It’s been just over four years since I handed in my notice to the MegaCorp where I spent my entire professional career. April 19th, 2023 will mark four years since I took that last ride down the elevator and out of the parking garage. I decided to ask Twitter what people wanted me to write about reflecting back on four years of freedom.
I received so many good questions, I decided to answer some of them individually instead of trying to cover them all in one “wrap up” post that could sit in my drafts for years. The first question I want to tackle is from Claudia.
How long did it take to detox (get over) the corporate life?
I worked hard in my old career, with many periods of intense stress that I signed up for. The core part of my job was commercial lending, I worked for a bank and loaned money to small businesses. Generally this is a job that takes a few years to learn, then if you stay in one geographic location and don’t change employers more than once every five years, the job gets easier and better paying over time.
Unfortunately this was not me. I spent the first three years working in a small town while my wife finished graduate school. Then we moved together to the big city. The best stretch of my career was staying in this next role for seven years, even though half of that time was spent dealing with the “Great Financial Crisis” of 2008-2011. Instead of settling in and enjoying this job, I was “career motivated” and to move up in the organization with the company I worked for, it required relocating geographically. Over the next two years we moved cities twice and I worked in three different offices, each one with a new set of stress that wouldn’t exist had I stayed in the prior role. A part of me still thought I could / wanted to be the next CEO.
Complicating the burnout from the corporate job were two other factors. Financially half of my compensation was earned in the first quarter each year, so if I were going to leave, it had to be around the end of March. Working longer than that started approaching the next milestone. Getting into the fall meant being fully handcuffed through the next bonus / equity cycle. There was also a serious medical issue that I attempted to work through instead of taking some FMLA time in 2017.
Essentially I went from a restless / boring career situation leading me to find Mr Money Mustache in 2013 to intense stress both in and out of work afterwards. I was burned out.
The Stages of Recovery
Stage 1: “Pinch me, I can’t believe this is real”. The first three months after quitting work were a whirlwind; we had a house to sell, a new location to figure out, and a cross country move. It took until July to get somewhat settled, but almost every day I would wake up in disbelief that this was my new life. No alarm clock, no adults telling me what to do, gym trips at 1pm, weekday grocery shopping, and living in an area people paid a lot of money to vacation in. There wasn’t anyone we had to ask for permission to go traveling. There wasn’t the constant stress of email, phone calls, and deadlines. There was an overwhelming sense of happiness that was sourced from removing the largest piece of stress in my life, a demanding employer controlling both daily activity and where I can live geographically. This feeling was with me daily through February of 2020, ten months after I quit my job.
Stage 2: “This is weird”. I remember this feeling hitting me on a three week trip in February of 2020. The best way to describe the feeling is lost. I was no longer “<name>, occupation title”. I was in a different vacation spot, one I’ve always dreamed about living in, but now I’m a late 30s unemployed person who probably can’t afford that anymore (first world problems, right?).
Did I need to find purpose and contribute to the world? What would I do to satisfy my brain’s need for productivity? Most importantly, do I need to have other adults telling me what to do every day? That “other adults telling me what to do” was hard programmed into me after decades of parents, school, and work.
I commonly see the advice of “know what you’re retiring to”, but I struggle to see the wisdom in that for people with demanding current jobs. In my position, I was so damn stressed between work and issues outside of work, I just needed time away from the job to even begin thinking about that. I had the good fortune of attending Alan Donegan’s last in person Pop Up Business School to hang out with a cross section of financially independent types and entrepreneurs to help add digest these thoughts.
Shortly after this started, we experienced the March 2020 government shutdowns that included outdoor activities such as boat ramps for fishing, the beach for surfing, and our outdoor park / running trail. Suddenly the “vacation in place” part of FIRE was eliminated. We signed up for Instacart to stay busy and did this for a good part of the year while things started slowly reopening in May. The primary benefit of Instacart is that the beach island at the time was shut down to non-residents, so we would pick up an order from the Costco next to our house and deliver it then stay over on the island enjoying our day. The side benefit was the brief experience of productivity and “working” a full time day if needed.
During the early parts of leaving work, I completed a few freelance projects but still would have a weird “ick” feeling if anything I did started to involve someone else controlling my time. “Be on this call” or “Where are you at with this” would irritate me. I got presented with what would be the perfect side hustle in November of 2020, but passed on it because the thought of “selling myself” to get a project engagement. It was still off-putting to me. I also thought about if I do something like this, would it affect my new identity as an “early retiree”?
Occasionally someone would call about a job and for some brief period of time I would think “that might be interesting” or “that W2 would be temporarily useful for a mortgage”. That feeling would quickly pass when I concluded another person would be controlling my time.
Stage 3: Acceptance. Nearly three years in, I could say I was fully detoxed from corporate life. There is zero allure in going back to an employment arrangement. Other adults telling me how to spend my time is no longer a possibility in my life. There’s no euphoria or weirdness related to being FI and early retirement, this is just my normal life. If I want to do something productive I can, but there will be firm boundaries that don’t interfere with my freedom and control of time. Control of my time became the definition of freedom.
How long does this (normally) take?
When I give advice, I tell people now that it takes eighteen months to fully detox from corporate and figure out a new life. I even recommend people announcing they are “taking 18 months off” instead of “retiring early”. It’s a long enough timeframe for people to respect your decision, not send you new employment opportunities, and give you space while also not declaring the decision permanent. You also don’t have to deal with the envy / jealousy of co-workers, who will mostly blame their kids as the reason they can’t retire, even though (in my case) these coworkers made multiples of the average salary, but spent all of that money on new cars, restaurants, and oversized housing.
There’s so much to process going into retirement and especially early retirement: The financial component, the personal identity component, the feeling of productivity / contribution, and the normality of other adults telling you what to do all day. It takes an appropriate amount of time to work through all of this and if/when someone attempts it, they must give themselves time and grace to work through these things. I was in a constant state of stress for years and now that I’m past the first few years, I find myself valuing a low stress lifestyle and control of my time.
To answer the original question, I think the right amount of time is eighteen months to appropriately detox from the corporate lifestyle.