“Can you please post this for me? It is a 95th birthday card, for my best friend since primary school. We have known one another for nearly 90 years!”
My elderly neighbour beamed in the early morning sunlight, as she teetered precariously on her walking stick. I couldn’t help but grin along with her. The odds of them both living that long, let alone remaining friends throughout, must be astronomical.
She is an inspiring lady. Worked for 50 years, until mandatory retirement saw her put out to pasture. Her husband died shortly afterwards, leaving her financially secure but alone. Craving social interaction, and not feeling “old”, she had started a catering business when aged almost 70. A business she successfully ran for nearly two decades, until a stroke finally slowed her down.
After agreeing to play postman, I gave her a slice of cake and escorted her home. If you have made it to 95 then you can eat whatever you want for breakfast. Even chocolate cake!
On my return, I was greeted by matching death stares from my younger son and the lockdown kitten.
The boy was indignant I had given away the cake he had been eyeing off for his morning snack.
The perpetually hungry cat was simply aggrieved that I had fed someone other than him.
“Why does she deserve cake? She just sits around all day watching tv and waiting for her carer to visit.”
While his observation of how the elderly neighbour spent her time was factually correct, it didn’t do her justice. Evidence that our observations are influenced by our perceptions and life experiences.
I pointed out that I had baked the cake, not him. That it was good to share. That he was being selfish.
Finally, I told him that everyone has a fascinating story, if we only take the time to get to know them a little and listen. His sullen expression gave way to incredulity and then amazement as I briefly recounted what I knew of the elderly neighbour’s life story and her heartwarming life long friendship.
The story concluded with the observation that the elderly neighbour would love to be able to do more than sit around watching television, but her 95-year-old body was no longer up to the task.
The boy was mollified. The cat nonplussed. Both would have to learn to live with disappointment.
Open for business
A few weeks later, schools had finally reopened and physical classes resumed. Predictably, my younger son was already angling for days off and pining for the school holidays. As we headed out the door for drop off, he put on a hopeful expression and asked:
“Why can’t I be like you? Hang out at home all day. Not have to go to school or work?”
I felt a familiar sinking feeling in my stomach. The sneaking suspicion that as children we subconsciously absorb and seek to emulate many of the behaviours we observe in our parents. Whether we understand them or not.
He had never witnessed my 100+ hour work weeks.
The indentured servitude in pursuit of a work visa.
Overnight software releases and data migrations.
Weekends grinding to claw back budget overruns or deadline slippages.
The relentless on-call support disrupting family time and derailing social lives.
Working hard, back in the day, so that I wouldn’t have to work hard in the here and now.
But that sits firmly in the “what have you done” basket? Past tense.
Not the forward-looking “what do you do?”. Present tense. Observable today.
As with his observation of the elderly neighbour, he was factually correct, yet didn’t tell the full story.
Pandemic restrictions meant I was indeed home much of the day. Homeschooling while working full time had proved attritional during the first lockdown. Learning from the experience, the second time around I had consciously chosen to try and do one thing well rather than both badly.
I opened my mouth to explain how it really was. Paused. Goldfished. Then just sighed.
With school having returned, there was no longer a need for me to stay home and play teacher.
Would the escape from lockdown be permanent this time around?
Or would it offer yet another short-lived false hope?
The press is full of patriotic fervour about the impressive vaccine rollout. Yet several nearby countries have returned to lockdown, after experiencing a fourth pandemic wave. Meanwhile, a recent business confidence survey reported that more than half of firms anticipated another UK lockdown in the autumn.
Life is uncertain. We can choose to live in fear of the unknown, or just get on with it.
As I pulled the front door closed, I glimpsed movement in the shadows at the top of the stairs. My lady wife’s eyes flashed victoriously, before she stomped back to her eyrie for another day of video calls and shouting.
My younger son may have given voice to the question, but there was little doubt where the words had originated. Having a contentedly unemployed husband was inconvenient. It didn’t fit the narrative of successful upwardly mobile family that had been sold to the social circle of Joneses that my lady wife chooses to run with.
After drop off, I didn’t fancy returning home. Instead, I wandered aimlessly along the river, enjoying the glorious spring sunshine and retracing the route of a long-forgotten marathon. Something I wouldn’t have been able to do on a typical working day!
I thought back to a time years ago, when my then toddler-aged younger son had returned home from nursery proudly clutching a hand made Father’s Day present. Abstract art. Vibrant. Colourful. I had made suitably impressed noises before realising there was also writing on his masterpiece.
Beneath the rainbow-coloured explosion of paint and glitter, a printed stencil contained the beginnings of sentences, which one of the nursery teachers had completed with my younger son’s responses.
- My Dad does this at his job… “playing on his computer”.
- My Dad is really good at… “playing on his computer”.
- For fun, my Dad likes… “playing on his computer”.
- My Dad doesn’t like… “when I spill my milk and break his computer”.
- One thing my Dad has taught me is… “I hate computers”.
It had been confronting. Like a sucker-punch to the solar plexus from the schoolyard bully. I felt seen.
My son didn’t understand what he was observing. Yet his summary wasn’t entirely wrong either.
My job had involved torturing computers, often while working from home.
Outside of work? I had been completing a university degree. Again on a computer.
The daily administrivia? Bookkeeping. Paying bills. Reading the news. All on a computer.
In his mind’s eye, that was how he pictured me. The brutal unfiltered honesty of a young child.
Forgetting about the time we spent before and after school each day having Nerf gun battles or building Lego. Reading stories at bedtime. Weekends spent riding bikes and visiting playgrounds. Holidays at the beach. All the fun stuff.
Also tuning out the daily grind. Chores. Cooking. Grocery shopping. Helping with homework. Laundry.
None had made the same impression as “Dad playing on his computer”.
Fortunately, those hectic time-poor days of my being tethered to a computer are long behind us both.
Today his updated mental image is of a happier, less stressed, more contented Dad who doesn’t appear to do much at all. Playing. Reading. Walking. Writing. Sometimes still using his old computer.
Not dissimilar to his impression of the elderly neighbour, whiling away her days in front of the television. Every day seemingly like a lazy school holiday, time free from obligations and demands.
It wasn’t just my younger son who forms these partial impressions. We all do. My childhood mental image of my father was of him forever building DIY projects in his shed, or working on his farm.
It was only years later than I figured out those were his happy places. Where he would go to escape his family and the demands of everyday life. Much like my long walks or writing stories.
Financial Independence is the point at which our decision making is freed from the financial imperative. Prior to that point, our decisions are often driven by need rather than personal preference.
Working to pay the bills.
Working hard to get ahead. To earn more. To convey an image of success.
Working in a role that commands the largest pay packet, rather than stimulates our interests most.
Working in a profession selected for employment opportunities and job security, instead of the warm fuzzy feelings of achievement or helping others.
Not everyone follows this decision making path of course. However, it will be familiar to many who have successfully achieved financial independence, particularly those who did so at an early age.
Once we can afford to separate our decision making from the need to make money, it opens up a world of opportunities we wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) have previously considered.
How many of the things that you do for money today would you continue to do for free? Once the financial imperative is removed from the equation, this is a lens through which your time investment decisions can be viewed.
The answers can be unsettling!
Once they can safely afford to, some folks choose to “follow their passions”.
Change professions into something more fulfilling or rewarding.
Others may choose to indulge their wanderlust,
To pursue their hobbies more seriously than time or money previously allowed.
Perhaps prioritise their families, or invest time strengthening social relationships and community ties.
To the individual, these life changes likely make perfect prioritisation sense.
Finding their happy.
Maximising the enjoyment derived from their scarce precious time.
To the outside world however, these choices take the person “off script”. Their decisions not making sense to those who still view the world through a lens dominated by the financial imperative.
Their observations are like those of my younger son. Factually correct. Yet not doing the subject justice due to a lack of understanding or by failing to tell the whole story.
Akin to portraying my inspiring elderly neighbour as a mere couch potato.
This aspect of achieving financial independence is seldom discussed, yet not uncommon.
Someone who has won the game and beaten the rat race faces being perceived as a layabout or a wastrel, should they choose to adopt a lifestyle that is socially acceptable only for students, pension age retirees, and the idle rich.
Which isn’t to say that we should rest on our laurels or trade on past glories. Financial Independence is merely a milestone on our journey, not the ultimate destination. We celebrate. Quietly pat ourselves on the back for an achievement nobody else can see. Then look forward and ask ourselves “what’s next?”.
If we don’t, then an observation like those made by my younger son might begin to tell the whole story!