The FIRE Movement

Andrew Carnegie’s Cogs and the Path to FIRE

The FIRE movement, at its heart, is about blazing your own trail. Today’s writing will get this point across, and I’ll lead by example–we’re going to explore a bit. This article will be a winding road, but I hope you’ll trust me enough to guide you out to the other side. Grab your walking stick, and let’s set out.

We all know where the traditional life paths lead. It’s 40 years of 9-to-5 and working for the weekends. It’s using our 20s and 30s to bury ourselves in debt, only to use our 40s and 50s to dig ourselves out. And don’t forget about engaging in Cold Wars of one-upmanship with the neighbors and church group and PTA. Who does he think he is, driving a Tesla in this neighborhood?! This is what the Jones’ have done for generations.

The FIRE movement shirks those “traditions.” Vicki Robin—if she’s not an O.G. FIRE founder, I’m not sure who is—reminds us, “Money is something we trade our life energy for…The only real asset you have is time.” There’s an idea worth holding onto. The only real asset you have is time. We’ll come back to this idea. But first, a detour! Let’s go check out the steel mill…

Andrew Carnegie's Cogs and the Path to FIRE

Andrew Carnegie’s Cogs

Andrew Carnegie was an interesting guy. He was the richest man in the world, a titan of industry. He was the father of the American Steel industry—and therefore, a father of the modern world. And a Scottish immigrant to the U.S., I might add. But I want to focus on Andrew Carnegie’s philanthropy, for a moment. Carnegie gave away $65 billion (in today’s dollars) in his lifetime to various schools, libraries, peace organizations, museums, and scientific research. Amazing stuff. I can’t think of more worthy causes.

But Carnegie had other interesting traits. He was extremely anti-union, a strident laissez faire activist, and his writings clearly hinted that his philanthropy was far from unbiased. A major goal of Carnegie’s charity was to develop a better workforce. Carnegie believed that education and culture made for smarter, happier, and better workers. More peace meant fewer young men dying in war, and that meant more young men to work the factory floor. When you run a steel monopoly, what might you want? More and better workers, for a start.

Consider this

So, reader, I hope you’ll consider the following idea–although I understand if you dismiss it as conspiracy from a writer with too many quills and not enough ink. The idea is that many of the systems and structures in modern society were put in place to make you—yes, you—a better worker. A more reliable, more dedicated, more compliant worker. A healthier and happier worker, it’s true, but a worker nonetheless. Carnegie’s world needed more cogs, so he helped create a system to produce those cogs. The “traditional path”9 to 5s, work for the weekends, etc—is the Path of the Cog™.

Personally, I’m glad I have an education. I’m interested in culture and science, and peace. So, I’m not trying to besmirch the memory of Andrew Carnegie. I just want to point out that the systems of society weren’t designed so that you can lead a simple life of your choosing. If that’s what you want, then you’ll have to blaze your own trail. Pull a Robert Frost and take a path less travelled by. Turn off the Path of the Cog.

Thought experiment

On this part of our journey, I want you to relax, take a deep breath, and remove yourself from societal pressure. Unchain yourself from Uncle Dave’s snide comments and your mother-in-law’s sighs of disapproval. For this moment, there are no forced obligations. No jobs, no cogs. No image to uphold. All you must do is not be a jerk—everything else is fair game. In this alternate reality, what will you choose to do with your time?

I know some would say, “Fly to Vegas and party forever.” Others would zip down and spend their days at the outlet mall. Fair enough. But are you sure? Would you still want that Rolex (pr fill-in-the-blank luxury), or does that desire disappear when you no longer see your coworkers’ shiny watches? I think these are worthwhile questions. What would you do if all you had was time? And how might your desires change?

I think that many people would choose simple pleasures. Would you finally check out the local library and start to read more?—p.s. thanks, Andrew Carnegie. Would you dig up that garden project you’ve postponed for years? Or lace up your boots to hike to backpack the Appalachian Trail? Maybe it’s just me–these are all things that I would want to do.

We all have projects and goals and experiences that we want to try. But many of us have succumbed to the conclusion that we simply don’t have the time. We say that we have jobs to fulfill, debts to repay, and Bob down the street just built a 4-car garage—what’s my return salvo going to be? The FIRE movement rebukes that notion. There are other paths through life. I’m not convinced that we’d all turn into hermits—looks like another dinner of moss soup!—but I do think that many of us can find great fulfillment from uncomplicated means.

Consumed by FIRE

Andrew Carnegie's Cogs and the Path to FIREIf you’re on the FIRE path, don’t let the quest consume you; don’t forget your reasons for starting in the first place. I’m certainly not the first, nor the last, to say this. But I think it’s a great repeated reminder. Some folks in the FIRE forums read like a Greek tragedy: Man desires freedom so badly that his quest shackles him.

FIRE isn’t the end of the path. FIRE is the path. And with those words, the spirits of Confucius and Buddha descended upon on Jesse and knocked him upside the head. “You’re a bad philosopher,” they admonished. Ok, fair enough. But the point stands. Don’t let the quest for FIRE consume you. You’ll be missing the forest for the trees. Instead, focus on creating a life right now that you find fulfilling.

Personally, I don’t have any sort of RE date in mind. Nor do I have an FI number—a specific dollar amount—that I’m focused on hitting. Instead, I’m thinking more about living simply, finding joy, and saving the rest. I know I’ll get to an FI number eventually, but I want to make sure I enjoy the time it takes to get there. And, based on some rough numbers, I’ll probably be able to retire early. I’ll consider that bridge once it’s in view.

The End of the Trail

At the end of the day, all you have is time. You can burn up that time in a quest for FIRE, or you can savor that time—squeeze out your fulfillment—and share the rest.

So, my challenge to you: you probably know what you want to end of your journey to look like, but what about the path itself? Take some time today to think about your path—you might end up taking some detours that completely change your life.

Jesse Cramer of Best InterestA huge thanks to Camp FIRE Finance for letting me write here today. It’s a real honor.

If you enjoyed my bad philosophy and Fake Trademarks™, I write every Friday at the Best Interest.

-Jesse Cramer


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