“Retired” at 30. What Now?

Photo from our trip to Hawaii, Feb 2018.

As we finished breakfast today, George asked me:

“What do you want to do today?”

Exactly a month ago, I officially resigned from my position at a Silicon Valley company to “retire” for a year. After two weeks of moving, paperwork and other minutiae, we went on vacation for two weeks. Today is the first “work day” since we got back.

For the first time since I left my job, I was experiencing the “what now” moment. There are so many things to do but I don’t have to do any of them right now. It’s a very strange sensation. As far as I can remember, there’s always been something that needs to be done with an imminent deadline, self-imposed or otherwise. Now I find myself contemplating life outside an office, trying to find the right balance between taking it easy and deep-diving into my next project like mad scientist.

On one hand, a mushroom cloud of possibilities exploding in my brain, competing for attention. The urge to do something before time runs out is ringing the alarm bells. The expansive universe of options is almost making me agoraphobic.

On the other hand, there is stillness. There is space and silence. Space to breathe, to stretch, to experiment. I can finally hear my own thoughts articulate themselves quietly, without being drowned out by the noise. The inner peace is comforting enough to ignore the outer chaos for a little while. It is an introvert’s dream. I’ve even started working out every day. I never worked out. I think that’s a good sign.

It’s relatively easy to be on vacation. You’re aware that you have a finite amount of time, and that the whole point is to relax and not worry about the future. You’ve still got emails to respond to, projects to complete in a few weeks. You’ve also got health and life insurance, a steady paycheck and you might even be getting paid while away. The routine you expect to go back to is a safety net that makes the vacation all the more enjoyable.

“Retirement” however is a completely different beast. There is no fixed end date, and while you may have money set aside, it is hard to accurately predict how long it will last. Health insurance and other benefits traditionally provided by an employer can become a major concern. There are many more variables. Retirement is not vacation. But what is it exactly? Does it have to be so black and white?

Growing up, my only idea of retirement was the usual narrative. People work all their adult lives until they are 65 or so, then they retire and receive pensions from the government or their employer. They stop going to work and stay home, watching their grandchildren, playing mahjong and what not. In other words: they stop working and start enjoying the simple joys in life. However, I was soon struck by a much harsher reality. Not everybody lives to be 65. I saw relatives and acquaintances die in their early 50s or 60s and it broke my heart to think that they never got to enjoy the fruits of their labour in their old days like they planned to.

Work used to be a necessity, to pay the bills. My great-grandfather escaped communist China disguised as a woman to avoid being drafted. Mauritius was a safe haven to raise a family, despite not knowing the language and not having any money. My parents grew up poor, too. They had to borrow money to get a fridge after they got married. Thanks to the tireless work of the previous generations, the dream has finally come true. My generation has a much better standard of living. So much so that we can actually choose our career path and pursue a fulfilling one. I don’t think there is a better way to honor their hard work than to fully take advantage of the opportunities their sacrifices have afforded me. That sometimes means breaking away from good old conventional wisdom and retiring at 30, while the people I love and I are still alive, healthy and financially stable.

The meaning of retirement is changing. It doesn’t have to start so late. It doesn’t have to last for the remainder of your life. It doesn’t have much in terms of guarantees, but really it never did… A colleague of mine (who previously took 18 months off to sail around the world with his wife) put it best:

“We don’t need to have one big retirement at the end of our life. Why can’t we take mini retirements every decade or so?”

I see this “retirement” as more of a sabbatical that I’m taking to pursue other creative projects and see what comes of it. My goal isn’t to sit around doing nothing as long as possible. Rather, it is to nurture other facets of my personality that did not have space to grow and thrive in a corporate environment. I’ve saved enough to survive a year but I don’t plan on using it all up. I intend to generate income, just not in a conventional salaried way. Most importantly though, I’m looking forward to spending more time with the people I love.

I’m aware that I am extremely lucky to be able to afford this year off to myself. While I’ve worked incredibly hard, so have many others who still couldn’t dream of doing this at my age if they wanted to. I hope that I’m not the only one who will benefit from this sabbatical year, but that something meaningful to many others will be born out of it. I hope it will at least inspire more people to think about their retirement plans, their careers, and what it means to be the heirs of the baby boomers’ success.

A few years back, George asked a newly retired neighbour whether he was going to find another job to pass the time. His response?

“I’m way too busy to work”.

Retirement doesn’t have to mean “I will no longer be contributing to society. Here are some alternatives:

  • I’ve saved enough to try something different that may not be cashflow positive but would be rewarding. Could be a startup, could be writing a book, could be volunteering, could be traveling, could be anything really.
  • I’m taking a break to find new inspiration in order to do more meaningful work later on.
  • I’m spending some time with loved ones before I move on to my next gig.
  • I’m starting a new company.

Here’s to many mini retirements. Remember that retirement doesn’t have to last forever. Nor does it have to be cash flow negative.

Written by Sherry-Lynn Lee

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