Being a “Productive” Citizen

A common barrier to financial independence (other than the money) is feeling like you won’t be a productive member of society . This is a hard problem to tackle. The first instinct is to argue how you can be productive without having to stay in your current job. That you can benefit society by doing other worthwhile things, like raising a family or volunteering.

It occurs to me however, that the real problem is not how to replace one productive activity (a job) with some other productive endeavor. The problem is that we think of a job as a productive contribution in the first place. Our whole mindset is off, and it’s impossible to live a financially independent lifestyle without first overcoming our ingrained work philosophy.


When someone asks you, “What do you do?” the implication is “for a living”. If I respond that I’m an accountant, the asker is satisfied. I’ve told them all they want to know.

The tenet of career as identity is instilled at a young age. In school we are taught and trained to associate work with productivity.

Throughout young adulthood you see examples further supporting the notion of career as identity. Your parents are likely still working, everyone is. It’s just what you do.

When you leave college and start your career there is an initial burst of activity. It’s novel and exciting and anxiety inducing. Eventually though you settle in and the repetition of days molds you until what you do is who you are.

A Shift

To pursue financial independence is to overcome the productivity paradigm. Work isn’t productive, it’s simply work. The productivity culture says we should feel guilty if we’re not constantly doing. Yes, of course you can relax, but only if you deserve it. It’s work hard, play hard after all, not do nothing play hard. There’s a baseline level of contribution each person is expected to put forth – everyone must do their part.

Why? What drives this obligation to participate? I hate to use generalities or sound like a conspirator, but it’s society. There is a societal force at play acting on us, guiding us to identify with our careers. The exposure is so long and so well adopted that we never stop to question it.

Society would have you believe the best use of your faculties is working. We give so much to work, our creativity and attention; it demands the best hours of our days and years of our lives. And it all occurs under the guiding influence of productivity. Your sacrifice is for the benefit of society.

My wife and I are both analytical people who excelled in science and math. It logically follows that we should work in these fields. My analytical prowess is best used being the most productive accountant I can be. This is deemed a good use of my time and my life. Never mind that I despise the work.

Within the confines of society’s definition

While I lament accounting, I have to concede the work as productivity paradigm is what gives me the opportunity to be financially independent in the first place. Since my aptitudes (accounting) are deemed valuable by society I’m compensated with above average earnings. Just as I was given better grades in Math with less effort than others, I now get more pay with less effort.

If you think this preposterous, I agree! I’m merely taking advantage of the current structure by using my deemed high level of productivity to create a surplus. That’s all financial independence is really, creating a short term surplus and delaying its use.

Breaking free

The struggle then, is successfully shifting our perspective. Right now we fill the vast majority of our time with work and thinking about work. We don’t need to question if this is appropriate, society says it is. We even say it is, we know that work is driving our surplus; it will eventually fund our freedom and is thus worthwhile.

But what about when it’s achieved? How will we feel productive then?

To me that’s the wrong question. It points back to what I said earlier: the problem is that we think of a job as a productive contribution in the first place. It isn’t. Walk away from your job and watch how nothing there changes. Work as a noble use of time is a charade we maintain to justify how we live.

Working feels like the fulfillment of our debt to society, which is only partially true. We owe it to society to support ourselves and to create enough excess benefit to support the indigent. That’s it. That’s the mandate of work. This has metamorphosed into an obligation to have a career. The implication being that working isn’t limited to meeting the goal of support, but instead giving to society all of your useful years and ideas. The mark of a successful life is having a long and prosperous career.

This is just wrong. Get over it. Once you’ve worked enough to not be a burden to society you’ve met your obligation. Financial independence isn’t a practice in un-productivity, it’s a banking of productivity. It’s operating within the confines of a work-defined society to build a surplus and exit on your terms.

What you do then with your best hours and ideas is wholly up to you. You’re no longer beholden to society. If you want to spend your years constructing and deconstructing whole Lego universes, never sharing your creations, then go nuts.

Walking away points

I would encourage you to think about what productivity means to you and how you came to that understanding. Financial independence has a stigma associated with it – you’re not doing your societal part. But I would argue being financially independent means you have already done your part. It’s over. Leave it behind and concentrate on what to do in the next phase. Don’t limit your imagination to the confines of a typical life.

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