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Part 3: Adventure →

How to live: Contribution

Distraction: Shouldn't I be contributing to the world?

Like my old job, my second job is... fine. Now I'm in life insurance. My issues with the new job aren't as big as they are with long term care insurance, but they still rub me the wrong way. What am I contributing to the world as an actuary? Life insurance and annuities -- are they worthwhile?

The personal finance people that I'm reading mostly have unkind things to say about the products I work on. I see their point. People get life insurance to cover their salaries if they die. Which is fine on its face. But life insurance is usually an inefficient way of doing that.

Instead, just work and save up a bunch. Then ride the investment gains. It'll probably be sad if you die, but your family won't need an insurance payout. Instead, your stash will cover everything. Well, that'd be true in a world where endless upgrading and fear of not sending kids to fancy schools weren't so loud...

Buying a life insurance policy sounds like such a responsible, adult kind of thing to do. It's almost always not though. Be more deliberate about how to live and what to value, and you won't need anything except the most basic kinds of policy for a few years. These policies are uninteresting. They're not very profitable. They're not where actuaries focus.

The insurance company is the casino. Casinos win. It felt dirty to be part of that. Would this be my contribution to the world before eventually getting free from having any career? Fear over missing something important crept in over a few months. Was FIRE man's whatever, whenever, within reason even a worthwhile thing to shoot for?

The ideal is half FIRE

One reason that I wanted freedom was so that I could be rewarded for making actual, helpful, improvements to the lives of others. Not just to be part of some pleasant story about offering something seemingly helpful, but actually insidious.

I'd journal on ideas for how to be useful. Help declutter homes. Help as a personal financial consultant, helping others get free faster. Help them stick to good habits. Help hold people accountable to what they said they'd do.

What incentive would I have to execute on any of those ideas if I were truly free? I wouldn't need the money! I wouldn't be hungry enough to focus. I cheat myself out of the environment needed to do my life's work. No, that's not how to live.

So now I know the real answer to how to live: Get halfway to FIRE, then leave the salary and insidious work behind to make something the world really needs. Do it on your own because most institutions* just sell perfumed BS to rub on your wounds as they maximize profit. (Profit's fine, but it should just be one part of the picture guys!) You'll be able to set your own schedule, avoid office politics, and say yes to an invitation to the park at 2pm too.
* I've singled out insurance companies here, but it's not just them. So many places succumb to the bad incentives of consumer culture.

A way to contribute

I'd rented a room in a big house in Pennsylvania. Downstairs was a one-room music school in front, and a kitchen for me and the other tenants in back. School opened at nine, so I'd drink my whirly-pop roasted coffee and write in my journal in the fancy leather chair at seven thirty. One day I wrote this: "I'm leaving not out of courage, but out of curiosity." I didn't see my decision to give up the secure but dirty job as courageous. It was more "let's take an adventure and see what happens."

Cleaning out my cube was pretty quick.

Back to my own curriculum after a couple of years on a prudential path. Major differences this time:

  1. Now I had more than the eight months of savings that I had when testing this path after my grad school drop out.
  2. Second-hand quiet horror stories. Seeing others further down that path, fully soaking in the comfort of stability with not much interesting going on. I'm not looking for how to merely keep a heart beating. I'm looking for how to live.

Back to Florida now. Renting a room from David, a friend from a few lives ago. What does the world need from me? Not sure, but here's a guess: help others live better by making it easy to test out good habits.

How'd that happen? A few months earlier, I decided to get back into the habit of getting good sleep by going to bed on time. I made a game out of posting daily updates to Facebook. People would cheer me on. I'd feel a rush at the end of the day. Race to tidy and brush teeth and get into bed before the deadline. That way, I'd get a checkmark for the day instead of a Hitler. (Hitler was the calendar stamp for missing my bedtime.) It worked to get me into the bedtime habit.

Could I help others implement the same scheme in a less kludgy way? Maybe that's what the world needs from me.

I fill the house's big whiteboard with a vision for what I'd do. I start working on my app: Habitest. [picture of the SCR whiteboard with the vision for Habitest] Yes! This is how I can contribute! This is what the world needs from me! This is how to live! I smiled a lot that summer as I learned and built. My salary: $0. My income: Half FIRE times (1 + i).

Starting a project is the fun part.


Putting my business together required me to do it all. Design, code, direct outreach. People were using my app. People I didn't even know where using it. I did a couple cartwheels around Budapest to celebrate when I hit the milestone of ten active users. (Budapest? Sure! I can work anywhere now that I'm not institutionalized anymore.)

There's a subreddit called getmotivated. People would congregate there to talk about what they wanted to do, at least in theory. It was the perfect place to reach out to people that needed help.

The plan: help in a way that is not scalable. Some in that subreddit want a person to help keep them accountable. That will be me.

Yeah, Habitest is clunky. "Sterile", as someone put it in a feedback message. He's right, and I'm embarrassed that it's ugly. But a sticky note on my bathroom mirror reminds me that -- at least at this stage -- Habitest isn't trying to be the best commitment device in the world. Instead, the app plus messages from me, no ads, free -- that combo makes Habitest the best for a handful of people. A place to start, a way to make the world a little better.

One guy is getting out of bed on time even though it's cold. Another girl is breaking an after-work TV addiction by hiding the TV power cable every morning. Emails are trickling in, thanking me for what I'm doing. It feels good. Sometimes I resist the work of making Habitest better, Do I really need to work through the mundane details of jquery drag and drop? Well, yes, that will clearly make this thing better. Get to work.

But a few people aren't into what I was doing on reddit. Self-promotion is taboo. (Doesn't matter that it's free.)

I get banned from reddit for being a spammer.

What? Trying to be helpful, and this is the response I get?

Learning to code was hard. Making the app was hard. Getting users was hard. The codebase was a bunch of spaghetti. I was flying blind. No comfortable path to follow. And now, my main stream of new users had been cut off.

I was lonely, and it often felt like nobody believed in me. Worse, I imagined that if anyone was paying attention at all, they'd prefer that I fail. That way they'd know that striving is not how to live. They could point at the weird idealistic guy as an example. But successful people don't show signs of failure, right? That's not how to live.

Away from Budapest and back in Florida again, I showed up for my prescribed couple hours of daily work. Instead of getting started on the task list, I just put my head in my hands and cried instead. What the fuck was I doing? Why put myself through this when I could just have a sure thing and get free by being an actuary for a few more years? People said that this entrepreneur thing was hard. I can do hard things, I thought. I didn't understand.

Summer of despair

I gave up on Habitest. My first real failure in life. I'd failed before, but this was the big one. I cared about Habitest, and now it was over. I didn't know how to handle a big failure.

I ate too much ice cream. I resumed a video game addiction that had been dormant for a decade. I went ice skating just to get out of the house. I never replied to an email from a new user that had a question as Habitest limped along without me. "Are you still working on this?"

Though I had committed to my coach that I'd stick with Habitest for a year, I tapped out less than six months in. I tortured myself over that broken promise for months afterward. Some of that pain lingered for years.

At some point, I updated my resume and linkedin. I sent off a few half-assed job applications. I forced myself a couple times to put on a button-down like I used to wear at work. I'd pick back up and continue work on the ASA certification, the fancy letters that show you're a serious actuary. Progress was slow.

The thought of having to admit that I was so weak and misguided and that I'd failed in a job interview was too much. And after dismissing insurance as not worth my time? What, you want back in now, after all that? We thought you knew how to live, we thought you knew that you were so much better than us, they'd say in my mind. Crawling into a hole and playing a video game was easier. Back and forth between hope and despair for a few months.

An email came. A place nearby is looking for actuaries. Would I be willing to do a phone call? I passed the first phone screen with HR. Some hope! I talked to the actuaries in Chicago. I bombed it, I'm irredeemable. Wait, no, they were just testing you. Can you start in two weeks?

I don't know how to live. I thought I did, but it turns out that I don't know shit. I don't even know how to fail correctly. How about trying a better attitude with this actuary thing? Maybe it's worthwhile, I don't know.

Now I have options. I can go back to the plan of saving up and getting free if I want to. Don't have to decide now.

No need to try to make a real contribution anymore. Lesson learned: the world doesn't need your contribution. The world won't automatically appreciate what you have to offer. So don't worry about it. Now I can spend a few more years as an actuary, trying to find what's interesting here. Maybe there's something to it.

Play the game

It was like being rescued and brought back to land after lost at sea. Brunch at a cafe in a sprawling office park with my new coworkers. Questions about whether I could make a worthwhile contribution to the world were absent. I was just happy to have been saved.

My new apartment came with a one-year commitment. The lease on a place near the new office was better than a promise to myself. After breaking my earlier promise to work on Habitest for a year, I couldn't trust promises to myself anymore. A lease was better. A new start that I was stuck to. How to live: commit. Commit in a way that doesn't need your trust.

I got deliberate about staying in touch with people. One of them, Dan, got interested in the FIRE path when he saw the retirement equation on my whiteboard a few years ago. He didn't stray from the path. He and his wife were well on their way to being free.

I tell him about the new job and about the potential to join him on the FIRE path once again. The path he'd passed me on as I got distracted by a tangent. My plan was to finish the ASA. I'll take my time with this. No need to rush.

"Come on Matt. You can finish your ASA by the end of this year if you push hard on it." The new job got me out of my hole, and Dan got me to make the most of the opportunity.

That's how to live: Get someone in your corner that believes in you and wants to see you do well. They don't even need to actively support you. Just a phone call or an email twice a year.

After talking with Dan and hearing about his progress on the path to FIRE, I worked hard to finish my ASA. Is it right to be an actuary? Is life insurance a good way to contribute to the world? I don't care.

Many dread turning 30. Not me. The summer of despair was over, and I had another chance.

← Part 1: Freedom
Part 3: Adventure →