Why I quit my job and flat without much of a plan on what to do next
Trigger warning: If you don’t want to hear thoughts about life and early retirement by a rich and healthy white guy, you should stop reading now.
Well, the short answer is because I can… The long answer is I have no idea what I’m doing with my life and I’m writing this post to justify my decisions to myself :)
Let’s start with the facts: For the past seven years I’ve lived in London and had a great job as a software engineer at Google. I’ve now started living a digital nomad lifestyle, meaning I no longer have a flat and just travel around the world full time, aiming to stay in each place for a month or so. I haven’t really worked out what I’ll do with all my time from now on, but I’m sure I’ll come up with something interesting and luckily I’m very privileged to have employable skills and a good amount of savings (more on the financial aspects of this later).
However, when it comes to life decisions, I think that questions like “Should I quit my job?” are really secondary. If you only worry about what to do with your life, you’ll be very biased by your current situation and likely fall for the sunk cost fallacy. Similar to running a successful business or leading any sort of change, you should first focus on the why. What’s the purpose of your life? What’s your mission? What are your values? Being clear on those will help you to come up with a vision of what you want your life to look like as well as a strategy for how to get there.
Some Philosophy First
The meaning of life is obviously a very personal question that will depend a lot on your beliefs about the world, religious or otherwise. Personally, I’d describe myself as an optimistic nihilist: I don’t think there’s any higher meaning to life (or to anything we do really). I believe that we’ll all die sooner or later and that there’s nothing after that. You can try to make sure that other people will remember you after your death, but I don’t think it makes a big difference either: sooner or later everyone will forget about you, even if it takes until all your grandchildren, humanity, the planet, or even the entire universe will come to an end.
While I found this thought very depressing at first, it’s also very liberating: if nothing really matters, you can choose your own purpose and your own morals and there’s no reason to feel shame if they differ from what society tells you to do. Of course, other people get to do the same, so your actions still have consequences, but basically you’ve got a free spin at the game of life, which has a sheer endless number of amazing things to explore and amazing people to meet. You only get one life though, so make good use of it :)
Starting with those beliefs, I think the only logical mission for my life is to maximize my own happiness. You’ll probably say that this is very egoistical, but I’d argue that people only act altruistically because acting that way makes them happier, even if indirectly or subconsciously (see psychological egoism for that debate). Either way, I do believe that being compassionate and caring about other people is actually one of the best ways to maximize your long-term happiness, as opposed to just chasing short-term pleasures for immediate gratification.
Happiness is an overloaded term, so before we talk more about how to maximize happiness, we should be clear about what I actually mean by it. What I’m talking about is a subjective measure of life satisfaction. This paper defines it as the overall appreciation of one’s life as-a-whole, although I guess the exact definition doesn’t matter too much for my purposes. Without getting into the neuroscience of happiness, it’s basically just how much appreciation your brain has for its overall state :)
It seems clear to me that any external factors (including money, status, relationships etc.) can influence that appreciation, but at the end of day, happiness is purely an internal state that doesn’t require any of those external things. In fact, there is a lot of research that suggests our brain synthesizes happiness and always goes back to the same baseline happiness. This paper studied the effect of major life events on happiness, including marriage, promotions, childbirth, money gains (e.g. lottery wins) as well as negative ones like death of a loved one, getting fired, or suffering serious injury or disability. For all of them, the average self-reported happiness saw a spike for a few months or a year, but then went back to the pre-event happiness level. So none of these supposedly life-changing events actually influence your long-term happiness!
This certainly matches my personal experience. While it was pretty cool to land my dream job at Google at first, it really didn’t take long until I got used to all the perks and started complaining when there was no free ice cream in the freezer :) Similar story with promotions, raises, falling in love, break-ups, getting a nicer flat and so on… These events have influenced my happiness short-term, but I wouldn’t say they’ve had a lasting impact on my happiness levels. I fully expect the same to happen with the life changes I do right now. Becoming a digital nomad will (hopefully) be fun for a bit, but I don’t expect it to actually make me happier long-term.
While I’ve concluded for myself that more or less everything is absolutely fine and most external events only influence your happiness temporarily, I do think you can work on your internal appreciation for life in order to increase your baseline happiness. Being grateful and compassionate and living in the moment are all skills that correlate with higher self-reported happiness and can be trained. I’m certainly not an expert on any of these, but I found my own experience with mindfulness practice indeed life changing and there seems to be more scientific evidence for its benefits coming out every day.
Even if it doesn’t matter too much what I do with my life as long as I appreciate it, I still need to do something with my life :) I guess the social norm would be to keep climbing the career ladder at Google, buy a house (or at least have a permanent place to live…), start a long-term monogamous relationship, get married, have kids and so on… Fuck social norms! I don’t feel like doing any of those things. Part of me is giving in to the narrative that I have commitment issues, but really they are only issues if you’re failing to stick to something that you want to commit to in the first place. While I keep all my options open for the future, I don’t want to commit to those things at the moment and, as outlined above, I don’t think they are required to be happy.
Surely having nearly no commitments and a huge amount of freedom in my life will make me happier? Well… The paradox of choice says that too much choice can actually make people less happy. Too much choice tends to create more self-doubt about past decisions and it also allows us to plan our future more, which often increases our expectations. Increased expectations about the future mean we will be disappointed more often and pleasantly surprised less often. This Ex-Googler did it right and just let algorithms randomize his life for two years. While he certainly took it to the extreme, it is a great way to get out of your comfort zone and experience new things, so I’m intrigued to try out randomization for some aspects of my life (I certainly spend way too much time on deciding where to eat or what to watch).
Following everything I said about happiness above, it seems to me that I shouldn’t worry so much about planning my life and focus more on living in the moment. In tech, a lot of planning has long been replaced with a “launch and iterate” mindset, so what if I just live and iterate my life? Plan enough to make sure I don’t risk my future happiness (e.g. ensure I have enough money to meet my basic needs), but otherwise just do whatever I feel like in that moment / that day / that month. I can always iterate and make changes to my life as I go along (especially as I’m privileged enough to just get a flat and full time job again if I want to).
Stanford’s life design class takes proven best practices from other design disciplines and applies them to designing your life. As with all complex problems, creating prototypes (a.k.a. safe-to-fail experiments) is incredibly helpful for validating hypotheses. So when I was contemplating quitting my job last summer (mostly because I simply felt it was time for something new), I decided to first take a three month unpaid leave without really making any plans for that time. I did end up traveling through Europe most of that time, although even that travel was barely planned: I remember at one point sitting in a taxi to the train station with my friend and discussing which country to travel to that day… I’ve certainly learned a lot of valuable things from this “prototype”:
- I read about the digital nomad lifestyle for the first time. I only discovered it one night on Mykonos after too many cocktails, when I realized that renting AirBnBs for a full month could be super cheap. I was only working remotely due to covid anyways, so why always work from London? A few Google searches later I had come across the digital nomad community.
- I now have a lot less anxiety about booking flights and accommodation on short notice. There are often still great last minute deals and if you don’t have to be back in the office on Monday, you can be a lot more flexible in your travel plans.
- I learned that only travelling is also boring. I solved way too many sudokus in that time and should have started a side project. (Google’s restrictive policies around open source & similar projects certainly didn’t help, although really I was just procrastinating on learning for the life in the UK test at that time.) This study suggests that working 8 hours a week has a positive effect on well-being compared to not working at all, but that working more than that has no additional benefit on well-being.
For the iterate part of my live and iterate lifestyle it’s important to create habits that actually help me maximize my happiness, such as regularly taking a step back to think about these things. As a stereotypical (Ex-)Googler, I’m of course eager to make data driven decisions for improving my happiness. For the last two years I’ve used an app called Daylio to track my mood each day as well as which activities I performed that day (e.g. working, exercising, socializing with friends, drinking alcohol, travelling, having sex). Even though this daily mood tracking isn’t quite the same as tracking long-term happiness and correlation doesn’t imply causation, the stats are still very interesting and I could probably write a whole post about them. Relevant to this post is probably that the average mood on days on which I was travelling was +13% higher than on days at home in the last year. Meanwhile, work had a -6% influence on my mood, whereas it had a slightly positive influence in the previous year. These numbers are quite significant differences, given that the standard deviation is quite low because I rated over 60% of my days as “good” (4 out of 5). Would love to also give you the confidence intervals, but the app just says “high confidence” :)
I should also note that the lifestyle change I’m doing now is neither the first nor the last instance of “iterating” on how I live my life. Until a couple of years ago I had never really thought about any of these things and just followed the “default goals” of the western world, like proceeding in your career, making money, getting married, having kids etc. When those no longer provided enough meaning to my life and I felt a bit empty inside, I ended up crafting all sorts of bucket lists and goals. That was very helpful in giving me more motivation to get out of my comfort zone and try out a lot of new experiences. However, I think I took that a bit too far. At one point I was even tracking monthly OKRs for myself and was setting goals for the sake of setting goals, rather than thinking about why I was doing it first and setting goals that actually led to a happier life.
Alright, some of you might be thinking that everything so far was bullshit and it’s actually just about being rich enough to live a lifestyle where you can do whatever you want… I’ll certainly agree that having a six figure salary and being able to save a lot of money makes this whole lifestyle a hundred times easier. However, I do want to note that there are plenty of digital nomads (or people traveling the world in a van) who aren’t software engineers with six figure salaries and that there are plenty of ways to make money remotely while travelling.
Furthermore, there are quite a few people on average salaries who manage to retire in their 40s or even in their 30s as part of the FIRE movement (Financial Independence, Retire Early). It’s all about your savings rate, so instead of increasing your income, lowering your living expenses is just as effective. The idea goes as follows: the stock market has returned approximately 10% per year over the last 100 years (certainly with a lot of volatility). Judging from historical stock market data, you can withdraw 4% of your initial portfolio value (adjusted for inflation) every year and you should never deplete your portfolio. Put another way, if your savings are 25 times your annual expenses (no matter what the absolute values are), you’re considered financially independent and never have to work again. Of course, your mileage might vary, you might want to adjust that number based on your retirement age or based on your expected tax rate (the UK has very generous allowances for pension, ISA and capital gains and I don’t expect to withdraw more than the basic tax band limit each year, so I tend to ignore taxes in my calculations). If you want to learn more about FIRE, I recommend reddit.
Personally, I’m still relatively far from that financial independence number as my savings are approximately 6.5 times my annual expenses (only 5 times if I exclude accounts that I can only access in 30 years). My plan so far was certainly to stay at Google until I reach the FIRE number, which would probably be in 10 years (depending on a lot of different factors like stock market performance). So why give up on a pretty safe plan for being able to retire in my early 40s? Here are a few realizations I’ve had recently:
- Prototyping early retirement: What would I actually do if I no longer had to work? Would I still work just for fun? How much money would I spend? Actually trying out early retirement for a year to be able to have better answers to these questions is probably wiser than working towards a goal for 10 years just to realize my assumptions were wrong all along.
- Saving money by travelling: Renting in London is very expensive and I always kept paying rent even when I was away on vacation. It’s probably more obvious to most people than it was to me, but by giving up my flat in London and travelling full-time, I can actually save money. Furthermore, by travelling slowly and staying in places for at least a month, you can find much better deals for accommodation than as a tourist. I also expect to save money on flights by only needing one way tickets and by being more flexible with dates.
- Lifestyle creep: While I’m in a very fortunate situation where my net income has gradually increased fivefold over the 8 years of my career (thanks Google!), my expenses also increased fivefold! That’s not even counting charitable donations. I do think it’s reasonable that my expenses grew 100–200% when I moved to London from Berlin, where I still lived in the same flat I lived in as a student. However, I think the rest of my increase in expenses was really just lifestyle creep and didn’t actually increase my happiness. The upside to that is this: if I can cut my expenses in half now, which should be fairly easy if I spend less time in expensive places like London and buy less stuff, then my FIRE number suddenly jumps to 13! Furthermore, if I manage to reduce my living expenses all the way to 25%, which certainly sounds doable by spending more time in nice and cheap places like Bali, Thailand, Turkey or Mexico, then I’ve already hit financial independence and never have to work again! *mind blown* Of course, if I ever decide to buy a house in London or have kids, that calculation falls apart…
- Income during early retirement: When I no longer have to work for money, I’m certainly not going to spend my entire life lying on the beach or in front of the TV. Before I started working, I was already building software just for fun, so chances are I will still do that after I “retire”. It’s certainly not unlikely that I’ll actually generate income from a project I just started for fun, or at least I should be able to earn some money by doing things I love. This is another argument for trying out the “retired” lifestyle now instead of saving for it.
- Working part time: Instead of continuing to work for ~10 years to hit financial independence, what if I only covered my living expenses from now on and left my savings untouched? Assuming the stock market keeps doubling roughly every decade (or cryptocurrencies become mainstream…), I’ll hit financial independence in ~20 years. At my current hourly rate and expenses, I’d only have to work two days a week until then. If I managed to reduce my living expenses as described above, it might be as little as a few hours a week. This is also more tax efficient, as earning less income per year results in a lower income tax rate.
Given all those reasons, I think I can already afford a “semi-retirement”. I will try to cut my living expenses at least in half, but otherwise just do whatever I feel like and not worry too much about generating income, at least for the next year or so.
I’m incredibly grateful for being in such a fortunate and privileged situation (mostly due to luck to be honest). As mentioned earlier, I do think that giving back and helping the less fortunate (or rather empowering them to help themselves) is a great way to also increase your own happiness. While I probably won’t be able to give as much to charities going forward (the 5–10% of my net income that I usually donate will be a lot less in absolute terms), I do hope to spend some of my newfound time on volunteering or other projects that have a more direct impact on making the world a better place :)
What do you think?
Apologies for the long post! If you read all the way until the end, I hope you actually found it interesting. Even better if it got you thinking about some of the things I mentioned! Of course, I’m not an expert on any of this, so I’m always open to having my mind changed and would love to hear your thoughts! Just comment below or eMail me!
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