{ in·deed·a·bly }

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

Stagnate

The lockdown kitten crouched poised on the edge of the lounge. Tail swishing. Blue eyes focused with deadly intent on the colourful tropical fish swimming inside the aquarium. A quiver of tension rippled through his body, before he launched himself through the air towards his prey. 

Soaring gracefully through space. Legs outstretched. Mouth open in anticipation. 

His flight was abruptly terminated. Flying kitten meets aquarium glass wall with a thud. He plummeted into the toy box with a crash, before leaping out in an explosion Transformers and wooden train tracks. 

Colourful guppies and swordtails briefly paused from cannibalising their young, to grin and do the piscine equivalent of flipping him the bird. 

The lazy cat was sprawled in her preferred perch on top of the aquarium. It was warm and (for now) out of reach of the hyperactive younger feline. She opened a single eye, uttered a passable impression of my younger son’s “meh”, then went back to sleep.

I paused while emptying the cat litter tray to stare forlornly out the window at yet another rainy day. 

The first lockdown featured months of sunny and warm days, briefly enjoyed between endless conference calls and homeschooling. Open schools and my seasonal working pattern solved that time-poor problem during the second lockdown, yet the weather gods have displayed their sense of irony by making it rain nearly every day. 

My lady wife swooped down from her eyrie in the loft, like a hungry bird of prey in search of a meal. Beautifully coiffed. Immaculately made up. Work blouse worn over yoga pants and fluffy slippers. 

Fresh from making a seasoned outsourcing partner cry, she rummaged in the fridge in search of sustenance. Her search punctuated by a verbal download of her mornings worth of meetings.  

History teaches us that during these downloads my input is neither required nor particularly welcome. While my lady wife verbally organised her thoughts, I tuned out. Finished changing the cat litter. Emptied the clothes dryer. Began washing up the breakfast dishes. The glamorous life of the semi-retired!

I soon became aware of an uncomfortable silence settling over the kitchen. The cat flap clattered shut as lazy cat sensed danger and bolted outside. Two wary blue kitten eyes peered from the darkness beneath the lounge. 

You need to get a job” my lady wife decreed. 

You don’t appear to be working towards any goals or ambitions. You aren’t studying or volunteering or making any visible contribution to society. You are stagnating. Marking time. Filling in your days with chores and errands and helping with homework. It sets a bad example for the kids!

Having lobbed her truth bomb, she grabbed the treasures she had looted from the fridge and returned upstairs for an afternoon of back-to-back video calls with her work colleagues, followed later by Zoom drinks with her friends. 

With the precision of a highly trained assassin, my lady wife had managed to shatter my sense of inner peace. Normally the verbal assaults bounce off with no harm done. This one had struck home. 

Could she be right?” I wondered. My inner saboteur chortled gleefully. Bastard!

Sensing weakness, the hyperactive kitten launched an ambush. 

He shot across the kitchen floor, leapt onto my knee, then clambered his way up the leg of my jeans with the crazed wild-eyed look of a Primark shopper during the Boxing day sales. 

Glaring down at the kitten, as his claws turned my hip into a human pin cushion, I tried to grab him. 

He was too fast. Pushing off with a mighty leap. Flying through the air once more. 

It appears he had not fully thought through his escape plan, as momentum carried him skidding over the edge of the sink and into the soapy dishwater with an aggrieved yowl.

By the time I finished washing the dishes, it had stopped raining. Following the trail of water and bubbles, I found the wet kitten sound asleep in my basket of freshly washed clothes. Sigh! 

I grabbed my coat and headed outside for a walk along the river. The Thames Path was heaving with hordes of dog walkers, lockdown busting old ladies gossiping in packs, and red-faced joggers jostling their way through the crowds. 

While I walked on autopilot, my thoughts wandered. My inner saboteur started asking self-indulgent curly questions. 

Was I marking time? 

Padding out a meaningless existence, like a lonely pensioner who has exceeded their “used by” date? 

Filling in my days with low-value tasks. Things I once outsourced to a cleaner or after school nanny? 

Sometimes it did feel that way.

My days bookended by school drop-off and pickup times. Mornings occupied with reading, thinking, writing, and tinkering.

Afternoons spent with my children. Homework. Hearing about their day. Cooking up culinary “dadsasters” for dinner. Rinse and repeat. 

My elder son already resides in a teenage bubble of monosyllabic grunts and anime. Emerging from his room for meals, before swiftly escaping back into a world of gaming, group chats, and study.

There are still a few years left before the younger one makes a similar leap, rendering my services largely redundant. At that point, I do foresee having a time surplus, as the bookends are removed. 

I would like to believe that I am putting in time with the kids now, while it is welcome and still makes a difference. That may even be true.

Was I lacking drive and focus?

When I hear about people being driven by a purpose or a mission it always produces a wry smile. 

Evoking imagery of religious zealots evangelising. Or recent converts to the latest fad, gluten-free or powerlifting. 

That kind of passion and fervour is beyond my experience. Not something I understand. 

Sometimes I wonder whether it really exists, or if it might not be the product of self-delusion and wishful thinking?

Other times I am a little bit envious of the simplistic certainty that those single-mindedly following their dreams seem to enjoy. A clear direction. Well-defined goalposts. 

My life has largely been lived as a series of means-to-an-end. Surviving. Making do. Getting by.

Had to” became “should do”. Survival yielding to obligation. 

Should do” evolved into “could do”. The obligation monkey eventually shed from my back. 

Could do” became “want to”. Free to pick and choose, or to not play the game at all. 

An interesting evolution. My feelings of control growing along with my financial means. 

Dancing to the tune of others less and less. Except having won the game, I now rarely dance at all. 

Want” requires desire, focus, and imagination. As with passion and fervour, this is something I rarely have experienced. A privileged position, but one that removes the excuses we often hide behind.

Could this be what my lady wife meant? 

Was I bored? 

Boredom. An affliction that strikes the under-occupied. Children. Inmates. Understimulated workers. Retirees. 

It seems to be particularly prevalent amongst FIRE seekers, once they cross the finishing line. 

Doing “nothing” seems to be a struggle for the driven personality types who make it past the point of financial independence. Personal finance bloggers the ermine and Finumus both recently admitted to suffering from the affliction. Succumbing to a malady which has previously seen the likes of RetirementInvestingToday and YoungFIGuy “retiring from being retired” by returning to work.

Perhaps the struggle to find a sense of purpose within is more common that we would care to admit? 

Having one externally imposed by a job or a cause would be one way to resolve the struggle. 

To some, that may appear to be simply kicking the can further down the road, until a more traditional retirement age. Those difficulties are likely to rise from their shallow graves, returning to haunt the now older retirees like zombies in a low budget horror movie. 

Except by that age, retirement is socially acceptable. A lifestyle choice shared with spouses and peers. Perhaps having people to play with during the working day makes all the difference?

Which leads me back to my lady wife’s truth bomb. Did it strike a nerve because it was unreasonable, like being accused of a crime I did not commit? Or did it hit closer to home than I would care to admit?

Had I swapped out client projects and selling time for money with busywork, box sets, and idleness? 

Had I then found that existence wanting? These unusual COVID-times of travel restrictions, social isolation, and remote working have certainly been challenging. The regular cadence of socialising, beach holidays, and visiting far-flung family has been thoroughly disrupted.

Motivation has been sorely lacking. I’m no fitter, faster, prettier, or smarter than I had been at the start of the pandemic. Instead, I have rotted my brain catching up on a decade worth of “must-see television” that had passed me by while I had been busily focussed elsewhere. 

Following the news, social media, and blogosphere during my work commute had provided a welcome respite from the daily grind. Now it provides a distraction. Same content, different context.

Lunchtime walks at a client site provided a healthy chance to organise my thoughts, clear my head, and stretch my legs. All those things still hold true for my riverside meanders, though now I am escaping the house rather than the client.

If I’m brutally honest, my day to day routine isn’t all that much different to what it normally would be. 

Except for the working part, and insourcing the afternoons which the kids used to spend with a nanny. 

Readers who have followed my journey for any length of time will no doubt have spotted its cyclical nature. 

Summer ends and the sun departs. Ennui arrives with the changing of the wind. 

I talk myself into taking on a client project, to ride out the winter in a warm client office. 

Then in the spring, as the days get longer and warmer, I start to get jaded and cynical. Complaining about C-suite toddlers. Pointy-headed bosses. Acceptable incompetence. 

Roughly around Easter time the project successfully concludes and I seasonally “retire” once more. Take my kids to visit our family back home. Decompress and recharge while enjoying the summer.

Except in so many ways, this year feels different. 

What comes next?

Even with the promising news of a vaccine, restrictions and lockdowns are likely to feature for at least another year.

Economic uncertainties of many different flavours make walking into a new client project a far from certain outcome.

Suiting up again requires some re-skilling. Brushing up on vocabulary. Replacing old product names with shiny new ones that perform exactly the same function. Putting lipstick on a bulldog, then selling the same old shit using a bunch of new buzzwords. 

Each time I have sat down to do the work, I quickly become bored, invent some errand, and escape outside away from the computer. The whole proposition fills me with the sort of existentialist dread normally reserved for updating my legal will or preparing my tax return. 

My lady wife would no doubt say that was me being lazy. Seeking to prolong my idleness.  

Or it could be time to move on to something entirely new. A thought I am experiencing more frequently of late. 

My chimping inner saboteur chuckles each time. Observing that venturing on to something new requires drive, imagination, and motivation. Qualities that, by my own admission, are in short supply!

Perhaps it is time to be less like the lazy cat, and more like the lockdown kitten. Seize the moment. Take a chance. Leap into the unknown with all the enthusiasm I can muster. 

The inevitable falls and missteps providing entertaining fodder for future learnings. 

Which leads to the inevitable question of what comes next?


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20 Comments

  1. Dee 20 November 2020

    Nothing has to come next. Being replaces doing. At least till one internally gets restless and motivated again. The fire to push into new vistas must come from deep within otherwise one might repeat an old mistake.

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 20 November 2020 — Post author

      Thanks Dee.

      My experience has been that restless and motivated are different beasts. The former leads to seeking an escape away from something, while the latter leads to a journey towards something.

      You make a valid point about repeating history, though I may be awarded some points for consistency!

  2. Fire And Wide 20 November 2020

    I could write so much on this & I should probably have a stab at doing so one day….

    You know I’ve been ‘free’ for two years now. It takes time to find yourself again. When you have been on the city & life treadmill, it’s hard when you are the only one you know who has escaped. Who knows it isn’t enough but are yet unsure of what that elusive next thing is. To find what makes you feel genuinely excited. To want to try, to learn, to discover, to play. To be ok if it contributes nothing.

    It makes me genuinely sad when people return to work or think they will be bored in ‘retirement’. It’s effectively saying you don’t know what you want out of life – without ever giving yourself a chance to find out. Most of us did the responsible thing, school, uni, full time work, house etc. Never any time to really discover what we really love. Just doing what needs must, what we should.

    The lockdown undoubtedly makes it harder, as does having a spouse who is still 150% on the wheel. It’s easier when you are a team doing something different. Planning the next adventure together – like our current lockdown escape in Tenerife!

    So all I’d say is don’t let those self doubts drown out the spark that is in there. Give yourself space to dream, it doesn’t have to be a grand passion. I was also always envious of those who had one of those – I don’t. But it is without a doubt the best thing to be able to try things now without needing them to be a success, to be a contribution.

    Look forwards to hearing where you do end up!!

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 20 November 2020 — Post author

      Thanks for such a thoughtful and heartfelt comment Fire And Wide.

      I’ve always viewed life as a journey to be enjoyed, rather than a path towards a specific destination. That in turn means I don’t think there is a single “the thing“, just whatever the next thing happens to be.

      Part of that journey is recognising what is working, what is not, then correcting course to enjoy more of the former and less of the latter. An evolution of sorts, optimise, reduce friction, strive to be mostly content and happy often.

      The quandary of the moment is surviving the next few months given my lady wife has exhausted her patience for remote working, and is now similarly tiring of having me underfoot every day.

      That said, some external stimulation and a semblance of a social life probably wouldn’t do me any harm either!

  3. The bludger 21 November 2020

    The constant reinvention of IT is punishing. I too feel the dread of learning new technology that isn’t that new at all but rather just new marketing buzz. However what is different is new quirks, demands and dealing with imposer syndrome.

    I’ve long dreamt of leaving the industry into something more fulfilling but the cost justification never stacks up. Plus, the risk of doing something different conjures unexplored levels of existential dread.

    I’m still employed and not FI. So the stakes of change are substantial or reckless.

    I have in the past three years explored in a low risk and low cost way different industry and careers. Either through application or study. Sadly, so far I have not found what I am good at or willing to take a risk to jump into. But I remain hopeful.

    I’ve started to wonder instead if my angst to change is simply an anxiety for a need for a plan b because I’m done with IT reinvention. I can’t study, certify, bullshit, network and create a portfolio again. I’d rather do anything….

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 21 November 2020 — Post author

      Thanks bludger, you summary had me nodding along as I read it.

      I’m old enough to have been through a few loops of the reinvention cycle. Fashions ebb and flow, before some bright young thing reinvents the wheel once more.

      In the olden days, back when we used to ride dinosaurs to work and worried about elegant algorithm design, I used to excitedly download new platforms or products on their release date. Build databases and websites and networks at home. Play with the shiny new products like they were toys on Christmas morning.

      Then one day I realised that I simply no longer cared. Many of the fashionable products and design patterns in use then were less good than those we had used a few years before. I don’t mean that in a curmudgeonly “everything was better in my day” way, but rather from an evidence based view that change is not always the same as progress. Some things have genuinely improved over the years, data visualisation and end-to-end encryption for example.

      I was able to mask my loss of interest by moving away from the tools and ever closer to the inception stage of projects, a reinvention of sorts as technologist became management consultant.

      It is that game I am now tiring of, having seen too many “change initiatives” that are really just ego projects to allow an ambitious executive to flex, pad out their CV, then get promoted on to the next job before the music stops and their legacy fails to deliver much in the way of tangible value.

  4. John Smith 21 November 2020

    Working for money sucks (in late stage capitalism), even more with ageing, so is no rush for a person to play the (simlar) game again. “Fire & Wide” is right, it depends on your partner willing (or not) to keep proving “something” to society. For me, with each day I become more unemployable.

    I vote for the lazy [old] cat, not for the lockdown [restless] kitten. Conservation of energy for things to come. Both time spent with wife/kids and healthy body/brain are a privilege which decrease in time, irreversible.

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 21 November 2020 — Post author

      Thanks John Smith.

      I don’t care all that much about the contribution to society bit, but investing my time in doing something that I derive value from (monetary or satisfaction) is important for the warm fuzzy feeling it brings.

      You’re right about the value of time spent with loved ones. I think my children appreciate it. My lady wife may take the view that there can be too much of a good thing!

  5. The Accumulator 21 November 2020

    Loved this post. The word that leapt to my mind is not “stagnate” but “crossroads”.

    All paths are open to you including retreat or an advance into the unknown, and that is a daunting choice – self-doubt has got to come with that territory.

    I’m facing that choice too and I expect to be riddled with self-doubt like a paper target full of bullet holes. Mostly self-inflicted I’d imagine.

    Great advice from Fire & Wide to point out this period could take years to resolve. I’ve personally found it always takes me at least 2 years to adapt to a new situation – job, location, whatever.

    Completely agree with Fire & Wide on this point too:

    “It makes me genuinely sad when people return to work or think they will be bored in ‘retirement’. It’s effectively saying you don’t know what you want out of life – without ever giving yourself a chance to find out.”

    Indeedably, like you I’ve grown increasingly weary of selling the same shit with a different name. It’s becoming unbearable now as I run down the clock to walking away.

    I’d consider it a personal indictment of my failure to grow if I fell back into some variant of that life in a couple of years time.

    I will need projects to anchor me, and I will need to work hard to divorce myself from status anxiety.

    I did find myself profoundly disagreeing with your notion of low value tasks. Society undervalues these tasks because they have a low hourly rate but that’s a corporate definition of worth. Reevaluating these tasks in terms of their impact on personal wellbeing seems like an important part of the journey.

    None of the things you’ve been doing are trumped for meaning by time spent in another BS presentation just because you’re paid to do so.

    I take great heart from this 10-year review of making the leap from Jacob of ERE.

    He’s made it work and then some.

    [Cut to me in three years time writing a post about how I’m going back to my old job.]

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 21 November 2020 — Post author

      Thanks TA, some wise words and sage advice there.

      Low value” in this context relates to the satisfaction I derive from them, rather than an hourly rate I may command playing Dobby the house elf for others. There are several things I’m good at, alas cooking (lack of talent) and homeschool teaching children (lack of patience) aren’t amongst them.

      One of my cousins was amazing at it. ~20 years happily invested as a stay-at-home mother and now, aged in her early 50s, she is lining up to train as a midwife. She is awe inspiring and I hugely respect what people like her do because I have some inkling of how challenging it can be.

      I too considered “crossroads” as a title, but chose stagnate because on reflection that was the accusation that had stung. To me, a crossroad implies a multitude paths laid out in front of the traveller, from which they simply need to choose. While stagnate suggests a still body of water that slowly becomes corrupted and polluted over time, like a tropical aquarium with a broken pump. I’ve thought about this quite a bit now, and while I don’t feel stuck or stagnant, I also recognise I don’t wish to go back.

      Reinvention is an important part of developing and evolving. I’ve done it a bunch of times in the past. It is rarely easy, and in my experience tends to happen to me as I fall into something new, rather than as the result of a conscious choice and knowing what “it” is such that I can actively seek it out. It will be interesting to see if that occurs this time. Half the battle is being alert to the possibility, so that interesting opportunities can be seized as and when they present themselves.

      Good luck on your next adventure TA, I hope you enjoy the journey as you learn and grow.

      • The Accumulator 21 November 2020

        I misinterpreted you re: low value. Would have been better if I’d asked you what you meant instead of diving in 🙂

        “I also recognise I don’t wish to go back.” I’m heartened to hear you say this. And now I’m minded that you’ve relocated halfway around the world to start a new chapter, so you’re a past master at turning the page.

        I look forward to reading more about your adventures too. Your writing ‘voice’ is superb.

  6. FI-FireFighter 21 November 2020

    Another great post, very open and honest.
    I was interested in how you are feeling as
    I am all but there ref FI, we have assets and investments that equate to comfortable and in 5 months I will retire from the Fire Service so will be extremely lucky to have a DB pension.
    So I am on the cusp of my ‘Monty Python’ moment – ‘ and now for something completely different’.
    That’s what I call it, that’s how I view it, that’s how I am approaching it.
    After 30 years I really do want to do something completely different.
    I have a few random ideas but no set plans, I am going to give myself time to let it evolve.
    I have learnt to ‘fail fast’, to try new things, see what happens, learn, review, adapt, try again.
    I suspect you are probably way more skilled at this sort of stuff than me!
    What do you currently do that you enjoy?
    Do that more? Could that be a career choice ?
    Do you enjoy writing this blog?
    I certainly enjoy reading it and think your style is very engaging and very easy to read.
    Have you ever thought about writing a book?

    I echo the points above, particularly TA.
    Don’t underestimate the value of time spent with your kids, even if they are in their room, they know you are there.
    Providing a happy, loving, safe home is priceless and ‘dadsasters’ are the future stories you will share (around the dinner table) when they are grown up, maybe with grandchildren.

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 21 November 2020 — Post author

      Thanks FI-FireFighter. Some of those “dadsasters” are already the stuff of legend. Threatening to cook one of them in particular again has proved a very effective means of getting reluctant young players to do their homework!

      Congratulations on 30 years in the fire service, that is an amazing run! It is great you get the DB pension at the end of it all. I wish you all the best in exploring what comes next.

      A few people have suggested writing a book lately. It is something I’ve occasionally thought about, though never made it near the top of my to-do list. In a way the blog has been a way of (hopefully) honing my writing style, finding my “voice” after years of churning out turgid academic papers and soulless corporate “professional” sounding documents.

      Food for thought as a side project, though perhaps not the only one as it wouldn’t help get me out of the house.

    • The Accumulator 22 November 2020

      @ FI-Firefighter – Love your idea of FIRE being our Monty Python moment.

  7. weenie 22 November 2020

    I fully intend to retire once I pull the FIRE plug, but each time I read about someone going back to work, although I think ‘good for them’, a small element of doubt settles in the back of my mind, as to whether I’m doing the right thing or not.

    I hope to emulate Fire and Wide by taking a long time to get used to not working, to find myself, to also perhaps allow myself the chance to get bored because I’ve never been bored in my life (as an adult) – I’ve never had the time to do everything I’ve wanted to do due to work (that includes years of boxed sets too!)

    I want to do hobbies and indulge in my interests just for the sheer fun and enjoyment of it – the way I used to when I was a kid, learning and getting good at something was a joy in itself.

    If I want some structure and some other meaning in my life, then I think volunteering will be the way to go for me.

    I think the only reason why I would be returning to work would be because I made an epic miscalculation in my FIRE numbers and I needed the money.

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 22 November 2020 — Post author

      Thanks weenie. That sounds like a grand plan.

      I think the “epic miscalculation” isn’t the numbers part, that is fairly straight forward: torture numbers in a spreadsheet, build in a margin of safety, and then take the leap. A career recovery should be possible if those numbers prove to be massively undercooked within the first few years of early retirement. Later on dated skills, stale networks, and age discrimination are likely to combine to the point where going back is no longer a viable option. The pool of employers willing to take on a person aged in the late 60s or older is pretty small.

      No, the miscalculation seems to reside in the less tangible benefits of working. Structure. Routine. Purpose. Intellectual stimulation. Enforced socialisation. A reason to get out of bed in the morning. To not take up day drinking as a hobby. To avoid the temptation to become a shut-in at home, or place undue strain on a relationship with a long suffering partner.

      Your idea of volunteering should provide many of those same benefits. For others, it may come from a well established support network and social circle, such as extended family nearby or hobbies that involve meeting with other people.

  8. Q-FI 22 November 2020

    Another great post and I’m really glad I found your blog. Love the writing style and man, there’s just so much to unpack here. So for brevity, I really relate to your progression: had to… to should do… to could do… to want to. Very well said.

    Plus, I don’t think you could have summarized corporate America any better than in your two words, “acceptable incompetence.” Haha. I loved that. That’s basically my daily grind.

    I’m fascinated to see what you actually end up doing next.

    Keep up the good work.

  9. David Andrews 23 November 2020

    Crikey “You are stagnating. Marking time. Filling in your days with chores and errands and helping with homework. It sets a bad example for the kids!”” – families are indeed complicated. Imagine if an employed fellow made such a remark to his partner or spouse who was performing that role instead of paid employment. I wager it would not end well.

    My partner is currently on an enforced sabbatical from paid employment and I’m assured she is using her time for study and job seeking. I continue to shoulder my burden of chores, errands and helping with homework. If I didn’t do this I suspect within a week or so we’d see total domestic breakdown with my partner gazing quizzically at the empty fridge, overflowing bins and mountain of laundry.

    Once the need to trade time just to pay bills ended I saw my motivation drop off significantly. Initially I think I’d be perfectly happy to spend my day taking my 6 year old son to school, dealing with the myriad of household jobs ( which my partner thinks magically fix themselves ) picking him up from school and answering his many questions. The house could also do with some building work but getting the domestic finance approval committee (aforementioned partner) to sign off on this is proving a delicate negotiation.

    Personally I feel pretty sorry for those households where parents choose to prioritise work over spending time with their children. There are many points in the earnings ladder where additional earnings just aren’t worth it. You simply cannot buy your time back.

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 23 November 2020 — Post author

      Crikey“, I see what you did there, David!

      Fortunately I don’t do woke, or an army of rabid social justice warriors could rise up to have you “cancelled” for cultural appropriation and racial stereotyping 🤦.

      Seriously though, it is great to hear you’re pulling your weight around the house. My view is these things are like team sports, the way to win is have everyone contribute and play their part.

      Every household contains people with different attitudes, approaches, priorities, strengths, and weaknesses. None are necessarily more right or wrong, but some work better than others.

      One of the challenges I have observed from having one parent around more than the other is that the kids naturally adapt to seeking out the accessible parent’s attention or guidance first. That can be tough on the ego for the other parent, particularly if they were previously the one the kids might have turned to.

      Families are complicated indeed!

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