How Flexible Are We? Better to Bend Than Break

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.

Be Thankful

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?

Langston Hughs

Are you flexible or set in your ways? What adjustments are you prepared to make to make your dream happen?



  1. Definitely better to bend! I think you have the ability to do that because you are facing this head on and being proactive. It’s definitely an important exercise to consider a bunch of different scenarios. And being willing to revisit your plan and make adjustments will probably mean that you will have no problem realizing your dreams of retiring early. We work every day to be flexible and go with things. You comment about “I find myself happy to suggest new ways of doing things and challenging others to consider new possibilities too” – I am right there with you! I never felt like I could challenge anything when I was working before, but now – I try to lead with a new lens! And yep, I avoid those Chickens of Doom too!

    1. Hi Vicki, thanks for your comment.
      It’s funny how difficult it is to challenge anything or suggest changes at work. I never considered that I was in job preservation mode previously, but my new attitudes proves that I was!

  2. It sounds like you guys will be in a great situation no matter what life throws your way. You’ve been there before and shown you can handle uncertainty and remain flexible (Living in the U.S. On visas…). Planning can be so important and having the ability to switch to Plan B C or D will be your biggest strength throughout retirement.

    Definitely inspirational to all of us hoping to retire early and to make sure we all have our ducks in a row. Thanks for the post Mrs PIE!

    1. Thanks GS,
      One thing I forgot to comment on in my post was that being a parent makes you even more flexible than you ever thought possible. Have you come across that? Plan A doesn’t work, let’s move tight on to plan B, C, D……!

  3. I love the Chickens of Doom title, that’s great! In my office there are a few Harbingers of the Apocalypse, and I have to say of all the “predictions”, rumours, and other fallacies that have been spread around by said folks, only 1 of them came to pass. It was the least horrid of all the other rumoured fancy swirling around their heads at the time.

    Much like you, we’ve learned to be flexible and are privileged to not only have a plan, but a plan B, C, and even D. Actually, there are probably way more scenario’s we’ve realized, but for brevity’s sake, I’ll stop at D. 🙂

    A year ago, we took a big leap outside the box of normal thinking and all of a sudden it was like the doors were thrown wide and a new world was upon us with all of the “new” opportunities we found. That’s what led us to our FFLC – Lifestyle Change attitude rather than ER. Working is fine and could even be fun given the right job in the right place, with the right schedule.

    I think flexibility is key to this whole FIRE concept, especially when you get to the end game and it becomes real. My boss has a saying “Semper Gumby” – Always Flexible since none of us know what’s going to happen day to day.

    1. I love the Chicken of Doom title too. My brother came up with it when talking about one of his neighbors!
      It certainly is true that choosing to make a major change like early retirement or FFLC allows you to consider options you would previously not even have thought of. I think it makes you more flexible, or at least a more creative thinker

  4. Thanks for the origin of “winging it!” I have been using that phrase regularly and had no idea where it came from.

    Flexibility is so important, but so much harder to learn than just coasting with certainty. It feels like coping with the anxiety of change is a skill that can be learned to make flexibility that much easier to adopt.

    1. Hi Matt,
      Yes, it is a skill you learn. It’s a bit like stepping outside your comfort zone and doing something different. Once you get started, one change begets another change. It all takes practice though, and I know for a fact there are many areas (mostly when I was younger) that I chose comfort over change.

  5. I think it’s the preparation that allows you to be flexible – having an emergency fund, keeping a skill set current, finding additional streams of income. Some people can totally wing it and feel confident, but I’m not one of them. I don’t need the whole script but I do need an outline, at least, or some index cards.

    1. Ha ha! Yes, I’d describe our needs as index cards too! We’ll never stop being planners, it’s just not in our nature to wing it. Lots of little contingencies lined up for us!

  6. Flexibility is clutch! I think that’s where a little anxiety goes a long way, because it forces you to consider the “what-ifs” … then, if something does go wrong, you’ve at least thought about it! (If nothing else, this makes me feel better about my tendency to over-analyze things). The Spencer Johnson quote is also very true. Happy you didn’t end up affected by the layoffs, but even more so, happy that y’all are staying flexible!

  7. Hi MD, thanks for stopping by!
    Yup, it’s a fine balance between being aware of possibilities and paralyzed by irrational fear. I like that: “a little anxiety goes a long way”. I’ve always believed that’s true for things like public speaking or performing – you need the adrenaline to give your best but not to overwhelm you.

  8. Great post!
    I learned the hard way that plans don’t always go as expected. This is great advice because you have to always be prepared.
    To you questions, I am flexible and willing to do whatever it takes to reach my goals. I want to one day earn my full living from blogging and I’m willing to work part time or whatever to get there. Thanks for sharing 🙂

    1. Hi Graham, thanks for swinging by!
      determination is great – a very valuable asset! I also think determination to succeed allows for more flexibility. If you’ll do anything to make something happen, that’s going to need creativity and flexibility!

  9. Good luck with the new department. Reorgs are a PITA. I went through quite a few of them myself. I think you’re smart to stay away from the gripers and complainers. It doesn’t make your life any easier. Yes, you have to adapt to changes. Life will always have unexpected bumps. 2 years will fly by.

    1. Hi Joe, good to see you!
      It really feels like two years will take an awful long time. Maybe as things settle out at work it will cruise by a little more happily. Reminds me of something I heard in regards to being a parent “when you have kids the days can go slowly, but the years go fast”

  10. This is such a great message.

    I especially like your mention of “thankfulness” in connection with flexibility. Though it never really occurred to me explicitly, the idea makes a good deal of sense. Since thankfulness entails a recognition of the good that’s persisted despite (or because of) previous ambiguity in life, the attitude of being thankful almost certainly acts as a salve for future uncertainty.

    Thanks for this thoughtful piece, and count me among those happy that y’all were unaffected by the layoffs.

    1. Hey there, thanks for your comment.
      I’m happy you enjoyed the post. It occurred to me that we spend so much time working towards what we want that we rarely stop to think how awesome it all is!
      Thanks for the good wishes about the job. Much appreciated?

  11. Our long term plan is very flexible right now – a lot depends on how quickly we’re able to pay off debt. I’m very much a “wing it” type of person who is constantly reassuring hubby that everything will be fine. He doesn’t like that so much and will start making lists and budgets to combat my laissez faire attitude. I have a lot of faith in this dichotomy and the balance it will provide for our future.

  12. Oh man this idea is close to be a blog post that is in draft right now for me and it’s so true! Optionality is so important in anything that has to do with life. Unexpected things happen whether we like it or not because no plan will go perfectly!

    1. Ah, I hate it when that happens! My drafts are only ever in my head though! It’s true that little goes totally to plan, it’s all about how well we roll with what we are dealt though.

  13. Having put in all the hard yards now, you are able to be as flexible as you want to be with your plans, if you wanted to work for an extra 3 months or a year, you can, to give yourselves that extra padding for your plans. There isn’t a perfect time so you have to decide when it would be best to make the jump.

    I love your quote, we do often make things more difficult then they have to be. I did that a lot with ‘difficult’ conversations when I was younger, it didn’t help to delay them, and of course they weren’t easy, but it was easier than what I was making it out to be. I’m much better at this now, and more confident.


    1. Hi Tristan, thanks for your comments. You’re right, impending ‘tough’ conversations are one of the very easiest things to over think and over worry about. When do we ever believe tough conversations will go well rather than dwell on the worse case scenario?! As long as we don’t talk our selves out of having those conversations, there is, as you point out, a lot of experience and confidence to be gained by having them

  14. Great thoughts! 2015 was our year to have our plans tested: I found out very abruptly that I had cancer. Thankfully, everything worked out and we made it through. And though it wasn’t part of the original plan, things changed dramatically for the better with a new job and a move to a better location. You can’t control the hand you’re dealt, but you can control is how you react to something.

    1. Hi MyMoneyDesign, thanks for stopping by and sharing your story. You really have dealt with the ultimate plan changer and I’m happy to hear that all is well.
      I’m a great believer in changing your attitude to things you can’t change. It sounds like your strength and ability to do this put you in a great place.

  15. The tagline of our blog is “seeking financial flexibility” because we want to be able to adjust our plans as our family grows, our dreams evolve, and different opportunities or setbacks arise. I’m also a planner by nature but you really know what life will throw at you, so why not have the financial foundation to change as needed? Love this post 🙂

    1. Thanks Kalie, it’s great to hear from you. I guess what I didn’t touch on here was the plans that change because we want them to! That requires another level of flexibility to be able to break with an old idea and work on a new one – and the financial stability too of course

  16. Always glad to see great Harlem Renaissance poetry included in an excellent post. I’m sorry for the upheaval in your coworkers’ lives, but glad that it has caused you to re-focus on being strong enough to bend and make fewer assumptions about what is controllable.

    1. Thanks ZJ,

      It’s funny, that’s a poem that I knew the first couple of lines of but didn’t know the rest until recently. Taken out of context the opening can mean something very different from the whole poem. It also may seem like a pretty negative poem to choose when writing about flexibility in following our dreams, but I believe it’s all about flexibility. The twists and turns our lives take are constantly challenging us to defer our dreams.

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