Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.Robert Frost
Most people know Robert Frost’s famous poem, The Road Not Taken. Especially the last few lines, written above. And most people interpret the poem as, “Frost’s choice ‘made all the difference’…in a good way. Frost is telling us to break the mold, be different, and create an extraordinary life!”
But Frost makes no such claim in the poem. The road less traveled is neither good nor bad. Frost is not passing any judgment on the path one takes.
Instead, Frost’s point is that decisions – like a fork in the road – steer you in a direction that cannot be undone. And because of that, even a tiny decision can make “all the difference” – perhaps good, perhaps bad – in your life
One road leads to another road, then another, then another. Frost would never again find himself at that particular intersection. His choice – left or right – led to future disparate decisions…but would never lead back to where he stood at that moment, to that particular decision.
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
In the long run, a simple fork in the road can fundamentally change your life. This is “chaos theory,” just like the apocryphal idea of a butterfly’s flight in South America changing the direction of a major hurricane over the Atlantic. Small changes in input can cause massive shifts in output.
Time only moves in one direction. There are no counterfactuals in life…“if I had done this instead of that, I’d be here instead of there.” You can pretend you know what would have happened, but you can’t be certain. Nevertheless, we dwell on opportunities missed. “If I had gone to that party, I would have met Margot Robbie!”.
But we never consider (or even begin to think about) disasters we’ve averted. “If I had gone to that party, a distracted driver would have t-boned my car at the stoplight and broken my leg.”
Think about it. When was the last time you considered that a few mundane choices in your past have probably saved your life by avoiding a fatal accident? You might scoff. It’s certainly a train-of-thought less traveled.
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
Time for the second path of today’s article.
The FIRE, or financial independence retire early, movement strikes me as a Frostian bargain [ yes – I know 🙂 ].
The basics of FIRE are straightforward. If you earn more and spend less, you can become financially independent (no longer tied to, for example, your employer’s mandates) and can retire much earlier than traditional Western retirement dates.
FIRE folks generally take Frost’s path – the one less traveled. They eschew the common “9-to-5 for 40 years” career by striving for higher incomes, more investing, and less spending. That combination “makes all the difference.”
But, like those who misread Frost’s poem, the FIRE movement occasionally conflates “different” with “better.” They are not the same thing! Below are five stories from the Financial Independence sub-Reddit forum. Can you spot the common thread?
- I retired early at 36, it’s been two years and I’m feeling lost
- Your FIRE obsession may be a symptom of stress
- I FIRE’d at 30 and now I’m lost, depressed and don’t know what to do
- Living in the future, or why FIRE won’t make you happy…
- Is the pursuit of FIRE just a temporary distraction from unhappiness?
Jesse’s note: Yes – I cherry-picked these stories! There are also many stories of great FIRE success. The road less traveled, after all, can make all the difference in both directions.
FIRE is a road less traveled. But it’s not always a better road.
My personal story is another example. FIRE was a big part of my initial interest in personal finance and investing. And that interest led to the creation of The Best Interest. That’s huge!
I was “full steam ahead” on the FIRE path in my old engineering career, on the fastest path to FIRE as I could muster. Rice and beans, coffee at home, and brown bag lunches for the win.
But like the stories linked above, something wasn’t quite right. I’m on a better path, right? Why doesn’t it feel better? For years, I couldn’t put my finger on the problem. Coincidentally, the work I’m doing here on The Best Interest helped me discover my issue.
Simply put, I didn’t enjoy the day-to-day work of my engineering career. Rather than running towards early retirement, I was using FIRE to run away from an unfulfilling job. The mind rebels, I discovered, when you force it to be passionate about escapism.
But I did love the work of writing, podcasting, and helping my readers achieve their financial goals. I wasn’t looking to escape route from it. If anything, I wanted more work time, writing time, and helping time. And now that I’ve been working full-time in wealth management for a year, I’m no longer focused on reaching FIRE. I love what I do.
Sure, I’m still maintaining a budget and investing my money wisely. But I’ve separated “FI” from “RE.” Financial independence is something we all want. But I’m no longer racing to an early retirement.
Instead, I’m on the slow FI path now. I’m saving less and spending more. I’m enjoying the present, rather than wishing it away, rather than straining towards a supposedly-better future. And that makes me an outlier. Compared to other finance bloggers and FIRE heroes and spreadsheet nerds, I’m on the road less taken.
But for me, it’s making all the difference.
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