Losing The Edge
In 2001 I left Thailand after a bit more than two years and returned home with a fresh degree in hand and a very uncertain future. Regular readers might remember that I came here in 1999 to complete my MBA after deciding to close my business at home after some huge changes in my family, home, and business. Leaving behind everything I came to Thailand with the goal of completing an advanced degree and hopefully making some contacts in the business world which would result in a position with a company in the region. After nearly 18 years in Asia, several languages, and much experience and travel I figured at this point in my life I’d like nothing better than to work for a corporation in the region and replenish a bank account while trying on a suit and seeing if I could get used to the fit. During my two years in the program I did everything I dreamed about and earned my degree, made some great contacts, and even took several temporary positions for companies just for the experience. By the end of the program I’d landed the job of my dreams and was looking forward to a bright future during the second half of my working life. Then life happened and I returned home to the states to spend as much time as I could with both parents who were just diagnosed with cancer.
After their passing I stayed on indefinitely to fulfil promises made to both parents and during this time I decided to open my own photography studio. By this time I’d been shooting landscapes and photojournalism assignments for over 15 years, but studio portraiture, weddings, and the actual running of this type of business was new to me. Still, I made a goal that at the end of my second year I wanted to gross more than any studio in my area. This started a flurry of learning, studio design, equipment purchases, and more learning. A few months later I served my first customer and for the next 3 – 4 years I took on any sort of assignment that came my way. As usual I was polishing the leading edge of my chosen career path and while the career was new the intense drive and desire to be the best I could was very familiar. After reaching my goals I admit to getting a bit bored and it was at this stage that circumstances led me back to Thailand with nothing more than retirement and perhaps freelancing and getting out some coffee table books I’d been thinking about.
I’m not sure if my experience is unique, but if my observations are even close to being on the mark I’m not alone. Money aside, it is very possible to be too young to retire. The lifestyle Thailand encourages doesn’t help. Even with the beating the dollar has taken over the last few years Thailand is still very affordable and when you don’t need to work you tend to not work. With tons of free time on my hands I travelled to many places in the region getting a feel for the plans I started to make, yet with no urgent financial needs you slow down and projects tend to not get finished, you relax and enjoy life, get bored and start planning projects once again, and soon your cycling between plans you make when bored, and relaxing and enjoying life reaching that point of boredom.
I’ve said before that most people think they need more money than they actually do to retire, and that many people spend an extra decade or two working their lives away to pad that retirement account “just to be safe” or to have a level of living when they do retire that isn’t really worth the decade or two of work they had to complete to earn it. Life is a huge compromise, but for certain we can’t buy back years of time. Once you use up the years of your life in the pursuit of anything, you can’t get them back. Perhaps one of the most important long term decisions you make for your life is when to retire, at what stage in your life do you step out of the high intensity part of your work life and step into total retirement, or maybe just start a small side business to keep you in contact with people and the world around you. Retirement opens up a world of choices you might not have ever considered, once you provide financially for the rest of your life then anything you find fun becomes possible. I’ve talked to greeters at Wal-Mart, 7 Eleven clerks, gas station attendants, and many other low skill workers who are retired bankers, real estate agents, and even corporate officers. After a working life of high stress, competition and worry, it shouldn’t be surprising that a job you might have enjoyed as a teenager might seem like a fun way to spend a few days a week during your retirement. One man I knew made minimum wage driving the ball pickup machine at the public golf course three days a week, and the other four days a week played golf at the city's most expensive club where he was a high profile member.
I can tell you from personal experience that being able to do anything you want, to spend your days in any manner you choose (or can afford), is an incredible amount of freedom and at first exhilarating. But that can change, and often it changes after circumstances creep up on you unaware. It’s important to understand that being retired takes the same discipline and planning you used in your professional life. Some of the same greeters I’ve talked to at Wal-Mart and 7 Eleven were there because they had to be! Through poor planning, undisciplined spending habits, and unforeseen life events you can quickly find yourself no longer financially able to retire. Try being 55 – 65 years old and trying to get back that Vice President position, or even a mid-level position in the same field. You can find you’re no longer qualified, no longer licensed, or worse, no longer wanted for a variety of reasons. Chances are, unless you can afford to start your own business you’ll end up back at that first rung of the ladder where you began you career, or worse yet, in the sort of summer job you held as a teenager. This isn’t bad if it’s your recreation, but it could be terrible if it’s your livelihood. I used to encourage people to retire as early as they possibly could so they can maximize their lives, but now I do it while cautioning heavy discipline and the sharing of a few hard luck stories I’ve heard along the way.
The more people I meet in Thailand, the more I listen to them, the more I wonder if many of them didn’t retire a bit too early. Certainly I’ve met some in poor financial shape, there by poor planning, relationship “losses”, and even currency devaluations. For me personally I wonder if my dreams of a peaceful life in paradise were about a decade too early and if I let having the means to retire affect my decision to retire more than it should have.
These thoughts have been rattling around inside of my head for months now and I’ve given it much thought. First and most importantly I need to readjust my attitude about some of the projects I’ve taken on and start treating them as seriously as I used to take my employment, in other words increase the level of discipline in my life. Second, I’ve spent a fair amount of time coming up with a business plan that will keep me current in my field and provide great personal enjoyment at the same time. Looking back over my life I’ve taken note of the parts of certain jobs that I enjoyed most and putting them together came up with what I wanted to do, and using my experience decided how I wanted to do it. I’m just a few short months from a “grand opening” of sorts and the excitement builds daily. I’m starting to look forward to each day just a bit more. It’s a good feeling.
Until next time..
With the world's stock markets taking a hammering this week, and the Thai baht increasing in value against much currencies recently, I bet anyone who retired at any time in Thailand would be a bit more nervous than they had been. The beauty of retiring in Thailand is that if one really wants to (or has to) do it cheaply, they can. But if one wants to maintain a high level of activity with a degree of luxury, then that seems to cost more each year… The world is a funny place and there are all sorts of things which could have a great effect on the finances of someone who retired early.
One thing I will say about retirement is that if one is truly happy in their employment, they'll be much less interested in retiring. So the pursuit of a challenging and enjoyable job should be on the top of most people's list.