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The "fog of work"
Old 02-07-2009, 04:29 PM   #1
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The "fog of work"

You military veterans are familiar with Clausewitz' "fog of war".

For those who haven't had to study military strategy or early 19th-century Prussia, he wrote one of the classics. One of his most famous quotes is "All action takes place … in a kind of twilight, which like a fog or moonlight, often tends to make things seem grotesque and larger than they really are."

It's the perfect military metaphor for early retirement: the "fog of work".

When we're at work, most of us are focused on our, ah, work. We're not able to work on something else, either. In the rare (or perhaps occasional) moments when our laser-keen focus wanders off task for a second or two, we're just taking a mental break. It's like recess at elementary school, with less running around. All too soon the task at hand (or our conscience) puts us back on the job. This routine goes on for hours!

When we're not at work, we're probably either getting ready to go to work or taking care of the responsibilities & chores that support work. Errands, domestic routine, childcare. When we're slumped on the couch channel-surfing the TV we're still watching comedies about work or thinking about what needs to be done before we're going back to work tomorrow. Even if we're raising a family we're training them to, uhm, get ready to go to work.

During those few times a year when we don't have to go to work within the next day or so, we're working at playing. It's a chance to get away from the routine, have new experiences, and socialize. Drive the country. Fish that lake. Hike those mountains. Occupy that beach. Downtime, not maintenance or upgrades. It goes on for a week, maybe two (woo-hoo!) before we stop working at playing and start working at getting ready to go back to work. Woo hoo.

So… we've planned most of our life around work. We do a lot of work, whether it's productive or not. But when do we get around to planning our life?

Let's not kid ourselves-- what we call "planning" is mostly a series of isolated short-term actions along a random walk toward a vague goal. "Dude, that college campus was so cool, I have to escape this loser high school and go there!" "Hey, I could spend the rest of my life with this person." "Someday I'd like to raise a baby." "Eh, no latté today, I'm saving money." "Hunh, what's this new 'target retirement' fund in my 401(k)?"

We're "saving money" to buy a house or to go back to school. (Gotta learn more about the housing market soon. And we're going to school someday-- maybe even next year!) We "plan" to "go back to school" so that we can earn more money while we do more work. We "contribute to our retirement accounts" so that we can retire some day. (Maybe even next decade!) But no one, not even nuclear engineers, plans our latté quota to project the savings cashflow and its compounded growth into a specific calendar date when we're going to start school, buy that house, and accumulate enough savings to retire. Heck, we're lucky if we spend any of our annual time off on "long-term" planning beyond the next meal or social activity.

Our planning could be successful. Many people know how to live frugally-- no McMansions or SUVs or private schools. Generally two or fewer kids. Many established families have math skills, checking accounts, homes, and investments. At face value they appear to be basically financially literate-- or have the potential to become financially literate.

Perhaps the common factor is fear of money. If people sat down with financial software they could put together a net worth sheet and a cashflow statement. Many would be surprised. Some have lost money in the stock market and feel that their portfolio has yet to recover, others have no idea how much they spend now or how much they will spend in retirement. Even when income is higher than outgo, the response is "Yeah but..." followed by "What if?" or "I don't want to have a problem with..." or even "What will I do all day?" The real problem is that they've never had time to reflect on these questions, let alone do anything about them. They're too busy working. They've never even heard of the 4% rule, let alone "Work Less, Live More" or "Your Money Or Your Life". But some of them will achieve net worths that are double most ERs-- without having any idea whether they can retire!

The "fog of work" can continue for months, years, even decades. Maybe work is fun, maybe planning is too hard or even scary, or maybe we're too busy with the daily minutiae to focus on the long-term picture.

But one day something clears the fog for a few minutes. Maybe you go to work for the 6,473rd time and realize "Whoa, this isn't fun anymore!" Maybe there's no 6474th time because you've just been laid off. Maybe you have a health crisis or a family emergency and you're not going to "regular" work for a while. Maybe you realize that you have no cashflow, let alone compounded growth. As that fog creeps back in around your ankles and up your legs, you appreciate that your current strategy (if you have one) just isn't going to carry you to victory anymore. But we'll take care of that real soon. Whoops, gotta take care of this other thing for a second. And soon the fog of work returns you to its smothering embrace…

So the long-term planning happens sporadically, randomly, and superficially-- if it even happens at all. No wonder the concept of retirement is so foreign, even frightening.

Clausewitz' "fog of war" teaches military commanders to plan, adapt, and re-plan. They'll never get enough information to fully understand the situation. They'll never have enough time to figure everything out, let alone to develop a perfect plan. The longer they delay then the fewer options they'll have (or the enemy will remove all their options). The only solution is to pull their heads out of the tactical situation for a minute, stop hoping for the answer to present itself, and look at the bigger picture to see where they can go. Break free. Then go there. Now.

It's the same for the "fog of work". People have to give themselves a break from their daily busy-ness to practice living retirement without a huge catch-up To-Do list. No traditional cross-country family vacation or painting the house or writing the Great American Novel… just "being" for a while instead of "doing". After a two-month sabbatical, how many would be interested in going back to work? If we had enough money (and confidence) to not return to work, perhaps we'd move easily into parenting, exercising, cleaning & improving the house, rediscovering our non-work interests, and doing whatever we wanted without having to sign a contract or make a deadline.

Whisk away the fog of work. Heads will clear after a couple weeks of naps, long leisurely walks, and family discussions. Instead of worrying about "now" or "dinner" or "tomorrow's meeting", the focus can shift to the future and a plan for getting there. Suddenly there's time to design a budget, to read that Bernstein book on asset allocation, and to develop a savings plan with a retirement portfolio's Monte-Carlo survival analysis. There's time to read an entire Ernie Zelinski book and finish his "Get-A-Life Tree". Try doing that on a Thursday night after a 12-hour day.

Free of the fog of work, many of us would return to the office after a sabbatical and think "What a bunch of toxic crap." (At least one of you ERs had that epiphany.) With the BS bucket filled to overflowing, the planning would be promptly executed and swiftly implemented. No more random walking but a sure stride to the nearest exit.

In a military career, a good "sabbatical" opportunity pops up after leaving the service. It could be after retiring from active duty, or after leaving active duty for the Reserves, or even when making a clean break from the uniform. Some high-school and college teachers get shorter summer sabbaticals. A similar opportunity in a civilian career would seem to be after a corporate sabbatical (if companies even still do this) or a layoff.

-------------------

This essay grew out of swapping e-mails with a veteran who's well on his way to ER. (Despite his occasional protests to the contrary!) I've been writing about military aspects of ER but I think this crosses over to everyone, military or civilian. This looks like the other-than-financial part of a chapter titled "How Do We Get There?"

Your thoughts? Any additions or changes?
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Old 02-07-2009, 04:54 PM   #2
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No comments except to say well done. I find all of your posts well written and some are very helpful to me.

Thanks,

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Old 02-07-2009, 05:45 PM   #3
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Very nicely done!

This caught my eye...4th paragraph from the bottom...

just "being" for a while instead of "doing".

This is a concept that was completely foreign to me personally. It is the biggest hurdle I've had to overcome since FIRE. I don't think I am at all unique in this respect.

I find myself still justifying my FIRE based on past performance. I often find myself unable to simply "be".

By necessity, our society is built on individual accomplishment and team w*rk effort. Our reward system is traditionally in lockstep with that. So many years of [w*rk = rewards] are extremely difficult to shrug off.

The first and last time anyone's existence was to simply "be" was most likely immediately at birth. For an instant, each of us simply "is", and then we immediately go into the role of the newborn baby, who is somebody's child, who is somebody's friend, who is somebody's lover, who is somebody's...the fabric of one's life is put together thread by thread, experience by experience.

Back to RE...This may sound crazy, but I do believe I was and still am caught up in w*rking at simply being. I had learn to relax and do nothing at all, just for short periods of time. That was not trivial.

Every retiree faces this transformation. Some succeed and thrive, some don't and wither. Instead of continuing the ream of fabric, thread by thread, experience by experience, the loom often stands silent. "Being" is foreign thread to many people. Where does it fit? How do I weave it into the fabric already made by "w*rking"?

After almost 2 years of FIRE, I have migrated to intermediate "being". My loom is not silent.

Perhaps this concept of "being" vs "w*rking" could be expanded on a bit more, or perhaps devote another section to it if that fits within the context of your overall product.

Please feel free to utilize anything I've written here. No charge.
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Old 02-07-2009, 06:21 PM   #4
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Maybe I am just the odd duck, but I guess I felt like a lot of the commentary did not apply to me. I knew at 23 that work sucked rocks and didn't leave me much time for a real life. I deliberately crunched the numbers and chose to go to business school at night because the returns from taking 2 years off from work to go full time were lackluster at best. And so on. But I can see how this applies to a lot of the population. Unfortunately, I'd guess 90+% of the population either would not understand or would not be willing/able to step off the treadmill long enough for this to really sink in.

But this really hits home and sticks in my craw: "Even if we're raising a family we're training them to, uhm, get ready to go to work."

Have to give that one some thought. I do not particularly want to raise a couple of workaholics, and it is all too easy to lead them down that path.

Well written for sure and sums it up nicely.
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Old 02-07-2009, 06:41 PM   #5
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Nords, this is amazing. I have struggled a lot with life after work so it hit home with me. You know how close I came to going back. For some of us, it's very hard to give up past routines and the purpose work gives us. Thanks so much for posting this.
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Old 02-07-2009, 07:07 PM   #6
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Nord, that was an outstanding essay. This is ready for publication, and yes, it crosses over to civilians as well as military. It is truly insightful.
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Old 02-07-2009, 07:08 PM   #7
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just "being" for a while instead of "doing".

This is a concept that was completely foreign to me personally. It is the biggest hurdle I've had to overcome since FIRE. I don't think I am at all unique in this respect.

The first and last time anyone's existence was to simply "be" was most likely immediately at birth. For an instant, each of us simply "is", and then we immediately go into the role of the newborn baby, who is somebody's child, who is somebody's friend, who is somebody's lover, who is somebody's...the fabric of one's life is put together thread by thread, experience by experience.

Back to RE...This may sound crazy, but I do believe I was and still am caught up in w*rking at simply being. I had learn to relax and do nothing at all, just for short periods of time. That was not trivial.

Every retiree faces this transformation. Some succeed and thrive, some don't and wither. Instead of continuing the ream of fabric, thread by thread, experience by experience, the loom often stands silent. "Being" is foreign thread to many people. Where does it fit? How do I weave it into the fabric already made by "w*rking"?

After almost 2 years of FIRE, I have migrated to intermediate "being". My loom is not silent.

Perhaps this concept of "being" vs "w*rking" could be expanded on a bit more, or perhaps devote another section to it if that fits within the context of your overall product.
I learned this week that the left brain, dominant in about 80% of the population, is what keeps track of time & sequence and "do". The right brain is utterly lacking in time/position/boundary recognition and is in charge of "be".

So the trick, mastered by meditators and monks, is to quiet the left brain and let the right brain take over. Betty Edwards also shows how to do it in "Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain", which ironically is still in my "To Do" pile after all these years.

But, hey, surely successful engineers can master concepts like art and "being"...
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Old 02-07-2009, 07:27 PM   #8
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But, hey, surely successful engineers can master concepts like art and "being"...
Hmmm, not entirely sure it is the same thing, but I often find that when I take a moderately difficult 3+ mile hike (without the kids) while we are camping I kind of get there. The first mile or so I am paying close attention to the route, the landscape, etc. But usully after that I am just sort of strolling along experiencing what there is on the trail without trying categorize, analyze, etc. That what you mean?
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Old 02-07-2009, 07:31 PM   #9
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I learned this week that the left brain, dominant in about 80% of the population, is what keeps track of time & sequence and "do". The right brain is utterly lacking in time/position/boundary recognition and is in charge of "be".

So the trick, mastered by meditators and monks, is to quiet the left brain and let the right brain take over. Betty Edwards also shows how to do it in "Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain", which ironically is still in my "To Do" pile after all these years.

But, hey, surely successful engineers can master concepts like art and "being"...
At first, I think I turned off most parts of the brain (especially the left part). I found I could pass time mindlessly watching the critters.

I have recalled/regrouped what I need to know and do; and have watched other stuff slip away (I used to wake up a 2AM thinking of programming solutions).

FORTRAN and COBOL and such: begone.

(I have read some Clausewitz and Machiavelli and Sun Tzu; over the centuries many lessons still apply).
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Old 02-07-2009, 07:59 PM   #10
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I've spent my entire life forcing myself to "do" instead of "be." "Being" comes as naturally to me as breathing. Sometimes, true, it leads to "doing" (creating art, writing, being a friend or lover). Then, the "doing" is also as natural as breathing.

I also like to work. OK, there, I've said it. Don't kick me off the board! Once you get to be good at your job, there's a "zone" to work just as there is to hiking, art, friendship, you name it. Plus, there is that paycheck, which I like very much indeed.

The awful, draining aspect of work (and the years of public school that went before it) is the Procrustean bed of hypocrisy called "fitting in" and the warlike state of "competing and getting ahead."
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Old 02-07-2009, 08:14 PM   #11
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I've spent my entire life forcing myself to "do" instead of "be." "Being" comes as naturally to me as breathing. Sometimes, true, it leads to "doing" (creating art, writing, being a friend or lover). Then, the "doing" is also as natural as breathing.

I also like to work. OK, there, I've said it. Don't kick me off the board! Once you get to be good at your job, there's a "zone" to work just as there is to hiking, art, friendship, you name it. Plus, there is that paycheck, which I like very much indeed.

The awful, draining aspect of work (and the years of public school that went before it) is the Procrustean bed of hypocrisy called "fitting in" and the warlike state of "competing and getting ahead."
I spent ~20 years as a programmer; then they made a manager. It was all downhill from there.
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Old 02-07-2009, 08:25 PM   #12
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That what you mean?
Yep!

Csíkszentmihályi also talks about being "in the flow", and for musicians it happens when they're improvising instead of practicing scales.

Some find it easier than others. I have a classic-rock soundtrack playing in my brain during every waking moment*, and I have very tough time shutting that off. My daughter can't understand why I don't use an iPod, and I can't understand why she needs one...

*Steely Dan's "FM", as a matter of fact, to be followed by Joe Walsh's "Life's Been Good To Me So Far". I'm having a good day today.
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Old 02-07-2009, 08:34 PM   #13
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I have a classic-rock soundtrack playing in my brain during every waking moment*...
Mystery solved...
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Old 02-07-2009, 08:34 PM   #14
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Now in contrast when I take the kids on the hikes, I am very aware of exactly how much further we have to go since I frequently end up carrying one or both of them for a healthy portion of the second half of the hike. Nothing like an extra 40 to 60 squirming pounds to focus your mind on the present...
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Old 02-07-2009, 08:55 PM   #15
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...So the trick, mastered by meditators and monks, is to quiet the left brain and let the right brain take over. Betty Edwards also shows how to do it in "Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain", which ironically is still in my "To Do" pile after all these years.

But, hey, surely successful engineers can master concepts like art and "being"...
I am lucky to be cross-brained...I excelled in all school subjects, I played piano, I played all sorts of sports, blah blah blah. The ultimate mental chameleon. Every parent's dream child.
The only thing I never mastered was freehand drawing in art, having an ear for performing music, and downhill skiing. I did take Art 100 in college Pass/Fail, supposedly for fun , and the prof gave me an A anyway.
My recall for facts and figures is kinda frightening to some people I know. And I really don't try to do this to show off. It just happens.
My trouble is...everything I attempt is learned quickly, mastered fully, and then I'm bored again. What's next? What's next?
My challenge is to learn something for the joy of it, not the mastery of it. See my dilemma?
I am sure there are others who share these traits...
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Old 02-07-2009, 09:24 PM   #16
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I am lucky to be cross-brained...I excelled in all school subjects, I played piano, I played all sorts of sports, blah blah blah. The ultimate mental chameleon. Every parent's dream child.
The only thing I never mastered was freehand drawing in art, having an ear for performing music, and downhill skiing. I did take Art 100 in college Pass/Fail, supposedly for fun , and the prof gave me an A anyway.
My recall for facts and figures is kinda frightening to some people I know. And I really don't try to do this to show off. It just happens.
My trouble is...everything I attempt is learned quickly, mastered fully, and then I'm bored again. What's next? What's next?
My challenge is to learn something for the joy of it, not the mastery of it. See my dilemma?

I am sure there are others who share these traits...
The tao of compost.
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Old 02-07-2009, 09:36 PM   #17
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Bravo Nords...very well written and thought provoking.

In regards to "in the flow"; I know that feeling very well. I am able to escape most everything and everyone around me when I draw and write. As time goes by, it gets easier...such a wonderful state of mind....
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Old 02-07-2009, 09:42 PM   #18
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The tao of compost.
I think you nailed it Khan.
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Old 02-07-2009, 10:58 PM   #19
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My trouble is...everything I attempt is learned quickly, mastered fully, and then I'm bored again. What's next? What's next?
My challenge is to learn something for the joy of it, not the mastery of it. See my dilemma?
No problem-- learn to surf. Longboard, shortboard, paddle, tandem, tow-in, kite, wind... whatever you can get.
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Old 02-08-2009, 03:54 AM   #20
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That was a very interesting post. It really gave me insight into a type of mentality that I have strayed so far from. We are all inclined a particular way, and the small decisions we make in life lead us down various paths. Most likely, this will be a path I will never be able to take (for good or bad).

I am a similar type to Brewer, I tend to constantly plan things out, slowly adjusting the plan over time, at any given point, my whole life is planned out, at least vaguely. I am in my mid 20's, and have been well aware that work sucks since the first time I had to pick up a broom and sweep the leaves when I was six. Work occurs for me in bursts, for a particular purpose in an overall plan. Here is my mentality on work:

Work is a means to an end. Unless an amazing utopia is found, work is always less interesting than not working. Any time not spent working is devoted to planning out how to reduce the amount of work, or to enjoy those pursuits that are more enjoyable than work.

The planning portion is divided into two portions, continuously developing a long and short term plan. The long term plan involves the major goals, graduating from a particular school, getting a particular degree, getting a particular job, developing this type of income source, setting aside this percentage of money each year, retiring when this amount of money is reached.

The short term goals are devoted to streamlining the process. Finding new ways to save, to take advantage of old/new tax deductions/exclusions, to discover the best income sources that are compatible, reducing costs on a daily basis, learning about new potential income sources that pop up...etc.

Life is spent thinking about many different things at once, that is, if it is not being spent being, enjoying the activities one loves to do best, or finding ways to enjoy being even more.


Interestingly, sound plays a large part in the way I think as well. If I am deeply concentrating or sleeping, I prefer white noise. When I am relaxing, I prefer music with some form of steady beat. When I am depressed, some of the most recent songs I have enjoyed will start playing in my head, usually after a really hard day of work, or a brutal test.
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