From the moment I heard about the F.I.R.E. movement (Financial Independence, Retire Early), I was hooked.
The idea of early retirement immediately resonated with me not because I wanted to stop working and do absolutely nothing all day, but because I wanted the freedom to do whatever I want – for the rest of my life.
Fast forward 5 years later and not only am I FIRE-eligible, but I’ve come to understand why I’m obsessed with the idea of financial independence and early retirement. It turns out – I’ve got ADHD, which is the perfect bedfellow for a life of freedom (with restraints).
The ADHD Brain at Work
After digging into my diagnosis, I was surprised to learn, people with ADHD (short for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) are never deficient in attention when it comes to things they are interested in.
It’s only when we have to concentrate on topics that don’t interest us that we’re at a deficit of attention. It’s scientifically proven that people with ADHD simply cannot derive adequate dopamine levels to pay attention to things that do not interest them.
For me, that’s admin tasks like banking, taxes, or paperwork of any kind. I also struggle with systems and processes to the point where it physically hurts me to try and conform to them. As a result, I’ve spent most of my corporate career trying to find a way out, even though I’ve worked for some amazing companies and had some pretty cool jobs.
What appealed to me the most about FIRE was being empowered to choose to work or activities that aligned with my personal interests. What I didn’t realize it at the time, because I wasn’t diagnosed until recently, was that I could manage my dopamine issues by indulging in pursuits that felt personally interesting and meaningful to me.
Once I reached the goal, the thrill lasted for about 3 months.
Then, Covid hit.
My Covid-Inspired ADHD Diagnosis
Six months before Covid hit, we sold our home in the Bay Area and moved to Austin, Tx. With that move, we had enough money to retire based on our lowered cost of living, even though we were both still working. (I should also point out that it has never been my husband’s goal to retire early. That’s 100% my obsession.)
When Covid hit, our lives came to a standstill. There were no more conferences, meetups, running groups, gym time… nothing. We were home 24/7 with very little to do but watch TV. Isolation made me realize just how much work played a role in my routine and personal interactions. Meetings, networking groups, and conferences were all a big part of my day-to-day life and when they all came to an end, I realized I didn’t have much else.
The other thing I lost during that time was any sense of structure. Work and home life blurred not just for me, but for everyone that I worked with.
It was over this period, with too much time on my hands and not enough structure to keep me on track, that my undiagnosed ADHD started to become obvious. I’m so grateful for a few women I follow in social media who were open about their ADHD symptoms. After realizing how familiar it all sounded, it was time to get diagnosed.
FIRE & Interest-driven Work
Research shows that ADHD folks thrive in interest-driven careers and need a lot of structure to stay focused. When I think about this in the context of my FIRE goal, I see they are both beautifully aligned and dangerously at odds.
The beautiful thing about FIRE is that you can choose to do whatever you want. If you don’t want to retire early (the RE in FIRE), you don’t have to. You can just choose to work at whatever interests you without any concern about income. As an ADHD’er, having the freedom to direct your delicate attention to whatever you want is the perfect set up. Dopamine for days!
But what if you just retire early and don’t give any consideration to how you will spend time? Unfortunately, too much free time and not enough structure is ADHD kryptonite. We need to have purpose and structured time to keep our minds focused.
This is not about being productive for productivity’s sake. It’s about managing our brain’s propensity to ruminate, obsess about the past and beat ourselves up when we’re distracted, unfocused or bored. These are hallmark symptoms of the ADHD brain spending too much time in the Default Mode Network (DMN), an area of the brain that lights up when we’re not focused on a specific task or goal.
Conversely, when we are immersed in goal-oriented tasks that feel meaningful and interesting to us, our brain stays in the Task Positive Network (TPN). When this area of the brain lights up, we are less likely to become distracted and fall into rumination cycles because our brains are focused externally.
ADHD Brains Need to Focus (aka Work)
The beauty of “work”, whether it’s employment, running a business or even unpaid work, is that it creates a natural structure that’s familiar and predictive. It also gives our brain’s something to focus on and a sense of purpose. For me, Covid provided a glimpse into life without structure and purpose and it turns out, I didn’t love it.
What I learned is that as someone with ADHD, I’m not very good at creating structure on my own, and it’s a challenge to follow arbitrary rules that are self-imposed. It turns out, I’m at my happiest when I have something to show up for and do, most days of the week.
This is when I realized that the FIRE lifestyle is not the best option for me.
The Road Ahead is Paved with Dopamine
Now that I’m realizing I’m better off working instead of not working, I need to think about what that looks like in terms of my career choices. I’m not sad about postponing retirement. Instead, I’m focused on finding work that quite literally lights up my dopamine pathways.
Fortunately, the work I do today (consulting/writing/coaching) is interesting to me and the theme of my job is enabling change – something I thrive on. No doubt, there will come a time where I’ll want to do something different, but for now it’s the right place for me.
The most important thing I realized throughout my 5-year FIRE journey and my ADHD diagnosis, is that working toward financial independence was and still is, the best decision I have ever made for myself. Besides my health (which I also work at daily), there is no greater expression of self-love than giving yourself the option to opt out of work if you want to.
So much of consumer marketing is focused on acquiring things in the name of self-care. We work so hard to earn a living, and our cultural norm is to reward ourselves for those efforts with purchases. Yet the best thing I’ve ever given myself is the freedom (through financial independence) to choose the life I want to live based on what’s best for me.
For that, I am so grateful.