Like many of you, I started reading The White Coat Investor early in my journey through the medical pipeline. Back then, WCI had a section called “The Basics.” From it, I built a foundation of financial knowledge that would serve me well through medical school, residency, and attendinghood. “The Basics” has since morphed into an empire of financial education targeted to high-earning professionals, but the fundamentals therein are sound and timeless.
What I didn’t learn from “The Basics” was what I’d do when I actually reached my financial goals. “The Basics” sent me off on a powerful financial journey. However, the satisfaction I derived from the quest for financial success was as intoxicating as it was self-aggrandizing and misleading. The great meaning I was to eventually find in life lay elsewhere.
Joining the FIRE Movement
Early on, I became interested in the Financial Independence/Retire Early (FIRE) movement. I loved the idea of the freedom it promised. I pursued it vigilantly.
I’ve never struggled to reach goals when I set my mind to it so I took the financial knowledge I learned from WCI, paid off my loans quickly, lived like a resident for several years, and invested widely and responsibly. I rose through emergency medicine’s professional ranks and became a medical director. Then, I diversified my career by shifting to part-time clinical work and took on consulting, expert witnessing, and real estate ventures. Everything was on track for FIRE, and everything should have felt wonderful.
Unfortunately, I found myself feeling more trapped and distraught than I’d ever been in my life.
I had decided to pursue medicine while I was enlisted in the Navy. After discharge, as soon as I could, I enrolled at university and took a strenuous course load, allowing me to graduate in three years and then complete a master’s degree in my fourth year. I was already a few years behind those who’d pursued a “traditional” life track, and my need to catch up with them was strong. I planned to be a neurosurgeon but changed my mind (like most medical students who are sure about what specialty they want to pursue) to emergency medicine. Despite the shift to a “less competitive specialty,” I spent my extracurricular time in medical school working on a number of ventures and side projects that built a nice-looking resume that would help me reach higher peaks. Then, because I had great training in residency, I could moonlight for two years in small emergency departments before starting officially as an attending, helping to pave my path to FIRE by digging out from student loans early. Every step along the way, I was working harder and faster, always pursuing bigger goals. Throughout, I was running.
Suddenly, when I reached the point where I didn’t have anywhere else to go, anywhere to climb, anything else to achieve, I ran off a cliff. I’d been preoccupied with my journey to medical school, my chosen residency, leadership, and FIRE. However, it became clear that the journey to new heights had become the meaning in my life. I was still working clinically, but I no longer had professional goals. I’d reached everything I’d set out to achieve financially. Now, all that was left was a void that FIRE didn’t fill.
Unlike Dr. Jim Dahle, I didn’t have grand plans for rock climbing and jet skiing. I enjoy both and spent a significant amount of time rock climbing in medical school, but post-FIRE recreation had never been the major mental focus for me. I’d meticulously mapped out my plan to reach FIRE but not my plans for after it. I assumed the recreation part would just fall into place. Who wouldn’t want more freedom? Who wouldn’t love to have all the time in the world to pursue everything?
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What Happens After You FIRE?
Freedom as a concept is great. Many people, like Dr. Dahle, have concrete lists of things they want to spend their time doing. However, the more fluid pastimes—like spending time with friends and family, traveling, and volunteering—don’t conform as well to FIRE. For example, your friends and family will often be working when you’re not, traveling will be more fun with others (and is significantly more challenging with young children), and volunteering will be more difficult than it seems like it should be (especially if you have a lot of time to dedicate to it).
Consequently, lists you made pre-FIRE may not conform to the realities of life after FIRE. And you may not have spent much time thinking through your post-FIRE plans while pre-FIRE—because you were working at full capacity and because FIRE is such a mentally foreign and untouchable concept before you get there that it’s nearly impossible to imagine. So, you may find yourself without lists of things to do, stuck within the freedom created by FIRE, trapped feeling like you have nothing else to do. Freedom without purpose can feel like torture.
FIRE is difficult to talk about in polite conversation; it’s not something most hardworking people will ever achieve. FIRE provokes envy (reasonably so, considering the significant inequalities of our world) and ire. Further, we’re taught early on not to talk frankly about money. Unfortunately, that leaves a lot of unhappy, hardworking, high-earning, financially savvy professionals stuck without camaraderie or support or any way to work through their feelings. Many suffer in silence from depression or alcohol/drug abuse. Others return to work (if they ever left it) and suffer through crushing hours as they watch their bank accounts grow to astronomical numbers, accruing far more money than they’ll ever spend.
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Is FIRE the Right Goal?
FIRE is an empty goal. Money is itself devoid of purpose. A meaningful and satisfying life is the goal, and FIRE is one tool to achieve it. What that life will be is different for everyone and what you do with your money is up to you. However, thinking carefully about the meaning and purpose of your life post-FIRE while you work toward FIRE is critically important. For me, a little more time spent considering “The Basics” of how I wanted to spend my time every day after reaching FIRE, planting the seeds for that meaningful life beyond finances while still savoring the journey to FIRE, would have paid significant dividends.
Finding Purpose Post-FIRE
If you are suffering after achieving everything you set out to achieve, please know you are not alone. Determining what to do with your life (post-FIRE or anytime) is one of the hardest questions any of us will ever try to answer.
I spend a lot of time now thinking about how I can live a life where I add value. Adding value to situations is meaningful to me, and I’m always looking for more ways to do it. Because of FIRE, I’m able to cherish time being present with my family and friends while looking for ways to spend more time with interesting people. I wish there were more easy opportunities built into a rigid employment system for those of us with highly flexible schedules, but there are ample opportunities now for me to work on a variety of projects until the perfect one comes along.
In many ways, the search has become the meaning. In the end, the freedom of FIRE can create a place of balance where personal and professional goals can finally align.
If you're planning to FIRE, have you thought about your plans for what you'll do when you actually get there? How do you think you'll find meaning in your life after retirement? Will volunteering and/or rock climbing all day be enough? Comment below!
[Editor's Note: Andrew Ramsey, MD, MPH, is an emergency physician who writes about wellness after FIRE at LiveFIREbetter.com. This article was submitted and approved according to our Guest Post Policy. We have no financial relationship.]