I Retired at 31 … How About You?

Nadja Bester
Aug 9, 2017 · 6 min read

To be clear, I didn’t plan on retiring at 31. Certainly nothing in my upbringing suggested that such a thing was even possible.

Raised by a middle class single mother who worked the same administrative job for 20-odd years, I offset the example of this daily humdrum by visiting over the holidays a dad who held the national security of a multibillion corporation in the palm of his hand and was, naturally, a certifiable workaholic. Immigrant grandparents who had worked themselves from rags to riches and then didn't stop working until the very end, added another flavour to the mix.

The result was predictable: addicted to meaning making (I’m too third generation to work for 'the sake of’), I believed that overworking and underliving was what’d get me there. Years of playing entrepreneur working at businesses I created out of love but working at them too hard gave way to working for the man, following in Dad’s footsteps as I, too, stopped seeing the light of day, perched as I was in my designer-furnished ivory tower from dawn to well beyond dusk.

Thankfully, my body refused to put up with the years of professional abuse it had suffered, and my mind was exhausted enough to put its stubbornness aside and sit down to discuss a truce. Burnt out physically and emotionally, what I saw in front of me was a woman who had lost any smidgen of the meaning she had spent a lifetime chasing, and an 11yo boy she was leaving a workaholic-orphan in her wake. There wasn't enough global corporate digital marketing responsibility, TEDx conference organising, or nonprofit organisation building (all of which I was doing alongside parenting, household-running, committee-serving, and professional after self-enrichment after practitioner course I was enrolled in) to justify a WHY. So I stopped, like an addict. Cold turkey.

Years of collecting puzzle pieces came together and voila!, clicked, and I realised that retiring was not only advisable for the runaway train I was on, it was entirely doable.

3 months later, we were on a plane to paradise. Literally. Retirement in full swing, I was now able to pursue what most retirees do once they have the time and money for it: what they love. In my case, as someone who loves marketing consultation, this meant working on a digital nomad project on a privately owned island.

Retiring at 31 doesn’t mean that I no longer work. What it does is that I no longer work. Instead, I invest myself in my body of work, my overall contribution to the world I’m part of. Whatever that happens to be at the time. The focus of my body of work has changed. It’s no longer stringy titles offset by a larger-than-life mission to change the world and everything in it. It’s whatever takes my fancy.

Today I grab my cape and head out to to save the galaxy, tomorrow I might choose to stay home and read a book. Thus, I am no longer a marketing specialist. Instead, when the situation calls for it, I do marketing consultation. I am no longer anything other than a skills nomad whose goal is to do what makes me happy. Since my happiness consists of travelling, satisfying my many professional interests, and spending copious amounts of time with the growing young man I birthed, I’m living my dream life.

Being a (retired) skills nomad means that instead of having to choose who I am and what I do and then have that cast in stone, I embrace my identity as someone with varied interests, qualifications, and past experience. I trust that my skills set will make me money wherever in the world I may be (and it does). And, knowing that I'm 'retired', there's no reason for me to put up with something other than for the personal choice of it.

I didn’t set out to call this retirement. The realisation came to me one day as we sat having lunch in an ancient town over 500 years old, the building the restaurant is housed in having been owned by the family for nearly as long. An elderly British gentleman seated at the table next to ours commented on the broad extent of my son’s knowledge on Greek mythology, himself a keen interest due to having been in the publishing world. As one does, we were soon exchanging origin stories about how we came to end up on the spot.

He had retired - in the conventional sense of the word - at age 70 and although his wife was by now too sickly to travel with him, a lifetime of travelling for work made him promise that, one day, he'd travel for pleasure. Pity that he had to do it all by himself, but 3 weeks at a time before returning home to be present as husband was as much as he could hope for, and he was grateful for it.

I decided, right then and there, that not only was I retired, but by Jove I’d stay that way.

Since we first sailed off into the sunset a few months ago, I've:

  • formulated a marketing strategy for a digital nomad island resort destination,

There are days when I wake up and, full of fire, get to work and conquer the to-do list like I'm sitting on a bubbling volcano. Other days, my young travel partner and I hit the road and explore ancient temple ruins, lose ourselves in the seven wonders of the world, or take bad selfies at UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

As a skills nomad, I am no longer beholden to an idea of who I am or what preapproved pattern my life should follow. As a single mother, I am no longer 'hoping for the best' when it comes to my son's future. Instead, I get to witness him becoming a world citizen as he travels around it, pursuing his passions daily as I do mine, even to the extent of working on starting his own little business online..."because it's cool" and "I like entertaining myself."

I suspect he’ll never ‘retire’. He won’t need to. He’s already retired, and he’ll highly likely stay that way. Life doesn’t begin at 65. It begins the day we realise that when we build a life we don’t need to escape or retire from, the game changes.

The 18-4-43 method (18 years of school, 4 years of tertiary, and 43 years of hard work to ‘buy’ us our freedom at the ripe age of 65) is outdated. We need a new definition of retirement. The one we have is depressing at best.

I am not alone in the life choices I’ve made. A new model is being pursued by people and families the world over. There is an underground movement that is not (yet) televised, its members (skill nomads, digital nomads, remote workers) embracing a way of living they wish they’d first pursued years ago (I certainly do).

I retired at 31. Old enough to have wasted enough time to ensure from here on out I live life to the full, and young enough to go out there and do it. How old will you be when you retire?

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Like many retirees, I do a lot of fun stuff to keep me busy. Some people would call it “work”, but that model’s outdated. Keep up to date with my latest projects on https://www.linkedin.com/in/nadjabester/.

Nadja Bester

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Writer — Journalist — Comms specialist | Lover of all things environmental, blockchain, and crypto. Equal parts digital nomad & worldschool mom.