I Will Never Retire

The concept of retirement has always baffled me.

Granted, the concept of having a 9-5 has always baffled me. They’re two sides of a coin, peas in a pod.

I will never retire, and I will also never have a 9-5.

It’s not because I’m a crazy hippie, and it’s not because I’m lazy. I love to work. But I also love time, which is much more valuable than money. Time is non-replenishable, and life pays us in time alone.

The high risk of retirement

For starters, retiring is risky. Not the retirement itself, but the postponement of non-work experiences.

People talk about what they’ll do when they retire, where they’ll go, the pleasures they’ll get to enjoy. How many times have I come across an adult piano student who has saved the learning of an instrument until retirement, and then must battle their stiff and sore muscles through the process?

Why wait?

There’s not enough time. Life gets busy in the 9-5. Work and sleep eat up equal portions of your day, and that remaining third of a pie slice must be divided between family, children and life chores like cooking and cleaning. At the end of it you just have a tiny fraction to spare toward hobbies. Productive hobbies usually win out – things like exercising, things that have a tangible benefit.

Pursuing activities with harder-to-pinpoint benefits, such as learning piano or exploring watercolors, tends to get left by the wayside. Exercising is quantifiable – doing so will help you live a longer, healthier life. Practicing piano? Less quantifiable, more ethereal. Because of this, we tend to de-value it. But art is deeper, richer. It’s an activity that can make you really feel like you. It’s maybe even more valuable than practical hobbies.

Retirement is one big postponement. All of these hobbies, all of these non-productive activities, you’ll get to them when you’re 65.

This is incredibly risky. You might not be alive at 65. You just never know. You could get cancer. You could get hit by a bus. This is life we’re talking about. For all you know, it’s the only one you’ve got. Isn’t it a gamble to postpone precious life experiences for decades?

If you are alive at 65, that’s no guarantee you’ll be in perfect health. You could be grappling with chronic illness, joint pain, carpal tunnel, any number of things.

And if you’re alive and healthy at 65, there’s no guarantee you’ll have money. Pensions aren’t 100%, and most people don’t have them – only 13% of Americans do. Most people don’t have any savings, either.

The worst-case scenario is that you’re working just enough to get by at a career you don’t care about, only to get stuck in that career indefinitely because you’re unable to afford retirement.

Let’s assume the best-case scenario. You maintain excellent physical fitness, consume the healthiest foods in the world, practice stress-reduction techniques and good sleep hygiene, and limit alcohol consumption. You’re fit and healthy even at an older age. You’re ready to take on the world! Congratulations, my friend. You made it to retirement and will be able to enjoy it fully.

But why not enjoy all those things (health, wealth, etc.) before you retire?

Meaningful work

The idea of retirement is coupled with an unsettling question:

If you want to retire, are you actually doing meaningful work you love?

I’m incredibly passionate about the work I do. I get a thrill from it. Teaching piano to people all over the world, writing about it and making videos? It’s great. It’s challenging. There are a lot of tech things I’ve had to learn. Who would’ve known I’d be learning about coding and automated email sequences? About Chopin and ConvertKit?

But – and this is a big BUT – the best thing about my work is that I don’t know what I’ll be doing in 10, 20, 30 years from now. I teach on the internet, and it’s anyone’s guess what the internet landscape will be in a decade and beyond. I’ll probably have to learn a whole new set of skills. I might not even be teaching piano.

Some people would point to that unpredictability and call it a downside, but I disagree. Loving what I do – without knowing exactly what I’ll be doing in the future – means I’ll always love what I do.

It I was making piano videos for 30 years straight, I’d understand retirement. I’d definitely want a break from that. 30 years is a long time to do anything.

I think that’s one reason people switch jobs so much – the average person goes through 15 jobs in their working life. Most of us can’t stomach the idea of doing the same thing forever. We crave new experiences because new experiences bring us alive and make us more interesting. For many people, that involves hopping around the job market until retirement time, when they can finally stop the hopping.

If you love what you do, and what you do is a fluid thing, then wouldn’t you want to keep doing it indefinitely? Wouldn’t you want to be contributing in the ways you’re best-suited even in your 70s, 80s, 90s? Wouldn’t you want to keep sharing your gifts with people, making the world a better place?

I love writing and I can’t imagine putting the pen down. Of course, it was a pen when I was a child and teenager, evolved into a typepad from my teen years to now, and who knows what writing will look like in 20 years.

I love playing piano and exploring new repertoire. Pianos will almost definitely continue to exist beyond my lifetime, but the way we consume music might change drastically. There will be new genres emerging. Maybe less people will be interested in piano as time goes on as we wade deeper and deeper into the synthetic pool. Or maybe piano playing will undergo a renaissance in the future with people craving a more organic musical experience.

Luckily I also love teaching. So even if people start setting fires to pianos, there are other skills I have that I can use to earn a living.

Maybe that’s the riskiest thing of all with the 9-5/retirement coin – you’re putting all your eggs in one basket. A career is great until the market changes, until higher-ups decide you’re expendable.

Some careers aren’t going anywhere, sure. We’ll always need nurses and teachers. And we’ll probably always pay them chump change despite the indispensability of their work.

But even for the stablest of career paths, there’s still a distinct lack of freedom. If you’re a teacher, you’re doing essentially the same thing for 30 years. Different kids, different classrooms, but the same work. Even the most passionate teacher would want a break from that.

Circling back around to the original point, then, if you want to retire, doesn’t that imply that your work isn’t deeply fulfilling? If your work was deeply fulfilling, why would you want to retire?

Or maybe it was fulfilling, but after doing it for 30 years you’re done with it?

Work, then, needs to be fulfilling AND novel. It needs to provide value to others while also giving us a rich tapestry of new experiences. This is the kind of work no one would want to retire from.

Which leads me to my third objection with retirement.

Postponing pleasure

My husband is a teacher and plays with the 9-5/retirement coin daily. We have discussions like what you’re reading in this blog post all the time.

He enjoys his work and finds fulfillment in it. Despite the fact that his income potential is limited, despite the fact that he has almost no control over his schedule, despite the fact that he has a boss and co-workers and isn’t always able to make autonomous decisions, he likes it. It baffles me, but enough people do it – there must be something to it.

Here’s my biggest issue with conventional careers. What if you want some time off? What if you want to go live in India for a year? What if you want to have sabbaticals every five years or so? What if you want to go on an impromptu vacation? What if you want to spend a month taking an intensive course on creating bonsai trees? What if that Spanish class you really want to take is only available at 11am every Tuesday?

Conventional careers force you to wait until retirement to do these things. Want to travel to India? Cool, do it when you’re 65 (55 if you started young). You don’t have the freedom or flexibility to live your life as it happens, to explore your hobbies and passions as they bubble to the surface. You can only watch the bubbles form and pop and think, “I’ll get to that later.”

And then your youth is gone.

I’ve worked conventional jobs before. I was a waitress, a popcorn peddler, I chopped veggies in a catering kitchen. In all of these jobs I had no control over my schedule. It was suffocating. How do people do it? I think about this often. Really, how?

Is the trade-off – financial security – really so worth it?

Most people I talk to tell me that their job is a necessity. They need their work to live. But is that really true? Or does it just seem true because the alternative would be really, really hard?

Losing financial security to pursue what you really, really love? Yeah that’s hard. But it’s also doable. So saying your job is a necessity is really just a good excuse.

What if you could create financial security without sacrificing all of your time, without having to postpone big pleasures until retirement?

This is the “what if” I’ve been asking since I was a teenager.

I would rather live with little and be the captain of my own ship, than to have wealth with time constraints. If choosing between money or freedom, I’ll choose freedom every time.

It’s worked for me so far. My twenties were spent having crappy apartments and big adventures, pursuing meaningful hobbies while my peers were buying houses.

But people who have things are afraid to lose them. When you have little, you have little to lose. I was able to take more risks in my twenties because of that. I’ve experienced a life sans-luxury. With secondhand everything. But with enough.

When you live with little, what you come to realize is that money isn’t really that important. It’s a means to an end, not a pinnacle to achieve. Even with little money you can still have rich, wonderful experiences. Some of my best memories happened when I was broke. Friends, family, art and books. It’s all free.

Now, in my thirties, things are starting to even out in my peer group. I make more money. And I’m really starting to come into my own potential. Skills I’ve been building for a decade are starting to pay off.

The kind of life where you work 40-60 hours a week at a lukewarm, time-restricted career and save up all the big adventures for retirement is a life I reject. It is not the only way.

And who knows – maybe next year I’ll take my first big step into exploring that freedom I’ve built for myself with a year-long gallivant across the globe.

I will never retire. But I will never have a career that I want to retire from. I will never work back-breaking hours and sacrifice the relationships that mean the most to me. I will never sacrifice the hobbies that mean the most to me. I will never value money above time.

I will never subscribe to a “someday” of retirement when that “someday” could be next year if I simply lived my life differently.

-Allysia

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When You Don’t Like Reality

My reality is, objectively and subjectively, pretty great.

I have a loving family, I’m in excellent health, I get to do meaningful work. I have enough money in my bank account to enjoy a jackfruit bun for lunch while I tappity-tap on the keys of this mid-range laptop. I never go hungry, my bed is warm, and I have wonderful friends.

My list of gratitude would fill an entire notebook. My life is good.

Despite all this, sometimes I don’t like reality. Something happens (usually something trivial) that spins me into a chaos of misery. I turn into an embittered, teary-eyed grouch. I wish it didn’t happen, I wish I had more emotional fortitude to defend against these experiences, but I’m only human.

It’s not fair, I say.

I don’t deserve this.

Everything sucks.

I’m all alone.

I’m telling reality through gritted teeth, I don’t like you. You’re not my friend.

I’m telling reality, I want something different than what I’m getting right now. This pain, this illness, this loneliness, this is not what I want.

And that’s how I get stuck in the muck of misery.

I’m resisting the very thing that exists at this moment. I’m looking reality in the face and denying it.

If your house is burning down, it’s like standing there and saying, this sucks. I hate this. I don’t want the house to burn down.

All that is true, of course. Your house burning down would suck and I’m sure you would hate it.

But wouldn’t it be more productive to call the fire department, be sure any family members and pets are safe, and alert the neighbors?

Wouldn’t it be better to say, this is happening right now and I need to work fast to save the day?

“Don’t find fault, find remedy.”

-Henry Ford

So instead of Allysia-the-Grouch pouting about her poor fortune (finding fault), Allysia-the-Grouch needs to confront reality, accept it, and deal with the burning house (finding remedy).

Allysia-the-Grouch (or Allysia-the-Non-Grouch, for that matter) won’t always like reality. Neither will you. Reality can be hard. So, so hard. Even the most trivial thing can be hard under the right circumstances. Realizing you don’t have any rolled oats in the cupboard and all the stores are closed can be the tipping point. Not that I would know.

But what does sitting there and not liking reality accomplish? Shaking your fist at the TV but never getting up off the couch?

You have to accept the burning house. Then you have to save what you can. Then you have to rebuild.

-Allysia

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In Which “Following Your Passion” is a Terrible Idea

Or rather, “One of many ways I embarrassed myself as a teenager.”

In the year 2001, the movie Moulin Rouge came out. I was 15 years old. It was a little edgy, people sang and danced, and Ewan McGregor was the male lead. Obviously it was my favorite movie.

The massively popular hit “Lady Marmalade” (Christina Aguilera, Mya, Pink and Lil’ Kim) was released in conjunction with the movie. You’ll remember it as the song with this lyric:

Voulez-vous coucher avec moi (ce soir)?

“Will you sleep with me tonight” in a lyric was a big deal at the time (though by modern standards it seems rather tame). It was a suggestive song performed by female superstars of the early 2000s. I idolized these women with their booming vocals and their take-charge attitude.

I also idolized, of course, their sexiness. I was an awkward 15-year old (what 15-year old isn’t awkward?), and wanted to absorb their feminine confidence via osmosis.

The takeaway thus far: You could say that I was passionate about Moulin Rouge and the associated hit song.

Let’s cue forward several weeks to a drama class assignment. My friends and I loved drama class – I even got the highest marks in drama for my grade one year (but not this year).

Our assignment? To make a coordinated dance number to a song. We split into groups of four, were given general instructions, and left to our devices.

It started well. My group agreed on an Aretha Franklin song (“R-E-S-P-E-C-T”). We were making moves at a friend’s house one afternoon, but it was a little boring. You could say I wasn’t passionate about this particular project.

So I thought – why don’t we make a dance to Lady Marmalade instead?

My group was divided on the merits of this idea. Rightly, one girl from the group pointed out how it was an inappropriate song choice. Too suggestive for school. She was the voice of reason.

I proceeded to steamroll her. (Sorry, Kim!)

We each chose a “character” – I got to be Christina Aguilera, the lead, of course. How much more fun it was to play a character in this dance assignment! How much more appropriate for a drama presentation this way! One thing’s for certain: I was passionate about directing this new number.

Presentation day came. I’m not sure what we expected, but it probably wasn’t an audience full of our female classmates. Since this experience was over half my life ago, I can’t remember why there weren’t any guys in the audience, but for some inexplicable reason they were absent.

In our heads, this is how the dance went: We pumped the tunes, acted sexy and strong while lip-syncing our parts, and the guys would say, “How sexy and cool.”

In reality, this is how the dance went: We pumped the tunes, acted sexy but looked awkward because we were awkward, while lip-syncing our parts. And the girls probably said, “Why are they gyrating at us?”

The moral of the story is this: When choosing to follow your passion, reality is your friend. Stay in touch with reality or forever cringe in retrospect.

If you dream of leading the bohemian life of a traveling painter, but you’re not a painter, then you probably shouldn’t pursue that dream. At the very least, you should become a good painter first.

I dreamed of impressing everyone with sexy dancing, but I was neither sexy nor a dancer. I had this idea in my head of what I wanted to be, but there was a large canyon between that and reality. So, cringing forever.

Secondary moral of the story: Sometimes the first choice is the best choice, even if it isn’t as exciting. (I love you Aretha!)

But if you do decide to drop everything and pursue a passion that isn’t remotely connected to your actual reality, your embarrassment will be a source of education and inspiration for many years to come.

-Allysia

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If You Don’t Love What You Do, You’re Not Trying Hard Enough

If you don’t love what you do, you’re not trying hard enough.

The highway looks wet in the distance, but that distance never arrives. You never reach the wet spot. It’s a mirage, an optical illusion.

In your life, you say, “When I’m doing what I love, then I’ll try hard. Then I’ll be happy.”

And you keep your eyes fixated on that wet spot in the distance. You don’t arrive, so you don’t try hard and you aren’t happy.

All the while your life is flying by, one kilometer after the next, this constant journey. You don’t see the sky, the signposts, the deer in the ditch, the wildflowers. You just see the wet spot.

Effort = Satisfaction

Maybe you’re working as a fry cook right now. And you’re saying, “Allysia, this is garbage. I’m not happy because I’m a fry cook. It’s a miserable job. This is about as far away from living my dream as it gets.”

So you show up miserable to your fry cook job, and you put in the minimum effort required before miserably returning home, and then repeat the cycle miserably.

The radical idea I’d like to suggest is this: What if you said, “Today I’m going to be the best fry cook in the world.”?

You show up for work, determined instead of miserable. You give it your all. I’ve never been a fry cook so I have no idea what this means in actual terms. Maybe it means you’re more precise. You’re really paying attention, you’re really being present inside each moment. You’re focusing on positive and helpful interactions with coworkers. Maybe it means listening to high-quality podcasts or audiobooks.

What happens at the end of the day? Do you miserably slump your way home?

Probably not. Maybe being a fry cook isn’t your dream job. But there’s a deep satisfaction you get from doing a job well. So instead of slumping home, there’s a spring in your step. You gave it your all.

You were present. You lived your life instead of disparaging it.

Being a fry cook forever

What if you never reached your dreams, and you were stuck living as a fry cook forever?

What if it were literally impossible to do anything else? Maybe someone’s holding a gun to your head and saying, “You have to be a fry cook forever”. That’s basically the only scenario I can imagine where it’d be impossible for you to opt out of fry cookery.

Yes, that would be a sucky fate. But you know what? Some people have sucky fates. They lose both legs, they’re born with cerebral palsy, they’re given a cancer diagnosis. Any sucky scenario you can imagine has probably happened to someone. There’s probably even someone out there who had to be a fry cook forever.

What do you do with that? Bemoan your fate? “Life sucks, I have to do this stupid job forever.”?

You have a choice

The thing is, even if you can’t chose your circumstances, you can choose your response to those circumstances.

Your job might suck. But whether or not you’re miserable because your job sucks is 100% your decision.

There might be two fry cooks in an identical situation (gun to head, fry cook or die). One is content, the other is miserable. How is this possible?

They make the choice – be miserable or make the most of it.

This isn’t my own original concept. In his powerful book Man’s Search For Meaning, Viktor Frankl talks about life in a concentration camp, one of the suckiest fates of all. He observed how some people were kind, generous and upbeat despite being in a concentration camp, whereas other people withered in misery.

“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”
-Vicktor Frankl

Love Fry Cooking

Ironically, learning to love your life as a fry cook can be the very thing that brings you more opportunities. It can help you move toward your dreams.

People tend to think, “If I embrace fry cookery, then I’m resigning myself to that life forever. I need to fight my life as a fry cook in order to change it.”

But the complete opposite is true. By bringing your “A” game to whatever you do, even if it’s not your dream job, you’re telling life that you know how to be happy with what you have, regardless of what it is. You’re saying, “Whatever you throw at me, life, I can handle with grace.”

Life says, “Okay, awesome. You’ve passed that challenge. Here, let’s move on to more interesting challenges – such as how to channel your ‘A’ game motivation to something more interesting than fry cookery.”

Putting your all into a job, regardless of it it’s your dream job or not, will bring you daily satisfaction. The mere act of doing your best is satisfying. With this, you start noticing the road instead of just the wet mirage in the distance.

My job history

I’ve worked a lot of terrible jobs. And I’ve spent most of my adult life not having very much money.

I’ve waited tables, peddled popcorn, answered phones at a call centre, chopped endless pounds of vegetables, and sorted through thrift store clothing. Eventually I stumbled upon piano teaching and that was finally not terrible.

I’m proud to say I’ve always brought my “A” game. I showed up on time and I did the work as best I could (even when I hated the work). I wanted to be the best and most efficient server, and I hustled hard. I didn’t really know how to be a popcorn-selling master, so I chose to enjoy the summer sunshine and constant socializing. Sorting through clothes was boring, but long conversations with my friend at work was not.

Even if I was gun-to-head forced to keep peddling popcorn, I would probably have a pretty good life. Not a lot of money, but fresh air, cheerful interactions and great blues music. I could still have a rich family and social life. I could still read tons of books and play music and do all the things I love.

How to find happiness and love what you do

When you’re satisfied on a daily basis, you get unstuck. Misery is stuckness. Miserable people lack ideas and creativity. They lack the ability to say, “What can I do next? How do I change this situation?” They spend all of their energy being miserable, which perpetuates the misery.

When you work hard and do your best, it’s hard to stay miserable. You’re moving. You’re creating momentum. That momentum then spills into other areas of your life.

Suddenly you’re trying your best in your personal life, in your day-to-day relationships. You’re bringing your “A” game to parenting. To cooking. To your leisure time. Suddenly your life is infused with effort. You care. You’re trying. You’re doing things. You’re moving.

This motion is what moves you beyond fry cooking. You learn new skills and have interesting new experiences. New doors open. You come up with creative ideas.

You’ll learn how to kick that guy holding a gun to your head in the groin, skip town and change your name.

You’ll learn that the mirage in the distance isn’t going to make you happy. How could an illusion make you happy?

It’s the process, the day-to-day, the working hard, the doing your best. That’s where you’ll find it.

-Allysia

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