4 Rules For Greatness & The Early Retirement Paradox

I’m “retired.” Or maybe I should say I’m “financially independent” since I don’t spend all my time playing canasta.

But I don’t think either term really fits. Neither captures the spirit of what life as a 35-year old who doesn’t have to work in order to live is like.

“Retired” makes me sound like I’m twice my age. “Financially independent” sounds like I’ve renounced all money, shaved my head and moved to Tibet.

And “early retired” doesn’t do much better. How about “libre”? I’m libre.

That’s better.

But whatever you want to call “it,” you don’t get to libre without lots of work and discipline and a clock that runs pretty fast.

In fact, those characteristics become ingrained. You can’t fake stuff like that for very long. And they stay with you after you’ve left the working world. So it would appear we have something like a paradox on our hands with this whole FIRE thing.

4 Rules for Greatness & The Early Retirement Paradox
4 Rules for Greatness & The Early Retirement Paradox

What Color Is Your Paradox?

The Early Retirement Paradox goes like this:

1) Only those with steely determination and a work ethic as steady as Gibraltar will be able to retire much earlier than “normal.”

2) But in order to maintain steely determination and a rocking work ethic, a person’s very constitution must incorporate those traits; they have to become a core part of a dude’s being.

3) Which means, upon retirement, those core parts don’t go away. And the early retiree doesn’t ever really do the “retirement thing” of playing canasta and watching The Price Is Right.

4) So instead, the early retiree continues to run hot and fast and do more “work” than most normal people do during their “working years.”

5) And so we’re left with an early retiree group that pretty much does the opposite of what most “normal” people who dream of early retirement would do if they didn’t have to work anymore. That is, we early retirees pretty much continue to “work.” Just we don’t worry about whether any money results from it.

6) Normal people don’t understand this. Hence, an apparent paradox.

(The flipside of the Early Retirement Paradox runs as follows. Those people (i.e., “Chillas”) who would be most likely to revel in FIRE by playing canasta and watching game shows at all hours are the least likely to attain FIRE. Hardasses who pretty much always stay hardasses get to chill in FIRE (but don’t really chill at all). Chillas whose asses are flabby get to stay flabby in eternal non-FIRE hell.)

Like Glitter and Gold

To most non-early retiree/non-FIRE types (those “Chillas” I mentioned a second ago), getting up around 4:30 each morning to hit the weights sometime in the 5s would sound like a ludicrous thing to do for someone who doesn’t “work.”

To most Chillas, that doesn’t probably sound like retirement.

Yet, just like I did when I was working 12+ hour days 7 days a week, I get up around 4:30. And hit the weights just after the caffeine kicks in. Which, yes, is early. And it’s usually still dark out. And sometimes pretty cold.

But I like it. So I do it.

Would I like it if I hadn’t had to work out this way for the last decade-plus? Probably not. In college I lifted in the afternoons. ‘Course I’m less hungover now than then. So that makes a difference.

I also do lots of other stuff that probably runs counter to Chillas’ notions of retirement.

For example, I still “do” economics every day. (Whatever that really means.) But I don’t jet around to clients, and I don’t pitch business, and I don’t dance like a monkey or do lunches or spend weekends furiously trying to finish two projects with deadlines that just got moved up. Instead, I do the stuff about economics that I like to do. And I don’t do the stuff about running a consulting firm that was exhausting and that I didn’t like that much.

I still read new research. I occasionally referee articles. And I might consider publishing new work if something strikes my fancy. All of which I do because it’s interesting to me (except refereeing some articles; sometimes that just plain sucks; “ca craint,” as they say).

And I do it all because it’s what got me into the field in the first place. It’s thought-provoking and mind-expanding and it feels important. It’s my tiny pocket of expertise where I’m near the frontier of human understanding about a subject. Which is kinda cool.

I absolutely do not, however, play canasta or watch game shows or do crafts. I suck at crafts.

Diamonds and Water

So what gives?

This is how I’ve engineered my life to be the best it can be, in my own mold of what that means. And the way I got here probably has something to do with why my life now looks the way it does. A good stretch of very hard work and habitual Hardassness led to FIRE. Now that I’m in the FIRE, I can’t help being a Hardass. And I like it this way.

I pretty much get to do what I want, Harassed or not.

I get to workout everyday – no more UDOs because of deadlines or travel or testimony or other shit. (UDOs are “unscheduled days off.” They screw up your workout routine faster than investing in gold will ruin your portfolio. Which is fast.)

I get to work on and think about things that stretch my brain. And I get to do it on my terms.

I get to hang out with my wife and my dog and my baby boy as much as I please.

And I’m pretty happy with the arrangement.

Which is where the Early Retirement Paradox becomes very pedestrian and un-paradoxical.

I do what I do in FIRE because I like it. No paradox. Just preference.

Now, there’s possibly a “path dependence” inefficiency argument here for people to peck at. Maybe I’m only under the (wrongheaded) impression that what I do in FIRE makes me happy because I’m locked into an inefficient set of preferences/capabilities brought on by the path I took to reach FIRE in the first place.

(Technical note: This line of reasoning would be something like a “strong form path dependence” inefficiency argument. Kind of. This is an area where I’ve done some professional work. But it’s kind of a niche thing. And probably boring. Unless you’re super into critical junctures and market-based lock-in mechanisms. Which you’re not. Which is why that stuff’s not written about in blogs. Or blogs that get read anyway.)

Now, if I hadn’t been such a Hardass about stuff in the past, maybe I’d spend my FIRE days peacing out and being, like, blown away by the price of a microwave oven, Bob, and tricking out my bridge skills.

Which are things I’d maybe, arguably prefer doing if not for all that steely determination and work ethic baked into my constitution.

But I don’t buy it.

Even if you could argue I’d be a total Chilla if not for the hard work I did to get where I am, that argument doesn’t mean I’d be happier as a Chilla than as a Hardass.

The fact is I made simple adaptations to succeed and become what I hope is a best version of who I can be and obtain a best version of my life.

Hope Diamond

Now, none of this is meant to imply there’s only one path to FIRE. My path was mine, and yours is yours. And everybody’s different. And there’s more than one way to scalp Garfield. And all the rest.

But if you’re not gonna forge yourself into the best and most disciplined and most determined version of you, then you’ll never be a FIRE’d up Hardass. You’ll be a flabbyassed Chilla. And Chillas don’t ever feel the warm embrace of FIRE. Chillas chill, yo.

So here are four simple things I’d suggest to get your ass as hard as possible and your FIRE as fast and hot as can be.

1. Get Up Early.

Chillas sleep in. Hardasses don’t.

If you’re one of those who can’t manage to kick the covers before, say, 6 a.m., you’re probably not attacking each minute of every day with the intensity necessary for greatness.

Getting up early is a simple proxy test for dedication to success. If you give into your base desires for an extra few minutes of snoozing first thing in the morning, then you’re kicking the whole day off on the wrong footie.

I don’t use an alarm. I don’t need one anymore because I’m usually ready to rock around 4:30 or 4:45. Just by habit. Then I kill it. Coffee and calories first. Weights second. Everything else third.

Nobody likes getting up early at first. But it quickly becomes second nature. Give it a couple weeks. You’ll be tired week one. You’ll be okay week two. You’ll be hooked week three. And your new bedtime will naturally migrate a little earlier to give you enough sleep. Just don’t fight to stay up for the late shows, and don’t cheat on weekends. Simple as that.

2. Exercise First.

In case you haven’t noticed, I can be as intense as a Mexican standoff. When I was running my firm I often consulted in dispute situations, including high-level negotiations and bet-the-company lawsuits. (Every negotiation is a dispute in disguise; and every dispute is a negotiation behind a mask.) Burning out in the gym each morning takes the edge off, slows down the heart rate and makes the little conflicts that pepper every day (and especially big disputes) seem a little smaller.

When you’ve already kicked your own ass in the weight stacks, you’re ready to be the coolest head at the battle or standoff, whether Mexican or otherwise. And cool heads prevail, or at least don’t get cracked open like a piñata; super-intense heads, on the other hand, crack and spill out all over the floor. So first-thing exercise gets everything going at a fast pace each morning and helps keep energy and nerves steady all day. Twofer.

Also, lots of people don’t exercise because, as the day wears on, other commitments pile up and exhaustion mounts and time runs out. By doing it first, you make sure you do it.

My present-day gym’s a pretty tricked-out garage. So I commute each way about three seconds. But for a few years my gym was six blocks away. In downtown Chi-city. Which, in case you haven’t heard, is home to winter weather that makes getting scalped or split open like a piñata seem pretty all right. I jogged to and fro, naturally. Uphill both ways. In seventy-five feet of snow. With hurricane-force winds. You get the idea. I did it. You can do it.

3. Eat To Win.

I like great-tasting food as much as anybody, and I’ve got my weaknesses. I’d hoover chips and salsa for breakfast if I could. Flava flav, baby.

But food is fuel. If you eat low-octane crap you’ll run slow. If you eat high-octane rocket juice, you’ll run fast and steady.

If most (as in, virtually all) of your meals aren’t engineered to make you better physically and mentally after the meal than before it, your diet needs a tune-up. Eating clean, homemade stuff has the nice side benefit of being lots cheaper than MickeyDeez.

I don’t really have to tell you what to eat. You already know what’s good and what ain’t. Simple test: If you had a kid who was a big-time athlete, what kind of food would you feed her to help make sure she played her best? Eat that way.

4. Make Family The Priority.

Nobody who spends long nights out at bars or clubs or whatever all the time gets ahead in life. Nobody who betrays the needs or responsibilities of their spouses, partners, friends or kids ends up wealthy and happy. Those people fizzle out and make ruinous mistakes and are never satisfied because they make bad choices and are always looking for something better that just ain’t there; it’s a vicious cycle.

Family makes every decision easy because family serves as ballast and compass and current to ensure every choice made is long-run stable and efficient. If you make decisions in accord with your family’s needs, your long-run self will overrule your short-run self every time. (And the long-run self is the smart one.)

There are more complicated ways to keep short-run selves at bay, but my experience is that those people with family at the heart of their lives end up making excellent long-run choices easily and by default.


This is my essential lifestyle blueprint for the foundations of being a Hardass rather than a Chilla, and a first-step gameplan to land on the rich and glorious side of the Early Retirement Paradox.

This ain’t all there is to it, obviously. But these four factors are probably pretty darn close to required: “Necessary but not sufficient”; or, “contributory causative factors”; or “predictably amplified causal predicates,” if you’re into that sort of thing.

Whatever you wanna call ’em, that’s what these are: you need other stuff to get ahead, sure; but you most likely can’t be your best self without a set of persistent lifestyle choices reflecting and reinforcing self-discipline and hard work.

So think of choices like the four I’ve outlined as little burning torches lighting your path to FIRE. They’re how to make the Early Retirement Paradox work for you. They’re, in my experience, useful guideposts for engineering yourself and your life to be their very best versions.

‘Least I think so. But I’m also kind of a hardass.

Luchadores, what do you do to make sure you are your best, most hard-assed self? I can always use new techniques, so holla!


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