Don't Behave Like A Tortured Genius

This week I wanted to write about a feeling that many of us who pursue financial independence have likely felt at least once.

That feeling is the one where almost nobody be they friends, family, or colleagues seem to understand where we're coming from whenever we talk about the principles and practices that lead to achieving FIRE.

To us things appear so crystal clear; being very deliberate with where our money is spent, putting a good amount of money into low-cost and boring index funds instead of chasing the next shiny NFT, and not getting caught up with lifestyle inflation as we work our way up to a higher salary, among other things.

Even for some of you who have managed to reach early retirement, you're met with confused looks when you tell other people "what you do for a living".

You try to explain but soon enough you notice that your words aren't really getting through.

Life as a Product Manager

I'm going to start with a non-financially related but real-life example that's close to me.

If you're a reader of my blog you'll already know that I am the Product Manager of a software platform. My responsibilities involve guiding the strategy of the product so that it best achieves its purpose of helping businesses gain greater transparency.

To best understand the industries that my product is used in, I often speak with product owners from the customer's side. They are the "champions" within their respective organisations trying to embed the platform so that it forms an integral part of daily operations.

Getting the product more embedded is, of course, a highly desirable result to both myself and the customer product owner.

But a peculiar point about enterprise software is that the wants and needs of the end user doesn't always equate to the wants and needs of a business. An end user wants their job to be easy, whereas the business wants to raise revenue and profits.

And the latter is what I focus on; sometimes to the chagrin of the customer product owner who may be inundated with requests and wants from the user community.

While satisfying end user demands may sound good, the return on investment is often far greater when looked at in terms of improving entire business processes.

Taking an entire department and making their financial reporting more transparent, consistent, and compliant will have a greater impact to an organisation as opposed to implementing a very specific feature update that would only benefit one single user, or a small team of users.

It would be a different proposition altogether if that specific feature update could help many users across many customers, but this is usually not the case.

And that is where the clash often happens between myself and the customer product owner.

"Why can't they see the obvious even after I've laid it out for them?"

Working towards financial independence

Now that I've had my little grumble let's look at something FIRE related shall we?

I already began this in the opening paragraph of the article but let's dive in a bit deeper by looking at some scenarios that those of us may have been faced with whenever we explain our choices when it comes to our finances.

Everyone around us has bought a nice big house and are already talking about their next move to an even larger property. We on the other hand are still renting in a relatively cheap neighbourhood, possibly even house sharing.

"When you grow older you'll wish you started paying down on a house earlier."

Everybody is saving cash into a bank account. One of those ones that offer a "higher interest rate". We on the other hand are investing our money into a low-cost diversified index fund for the long term.

"That's highly risky! You'll be sorry when the economy collapses. Cash is king."

Everyone spends money on a new car every two or three years. Some families or households even have more than one car. We're still driving the same car from many years ago, or cycling, or using public transport.

"How do you even manage to get around?"

When other people get a bonus or a raise they already know what materialistic thing they're going to spend it all on. We do something financially smart with the bulk of it and spend the remainder on something relatively modest.

"What's the point in earning money if you're not going to spend it?"

Everybody is getting into debt to fund their lifestyle choices and have no idea how their accounts balance out at the end of each month. We on the other hand are very deliberate with what we're spending our money on and making sure what comes in is greater than what goes out.

"That seems like too much effort, I'm just happily enjoying life."

I can keep giving examples but you get the point. On our path towards financial independence we must make deliberate choices with our money that may seem overly frugal, or even financially unsavvy, to others.

We try to push our position as the correct one and even go through the trouble of explaining the calculation of compound interest. But ultimately the other person remains unconvinced; in fact, you even see a hint of pity in their eyes when they look at you.

"Why can't they see the obvious even after I've laid it out for them?"

The tortured genius

We lay out our views and we're convinced we've "got it right". After all we back up our position with numbers, stats, and long term thinking. Surely this makes it obvious?

So why can't they understand?

Why won't they change their opinions and their ways even after we've painstakingly laid it out for them?

Well, it's because everyone's background, motivations and desires in life are different. For some, being able to retire early simply doesn't matter whereas for others it is the only thing that matters.

Just because we've found something that resonates for ourselves, and we've "confirmed it" by spending a copious amount of time within an echo chamber, it doesn't mean we should be pushing it onto others.

Yes, we're honestly trying to help.

I want greater business transparency and process efficiency for all of my customers.

And you want your close friends and family to cut back on the excessive spending so that they can start building some financial stability for their future.

But if your grand vision isn't getting through, don't keep pushing hard on the matter.

They may not "understand" you, but have you also tried to understand them?

Listening is the key

When we find something that really works for us it is natural to become very passionate about it. So much so that we end up acquiring a huge amount of knowledge and experience that eventually becomes second nature.

But only to us.

To others, especially those who have different views, a fraction of our knowledge can be overwhelming and may not even be what they want right now.

It takes a lot of empathy and patience to really help another person because we must understand their circumstances rather than superimposing our own.

Instead of telling them to start saving 40% of their salary, tackling all of their debt as soon as possible, and opening a S&S ISA account, perhaps we should simply understand what they want out of life and make a small suggestion from there.

Instead of forcing the idea of a flashy business scorecard perhaps it's best to address some of the wants of the end users, so that they give their support to future strategic ideas.

By taking this route we end up winning more hearts as the people we're trying to help will feel listened to and understood.

When they feel listened to, they are more likely to listen to us and consider our suggestions in return.

The tortured genius will always feel entrapped, not realising that the barriers were placed there by themselves.

And only when they start to help themselves will they be able to truly help others.


Don't wait for some magical number before you start "living". Life is full of surprises and you'll never be able to plan it perfectly. If you're doing sensible things with your money you'll eventually reach your goal. So start living now. The longer you wait, the less time you'll have. Money can be made, but time cannot. You are the barrier to the life you want to live, not a 4% safe withdrawal rate.

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