Don’t Be A Donkey

Financial independence/early retirement (FIRE) blogs can be summed up with a few simple directives that nearly everyone repeats:

  • Save a large percentage of your income (preferably at least 50%).
  • Learn to be a DIY investor.
  • Invest in index funds, or dividend focused stocks, or real estate, or all of them.
  • Minimize your taxes.
  • Consider yourself FI and retire when your assets are 25X your expenses (or 20X if you are more flexible with spending and earning, or 33X if you are very conservative and committed to never working again).

There is a reason nearly everyone repeats these directives. They work. However, the list is not exhaustive. I am going to add a new one that we do not spend enough time thinking or talking about.

  • Don’t be a donkey!


“Don’t Be a Donkey”

I have been reading Tim Ferriss’ new book “Tools of Titans”. This quote was the answer Derek Sivers gave to the question “What advice would you give to your 30-year-old self?” Sivers then expanded:

“Well, I meet a lot of 30-year-olds who are trying to pursue many different directions at once,…They get frustrated that the world wants them to pick one thing, because they want to do them all: ‘Why do I have to choose? I don’t know what to choose!’ But the problem is, if you’re thinking short -term, then [you act as though] if you don’t do them all this week, they won’t happen. The solution is to think long-term. To realize that you can do one of these things for a few years, and then do another one for a few years, and then another. You’ve probably heard the fable, I think it’s ‘Burdian’s ass,’ about a donkey who is standing halfway between a pile of hay and a bucket of water. He just keeps looking left to the hay, and right to the water, trying to decide. Hay or water, hay or water? He’s unable to decide, so he eventually falls over and dies of both hunger and thirst. A donkey can’t think of the future. If he did, he’d realize he could clearly go first to drink the water, then go eat the hay. So my advice to my 30-year-old self is, don’t be a donkey. You can do everything you want to do. You just need foresight and patience.”

Are We A Bunch of Donkeys?

I have shared my own experience of feeling anxious, overwhelmed, and unhappy while pursuing financial independence. I think most people if they’re being honest will share experiencing some version of the same thing. The “Mad Fientist” has written an incredibly powerful post about being depressed during his path to FI. “Our Next Life” recently published a post about burnout in which Mrs. ONL shared “the anxiety and dread, the lack of motivation, the negativity, the feeling of exhaustion” she has been experiencing on her homestretch to FIRE. The blogging couple at PlanInvestEscape recently shared that they had taken on too much and their “children were being badly short-changed”. If people who managed to get to FI or are very close are all experiencing this, how many more are derailed before getting out of the gate.

It is easy to romanticize FIRE and all that comes with it. In a way this can be good, as it is a strong motivator to save, invest, and build a life of financial freedom. However, when thinking about FIRE so much, it can also be a trap to focus on this other thing, the “hay” if you will. It is easy to forget to enjoy the amazing things that you already have in your life, to forget to “drink the water” first.

Related Advice from B.J. Novak

Later in “Tools of Titans”,  Ferriss shared the response to the same question asked to B.J. Novak. Novak is best known as Ryan from NBC’s “The Office”. Novak was also a writer, director and executive producer on the cult hit that later developed mainstream commercial success. He shared that when working on “The Office” he was very anxious. He was always trying to work on projects on the side that he could never finish. Ferriss writes: “He really didn’t stop to enjoy the incredible, once-in-a-lifetime experience of The Office. B.J. wishes he had told himself back then that it was a very special time in his life, and that he should own and enjoy it, instead of being so nervous, for what ended up being no reason at all.” In Novak’s own words: “So take as long as you want if you’re talented. You’ll get their attention again if you have reason to.”

What is Your “Office”

I have reached a turning point and have become much more happy and content over the past year. This is not because I have quit my job. It is not because I am skiing and climbing a couple days each week. It is not because I have become a popular blogger, with public acclaim and cash rolling in even while I am sleeping. While all of those things would be cool, none are reality.

I am happier because I have learned to adopt the “less but better” mentality. I have learned to realize what is special in my own life right now, and to own and enjoy it.

Part of that is learning to appreciate what I have in my job. Rather than going in every day thinking about where else I would rather be or what else I would rather be doing, I have committed to appreciating all of the good things that I have right now that will be hard to replicate. These include doing rewarding work that truly improves the lives of others while having tremendous autonomy and freedom. At the same time, I am well compensated allowing us to quickly build our FI funds rapidly.

This is also true in my personal life. The most important things at this time are not missing out on this special window of time with our daughter, strengthening our marriage, and improving our health. If we take care of those things, the ability to enjoy FIRE, get outside to hike, ski, and climb more, become a better writer, and grow the blog will all be there in the future. If we try to do everything at once and mess things up with our family or our health, we could miss out on everything.

Rather than being worried and anxious about what I can’t do now, I have learned to cherish what I can do now. This includes working hard to build wealth. Investing in our health and fitness. Building a stronger marriage. Getting little EE interested in the outdoors while building a strong bond with her. And sometimes, it simply means playing until we drop.


What to Do?

We each need to blaze our own path and we will each have different final destinations as we seek FIRE. However, there are several universal truths that we should all follow.

  • Earn more.
  • Spend less.
  • Invest wisely.

I would suggest we add another.

  • Don’t be a donkey.

Have you been a donkey at times on the path to FIRE? What other directives do we need to add to help those getting started on the path to FIRE that aren’t talked about enough? Share your thoughts below.

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44 comments on Don’t Be A Donkey

  1. Ha! I’m a donkey quite a lot of the time. I’m Type-A and very risk-averse, so at times it’s paralyzing to make a decision, even for small things. For example, I’m having difficulty establishing our investment strategy. I know Mr. Picky Pincher wants to pay off all debt and then worry about investing, but I’m worried about not having time on our side at that point. Agh!

    1. The good news is that you’re deciding between the optimal of two good decisions. It would be a lot worse if you were torn between use money to invest or place a down payment on a financed car.
      The bad news is that this paralysis analysis can lead to a lot of wasted time and unnecessary frustration. Better to make an educated decision based on the best info you have now and then don’t look back.

  2. Wow, what a coincidence. I was just reading Tools of Titans over the weekend while we were camping at a beautiful state park. I haven’t made it to Derek Sivers yet, but I think I remember that interview on Tim Ferriss’s podcast about not being a donkey. Lol.

    Those 3 things are what we follow also! I guess it’s universal and does work, but maybe the donkey idea in some form should be in there too. Having more flexibility in the end goal? When it comes to happiness, yes we’re saving and FIRE is the goal, but I can see us getting interested in new things that might change our path a bit. Maybe we find work that we’d be much less happy if we left? It’s always good to keep an open mind. Life is ever-changing!

    1. I am a big Tim Ferriss fan as well and remember listening to both of the interviews I referenced, but really enjoyed the book and how he pulled out key highlights which seem to be running themes throughout. As we wrote in our last post, the best option for us is the one that gives us the most options. (I feel like I may have stolen that from Ferriss or someone he interviewed.)

  3. Thx for the good advice.

    You are right: appreciating more what we have now is key! The job is not perfect, it is 90pct good. I should enjoy that. Also enjoy the things we can do now!

    1. Thanks as always for the positive feedback. It is amazing how simply changing perceptions of things and framing them in a different light can have such massive effects on happiness and satisfaction!

  4. Thank you for this reminder. I started 2017 wanting to do everything at once and now I’m stuck doing very little at all… I’m trying to rev back up to focus on what I really want to do, but I still feel a bit like the donkey… I Haven’t yet decided what that is!

    1. As stated in the post, I certainly am guilty of being a donkey all too often. Agree that we all need these reminders from time to time. Good luck figuring things out.

  5. Thank you for this post -it couldn’t have come at a better time for me. I’m 30 and suffering from ‘Donkey investing syndrome’: I kept changing my mind between dividend growth investing and indexing. Not being able to decide which was best, every few months I would sell, switch and then worry that I was missing out, only to then sell and switch back.

    As a result of this post, I will stick with a balanced index all-in-one fund up to a certain value and perhaps in a year or two, reward myself with a few more riskier dividend stocks.

    It is challenging to remember that you don’t have to do everything all at once! Thanks for the post which was the sign I needed to keep me grounded, I’ll do my best to stop being a donkey!

  6. Donkey, donkey have such nice teeth. For eating the pies made out of beef!

    That’s from an old web comic, Weeble and Bob. It was actually a 35 minute flash movie that was all just to set up a bad “ass” joke. Seriously, don’t be a donkey.

    1. So easy to make ass jokes when writing about donkeys. Can’t be believe I and other readers made it this long. 🙂

  7. Hey! Who’re you calling a donkey?! 😉 Hahaha. I think this is totally solid advice. And it’s interesting that some of us en route to FIRE have found ourselves in that negative place. I think for Mr. ONL and me, it’s a bit hard to separate our jobs that are making FIRE possible from the journey itself, and we just had one hell of a hard work year last year. But if we gave those up and slowed things down, I don’t know that reaching FIRE would even be possible, or certainly not on anything close to our current timeline. So we still feel like it’s been worth it to push through, but if we were more than a few months away, I would seriously be rethinking it all.

    1. Sorry! If it makes it any better, I would consider myself the biggest donkey at all. I totally agree that it is hard to separate, especially when going through frustrating situations at work as I also was when hitting a low point. However, even if you stay on the same path, you can change your perspective and outlook. For me, once I started seeing the light at the end of the FIRE tunnel, I started hating everything about work as I only wanted to be done. While there were some truly negative things about work, if I’m being totally honest, the biggest problem was this big dumb-ass donkey!

  8. I’ve been in that donkey mode before, especially when first starting the blog and just wanting FIRE to hurry up and get here. More so now that I knew it was possible, and we didn’t have to be in our jobs forever and a day. I started focusing on more negatives than positives. I get this mentality for sure.

    I know that I appreciate where I am more now, especially after trying to adopt the “less but better” approach.

    I appreciate that even though we’ve been going thru a super long reorg, and I now ahve about 6 bosses, that I get to keep my current boss whom I work well with. One of my other new “bosses” is one of my old bosses that I also got along with great. Woohoo!

    Even though the income took a big hit, I really appreciate Mrs. SSC’s teaching gig and schedule that it has allowed us. Having more time available to hang out as a family ahs been really good for all of us, even if it’s slowed down our FIRE/FFLC progress.

    1. Agree that is the downside of writing a blog about FIRE. You start to think about it so much, that you forget to enjoy the present.

  9. So much great stuff packed into this post! I think one of the saddest choices many of us make is not appreciating our present. Always worrying about the next big thing, we don’t enjoy the awesome things happening right now. I like your B.J. Novak example. I think of a former secretary at the school where I taught. When she retired early due to illness, she said “Don’t wish your life away.” Here she was, leaving her work life behind, but facing major challenges from her illness, and largely alone as her husband had passed away years before. She reminded us to take joy in every day, not just wish for the weekend or retirement.

    1. Great insight. It’s kind of sad, but one of my big catalysts to really push hard towards FIRE was experiencing my cousin pass away at a very young age a few years ago. It made me question everything that was important and I decided to pursue this different lifestyle so that I could live now rather than waiting for some day that may never come. Then I turned around and got so caught up in FIRE that I totally blocked out everything else and wasted about a year of my life making myself a very negative and unhappy person until I realized what I was doing. It is very easy to forget to appreciate the present, and for me at least, it has to be something I practice doing daily. Now simply taking the time to give thanks every day is as much a part of my routine as brushing my teeth, showering, eating and exercise. Thanks for the great comment and reminder!

  10. Great post and great reminder to appreciate the present, since we are going to be spending that time or wasting it, as long as we’re alive.

  11. It’s very easy to start focusing on the end goal or destination and miss out on the joy of the journey. The problem is fire may never come. You may die too soon or be hit by medical problems. As such you should enjoy every minute of life. You do only live once. The key is to ensure that every moment you do live is maximum enjoyment by both enjoying today and setting enough aside to enjoy tomorrow. Or we could just some it up in a simple sentence like you stated, don’t be a donkey indeed.

    1. I think this is one of those things we all know deep down, but lose sight of too easily which is the value of a simple saying to remind ourselves.

  12. This is great! I have been a donkey most of my life. I had a hard time choosing what I wanted to be when I grow up, what do I want to do with my time, and with FIRE. In the process of all of the back in forth thinking, I had killed a lot of time. Lately I have learned just do. Go out and try, make mistakes, and live life. You don’t have to do everything at once. Just take one bite out of life at a time. Be there for yourself but also for the people that are in your life. Stop standing around and live! Thank you for sharing. I really enjoyed this article.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment. Agree that I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.

  13. Well put, Elephant Eater.

    I’ve got a long to-do list, and limited amount of time in which to check the boxes, but today I set the list aside for a few hours.

    Instead of formatting some guest posts and other things on the list, I took advantage of a one-time opportunity to help teach dozens of soldiers from Norway the sport of curling. I almost passed, because I’ve got a lot on my plate, but I realized it all could wait.

    Norwegians gotta curl.


    1. Sounds fun. I get the urge to do that every 4 years when watching the Olympics, then forget it exists 2 days later. Maybe I can come out with you. I think I’d make a good broom guy!

  14. Great points. I tend to look to the future too much and not enjoy the ride. Even before I started in the path to FIRE, I was always looking towards the future. Towards accomplishing whatever goal I was shooting for. It’s good to plan for the future but my fear is realizing I didn’t enjoy the little things as much along the way.

    1. I would think being future focused is a trait of 100% of the FIRE community. The key to me is figuring out a good balance. Good luck finding your life balance. We’ll keep working towards ours.

  15. Absolute Donkey reporting, sir!
    I’m trying to do everything at once because life doesn’t wait. As a result, I don’t find time to truly enjoy the moment, as I’m always thinking of the next 10 things to do. Working on fixing it.

    1. I think it is a struggle that all too many of us in this community have. Absolutely guilty of being a donkey here as well. Admitting there is a problem is the first step to fixing it.

  16. Hey mate,

    That’s a very good metaphor!

    I found that meditation help me a lot on this path to enjoy the journey, the now.

    Being grateful about 5 things every night is another useful tool to realize how lucky you are. I even do it with my kids at bedtime to infuse them this practice.

    Do you practice meditation yourself?

    Cheers from Switzerland,

    1. I agree with your recommendations. I have tried a variety of morning meditation/prayer routines and honestly struggled mightily with them, but continue to experiment. I have found that a routine of gratitude is extremely helpful. I have a short list of questions on my mirror that I use as prompts every AM and PM when brushing teeth (What am I happy about, proud of, excited about, grateful for in my life right now?). We also read my daughter books every night and then each take turns giving thanks out loud. I agree that it is cool to see a 4 y/o understand this and think it has been a life changing habit for my wife and I.

      If you wouldn’t mind sharing, what is your meditation practice and have you found any methods, books, etc, helpful in establishing it?

      1. Excellent for the mirror exercise! Nice tip!

        As for meditation, I use the Calm app since 3 months now. That’s the first thing I open when getting out the bed (10min meditation), and the last thing I listen to before going to bed (sleep stories).

        I heard that Headspace is a very good concurrent but as I paid for Calm already, and also like it a lot, I didn’t switch.

        Let me know what you think about it if you try it.


  17. First of all, congrats on a great post and getting RockStar Finance visibility!
    Secondly, apologies for my tardy response. Extensive work travel (EU and US) and also family vacation time (Jackson Hole) got in the way of much of my commenting over the last month.
    Thirdly, thanks for the mention of our little site in your post!! :>)

    As you know, we had to put the blog down to align with our priorities of family. Yeah, that trip to the pow in Jackson last week was part of that effort! So much fun powder skiing in knee deep stuff at times.

    As you nicely put it, family is special in our life and that’s what we are focusing on. And what is remarkable is that our FIRE journey timelines are just the same as before - July, 2018.

    In the mean-time, we embrace and enjoy the NOW and know that the date for an even bigger change is not so far away.

    1. First, Thanks!
      Second, I’m glad you, like us, are figuring out how to step away from things and enjoy life and family. Last spring the three of us did a week-long trip with no computer and it was magical to reconnect and do a couple of days of hiking and a couple of days at the beach. It had us ready to retire immediately to enjoy life with our daughter while we have the opportunity. Also, the only reason to apologize for being in Jackson Hole is b/c you didn’t bring us along.
      Third, as far as your “little site” I put the BJ Novac quote in there thinking of your “last post”. “So take as long as you want if you’re talented. You’ll get their attention again if you have reason to.” You definitely have talent and your voices should be heard. You will get people’s attention again when the time is right.
      Best to you and the family!

  18. I am doing this right now! And I really wasn’t aware of it until you asked me if I was being a donkey.

    I feel like I’m full of anxious energy especially because I feel that being young, I should be doing more and hustling more since my responsibilities are lower now than they would be later in life. I’m only going to be in my twenties for so long and so I have this expectation of myself to accomplish great things by the time I turn 30 - sometimes forgetting about how far I’ve come so far 🙁

    Thanks for reminding me not to be a donkey.

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