I am approaching the anniversary of my birth. I will soon transition from being a 36 year old to a 37 year old. I am a big fan of ShePicksUpPennies and really enjoyed the piece she wrote for her own birthday which was a time capsule of her finances as she turned 33. Before I kind of dropped off the face of the blog this summer, I was fully intending to write a money time capsule for myself. And hell, I still might. But my life is so much more than my finances. What if I opened my time capsule as an old man and saw it was just a bunch of random thoughts about how much money I had in my health savings account? I’d probably think 36.99 year old me was a giant douche. So here’s what I want old man me to remember about the past year.
My 36th year was a turning point in my life. In many ways, I feel like I was ‘born again’ (and not in Christianity) this past year. In July 2018, I hit a sort of rock bottom. No, I wasn’t doing drugs, or having an affair or anything like that. But I was completely burned out at work. I had taken on a giant project in early 2017 that I shouldn’t have taken on. It brought me no joy. It was stressing me out. And I couldn’t leave the stress at work. It followed me home. It was at the playground with me and the kids. It was slowly making me miserable.
At some point very near my 36th birthday, I decided I couldn’t keep doing this. And I started trying to find a “way out”.
Your Money or Your Life
In August I read Your Money or Your Life. And it spoke to me. I was very moved by the idea is a job is nothing more than a place where we exchange time for money. I realized I had completely associated my identity with my job. And since I wasn’t enjoying my job, it was causing me to not fully like myself as a person.
It was a small change. I was still doing the same job in the same way, but it gave me some mental freedom to detach from my projects and think about who I really am. It allowed me to reclaim all of the things in my life I love- being a father, being creative, being in a loving relationship with my wife. It was the first tangible step I took in my rebirth.
Having mentally detached from my job, I thought the next step was to become financially independent so I could blast out of this job that had caused me so much stress in 2017 & 2018. My wife and I started tracking expenses and finding ways to cut corners. We were on our journey to FI. And because we were/(are?) so damned frugal, we were a lot closer than many of our peers.* (Not my FI blogger friends of course. My actual, IRL peers).
So that was all well and good. But FI was still a (somewhat) distant goal. However, an interesting thing started to happen. Having disconnected my identity from my job, I didn’t feel the need to chase “success” or “climb the ladder”. I stopped volunteering for projects that I knew would drain me. I wrapped up old projects I wasn’t enjoying. I said “no” to travel unless it was absolutely necessary.
What happened next
And somewhere along the line, an amazing thing started to happen. I started to remember all of the parts about my job I loved. I started to make meaningful progress on projects that I liked but never seemed to go anywhere. I had a renaissance at work.
Today, I’ve reached a new groove where I’m loving my job. The same job that was burning me out so badly last year I wanted to quit. I am excited about the scientific advances I’m making. I’m writing papers I absolutely love. I am no longer looking at FI as a ticket out. I’m looking at it as an milestone at which I’ll never need to worry about being downsized. If something happened and I hit FI tomorrow, I don’t think I’d want to quit my job. I might try to move to something where I had more time to do other things I loved, but I’m having too much fun to quit completely.
And it’s not just work
Literally everything in my life has gotten better since last year. Moving past all of that unhappiness at work has completely changed me as a person. I’m happier. I have more energy. I’m much healthier both physically and mentally than last year.
If I spent the first 6 months of my 36th year getting mentally healthier, I’ve spent the last 6 months of my 36th year getting healthier physically. I fully think that the two are linked.
When I took on that difficult project at work, I immediately gained 12 pounds (and a million gray hairs).
In January this year the most stressful project finally wrapped up and my weight started to go back down. And as I started to enjoy my job more and more each day, I started picking up more healthy habits.
At some point, I resumed flossing every day. I know you’re supposed to floss, but I never made time for it when I was so stressed. And after I started flossing, I realized that healthy people put on sunscreen every day before they leave the house. So I started doing that too.
I like the writing of James Clear. He has this great article about identity habits and how they change all of your other habits. At some point in this past year, I changed my identity. I became someone who is healthy. Since January I’ve
- started flossing daily
- started putting on sunscreen every day before I leave the house
- quit drinking diet soda
- become a vegetarian
- eat vegan with the exception of supper
- adopted an intermittent fasting eating schedule
Those changes are huge. I feel so strong. And because I’m taking good care of what’s going into my body, I’ve felt inspired to push my workouts. Much to my surprise I’ve started winning age group awards again at running races. Hell, I even won my age group at a race this summer. I haven’t won my age group outright in years.
Feeling physically strong has also made me even more focused on keeping a healthy balance at work. I’m very focused on which projects I say “yes” to and which I pass on to someone else.
Somewhere in this past solar orbit, I’ve changed from being at very unhealthy spot to an extremely happy and healthy spot. Everything I’ve changed has made me happier and given me more energy to change things for the better. I’m extremely lucky to have had the moment of clarity last year where I decided I needed to change.
I’m extremely optimistic about the future. At some point I know I’ll face hardships and setbacks. But I feel stronger and more resilient. And mostly, wiser. I feel like people complain about getting older. But honestly, I learned so much from taking on the stressful work project. I learned that my health is worth more than money or career success.
Having gotten stronger, healthier, and wiser in the past year, how could I not feel that my 37th year is going to be my best one yet? **
*Yes we work hard. But I also loathe the bootstrap narrative. I also have had many small advantages in my life, you can read more about those here.
**Hopefully not famous last words.