Three years ago, a fire was lit inside my belly to obtain financial independence as early as possible. This wasn’t just any fire. It was the Financial Independence Retire Early kind of FIRE. As time wore on, I began to realize that – while this movement has good intentions – focusing too much on FIRE can be unhelpful. This is particularly true for freshly minted medical professionals who are far away from achieving early retirement goals.
Even if you are on a track for Fast FIRE, you are still five years away from achieving the goal when you first finish training. Financial Independence – and not early retirement – should ultimately be the goal for those who are fighting burnout or in the early stages of their career.
Here are four reasons why FI and not FIRE should be our main focus.
Maybe you’ve heard the saying, “There is no ‘there’ there“? Sometimes we aim for a destination, and when we get “there,” there isn’t much to it. Imagine if you looked forward to a destination with eager anticipation, only to find that when you got there it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.
This sounds very familiar to the Someday Syndrome many of us suffer from. The problem is that people are terrible at forecasting what will actually make them happy. Far more often than not, when we get to our goals they don’t provide that deep and meaningful satisfaction that we thought they would.
This happens when we buy our first doctor house. Or when we get promoted at work. Or even when we earn our first attending paycheck. The increased happiness we experience is self-limited.
The Financial Independence Retire Early (FIRE) movement is no different. If we work to minimize our expenses, maximize our savings, and live with an eye only on what it will be like to someday FIRE… we might be sorely disappointed when we get there if we didn’t enjoy the journey along the way.
This is one reason I preach financial independence on this blog, and usually leave out the early retirement rhetoric.
2. Early Retirement Doesn’t Fix the Problem
With the shape that medicine is taking, burnout is becoming a larger part of the doctor’s experience with each graduating class. This is why I teach others how to fight burnout with financial independence.
Given my war cry, you might guess that I intend to encourage doctors to leave medicine if the medical system continues to refuse to fix the problem. FIRE for everyone! However, that is not the case.
My dream is to see a group of financially independent physicians who have the ultimate leverage to help fix medicine. If a group of FI doctors realized that they had the means to no longer depend on medicine for a paycheck, maybe they would have the power to create change?
These doctors with FI superpowers – who would practice medicine because they want to, and not because they have to – could mend the current culture of medicine. And, unless administrators take it upon themselves to finally fix the system that leads to almost 50% of physicians being burned out, this is the only real solution that I see.
However, these doctors cannot FIRE and accomplish this goal. Medicine must be fixed from within, and this will require FI docs. Not FIRE docs.
3. Individual Burnout and Part-Time Work
Until the time when real change can take place, what options do individual doctors have to treat their burnout? You might argue that they could leave medicine all together.
While this nuclear option is on the table, many physicians find that part-time work often provides a similar result (less burnout) without the drastic measures (quitting medicine completely). I call this concept Partial FIRE.
In fact, Crispy Doc has spent some time interviewing physicians who have “cut back” from full-time work. These part-time doctors experience improved work satisfaction, productivity, and have even found their love for medicine again.
Apparently, there are a lot of doctors out there who are burned out, but who find that they love their job, too. They just want to do a lot less of it.
When you reclaim autonomy over your schedule and can invest in what is most important to you, many find that the burnout fades. The fire may no longer be licking at your heals.
This seems to show that fighting burnout with FIRE may not be necessary. Maybe you just need a water hose to squelch the burnout instead.
4. Retire to Something
People are meant to be productive.
In fact, when we find the flow that is produced by an engaging activity, studies show that our satisfaction levels find their peak. This is why it is sage advice for anyone nearing retirement to avoid retiring “from something” and to, instead, retire “to something”.
What this means is that you shouldn’t be leaving the workforce to get away from things about your job that you hate. At least, this shouldn’t be the entire reason. The better way to attack retirement is to have specific plans for what you’ll be doing in retirement.
This could mean that you spend sometime using your medical skills to do mission work or free-clinics. You might also consider becoming a tee-ball coach, art teacher, or to write that book you have always had in the back of your mind. Or, maybe you’ll consider a partial retirement where you continue to work one or two days per week at the same job.
Preaching FIRE to early career medical professionals proves unproductive at times. Particularly when the focus is on retiring from medicine as opposed to retiring to your dream life. And, hey, you might find that dream life through part-time work as we talked about above.
Choose Financial Independence
For the reasons mentioned above, FIRE shouldn’t necessarily be our all-consuming goal. Instead, we should focus on the freedom provided by financial independence, which allows us to enjoy the journey while still having a goal in mind.
That FIRE that burned so deeply in my belly has subsided a bit. I now focus much more on finding balance in enjoying today, while we try to steadily achieve our big picture financial goals.
With this shift in mindset, I’ve enjoyed less frustration that my goals seem so far away. No longer do I focus on the fact that FI is 10 years away. Instead, I focus on finding contentment today and working towards creating the life we want to lead as soon as possible.
Do you focus a lot on FIRE? Have you seen that negatively impact your mental space? Leave a comment below.
I think I was fortunate, like Physician on FIRE, that by the time I discovered the FIRE concept I was well on my way to achieving it so it wasn’t the focus from the get go. It would be touch just starting out and all you can focus on is what to do to get out of medicine.
I am going to try and scale back my clinical hours more if possible and see if that is something that can make working a longer term solution. Going to a 3 day work week I think would be a great test run (I am at a 4 day work week now). If I can get to the level of ongoing part time work some of the problems I anticipate with early retirement such as medical coverage could be solved.
I agree with you that I hope for most physicians, FI and not FIRE will be their goal. I’m enjoying practicing medicine now that I’m FI. To think I’d be missing out this last part of my physician career if I’d FIRE’d a few years ago makes me so thankful that I continued. My message to docs is reach FI early if possible, but don’t make it such a strict goal that you miss out on important family or friend events. And once you’ve reached FI, design the exact practice you want. I think for most FI docs, they have power to negotiate a pretty great life.
100% agree. I will say, though, that I want to help create the practice I want even now while on the journey to FI. Glad that you have stayed after reaching the milestone!
A great article. I think there has been way too much emphasis on RE when in fact some people enjoy the work they do and as you said just burnt out.
I like the prospect of professionals who are FI and live with a purposeful mindset that can enable them to change the industries they were compelled to join.
Imagine doctors who are FI doing work with underserved communities or researching alternative medicine because they have the Independence to do so. Or lawyers doing more probono work because money isn’t the motivator or stressor. Or the banker who wants to fight the corporate dogma of profitability towards purpose and confidence he will have because his finances is independent of the job.
We need these purposeful financially independent folks to remain in the industry so they can effect the change from within.
The freedom that financial independence provides is very real. I imagine everyone will use it differently. Some to do mission work. Others to change the broken system. While still others might swing a part time work schedule to find that work-life balance they’ve been missing.
Either way, the real power is in the FI not the RE.
I loved this blog post! So much great wisdom in it. Thanks for writing it!
You are spot on that designing your job is the superpower that comes with FI.
Negotiating from a position of power, where they need you more than you need the job, makes all the difference.
Appreciated the kind shout out as well, my friend,
Always happy to lift you up, Crispy Doc. You are a leader in this space. Thank you for leading by example and with empathy.
“My dream is to see a group of financially independent physicians who have the ultimate leverage to help fix medicine.” <<this is a main driver that motivates me to help get docs free from financial constraint ASAP. We need smart and principled people to create transparency and accountability in healthcare and, who better?!
Also, all of #4. Great thoughts.
Such a great post! I LOVE my job. But achieving FI would give me so much peace of mind that it remains something I aspire to!
Completely worth pursuing. Keep your head up!
I enjoy reading everyone’s ideas on FI/FIRE
The only difference in opinion I have is one more on the concept of one being better than the other.
I have run across this thinking in several areas of study, from martial arts to philosophy.
On our paths through life I have thought it better to try learning from all specters of instruction from all sides. After my knowledge base swells I have the ability to fill my cup, or draw from the knowledge of everything, not just a dedicated system.
FIRE works well for people who don’t have much of a consumer drive or personality. If you don’t desire a big house or expensive car. I think more of the Rich Dad, Poor Dad.
FI works well for SHARKS, consumers who still want to get big ticket items and have the drive to Hustle. There isn’t anything wrong with either, you just need to be honest with yourself and know which one you are.
Just an outside opinion,
Agree 100%. I engineered my exit out of corporate america over the summer. I never planned on retiring, and am still trying to really figure out the definition of FI/Retirement for me. I am 36, and I get enjoyment out of being productive and getting stuff done. So we’ll see how it all shakes out!
Thank you for this article. Over the pandemic I’ve seen more than 80% of my coworkers leave due to burnout. I’ve been reducing my hours to try to stay, because there is much I love in my work, even as there is so much leading to burnout right now. Finding the concepts of FI and posts like this have given me hope that I can design a work/life balance where I can still do meaningful work without feeling shackled to aspects of work that take me away from being the kind of person I want to be.