4 min read

How's the water? 🌊

A story about fish, and musings about the term "retirement".
How's the water? 🌊

Hello, grownups!

This week, I've been thinking a lot about a story David Foster Wallace liked to tell.

"There are two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

The point of the story is that fish are idiots that the most important and obvious realities are the hardest to see.

And if we never even notice them, it never occurs to us that we could change them.

I was thinking about this as we were cutting together our latest podcast episode, where we spoke to two people - Kristy Shen and Bryce Leung - who became (dollar) millionaires and retired before age 31. I found Kristy particularly interesting to talk to, because she grew up in a poor part of China, in a house that didn't have running water. And now she spends most of her time travelling the world having adventures. That's quite a journey.

Kristy and Bryce are part of a global movement that calls themselves "FI/RE", which stands for "Financial Independence/Retire Early" (don't ask me how to pronounce it, I don't have a clue). They try to save 50% or more of their paycheques so they can retire in their 30s or 40s.

Personally, I find this movement interesting, but I'm also pretty clear that it's not what I want for my own life. A FI/RE strategy requires you to work in a very high-paying job and prioritise earning and saving above anything else, until you get to retire and finally do what you want. But there are some assumptions that underlie that approach that don't jibe with me: 1. that work is awful 2. that you can't get paid to do what you love 3. that you can start learning how to be happy after some future event (retirement) that will fix everything and 4. that it's possible to save 50% or more of your paycheque (which, for the vast majority of people in the world, is just laughably unfeasible).

But still, I think there's a lot to be learned from FI/RE people, especially when it comes to the "FI" part (trying to buy back your own time by investing in assets that can earn an income for you so you don't have to). It's just the "retire early" part that doesn't jibe with me. I really like working, because I've been lucky enough to find work that I really like. I think that finding work you like and you can do forever might be a better goal for most people than trying to retire early. And finding work you like can take a lifetime, so you'd better get started.

Retiring at age 65 is actually a pretty recent idea, and 1930s policymakers chose 65 because the average US life expectancy at the time was 62. Now, if you were born in 1990, there's a 22% chance you'll live to be 100. 35 years is a crazy long time to not be working.

I've been thinking a lot about the bigger systems we live in, lately. The water we swim in. The things about our economic system that seem inevitable and unchangeable, but really aren't.

Last year, 26 people owned the same as the 3.8 billion people who make up the poorest half of humanity. We dumped more carbon into the atmosphere in 2018 than any other year in history, and we will probably exceed it this year. Vast regions of Africa, Asia, North and South America are becoming too hot for growing grains. 55% of South African youth are unemployed. All of these things are connected. None of this is inevitable. All of it could be changed.

So, this is an episode about retirement. And what a weird idea it is, and your options for thinking about your own. But it's also about questioning the default assumptions of the culture around you; trying to notice the water.

In the immortal words of the philosophers, the Barenaked Ladies:
"The ice we skate is getting pretty thin
The water's getting warm so you might as well swim"

Hope the water's good, wherever you are :)

Your friend,


  • After this, we've got one more episode planned for the season (about looking after your mental health). It should drop in about 2 weeks... stay tuned!
  • I wrote a little companion piece for Daily Maverick about why retirement is such a weird idea.
  • Manage Your Money Like a F-cking Grownup is coming to Brazil! I too would like to go to Brazil. Guys, let's go to Brazil.
  • I'll be spending the next week putting the finishing touches on the Top Secret Project (RUNS IN A CIRCLE SCREAMING IN EXCITEMENT). I really hope I can tell you guys all about it, very soon.
  • I had this ridiculous idea that I wished I could see what my investments would be worth in Galleons, so we built a feature into Lettuce, our portfolio management app, that lets you do that. You can also try Flurbos, Simoleans, Federation Credits, Bic Macs and more. I can't even explain how delighted this makes me.My partner left on Monday for Cambridge. I can only follow in January because of obscure cat- and visa-related reasons. So I'm living alone for two months, which means I have removed my human-female disguise reverted to my natural state: