If you’ve read much of our blog so far you’ll have started to realize that Mr. PIE and I are pretty conservative types who like to have our plans laid out with as much certainty as possible. ‘Just winging it’ is just not in our makeup (although I do love the theatrical origin of the phrase.) We’ve got some pretty firm plans around the timing of our FI date, planning for future expenses and withdrawal strategy.
In our experience good planning leads to an even better outcome, but just one month ago we were confronted by a glitch in our plans when I was faced with the very real prospect of a lay-off. As it turned out, I was not on the lay-off list and have survived to face many more early morning alarms and long commutes.
I considered myself to be in a very fortunate position. Mr. PIE and I are very close (maybe even there already) to financial independence. It wouldn’t have been a big deal. We’d have been just fine. What this experience did do was to make us question:
“how flexible are our plans?”
It’s OK being great planners who love certainty, but life doesn’t always work that way. If it’s not an unexpected lay-off two years before our planned FIRE date, it could be significant unforeseen expenses due to any number of things: illness, accidents, required travel back to the UK for family, natural disasters – the list goes on. Each of these scenarios requires one thing: flexibility. Surviving a lay-off has done a couple of things for me: made me even more appreciative of the power of ‘F-you money’ and made me question our ability to roll with the punches and deal with external forces that could change our plans.
So, how flexible are the PIE’s? Are we so set on our current plan that there is no room for change? Let’s think first about why we don’t like changes to our plans.
We Like Our Current Plans
Of course we like our current plans. We made them after all. We’ll save hard, quit our jobs in two years and move the family to our mountain home. We’ll spend time travelling, volunteering, enjoying the outdoors and hanging with the kids. We’re committed to our plans, we’re extremely focused on them and we work on small details on a daily basis. It’s true to say we have visualized ourselves in our post retirement lives. It looks great. Our vision is major motivator and a very satisfying thought.
If anything should come along that hurts our chances of realizing our dream, as we have currently defined it – we’re going to be pre-disposed to dislike that idea. Making changes would mean more work and effort. We’d have to re-write the spread sheets, and possibly re-think what our future will look like. It’s easy to believe that we’d lose more than we’d gain.
We Fear the Unknown
We are fully aware that despite the wonderful support of the small corner of the internet that is the FIRE community, we are still the black sheep in the wider world. Making the decision to follow this path is a pretty big step into the unknown as it is. All of our planning and analysis has padded the way and added many security blankets. Any additional uncertainty and risk are not going to be welcome.
“What Can We Do About It?”
I started with all the tough parts about accepting changes to our plans, and this may come across a very negative thinking. Maybe it is, but I see it as a very important acknowledgement of why accepting change is difficult. Only when we have recognized what might hold us back can we be more open to understanding how to not allow that to happen.
Overcome Irrational Fears
Ok, ambiguous situations can be stressful. It’s easy to assume the worst when we don’t know what’s going to happen next. I can point to the morning that the lay-offs were announced in my department as the most stressful time in the whole process. Despite knowing full well that a lay-off would be pretty easy to handle for me, just waiting those few hours to find out if I was personally affected or not were some of the longest and most painful I experienced. It was simply an irrational fear of the unknown.
Simply conceding that our brains tend to make the worst of a situation goes a long way. I was able to recognize that thinking fatalistically about the situation was just part of the process, and my logical brain would kick back in soon.
I read “Who Moved my Cheese?” by Spencer Johnson a little while ago and this quote stood out to me,
“What you are afraid of is never as bad as what you imagine. The fear you let build up in your mind is worse than the situation that actually exists”
This is all well and good, but I’m a practical person. Recognizing how the average brain perceives risk is one thing. Dealing with change in a real-world situation is a different thing entirely.
Anticipate Things That Might Change Our Plans
When life gets comfortable, it’s easy to cruise along with your eyes closed. A good job, a stable home life and not much to worry about is a recipe for switching off the brains ‘early warning’ system. Of course, on top of that the last thing we want to do is foresee any potential problems that could come our way – that’s just negative thinking – right? Yes, that’s true to some extent. Imagining problems that are simply not there is getting on the path to irrational fears.
Anticipating potential difficulties is a different skill that doesn’t necessarily lead down the path of doom and gloom. Where it does lead is to an awareness of your current situation and the many different paths you could take. It doesn’t mean that if you anticipate problems then you’ll have the answer to them. The simple act of acknowledging what could possibly happen puts you head and shoulders ahead in being able to deal with a problem should it arise.
I often think back our early days in the US when Mr. PIE and I were working here on visas. We were extremely lucky that our respective companies had sponsored our visas at no cost to ourselves, something that is becoming increasingly difficult to pull off these days in the pharmaceutical industry. The shortcoming of having visas is that they tie you to the company. If you lose your job you need another job and a visa IMMEDIATELY to avoid being illegally in the country. We applied for Green Cards as soon as we possibly could, but the whims of companies being bought out by other companies put our applications in a no man’s land for a significant period of time.
It’s an interesting way to live, knowing that the life you are building in a new country could be in jeopardy depending on your job security. Once we received our Green Cards I remember feeling an amazing weight lifted from my shoulders. It was then that I recognized that we had been living with the ‘worst case scenario’ always on our minds. What could go wrong? What would life look like if one of us was laid off? How many times could we renew our visas if our Green card application was delayed? What about the house? Is moving back to the UK an option?
I can’t say that we had answers to many of these questions, but we were constantly aware of the possibilities. If one should happen, yes it would be hard to deal with, but at least the element of surprise would not be there. We were always a few steps down the path to dealing with whatever was dealt to us.
The same way of thinking is true now. We don’t dwell on what could go wrong, but there’s a lot to be said for thinking about how different scenarios could play out. What if the kid’s new schools are not cutting it on the academic front? What if one of us needs to take an extended time in the UK with family? Again, we haven’t got firm answers, but simply imagining some possibilities puts us in a better place than simply being surprised by them.
Back to present day: Sadly, I have recently witnessed colleagues and friends being genuinely shocked that they were affected by my company’s recent lay-offs. It’s fair to say that anyone in our industry should be ready for change like that at any time – but long term stability can blind you to the more negative and real possibilities. These are the folks who are having the hardest time dealing with their new situation. I feel their pain and sympathize. I wish they could have had their eyes a little wider open and thus a little farther down the path to dealing with their reality.
Get Right Onto It and Set New Goals
A shocking change in your life can send you reeling. A small unanticipated change can knock you for six. As I have already said, I believe that anticipation is key to getting back on a new track. But what about those big thigs we didn’t plan for? An illness, a change in finances? It’s easy to resist change and try to stick to the original plan. We really like our current plan after all and I believe that we’d work pretty hard to make sure that it comes to fruition. What I don’t believe we will do is to hang onto our one plan like a dog who won’t let go of a bone. We’ll need to be able to identify when it’s time to change things and try a new path. With a new path comes a new goal. There’s nothing wrong with rewriting the “I’m done with working” goal to include “I’m happy to find a job”. There’s nothing wrong with saying “this town isn’t what we want, we need to move”. The important part is realizing it and acting on it.
Having survived the lay-offs, I’m finding myself part of a new department that needs to find its way to the new normal. I have intentionally chosen to try to be part of that change rather than resist it. It may be that my attitude is colored by the knowledge that I’ll be done in a couple of years, but I find myself happy to suggest new ways of doing things and challenging others to consider new possibilities too. I have also learned that keeping away from my department’s ‘Chickens of Doom’ (those who groan and gripe and resist change) is crucial to maintaining at least a modicum of sanity in these changing times.
You could probably read a number of texts on how to be flexible and deal with change either in the work place or in life in general. I’m not sure how many would cover the notion of being thankful. I believe this is a much overlooked attitude, but really it’s simple. I am thankful that even in the face of setbacks we still have the option to guide our own future. Plan ‘A’ may not work out, but plan, B, C, D or Z has merit; The fact that we even have a plan A, B, C or D puts us in a privileged position! I try not to get so tied up in what I want to happen, and forget that any of this happening is simply amazing.
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
Are you flexible or set in your ways? What adjustments are you prepared to make to make your dream happen?