Last step led us through a contemplation of what we really need to feel fulfilled in our lives; along the way, we discovered that paring our financial spending down to a frugal level results in Financial Independence and is realistically attainable in a reasonable timeframe. Now in Step 7 we’ll discuss how to maximize our income, enabling us to spend a minimal portion of our lifespan in the pursuit of money.

As we begin studying Step 7, we can easily come away with the feeling that this step is simply about maximizing our income. That sounds pretty harsh, and perhaps even inhuman. We’re people, not machines. We have values and integrity to uphold in our lives. As such, let’s review the summary of Step 7: Increase your income by valuing the life energy you invest in your job, exchanging it for the highest pay consistent with your health and integrity. Aha! We’re staying within the bounds of health and integrity. Sure enough, we’re not simply seeking the highest income possible. With that in mind, we’re brought to contemplate how we’ll maintain our health and integrity as we maximize our income.

“So, what do you do for a living?”

I recently read Po Bronson’s book, What Should I Do With My Life? At one point in the book, he expresses his frustration with what he calls The Inevitable Cocktail-Party Question: “So, what do you do for a living?” As he says:

I used to think that The Inevitable Cocktail-Party Question was a scourge on our society. But I’m starting to see that it is really about freedom to choose. A status system has evolved that values being unique and true even more than it values being financially successful. In other words, if you don’t like The Inevitable Cocktail-Party Question, maybe it’s partly because you don’t like your answer.

In essence, what’s being asked by this question isn’t really “What do you do?” Rather, the underlying question is “Who are you?” The point is, the answers don’t have to be the same. Your Money Or Your Life discusses separating “do” from “be.” What we do to earn money may be completely unrelated to who we are. A wonderful example of this is an acquaintance of mine, Connie. Connie works full-time as a project manager for a technology non-profit. Connie’s passion, though, is the rock opera she’s writing. She’s been working on it for quite some time now, and the results are beginning to show. Connie’s paid work is pleasant enough and pays well enough for a comfortable life, but her identity is in her passion, the rock opera.

Avoiding the endless search for job charming

When I was younger, I hopped from one job to the next, believing that I would find that one perfect position, my dream job. In my dream job, I would be proud of my work, do good for the world, be respected as a high-status professional, and be paid handsomely. I often moved from one position to the next within a year or two, jumping whenever the grass appeared greener elsewhere. This constant dissatisfaction took its toll on me, leaving me always wanting more, always changing colleagues, and eventually becoming lonely and disconnected in my work. Because of this disconnect, my results weren’t what they could have been. I might have found myself in a better position by developing my career without continually shifting between jobs.

In contrast, my friend Jeff tends to stay put. He’s been in his current position for years; the result is that he’s become trusted and respected by his colleagues and management. He’s comfortable and performs well. His management has promoted him and given him significant raises and bonuses to the point where even he is surprised at how well he’s treated by the company.

Jeff as a person is not his job. He maintains a varied and interesting life outside of work, which gives him the ability to find personal satisfaction in other areas of life beyond paid work. His ability to separate who he is from what he does has resulted in a healthy level of savings, and a future of Financial Independence.

The tortoise and the hare

The way Your Money Or Your Life is often presented, it appears to advocate maximizing income to get our working/saving years over with as fast as possible. However, some people find that this way of working interferes with their health or integrity. Ann made the choice about five years ago to work for a non-profit with people who share her values, rather than continue in the corporate world. Another few years later, she then reduced her schedule to work half-time. Both of these choices substantially lengthened the amount of time she would need to reach Financial Independence. She accepted that cost in exchange for enjoying her life more along the way, remaining physically and mentally healthy in the meantime.

What is retirement?

We’ve all known folks who retire from their jobs when they turn 65 only to become lost and bored. When they retire, they lose the social environment they had at work, and they also lose some of their own identity. I watched my father go through this; he never did find his own direction in life afterwards.

Retirement is a myth we share in our culture. It’s the myth of total relaxation, the freedom to do whatever we like, the freedom to finally be ourselves all the time. However, after many decades of doing what we’re told and not developing our own direction in life, the swift cut from the workforce to the emptiness of retirement is a difficult adjustment. If we are our jobs, then who are we without a job?

Financial Independence

Financial Independence isn’t necessarily the ability to pay all of our expenses from investment income alone. Rather, Financial Independence may continue to mean we generate an income, yet have the savings to give us independence in the face of disruptions of that income. In the same way that many retirees eventually move into new careers of part-time work, we too can choose to continue working for money without being totally dependent upon it. Financial Independence can give us the ability to choose to do what we enjoy, rather than continuing on the paycheck-to-paycheck treadmill. Income opportunities have a way of falling into our laps when we’re doing what we love. Repeatedly as I’ve helped other people with fun projects, I’ve been offered paid work. If I run short of funds, I’ll accept!

Conclusion

Step 7 is about maximizing our income by separating who we are from what we do, within reason. We want to receive the optimum amount of money for the life energy we spend working for pay. We don’t want to be our jobs, yet we still need to retain our values, health, and integrity. It’s a balance that leads some of us to work hard and fast at the highest-income job available, while others enjoy the ability to work fewer hours or with like-minded people. Regardless of which path we choose, we’re intentionally creating the future we desire.

Next time, we’ll discuss Step 8: The Crossover Point. We’re not going to merely talk about that dream of Financial Independence at some hazy time in our hopeful future; we’re going to calculate when it will happen, and make it real! It’s a wonderful experience to see the future unfold. Until then, spend some time figuring out what Step 7 means for you.

Fred Ecks was the volunteer Newsletter Editor for The Simple Living Network. He’s a dedicated follower of the 9-step program detailed in Your Money Or Your Life. He uses the time freed up in his life for writing, volunteering, sailing, and trail running. He maintains a Web Log www.crazyguyonabike.com.