“What are you, a semi-retired college professor?” asked a high school friend whom I have not seen in many years,
And then I realized. I don’t really know what I am. When I explain who I am to people I meet on the road, I usually say something like “Well, I lost my job, my house burned down, and now I’m traveling around in my camper.” One thing I like about this answer is the wide range of responses it gets. A friend who lives in an affluent southern suburb when she first saw Walden said “Oh. My. God. You really do live in a van.” People out west were more often to say something like “Right on” or “I lived in a van for three years. What’s the big deal?”
Another close friend has taken to telling people that I’m independently wealthy. In a sense, I suppose that is true, though I don’t really feel that way. Though I have chosen not to worry much about money for the past year or so, I am keenly aware that I cannot sustain the rate of spending and the rate of income that I have since last May when I moved out of The Rental. As Thanksgiving approached, I started getting more concerned about finding a job. In October, I had even applied for a job with a Major Company, a job that I think I would have been really good at, and would have really enjoyed. I didn’t get an interview.
I was starting to think that I should settle down. Straighten up and fly right. Find a place to call my own and try to fix up. Start a brand new day.
And then I read The Four Hour Work Week. (Disclaimer: if you click that link and buy the book, I get money.) This book is utter brilliance. Or crass opportunistic snake oil. There are plenty of things in this book that I find distasteful, but it has given me the courage to make decisions that I might not otherwise have been able to make. One point that the book makes is that fear often keeps us from making good decisions. I was getting afraid about what I would do if I was without a job for a year and did not continue to pursue my career as a university professor.
One of the tools he recommends is to consider worst case scenarios. What would be the worst case scenario if I continued traveling as I have been? I did a little math. If I keep burning through money at the rate I did for the first six months after I moved out of The Rental, my cash would last two to three years. The worst case was that in two or three years I would have nothing left but my somewhat meager retirement accounts. I would be penniless. Penniless in a country where lots of people are in debt or are upside down in mortgages is just not a bad place to be.
Fifty years old and penniless. As it turns out, I was penniless at forty when I got divorced. It wasn’t that bad. I had a modest apartment. I did without internet or cable. I entertained friends at home, which was cheaper than paying for only my own meal if we had gone out. Because I so regularly fed my friends really good food, when we did go out, they would often pick up the check. If my worst case scenario was to again live as I lived during one of the most fun times in my life, getting a job right away just is not that important. I have two years to come up with a way to earn the salary I earned as a university professor. Do I like having enough money for a down payment on a house and buy some furniture? Yes. Would my life be a disaster if I had to start from scratch? Not really.
The other thing that this Snake Oil Salesman recommends is what he terms a “muse,” that is, a business that generates income that requires minimal maintenance once it is set up. It needs to be a product whose production can be maintained without hands-on work, either because it is electronic or because its production is outsourced. Part of the key is to start small with something that has minimal up-front risk. You obviously do not want to end up with $50K worth of pet rocks to learn that someone else already thought of it. Better to have those rocks produced after they have been ordered if at all possible. I considered a few ideas before coming up with one. I am not ready to announce it yet, but I think that the idea holds some promise. I don’t expect that this business will be enough to live on, but if it generates some cash, and I can learn to live on less, it could sustain me for a while.
So what am I? For now, I am temporarily retired.