those setting the rules has been sufficiently eroded and undermined, people fall back to alternative narratives that seem plausible and are consistent with what they can personally observe and experience.

      However, the lens through which we each perceive the world is very narrow and filtered.

      Are bodies piling up your local neighbourhood streets? No.

      Have there been vast numbers of people fall ill or die within your direct social circle, people you personally know and interact with? No.

      Therefore the fears of the threat seem overblown, the instructions today will have inevitably changed to something contradictory tomorrow, and there is no penalty for non-compliance amongst those who have reverted to leading their pre-COVID lives.

      These are troubling conclusions, possibly based upon faulty reasoning, yet it isn’t hard to see how people arrive at them.

      The truly scary thing isn’t whether people aren’t wearing masks in the supermarket or on the bus, but rather where this prevalent style of dishonest populist leadership may ultimately lead. Nils Gilman recently penned an article about this, focussing on the forthcoming US elections. It was the scariest thing I have read in a long time.

  3. FullTimeFinance 15 September 2020

    Our schools are on virtual learning for at minimum the first six weeks. I hold little hope that in 6 weeks they will open. Oddly enough companies are opening up locally that will watch your children why they do school work.

    We are struggling with remote work. Thankfully our school age kids are fairly self sufficient and my wife’s contract work allows flexibility. In that respect I am very lucky with covid.

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 15 September 2020 — Post author

      Thanks FullTimeFinance. Hopefully the virtual learning provides a reasonable substitute until the school feels it is safe to resume physical classes.

      We had three months of homeschooling before the summer holidays. The virtual learning element varied greatly by school. My elder son’s high school, run by ardent Luddites, did a great job adapting to virtual learning and tried hard.

      The younger son’s primary school didn’t try at all, once a week emailing out a couple of half-assed handouts they had downloaded from a free teaching materials website. My son knocked over the activities that were supposed to last a week in about twenty minutes total, so we were largely left to our own devices to keep him challenged and stimulated.

      Good luck with the remote working, performing double duty with full time parenting is a tough gig indeed.

  4. weenie 16 September 2020

    Haha, I’ve been boring people for 6 years with my monthly updates and will likely continue until I pull the FIRE plug. If I keep on blogging, maybe I’ll rename the blog, Quietly Retiring or something!

    I don’t intend to monetise any of my hobbies as I feel that would just suck the joy out of them.

    After graduating, I was unemployed for a while. I used to love cartooning/doodling (used to illustrate the students’ union mag) and came up with the idea of drawing sets of postcards and selling them. Sold quite a few sets to friends and my sister’s colleagues but after a couple of months, I was sick of it despite making decent profits for a few hours’ work each week. I might start doodling for fun again.

    Anyway, my nephew’s back at school, so far so good. He was on top of all his online work – his school kept him busy with a good programme, which even included the kids attending regular virtual assemblies.

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 17 September 2020 — Post author

      Thanks weenie. I hope you do stick with it, your blog provides great inspiration to folks from all walks of life, demonstrating that a sensibly balanced approach to personal finance can make FIRE a viable option for anyone, even those who aren’t high earning Masters of the Universe in the City or Tech Bros.

      Your blog is also a good example of that Darwinian process at work. How many of those FI bloggers you were reading back in 2014 are still around today? Of those, how many still regularly post more than the occasional heartbeat post? I suspect it would be a very short list!

      Your point about turning a hobby into a job removing the joy is worth consideration. That was my experience a million years ago when I started coding for money instead of just for fun.

What say you?

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