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Lessons Learned From 4 Years Outside the Maze

Life’s been a real mixture of things for today’s poster.

He reached financial independence and retired four years ago, and then got dealt a tough hand from a health perspective.

Meanwhile, his wife left a start-up she was closely involved in building.

Lots going on, right?

We’ll step aside and let Life Outside The Maze tell you more.

 

 

Ducks take off along the surface and a couple of does walk lazily down the South Platte river. The morning sun is shining and I am a little lightheaded after just pulling 5 vials of blood. However, I leave the hospital excited for a long run. Looking at the day-glow-yellow trees reminds me that it has been four years this month since I extracted myself from the startup that I was at and left traditional work.

Oh man, this couldn’t be more fitting. I just left my 6-month post treatment follow-up blood draw. As I run these trails around ponds and past the Breckenridge Brewery, machines in a lab will whir and eventually the blood markers will confirm that I remain cancer-free six months after chemo. It has been a hell of a year! I am truly elated to be here. I spontaneously decide to write this post in my head as I jog along. Today couldn’t be a more perfect fit.

 

The Worst Year…

I started off year 4 last October thinking about relationships and mission quite a bit. How can I make both a bigger priority in my life? As I carefully stacked these dominoes and considered the pretty design that I could build, suddenly a big snarling dog busted in and tore up the room slobbering all over everything. Oh well, all you can do is laugh…but not really. I found out in early December 2021 that I had testicular cancer. By mid-December, I had been through surgery and found out that it had metastasized into my abdomen as well.

Rather than focusing on optimizing my relationships and considering lofty coffee-sipping ideas like “mission,” I had to quickly become a cancer expert and navigate the perverse payer and provider carny shell game that we call the US healthcare system like my life depended on it… it did. Soon I would become something of a zombie for a couple of months. Later I would come out of the other end of chemotherapy as a “cancer survivor.” It still overwhelms me to use that phrase out loud. Maybe it is a mixture of emotion and some fear of tempting the fates by claiming victory.

 

…Turns Into The Most Manic Year

 

When I finished chemo, I couldn’t walk a city block without wheezing from exhaustion. I also found out that I had gained weight while eating to stave off nausea and my liver enzyme levels had spiked to levels that indicated early-stage liver failure right after treatment. I was told that I either have chemo-induced hepatotoxicity or else early-stage fatty liver disease. A funny thing happens when you just went through the possibility of losing all of your health. You start to care about it immensely. So I stepped away from drinking any alcohol and I decided to be like Forest Gump:

“I just felt like running”

Forest Gump

At first, after treatment I could hardly walk around the block let alone run:

I ate as healthily as I could. I gave up herbal teas and started drinking coffee. I tried to trim out fat and sugar. I ran along the Kona coast and down beaches on Kauai.

running along Hanalei Bay beach

I ran right through a march to end gun violence and also along the pride parade route while in Washington DC trying to show my kids something about freedom and the American ideal.

After losing about 20 pounds post-chemo, my enzyme levels fell more than the 2022 stock market. Within 3 months, I was back to normal ranges on everything! Looks like it was the chemo after all. My liver started to work again and I even got the green light from my hepatologist to celebrate with a drink or two. So I ran through the hills of Napa and Sonoma:

I even jogged along the Bridger range in Montana (bear spray in hand):

All the way back to the Red Rocks of Colorado

This brings me to this morning as I run about 6 miles down the South Platte trail. Everyone smiles at me as I pass and I wonder why until I realize that I am grinning like a fool most of the way. Look at that I even have hair again:

Today

 

Reasons To Celebrate

Just as I wound down treatment and my boys wound down school, my lady left her job and shifted into an advisory role. She had been working post-financial independence for reasons beyond money. However, after six years of hard work toward a mission she believes in, the startup has really grown. In fact, if it exits someday, our finances could dramatically change. She worked hard to set up her organization for continued success prior to this transition while also stepping up during my treatments. She went through cancer as well while basically holding the family together and being the only functioning parent. She was ready for a much-deserved break. So there we were, both not working, realizing a moment of her leaving her job and me also being cancer-free (knock on wood). Let’s celebrate! We did in the most ludicrous  fashion that I could imagine.

We went to Hawaii and saw lava erupt from Kilauea. We jumped off of waterfalls, explored little-known lava tubes, kayaked, and floated along perhaps the most beautiful coastline in the world (the Napoli coast):

We went to the Whitehouse and stared at the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution from just inches away. I read MLK’s typewritten “I have a dream” speech and toured the monuments.

I caught fish with good friends and family and I got off the grid

“Live in the sunshine, swim the sea, drink the wild air… It is not the length of life, but the depth.”

-Ralph Waldo Emerson…via TM shirt 😉

We went to wine country and did it up huge. We even hit up what may be the best restaurant in the world which I will write about soon. I wore ridiculous clothes, learned about wine even though I am more into beer, and stayed in a chateau complete with a private pool.

I thought the wine trip would be more for my lady, a celebration of all of her hard work and a few days to declare a mini victory of sorts. However, I may have had just as much fun as her or even more. I also may have snuck away from vineyards to hit up Russian River Brewery as long as I was in the neighborhood:

This was all straight-up joyful and fun. A weird and manic year where the worst winter and spring were followed by maybe the best summer. While the summer was a great celebration, it wasn’t jam-packed with growth or learning. So what did I actually learn from the year?

 

All and Nothing

You can have it all and have nothing. After 3 years away from traditional work, our net worth had reached more than double what it was when I left my job and claimed financial independence! A combination of a 65% gain in the stock market over those 3 years, a huge appreciation in housing while I ran rent-generating rental properties, and continued income from my lady working along with some tiny income from my funemployment as would-be college professor.

Coming into last December, my lady had been talking more about perhaps leaving her job to focus on some other things for a while. The world seemed to be our oyster. We would have some time together living parallel lifestyles instead of living different ones. All the possibilities. Then everything shifted. The early days of my diagnosis were especially hard. Everything was put into jeopardy in the early stage of ambiguity of my prospects. Did my lady make a poor trade on her time if the cancer proved to be more advanced and we had little time left together? Had I been focusing on the right things?

I wrote about what a great comfort and safety blanket financial independence was for me in this time. While you just saw some glorious pics of our celebrations from the summer, they are not the most impactful. They are not what I am happiest to have back.

 

The Most Glorious Things in my 4th Year

 

A serious health problem is a challenge to your philosophy. I feel like mine held up. The most important things to me coming through this are time and health to spend with family and friends. What you don’t see in the pictures above is that they were with me for every one of my experiences this year. My lady, my kids, my family, and my friends. Some of my greatest times of the year have been the laid-back morning discussions I have had with my lady over coffee. When I finished chemo, it was awesome and ludicrous to live it up in California wine country but what I hold more dear was being able to be there for my little brother’s 40th birthday. The look on his face when I surprised him and caught a hockey game with my siblings. And of course just health. Hearing, eating, and tasting, brain working, body working. A reminder that life is a miracle truly a statistical one in the universe and a fragile one just a blink through time.

 

Lessons From Cancer

 

I am still learning and processing these lessons but I can tell you that the things that we worry about mean nothing and the things we take for granted mean everything. I have learned that PTSD is not really a D at all and it’s not just for soldiers or victims of intense violence. We are all the cumulative experiences of large or small traumas that we carry whether we know it or not. I have things to process. Maybe we all do.

I have also learned that security is of course an illusion. My cancer could come back. But I could also get hit by a car or get jumped by a mountain lion on the trail. Whether it is financial fears or health fears, I must live life in this uncertainty precisely because it is precious and uncertain.

 

What I Learned About Money After Four Years Outside The Maze

I mentioned above how our financial position has strengthened over the last four years. While this is faster than average, it is not exceptional to have more money over time after reaching financial independence (FI). It is important to remember that while I planned conservatively using things like the 4% Rule, the median value of a 50/50 stock and bond portfolio after 30 years of living off of the 4% rule is about triple its initial value. In addition, all of the habits, skills, relationships, and systems that you have set up to get to financial independence do not just stop once you hit a number. They keep yielding value and keep compounding. This is not a plea to just recklessly claim FI before you have hit your number, especially in this volatile stock market time with a historically high CAPE ratio and inflation challenges (as I write this in October 2022). However, my learning is that wealth is easier to accumulate as the returns on your existing wealth, knowledge, relationships, and habits continue to compound. My message is to get compounding now! Small gains become huge over time.

 

Changing My Money Mindsets

To some degree, money is of course a tool and a requirement of modern life. I think that many also believe that money is the barrier to so many aspects of their “better life.” As I look back over the last 4 years away from traditional work, it is not spending big dollars, but rather the reduction of noise in my life, more time availability, and more commitment to other things that have allowed me to do most of the things, pursue most of the personal growth, and pursue most of the adventures that I have. While this has certainly been empowered by money indirectly through reducing my financial worry and freeing up my eight-to-five, it usually has not required a great deal of spending. This summer was a bit different.

I recognize that this summer was one of some particularly extravagant adventures. Perhaps the very kind of things that motivated me early on the road to building my financial independence. I likely would not have done these things the same way 10 years ago while saving toward FI. Maybe they were appropriate for us this year? They were certainly within our means. Paradoxically, the habits that got us to FI may be different than what serves us going forward. The focus areas for claiming FI and recognizing that newfound position may be different than those post-FI when preparing for a later stage of life of purpose, identity, or connection. Hopefully, one that lasts ’til I am 100 😉

It is fascinating how my money mindset has changed over the different stages of FI (saving to get there, realizing my financial independence, and post-financial independence) and I plan to write more on this topic soon.

 

We Are The Story We Tell Ourselves

Earlier this year, I got some advice from a friend, Carl Fismer, with whom I dove for treasure a while back. He told me to make sure that all of my doctors know that I am going to beat this cancer. The stories we tell ourselves matter. Carl, now in his 80’s has beaten multiple primary cancers in his life.

I could tell myself that I am extremely unlucky to have gotten this cancer (about 1/15,000 per year in the USA), or I could tell myself that I am extremely lucky to be a cancer survivor. I could tell myself that I am healthy now, or I could tell myself that I am unhealthy and cancer could return at any moment. I could tell myself that bad things are temporary but generally, I make good things happen. I make good decisions. I am honest and I do right by people. I work hard and I always deliver. I am a renaissance man. I can do anything that I want as long as I am willing to put in the effort. I am a good friend and business partner. These are in fact the stories that I do tell myself. These stories that we tell ourselves have a huge impact on our outlook and values which in turn drive every decision and action day to day. This in turn can set one’s trajectory through life. We become the stories that we tell ourselves.

 

Looking Forward To Year 5 Outside The Maze

As I make my way toward a bridge, I pass the same 2 deer along the river:

I am almost back to my car and I suppose I am winding down this 4th year summary as well. You haven’t heard from me much this year compared to last. Part of that is because I had more pressing concerns. However, part of it is also by design and was one of my goals coming out of last year’s reflection. I plan to continue to write when I feel that I have something useful or interesting to say. At the same time, all of us have better things to do than put out and/or consume endless online content for the sake of influence or attention. Inspiration and insight are good and I hope this update provides some and finds you making progress. However, we would all do well to kill the masters on the path. Be well and let me close by again thanking all of you who reached out over the last year when I needed it most. I continue to believe that we could use more kindness these days 🙂

I’d love to hear your learnings or insights over the last year if you feel like sharing in the comments below.

If you’re interested in financial independence, happiness, successful habits, and adventure, consider subscribing below to get an occasional email directly from me with a few thoughts and latest articles.



 

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4 thoughts on “Lessons Learned From 4 Years Outside the Maze”

  1. Subscribe to get more great content like this, an awesome spreadsheet, and more!
  2. Your story of last year hit home with me. I wish I had read this in May of 2022 when I was given a diagnosis of stage 3c melanoma. Most of your positive thoughts are gold nuggets that apply to me and those that have a ‘diagnosis’ that bodes bad outcomes. I was finishing my fourth year in retirement, which was clouded by Covid. The mental blow of the ‘diagnosis’ pushed me into a very negative state for six weeks. Pity party for one! As you point out time is the valuable commodity that cannot be retrieved and at some point in the summer I realized that. Fortunately, I have a wonderful wife, who put up with my initial reaction and encouraged me to survive. Now nine months into immunotherapy I have returned to most of my good habits!
    Thanks for your story best wishes for a long life (healthy life).

    Reply
  3. Your story of last year hit home with me. I wish I had read this in May of 2022 when I was given a diagnosis of stage 3c melanoma. Most of your positive thoughts are gold nuggets that apply to me and those that have a ‘diagnosis’ that bodes bad outcomes. I was finishing my fourth year in retirement, which was clouded by Covid. The mental blow of the ‘diagnosis’ pushed me into a very negative state for six weeks. Pity party for one! As you point out time is the valuable commodity that cannot be retrieved and at some point in the summer I realized that. Fortunately, I have a wonderful wife, who put up with my initial reaction and encouraged me to survive. Now nine months into immunotherapy I have returned to most of my good habits!
    Thanks for your story best wishes for a long life (healthy life).

    Reply
    • Oh wow Pat, thanks for your comment. I remember during my treatment asking one of the nurses how I would know when the treatment was successful. She kind of gave a vague answer. Then later when things were looking good I asked when I would know if it worked and I got another vague answer. Over time I started to shift my thinking that these nurses were not being vague on purpose, I just wasn’t getting it. They live in this world every day with patients of all kinds of prognoses rather than certainty and absolutes. For some, the treatment “working” means cancer going away, for others it means more time, and for some even a few really clear days of quality time are a huge blessing. I wish you strength and perseverance Pat. Easier said than done for sure but I’m thinking of you. 💪

      Reply

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