03 Jul Who Are You After Financial Independence?
Your Identity Closet: What shall you wear now that you are free?
In high school all three sororities asked me to join – three different flavors of girls to giggle and gossip with. I must have joined one because my actual memory isn’t of joining. It’s of dropping out in protest to some clique cruelty. When offered options A, B or C – I chose D. Life went on. I didn’t make a habit of rebellion. In fact, I developed quite a High School resume of clubs, groups and honors. Yet I’d learned that you can step outside any box you want to – and survive.
By my mid-20’s I’d built a serious smoking habit. Serious because I’d picked up a disaffected Galoise smoker identity when I lived in Europe, translated that to Pall Malls in the United States and was burning through a pack a day. It made me feel intellectual and complex. One day, at a beach house I’d rented, I smoked a cigarette, quashed it in the sand and headed off for a run along the water. I was soon wheezing and gasping for breath, came back and dropped down on the blanket where I’d left my pack of cigarettes. I looked at it squarely. In a short few minutes I saw the cost of smoking, decided I needed to stop and then spontaneously a voice said, I can’t quit smoking but I can become a non-smoker. And that was that. In the 50 years since I’ve visited a few cigarettes for old time sake but have not become a smoker again.
Fast forward many decades of choosing many roads less traveled. I’m 58 and my doctor has just told me I have cancer. Actually he told me I had an apple core lesion in my colon, which sounded harmless, so he had to emphasize that what he meant was I had cancer. I would need surgery. Still nonplussed I said, “While you’re in there, can you do some liposuction.”
People with a diagnosis of cancer know what comes next. You start to become an expert in a topic you never wanted to deal with. I read all the literature. About treatments and options and odds.
For me another logical next step was to call a friend and medical intuitive as I know cancer has meanings, not just symptoms. I told him the diagnosis. He went silent for several minutes, scanning my body at a distance, then said, “You don’t have cancer.” I explained that I certainly did and he explained that his inner eye saw no signature of cancer anywhere in my body. I had A cancer, but I did not have cancer. This distinction, that I had not taken on the mantle of cancer but simply had a cancer that my otherwise vigorous body could deal with, liberated me to choose freely how I would go through this challenge.
Frugality was how I lived, not who I was
My next stop was a coach friend who offered to listen to me talk about this cancer to find a vigorous place in my mind as well. I talked – and he listened – for hours. I realized that I had become trapped in an identity that was constraining me but I felt obliged to keep. As the main spokesperson for Your Money or Your Life – and as a warrior trying to address over consumption one reader at a time – I’d assumed an identity of happy frugality. Don’t get me wrong. I was happily frugal for years, but it was how I lived, not who I was.
When I became one of the guiding lights of the simplicity movement in the 1990s, though, I kept myself pegged at a level of expenses and a set of possessions and a repetitive story to reach our target: millions of people influenced, tons of unnecessary consumption prevented. I had a further dilemma. I’d become a role model. “Vicki Robin” meant something to a lot of people. If I changed, they’d lose a point on their compass.
It was clear. I needed to quit being the me others thought I was in order to free myself to address this cancer. I mentally made a plaster cast of me, the Vicki others presumed I was, and then slit open the belly to let my soul free. I saw 3 Rastafarians with dreads wearing green tights dance out of that opening! Why these? They seemed full of life, joy, creativity and celebration. I had permission to leave my old life behind – and leave it I did. I let my assumptions about myself, about how I use time, about where I live, about who I live with, about what’s important shift naturally like colored pebbles in a kaleidoscope as it is turned.
My goal wasn’t to cure cancer. My goal was to let my life, however much I had, respond to the question that came from that session: who else in this body wants to live who has not had a chance to live?
What does this have to do with FI?
When we discover the possibility of financial independence, we change our identity from working stiff to working towards financial freedom. It affects every choice. Not spending money isn’t deprivation. It’s saving our lives. Saving money is not longer impossible, it’s easy. Getting out of debt is no longer a goal too far, it’s a fierce commitment to liberate ourselves from debt slavery. FI has nothing to do with being dutiful, with putting on a costume that doesn’t fit. It’s the most exciting prospect on the horizon and every actions conforms to it.
Then we “pull the trigger.” We check our numbers a hundred times, talk to our friends and family, read everyone’s blog posts about life beyond a paycheck … and quit.
The challenge, though, is that we’ve lost an identity that’s organized our lives for a decade or more. Who are we now?
We are not our jobs. We are not our passion to get financially independence. We are not special because we have a secret: we’re going to quit eventually even though our boss thinks he owns our time. We’ve also lost an important social context. The “good mornings” and “have a great weekend” at our jobs mean something. People know us. Leaving a job means losing these daily affirmations that we exist.
Our jobs were providing more than a paycheck, and we didn’t recognize this until we left. They gave us an identity and a community – and post FI we need to build new contexts, new ways to get respect and believe in ourselves, new ways to structure our days. It may feel uncomfortable unto terrifying to be thrown into an identity crisis at this late date, but better now than in your 60s or 70s when you have fewer years to course correct.
In other words, post pulling the trigger we need to become identity adept. Identity fluid. Identity choosers.
Financial Independence will become too small of an identity
It says you left something – wage slavery – but says nothing about what you’ve entered. It becomes a diploma. You become a FIRE alum, still friends with everyone you went to school with, but out. Many people then take on what I call FI educators as part of their identity. They become role models for others and teach what they know. The nearly 2000 blogs on Rockstar Finance attest to this delight in sharing what we’ve learned. I spent two decades teaching others about Joe’s and my approach to money and life until it became too small for me.
What are the new identities calling you? Hobbies become occupations for some FIers. Ski bum, RVer, dirt biker, chef, actor, photographer, artist, sailor, bicycler and on and on. Some of these grow into professions whether we earn any money or not. Shakespearean actor. Trans-pac yacht racer, Olympiad, TV cooking show host, STP (Seattle to Porland) bicyclist. Most are just wonderful ways to spend your time – and you can claim these identities.
In fact, you might consider imagining a closet of identities you can slip on and take off at will – after all, you are free. Let yourself feel, not just think, actress or writer or yacht racer.
Motivational speaker Zig Ziglar offered the “Be-do-have” model of taking on new identities and challenges. To be a sailor, common wisdom would have it, you have a boat and maybe lessons and you practice practice practice until eventually you ARE a sailor. Ziglar said: be a sailor, embrace that identity, and you will naturally do what sailors do, whether you own or borrow or crew on a boat or even just read sailing magazines. As the identity deepens, for sure you’ll have your boat.
I never felt authorized to call myself a writer, even after writing a best selling book! I thought I had to write every day and maybe write a novel to BE a writer. One day I shifted that. Of course I am a writer! I think and I write. I also call myself a social innovator now after years of launching social change groups and processes. I didn’t have the courage to claim this title until other people started referring to me that way. Then one day I just claimed it. I saw that I’d been a social innovator since I could walk and talk.
Back to the stories. I changed my identity to non-smoker and then no longer smoked. I changed my identity to I don’t HAVE cancer, I have A cancer and then had great freedom to heal my life, not just the tumor. I changed by identity from “Vicki Robin, the avatar for the FI movement” to a surprising bunch of Rastas, and then spent the next years painting, singing in a choir, free form dancing weekly, forming an improvisational theater group and wrote a new book on local food.
I’m now in my closet again, and finding the outfit called purpose in life/freedom coach. It fits very well indeed, so I will soon be offering my services to people who want to clarify their purpose, assume new roles and identities, discover parts of themselves that want a chance to live, realign how they spend their time with what the believe is valuable – and validate these shifts courageously. Oh, and I’m also an RV owner, still a dancer, an artist, a writer, a business owner, an author, a gardener, a landlady, a traveler, a public speaker, a swimmer, and on and on and on.
Who will you be once you recognize that you have enough?