Confessions From a Physician Who Failed Early Retirement
Dr. Segan is an expert on insurance and asset protection, having written on the topics in numerous guest posts at The White Coat Investor. I am honored that he asked to share a story that fit best on this site — the story of the failed early retiree.
Let’s hear it, Dr. Segan, Esquire.
I Tried to Retire Early
Financial independence is an admirable goal for every physician. I believe that financially secure doctors make better clinicians. Medicine is stressful enough without wondering how you are going to pay for your routine expenses. So, I applaud and enjoy the practical and thoughtful financial advice to be found in the FIRE blog.
I asked the FIRE blogger to let me write this guest post because I respectfully take issue with the underlying theme in the FIRE blog: that early retirement from medicine is an admirable goal that many of our colleagues in the house of medicine should now strive for.
A few years ago, I entered the “Promised Land’ of retirement at the age of 59. I thought it would be all wine and roses. [PoF: I’m more of a guns ‘n roses guy, myself.]
I had many of the same goals for retirement that the FIRE blogger has written about. However, rather than finding retirement serenity, in a short period of time I was totally disgusted and demoralized with being a member of the retirement class.
Something Was Missing
For decades I had drunk the Kool aid about early retirement. I thought that spending more time with family and friends, reading books that I loved, and going to the gym and traveling whenever I was so inclined would be amazing. That going to the movies, attending erudite lectures, and doing a little medical legal consulting would lead to a great life.
I did all those things in retirement and more but I soon felt that something essential was missing from my life. The reality of the negative aspects of retirement began to sink in.
I missed the structure to my calendar that one has when you have a job. I missed the intense human need of belonging to a team that has a difficult mission to accomplish that gave me such joy when I had worked as an ED doc.
I became very quiet when others would talk about the joys and sorrows that they had during their work day. I was grateful and relieved to not have the stress that working in the ED entails but I discovered that a huge part of my life was missing when I stopped working.
White Space. Dreaded White Space
The most disconcerting aspect of retirement for me was looking a few months into the future and seeing a calendar with nothing on it but white empty space.
It seemed to fit the emptiness I was starting to feel as the novelty of not working wore off. All that empty space in my calendar made me feel that I must not be very important. The absence of a work routine made me feel like I was floundering. I would actually tell friends that I was a “flounder” and that I had “free time panic.”
The more free time I had in my days the longer it took me to accomplish anything. I used to pride myself on being efficient and productive (for example, years earlier I attended law school while also working the night shift in the ED).
In retirement I was accomplishing in a week what I used to get done in a day. [PoF: This is known as Parkinson’s Law: a task will consume the time allotted to it]
And I knew that the rest of my peers, all of whom did not have a free moment in their lives, thought I was nuts to be whining about having too much unstructured time. I discovered in retirement that I missed the framework for the week that scheduled work provided for me.
Before retirement, I did not realize that my sanity and self esteem and need to belong to a team (that is baked into our DNA) were all so dependent on my having a job.
However, rather than finding retirement serenity, in a short period of time I was totally disgusted and demoralized with being a member of the retirement class.
A Reward for No Job Well Done?
I have always connected the treats in life (a vacation, a nice meal, a day being a tourist in NYC) as a reward for a job well done. Without the job, the treats in life became harder for me to enjoy because I felt I had not earned them. If there is no work, why should I get a reward?
In short order, I went from feeling like I was a lucky early retiree to feeling like a discontented unemployed man.
“…rather than finding retirement serenity, in a short period of time I was totally disgusted and demoralized with being a member of the retirement class.”
It took about 18 months before I dug my way out of the retirement cesspool and I was able to rejoin the workforce (on a part time basis) and joined the faculty at a wonderful medical school. I understand that some doctors have to retire from medicine for medical reasons or because they hate practicing medicine but for the average doctor and for me, early retirement is to be avoided.
Here are my seven main reasons why physicians should not view early retirement as a worthy career goal:
Seven Reasons to Avoid Early Retirement
1. It is ethically questionable — Your behavior for about a decade in medical school and residency implied to others that you were in medicine for the long term. While you did not formally sign a contract to practice medicine for 30-40 years your behavior certainly implied that that was your plan.
If you were on the admissions committee of a med school would you admit someone who had this as a career goal – “I plan to work hard for 15 years after residency and live frugally and then get out of medicine as soon as I can afford to.” This student would be passed over for someone who was in it for an entire career.
All of your mentors, the donors to your medical school, the taxpayers in your state and even the folks who donated their bodies so that you could learn anatomy kept their end of the bargain: to help train you to be a good doctor. If they thought you were just in it to make a pile of cash and then get out ASAP they would have chosen someone else.
2. It is bad for our society — America needs talented doctors. There is very little professionalism left in America, but doctors who put patients first are badly needed. The country needs you to keep working. We should be extolling the virtues of those who do the hard work of taking care of others and not glorifying those who want to spend all day tending to their own needs and desires.
3. It will hurt your self esteem — There may be some towns where docs who retire at a relatively young age are held in high regard but that is not true in my suburbs of NYC. During my failed trial of retirement I found it humiliating to tell people that I was retired.
Maybe I should not care what others think but when I told friends and relatives that I was retired it felt that I was telling them that I was no longer contributing to the welfare of our community.
I suspect that certain gender stereotypes and local factors will vary the impact that retirement will have on your self-image, but for me it was not salutary. I was very uncomfortable telling people “ I am retired.” Now I tell them that I am teaching at a nearby med school and I have a genuine huge smile on my face and pride in my soul.
4. It may be bad for your health — It is tough to do high quality double blind studies on the subject of retirement but some researchers believe retirement is linked with long term adverse health effects. It is easy to see how retirement can lead to loneliness and depression. Not having a job to go to can also lead to immobility and inactivity and all the associated medical maladies that occurs with being less active.
5. Ignore Sigmund Freud at your own peril — To paraphrase Dr. Freud “Love and work…Work and love, that’s all there is.” Plenty of bright folks concur with Freud that one’s ability to love and work is deeply connected to one’s degree of happiness and satisfaction in life. So, please don’t be too quick to give up your life’s work and not expect there to be some risks.
6. You will miss the paycheck — It is nice to have a big enough nest egg that you could retire if you have to. It is a great reduction in a physician’s stress level to have a nest egg and be to be financially independent. But, regardless of how big that nest egg is, a paycheck is always sweet. Taking money out of your nest egg for your usual expenses just won’t feel as good as hearing the sound of your paycheck being deposited into your account every couple of weeks.
7. Work is good for your brain — If you concur that the brain is like a muscle that needs exercise, then few things are as good for your brain as practicing medicine. Trying to keep up on the changes in your field and attending conferences will give your more mental stimulation than watching Jeopardy reruns in bed.
I applaud the FIRE Blogger for helping physicians become financially independent. However, I am not on board with the idea that docs should aim for an early retirement. Please don’t make the mistake that I made with my trial of retirement. For most docs, early retirement will not be a land of carefree joy and contentment.
I was lucky that I found another rewarding career that is a perfect fit for me now. My medical students are brilliant and compassionate and they restore my faith in humanity. I pray that they will have long, fruitful careers and that they are not in a rush to quit medicine in 15 years.
I hope the FIRE blogger will help them to become financially secure. I ask the FIRE blogger to change the focus from the blog’s current extolling of an early escape from medicine, and instead find ways to help them have a long productive career in health care. We will all need good doctors to care for us one day. Hopefully, they have not all entered early retirement.
[PoF: I applaud Dr. Segan for sharing his thoughts with us, and I begrudgingly admit he does make some valid points. Truth be told, I don’t really want my colleagues to retire early en masse. Like JL Collins, I want doctors around to care for us. I just want our physicians to have options, and not to become 100% reliant on your physician income to live the life you want to live.
I could write a lengthy rebuttal, but this is not a pro / con piece. I have written some pre-emptive responses, though. Last year, I published the reasons I didn’t retire at 39 and the top things I’ll miss when I retire early.
Earlier this year, I had a guest post published at Financial Samurai entitled Rejecting Every Reason Not to Retire Early. In a post scheduled to be released in a couple months, Dr. Dahle and I respond to some of the common complains and perceptions (misperceptions?) of the aspiring early retiree.
I do agree with the good doctor and lawyer that financial independence is a loftier goal than early retirement. Personally, I prefer my days off over my workdays, but I’ve never strung hundreds of days off in a row. I don’t honestly know how that will go. Fortunately, I will have this blog, my young family, and a great big world to explore. I don’t envision having the same restlessness and unworthiness issues that Dr. Segan experienced, but only time will tell.]