Three Freedoms That Come Before Financial Freedom

An obsessive desire for financial freedom shows a lack of self-awareness. 

The default program.

Me: "So why do you do what you do?"

80% of Friends: "To earn money so I can have financial freedom faster. Then I'll do what I truly want."

There are tons of books, blogs and media out there about financial freedom (aka: "Fuck you money"). Basically, it's a state of life where money is no longer a priority when working.

I'm not saying having financial freedom won't be great. It will be. I've met people who are financially free and they truly do what they want. But the thing is, there is no such thing as truly passive income. At the very least, there is upkeep work and basic operations to make it sustainable. Hence I say "for the moment" as forecasting with certainty is folly. We've had a 10-year bull stock market and Japan was in a 10-year recession. Anything is possible. 

What's shocking is the number of individuals who don't have an answer to "why" they want financial freedom. There's the surface level answer of "I don't want to do this job", to which the solution would be to do something different. Most don't have an answer to "what they truly want to do". It's something they've put off for their future selves. 

It's like the accountants who put off what they want to do until after they get their CA/CPA letters and then they say "now what?". It's what happens when you've stopped thinking for a long time. Imagine the impact of 10-20 years of not thinking and droning on autopilot! Side note: It will take you 10-20 years of hard work, being uncomfortable, saving a ton, and being disciplined to get financial freedom, if you decide to pursue that route. 

The societal belief of "retirement" seems quite ludricous to me and it's a completely outdated notion.. It's the ultimate goal for many. Some people say they want to travel when they retire. That's great. Then what? Are you going to backpack the entire year? Is that your thing? Will you even want to backpack at 50 or is that what the 30 year old in you wants? I've traveled to 35+ cities in the last 8 years and it's not something I can imagine doing non-stop for a consecutive period of time. I've learned my sweet spot is < 2 weeks for multiple cities or 1 month+ in one city. But what about after the touristic travel? Will you not get bored? I imagine taking the millionth picture of the Eiffel Tower for Instagram really isn't going to give you any kind of fulfillment. 

Death results from a shutdown of bodily functions as your brain tells the body it no longer feels it has a reason to live. I believe this is not merely a factor age but rather a mindset. The particular mindset being boredom, which is what happens when you realize you have nothing to live for and nothing to do. Hence, death by boredom is quite literal and it reframed my own mindset around retirement and the kind of life I wanted to lead. 

My desire for financial freedom evolved to not seek retirement but to have the freedom to live differently.

Finding my number. 

I started my process with finding my number. The amount of financial wealth I think I'll need to be financially free. Without a number, how would I know when is enough? Most people would agree it's sad to be the millionaire who committed suicide because others had more money than he did. True story. I'm sure there were various factors at play for that individual but without a number, it would just be a hedonistic treadmill that's never enough. I was one of those blindly running on this path for "more money" before doing this exercise. 

I learned that having a number, no matter how inaccurate it may be in the future, gives a new perspective. I assume this will be the case for others too. For some, their current life choices and career will allow them to meet that goal in 10-20 years. For others, being an employee will never get them there. 

I tried to envision what kind of life I'd like in 10 years. It was about the details. I picked out the city I'd like to live in, the ideal apartment, whether I would have a family, the cost per child, cost on essentials like food, mortgage, utilities, how many vacations I'd take with my family annually etc... Trying to think of all expenses. I went around finding the financial information for all the items. I keep a monthly budget so I extrapolated for a family and a 'less thrifty' life style. There would be no compromises. It's the ideal life scenario right? 

This gave me the annual expense I would need to cover for the dream life scenario. Then, I calculated how much I'd need to have in an investment account if I wanted to live purely off stocks. Historically, the S&P 500 has returned about 6%, so I picked 5%. We have banks that give a 4% dividend yield so it seemed reasonable. How much would I need to live off 5% returns off stocks?

The end number was not high. I did not need $100M nor did I need $50M. It was under $10M. It's still a lot of money. But I sure as hell had zero aspirations to be a billionaire now. I had a better idea of my own point for diminishing marginal utility. 

That's the dream life. The high end with a luxury penthouse, business class airplane tickets etc... Sure, it's not adjusted for inflation but it's about having a destination in mind. Not the specific coordinates. This is the dream life I want to have in 10 years from the mind of my 26 year old self.

Could I be wrong? 100%! As Dan Gilbert refers to in his book Stumbling on Happiness, the human imagination is limited by what he knows. Limited by the experiences or knowledge of what is possible. I know I'll be off in accuracy but I'll at least have a direction. If I'm aiming West from Toronto intending for Berlin but I hit Paris that's still closer than Antarctica. It's about having a direction.

So I had a number for a pool of money I'd need to live off of a 5% return. If I were to be that trust fund baby so many of my friends admired to be. This is the number so many people get fixated on and it's akin to our reference of "net worth" for most people. But this is not the actual number. This is still a derivation. 

The number that actually mattered was the monthly expense amount. How much I would actually spend. The ideal case was to build up an asset base to pump that cash out sustainably to cover such expenses. But I could cover the monthly expense with a number of income sources like a salary, investment returns, with side businesses etc.. There were many options. 

What mattered was knowing the monthly expense I'd have to cover. That's what financial freedom was. An ability to cover that amount no problem. This became a great exercise to disengage from the desire for money and realize it's merely a tool. Just gas to fuel my car on my journey. 

Detailed Imagination with My Number

If I had that "number" and the monthly cashflow coming in, what would my ideal average week look like? Not the one week on a beach in Bali but the 40+ weeks not spent on a beach. Not a week filled with novelty. Regardless of the location, what would I be doing? What does this ideal week look for the me of now?

The "now" is key since I can't forecast for a future self. I don't know what I'll like in 5 years. I can merely assume the core assumptions won't be that different. 

What activities would I do? - The following is an excerpt from my diary:

  • Spend more time at the gym. I'd love to train everyday. I know I can't powerlift everyday but I'd love to work on my cardio, do yoga, more core work etc... to be a more effective physical specimen

  • See my family more often. I want to see my parents more than 30 times for the remaining part of my life.

  • Spend time living in different countries for extended periods of times, ideally 1 month+

  • Continue to speak to interesting people to learn more about business and it's interconnection to society at large

  • Work with people one on one, whether it's advising/coaching/partnering on developing their mentality for peak performance and systems design

  • Spend more time reading

  • Teach university students

  • Create systems of mini-retirements to unplug from my work for a few weeks to a month at a time throughout the year. 

  • Invest based on my learnings and thinking

These were just things I would ideally do. I even planned out the hourly requirements for each major bucket of activities and where I would take my breaks in the year. Really drawing my picture. Then it got me thinking: "Did I really need the millions of dollars to do all these? Did I need financial freedom first to do all these?". 

Not at all.

The Real Constraint isn't Money. 

It was evident what I wanted to do could be achieved without money. The material things were not important. They were mere luxuries. Things I could obtain later that need not limit the experience I seek now. Things depreciate but experiences compound.  

I always thought I needed financial freedom first. I put money as the constraint to doing what I wanted. I thought, once I have the money, I'll be able to control my time. I'll be able to control where I could be at any given moment. Prior to going through this exercise I had never thought about the "life after money". I wondered if this "ideal life" was something I'd actually enjoy. What happens if I blindly pursue money but realize the dream I thought I wanted was not what I actually wanted but a mere representation of the external world's values imposed on me? 

Reframe the limitations.

“How can you achieve your 10 year plan in the next 6 months?”  - Peter Thiel

What if I wanted to live this ideal life of mine right now? My body wasn't getting any younger. Money was a mere excuse among the other excuses. An excuse to cover up the fear of being wrong, caring too much about what others think and of the unknown. 

So what was the first principle I needed to live out this 'ideal week'?

What I wanted with financial freedom would actually be the freedom to do what I want, where I want and when I want.

When = Time

It started with time. Beginning with the micro-level of a 24 hour day. Control over when I would wake up, work, train, eat, relax and sleep. You never have time to do anything, you have to make time to do things. Protect it and own it. 

It seemed ludicrous to think that I would not control my own time until I got financial freedom. If I perform mental tasks better in the morning and lift better in the afternoon, then shouldn't my job account for that? A few companies believe in trusting their people. But they are few and far between.

Control over your time need not be a binary result. It doesn't mean quit your job and go be an entrepreneur. I recommend most people don't be an entrepreneur because it's the hardest job of all. There are other options like joining a remote company, being a freelancer (kind of like an entrepreneur), finding a company that treats you like an adult (aka invests in helping people become high performers in their own way), or just make it happen in your organization right now. 

If control over your time is something you want freedom over you can start little by little. When I was in consulting, I wanted to be more 'present' when I was with my girlfriend so I stopped answering emails after 6pm. The firm had my number in case of an emergency. A manager's emotional insecurity was not an emergency I needed to respond to at 10pm. I chose what I would be paid for. I would be paid for my work. The end deliverable the client got. Everything in-between I wanted more control over. I felt work travel not worth the loyalty points so I requested my profile to say "no travel". I liked walking everywhere and that gave me more control over my hour by hour. I didn't want to waste time with "facetime" so I also sought projects that had managers who were results-oriented and not micro-managers. I was popular with some and unpopular with others. I didn't care for the others since I wasn't in the business of pleasing everyone. 

But it starts with time. It starts with control over hours in the day. The goal is to be spending the time you control on things that excite you. It did not have to be 100% immediately but that was the freedom I needed. To control my time. 

Where = Location

Environments are extremely important. Whether it's a different country, city, or work space.  It's now about controlling a full day or weeks or months, a bigger block of time. This isn't about vacation. Vacation is to recharge. This is about building an environment most conducive to you so you can be at your best.

Having lived in six different cities and traveled to 35+, learning via travel is important to me. The reality of travel is that the cities change with time and as I change with time I notice different things. I've been to Tokyo 5 times and each time there is always something new. I may want to live in London for a longer period but this may no longer be the case when I'm 40 or 50 for the only constant is change. I knew this was a fact when I'd rave about Chiang Mai to my parents and my dad would inquire whether I think my experience running through the streets of Chiang Mai could be replicated to a couple in their 50s.

I haven't lived in the same city as my parents for more than a decade now. Tim Urban's essay "Tail end" helped me realize my parents will not wait until I had the money to say "now I can be wherever I want". Facts are that death waits for no one and I did not want to be the son who flew back to see his parents only once a year. That's maybe 30 times. I believe social relationships are about frequency. I can't spend an intense 10 days with my parents and average that out as 1 hour per day for 24 days. It doesn't work like that. I wanted to visit them more frequently. Given my parameters of wanting to live in Toronto and other bustling cities in the future, I knew I needed more control over "where" I would be to be able to fly back more often to see my parents. 

As I eluded to before, I don't believe in the traditional sense of "retirement". I do believe in the value of taking breaks periodically to recharge the body and mind. With that, I'd rather take the 20-30 years of retirement after 65, and sprinkle them in annually. This means taking 2-3 months off annually as a form of mini-retirement. This may sound  impossible without a boat load of money but it's not. 

Location freedom need not be binary. There's a wide spectrum. Some companies have unlimited vacation days, some companies allow people to take extended leaves (i.e. Sweden has made it a national policy, EY Australia now allows 12 weeks of leave). Thus, one role may give you more freedom in an annual basis over a monthly basis. When I was in consulting I'd be on projects where I'd have daily freedom of location. On an annual level I would schedule a three month leave of absence as well. Whether it be joining a completely remote company or being a freelancer, there are many ways to achieve various levels of freedom.

There are just so many choices you can make to incrementally build on gaining freedom of location. It just requires focus and the intention to achieve this over other things like a $5K raise. 

What = Direction

I'm a believer in doubling down on your strengths and passions. Work is this funny thing that has a negative connotation to the term. Yet, I think it's what makes us who we are and a key factor in determining whether we lived a fulfilling and meaningful life. So I wanted freedom and control over what I did. Absolutely. In the most traditional sense, at least 1/3 of my time on Earth would be dedicated to "work" so it better be something I want to do. A direction I'm excited by. I had kept track of when I'd be in flow and what activities gave me a higher state of energy so this was my guideline. 

Do what energizes and engages you most. It may seem simple but it is not. It'll require experiencing a lot of different things to come to that answer. My introspection included digging through close to three years of daily journals, and all the strength feedback and activity analysis logs I wrote from three different careers. I further tested it by asking past colleagues, friends and family to get their feedback on who I was, what they thought my strengths were etc... I triaged this with my own analysis. Even this isn't enough because now it's about finding if people will find value in what I want to do and will pay me for it. 

Thankfully, investing is something I love doing because it's the mere execution of my constant learning. You get rewarded for being different and right. It's the best. But I wanted to find a way to do it the way I saw fit and this was not possible in an institutional setting. I think this may be the hardest freedom because it requires work to understand you and then work to test whether you can change your existing system (i.e. can you pivot around in your job to focus more on what you want) or if you have to exit and find another system (i.e. new job, school, start your own thing etc..)

We already have freedom of direction. It's our choice to apply to get a specific job and our choice to leave it. But it's a choice that is filled up with so many psychological barriers that it stops us. It's a freedom we have to work out within ourselves to achieve it. 

Why would this work?

Money is like gasoline while driving across country on a road trip. You never want to run out, but the point of life is not to go on a tour of gas stations. - Tim O’Reilly

Let's assume you wanted financial freedom and you got it. You have your investment portfolio to live off of. Now you have freedom of time, location and direction to do what you really want. This also assumes that you are physically and mentally capable at this age. Most people will get bored of rolling on the beach in a few weeks. Mentally checking out like that is a sure fire way to limit your own life expectancy too since you're body will realize there is no point to your existence either. 

A common assumption is that people want financial freedom so they can do what they want, when they want and where they want without the need to get paid. I get that. But let's say you do what you want. I'm sure it's something you are genuinely interested in. You forewent your youth for it so its something akin to love I bet. If it's something you love doing, I'd imagine you'd want to get good, maybe even great, at it. You'd probably want to do the activity in your optimal state and optimal location. Some people love to write and they'll do it everyday at their morning coffee shop of choice for example.

As you put in the proverbial "10K hours of deliberate practice", you'd hope to seek mastery in that activity. If you're actually great at it, people may want to pay you for it. A form of market validation for the value you are creating with your work. The reality of humans is that though we may start with a selfish pursuit, over time we realize the focus is to serve our collective society and we pivot towards that. In due time, you'll be back to making money whilst doing what you want, when you want and where you want. The difference is that the money is just the result and the exhilaration comes from the process itself. Another difference is that you won't be able to do it for too long given you started later after you got that financial freedom. 

What I believe is that by focusing on achieving freedom to do what you want, where you want and when you want, the financial freedom will be achieved eventually. But it will be just in the background. Something you hardly notice because you're so focused on the journey.

Being financially free is not hard. It takes discipline and time. Most prudent people can get there. It's just that everyone wants to get there "quick". Assume it'll take 10-20 years. This also assumes that you'll be living a responsibly frugal life. Remember that it's all a matter of 'choice'. You are choosing to live in an expensive area for its luxuries, you are choosing to eat out instead of making food at home, you are choosing to go to bars over coffee shops. The reality is that most people move to an expensive city to get a high paying job. They pay out 40% in taxes, pay the high rent for the prime location, buy materialistic goods to impress people that don't matter, and spend on pastimes that are not additive to the growth they truly seek. Now, some people love that and this may be the freedom of direction, location and time they seek. They may love drinking and blowing money on alcohol every week and pounding on a keyboard but relishing the title they have because it means something to society. My belief is that such an externally driven mentality is unsustainable. 

I think seeking freedom in time, location and direction rather than just purely financial freedom forces you to think with an internal scorecard. Because its going to be a hard journey that is not popular. It's hard to be motivated over the long term by external metrics. The push has to come from within. It's the process. The process of attaining freedom in those three areas that will result in you feeling you true self. 

This was the result of my own introspection and deconstruction. I focused on why I existed, went further into how I wanted to exist and what I would do with this existence. It resulted in reframing my perspective on the financial freedom I had kept in the back of my mind. The scary question I did not answer of "And then what?". 

People keep on saying "You can't have it all". I'm going to make a generalization that the folks who say that have never attempted to even take the hard road to "have it all" and never achieved any form of freedom I listed. That's an opinion and mindset best to ignore. Time is scarce and the attention we give with that time must be protected. It's a matter of prioritizing attention on what matters so that you can have it all.

I know this was a story about me and it may not apply to you. But I do believe the freedom we truly seek is for direction, time and location. Not money. The hard thing is that the former requires a lot of self-awareness. Work that we were never taught to do or suggested to do. Yet it's work most essential to our future development. I've been writing this essay bit by bit for a year and I felt my thought process had reached a point of clarity. Enough to share with you. Hope it added value.


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