“Daddy, what does it feel like to die?”
I drew her in close and held her tightly. “My sweet child, I’m still trying to figure out what it feels like to live.” -Dr. Jordan Grumet, Hospice Physician
My friend Jordan, an extraordinarily successful internist who had annual income approaching seven figures in the prime of his career, challenges us to take a deeper look at our relationships with others, with ourselves, and with money.
In his book Taking Stock, newly released on August 2, 2022, he incorporates lessons from dying patients together with difficult lessons from his past to give us a next level way to approach life, financial independence, and even time.
I first connected with Jordan when he introduced himself in an email to me in 2017, letting me know that we’d be spending some time together at the 2018 version of Camp FI Midwest. [I’ll be back again this year: details here.]
We hit it off there on the shores of the St. Croix River, and since then, I’ve visited him in Illinois a few times, and we’ve gotten together back in Minnesota a time or two, as well.
Like me, he stumbled upon the concept of financial independence relatively early in his physician career and realized it was something he had already achieved. As he says in the book, “finances are the easy part. How you invest the rest of your time and energy is likely to determine your perspective in those waning days when you deal with a doctor like me.”
In his blog and podcasts, he prides himself on hosting next level conversations about life and money. There’s only so much one can say or do regarding safe withdrawal rates and index fund investing.
Sure, financial independence is great, and to retire early sounds like a dream to many, but what do you do with that money and time once you’ve achieved the goals you’ve set? And how do you live a life you won’t regret before you get there? And what if, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein as both Dr. Turner and Dr. Grumet do in their recent works, what if there is no there there?
Taking Stock was written to help you sort all of this out while looking beyond the spreadsheet to what’s most important in life.
A Book So Nice I’ve Read it Twice
A few months ago, I got my hands on a digital version of the book to read and a chance to provide a “blurb” that could be used in marketing materials. This is my take from that initial read:
The excellent double entendre that is Taking Stock asks us to evaluate the role that we allow money to play in our lives and in what ways it can and cannot contribute to our well-being.
Leaning on lessons learned from dying patients as a hospice physician, we are reminded of the myriad non-monetary factors that contribute to a life well-lived.
While Dr. Jordan Grumet’s book does outline the basics for achieving and enjoying financial independence, it also shows us, as his patients have, that our self-worth is much more than the sum of our investment accounts.
We would all benefit from taking stock of what we cherish most in life and aligning our actions to best serve those priorities. This book reminds us that there is no time like the present.
I picked up the book again yesterday, a paperback version now in my hands, to refamiliarize myself with the content and message. The timing is serendipitous for me, personally, and I’ll touch on why a bit later.
Regrets of the Dying
“I wish I had worked more,” said no dying patient, ever. Well, there may have been a few who said something similar, but that would be a rare exception to the norm. What do dying patients say they regret?
Dr. Grumet references the work of Australian palliative care nurse Bronnie Ware, who wrote The Top 5 Regrets of the Dying. They are:
1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.
These themes are evident in the myriad stories told by Dr. Grumet throughout the text. His patients’ regrets, if any, parallel those of their Australian counterparts. Money rarely plays a prominent role in these end-of-life evaluations. If anything, a wish that one had worked less hard is a regret that one placed too much focus on money earlier in life.
At the end of most of Taking Stock‘s eight chapters, we’re asked to set aside some time to do some self-reflection. Fill in some blanks, jot down our priorities, and take an honest look at the difference between our ideal lives and the ones we’re living.
Looking at the list of five above, I’d say I’m doing really well with number one. Others expected me to continue my role as an anesthesiologist for another 20 years, but I took an early exit at 43.
I do a pretty good job of staying in touch with friends, although I could always do better. In the next month or so, I’ll be taking two of my high school friends to Golden Gophers football games. Last year, I took my friend Jordan Grumet — that name should sound familiar — to a game against The Ohio State University. As a Gophers alum, I rooted for the Gophers, and as a Michigan alum, Jordan rooted against OSU. Alas, it was not meant to be, despite that halftime lead.
I feel good about avoiding regrets numbers one and four thus far.
I’ll give myself a passing grade on number three as well, but it’s maybe a C+ at best. Having this blog gives me an outlet to express my feelings, but I’m a stoic Scandinavian at heart.
Numbers two and five are where I continue to struggle.
I still work hard; I spent a full day and night yesterday reading and writing to get this review to you. It does make me happy to support my friends, and I’ve been consistent for years writing on this blog, but at times, I know I could be happier if I gave myself a break. I just haven’t given myself the permission to do so just yet.
Drawing on both his own experiences and that of his end-of-life patients, Jordan pokes holes in much of the conventional wisdom of the FIRE community. I hate to admit it, but he’s right more often than not, which means I’ve often been wrong.
It’s true that $10,000 spent in your twenties or thirties could have instead been invested, compounding to multiple six figures when you reach your sixties.
This fact is held up as a reason not to spend that money, but what amazing experience might you have missed that cannot possibly recreate four decades later? How much of a difference would a few hundred thousand dollars make in your sixties if you were already saving and investing tens of thousands of dollars annually by maxing out retirement accounts early in your career?
Sometimes it’s not so wrong to live and spend as if you only live once. It’s true, you know, that you only live once, and no one knows this better than those faced with their own mortality.
Dr. Grumet likes to say that you’re dying from the moment you’re born. I don’t like that phrasing, and I think that, from a practical standpoint, most people only spend seconds to months dying, and the rest of their lives living. The author redeems himself at the end with his closing thoughts. “We are living until the day we die. Live Well!”
What is work? What is retirement?
Rather than looking at adult life as having two distinct phases, we are encouraged to embrace the fact that there will be and should be extensive overlap.
It is unhealthy to postpone your hopes, dreams, and bucket list items to a time someday when you’re retired and have the time. That time may never come. “Time waits for no one,” as Jordan has learned.
Similarly, acknowledge the fact that you will always be engaged in some form of work on a daily basis. The nature of that work and who you’re doing it for may change when you no longer work for money, and that’s an exciting change to make. You can better position yourself to do work that gives you purpose and provides meaning in your life once you’re financially independent, but that’s not to say that paid work can’t give you the same perks if you choose your career wisely.
The most interesting chapter in Taking Stock is devoted to time. The patients Dr. Grumet now treats don’t have much of this precious commodity left.
For those of us not on death’s door (not knowingly, anyway), we have no idea how much time we’re going to get. Unlike money, time is not something we can go out and get more of. Time doesn’t compound; it ticks away.
To deal with this conundrum, Jordan says we can do two things to have some sense of control. We can choose how we use our time, and we can choose how we perceive time.
We can’t commoditize it, even though we talk about buying time, spending time, and saving time, but we can decide what we do with our time, and by understanding concepts like the Pareto Principle and Parkinson’s Law, we can better utilize the time we’re given.
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Jordan couldn’t have released this book at a better time for me.
As I take stock of where life has led me, I feel I’m in a good spot. I had a good run as an anesthesiologist, and by the time I felt ready to move on from that life, I had the financial means to do whatever I’d like in the next one.
I had already begun the transition to the life of a personal finance writer, having lived a double life for a few years as a doctor and anonymous blogger.
My anesthesia career made me financially independent nearly two times over, and this blogging business, when combining the revenue generated over the years and the current value of the business, has added a healthy cushion on top of that. The money part, which was the easy part for Jordan and also for me, has been sorted out.
There’s still no great answer for time, though, and as the father of an 11-year old and a 13-year old, I can assure you that time has been passing by very quickly, even after I turned in my pager for the last time a few years ago.
While I hope I’ll have another 46 years or more before I’d have a reason to meet with a hospice doctor in a professional capacity, I know that the years with my boys at home have dwindled down to the single digits. Our time to travel as a family before my older son starts in-person high school is now measured in months — 13, to be exact.
I’ve worked since early 2016 growing Physician on FIRE to reach as many people as I can, and I have no regrets about that. I’ve touched many lives and have received wonderful feedback. However, if I spend the next six and a half years doing the same until my kids are off on their own, I may look back and wonder why.
Fear not. I expect Physician on FIRE to be going strong for years to come. There is a great need for the education and inspiration that people have come here to find. I may personally take a step back, but there are thousands of others with stories, knowledge, and wisdom to share.
If I’m not here, I’ll be out there somewhere, like Jordan, still trying to figure out what it feels like to live.
Grab your copy of Taking Stock today and start preparing for your next level FIRE.