The Dream vs Reality – What it Really Felt Like to Walk Away from Work

In the first few months of early retirement I met a lot of new people. With time on my hands I no longer had an excuse to turn down those invitations to things I would previously have avoided. And knowing how easy it would be for me to slip (very happily) into social isolation, I made a determined effort to say yes.

So what do you do?

It’s a harmless enough question and a natural icebreaker between people who have just been introduced. But the first few times I was asked, it made me feel really uncomfortable – even panicked.

“I don’t do anything” I said the first time. The response was a puzzled expression, so I followed with:
“I mean, I’ve just left a job and I’m taking some time out.”

Not a lie as such, but not the full truth either. It struck me that my discomfort said far more about me than any new acquaintance and I was surprised to be feeling this way. I had after all, been working and planning for years to get to early retirement so why was it so difficult to admit? And why would I say I don’t do anything as if having a job is the be all and end all of defining ourselves?

I think for so long I wore my career success as a badge of honour. I may have failed in other areas of life, but I was a professional held in high esteem, a finance professional no less. Trusted to manage millions and keep the company ship always in calm waters. An upstanding, high tax paying member of society.

I think subconsciously I was asking myself – am I now a dropout?

The Dream

When I was still working towards early retirement and stuck in an office, I would stare out of the window and daydream about the future.

I imagined how the last few days in my job would pan out, handing over everything to my colleagues, seeing the envy on their faces and the thinly disguised delight on mine.

I imagined updating my LinkedIn status to announce to everyone that I was retired and I anticipated the incredulous responses of “Wow, so jealous!!” or just “What……?????” or even better, those colleagues current and previous – who perhaps didn’t like me very much anyway – seeing the status update and saying nothing.

I passed many a dull conference call thinking this way 😊.

The Reality

The reality was very different. I had been on a leave of absence for a short while following a medical emergency for my son and then my own ill health. I chose a day that I knew would be quiet in the office to turn in my laptop and badge. By this time the people I worked most closely with were based mostly overseas so those colleagues in the office were too remote from my position to have even heard that I was leaving. I walked around the building and said a quiet goodbye to a select few and then I left – without fuss or fanfare.

I had imagined feeling exhilarated and triumphant. In reality the overwhelming feeling was relief. That of a decision made, the end of a long hard slog and the rejection of pressure and stress that had been making me unhappy for so long. A breath exhaled that I didn’t realise I had been holding.

It was at least a month before I updated LinkedIn. And even then, I altered the settings so that my change of status wouldn’t be automatically notified to my network. This way, only those who looked me up would see the change.

I can’t explain the change of heart except to say I don’t feel as though I covered myself in glory with my performance towards the end. I was run down, burned out, lacking in motivation, resentful of everything work related. I felt defeated like “they” had won and that I wasn’t up to the job – meaning I didn’t have the resilience and tenacity to see it through. 

That’s rubbish of course and with hindsight I don’t judge my whole career by my conduct in the last few months. I accept that I was ill and that stress related illnesses are as valid as any other.

Would I like it to have been different?

Of course, from a self respect point of view I wish that I had performed at my best right up to the end. But if that had been the case I’m not sure I would have left when I did. When it comes down to it, if you don’t hate the position you are in, it is very difficult to make the decision to walk away and not stay for one more month, one more bonus, one more year.

I re-evaluated my entire FIRE budget in the few months leading to my exit and stripped out anything I thought I could manage without in order to bring my FIRE date forward. And now over a year into retirement I see that this lower budget was indeed more realistic and if anything, I wish I had left sooner.

I’m a Free Agent

Just as it takes time to settle into any job, it has taken some time to adjust to being without one. To feel comfortable in myself and untangle the emotions involved around the manner in which I left. To accept that society’s definition of occupation doesn’t apply and to find the answer to that question – “What do you do?”

I admit I still hesitate when I get to the Occupation section of any form I need to complete. But in social situations I am happy now to reply with, “I do whatever I want.”

No longer defined by my job, I’ll say it now with a smile and without hesitation – I have retired from my career and now I do whatever I want 😊.

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