early retirement at 27 in Paris following Hemingway

What following in the footsteps of Hemingway taught me about retiring at 27

Ernest Hemingway. If you’re a writer, and / or reader, of the English language, then you will have heard of him and, possibly, also his work. It was, however, probably not only his prose that captured a generation, but also his lifestyle and image. Hemingway published 7 novels and won the Nobel prize for literature in 1954, seven years before his death in the summer of 1961. But more than that, Hemingway ate life. He devoured it and never let convention stop him from living the way he wanted. Not even in the end.

Hemingway was first a journalist then a novelist, and it was his passion for a cause and something he believed in that set him on a journey, and to a time and place that many still look back on as the golden age of Paris. Hemingway arrived in Paris, first in 1918, with the Red Cross, and then in 1921 as foreign correspondent for the Toronto Star.

This was the Paris of the 1920s, where writers mixed with artists, with singers, with anarchists, with surrealists, with poets and where life revolved around the café lifestyle of Paris after the war, and where late nights generally ended in the apartment of Gertrude Stein, just off the Luxembourg gardens.

This was a time where a dinner of Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Dali and Picasso could be interrupted by Modigliani or Matisse. Was this Paris at its intellectual and artistic high point?

In any case this was the same Paris I arrived in, one cold January day, over a decade and a half ago.

Hemingway had lived in the Latin Quarter and I found myself in the same place, on the Rue Mouffetard, just a short walk up a cobbled street to where Hemingway and his wife Hadley had once lived, on the Rue Cardinal Lemoine.

The Paris of the early 2000s was, of course, vastly different to the Paris of the 1920s. In between there had been another World War, the student uprising of the 1960s, the rise and fall, and rise again of the Socialist Party and incredible changes to wealth, transport, communication and immigration.

One thing was constant, however. Paris had remained a moveable feast.

The first 12 months

I think it is difficult to explain clearly the shock and admiration one has when arriving in a culture and a land that is so foreign from the one you come from. The shock came from not speaking the language, not understanding the customs and not knowing anybody, whereas the admiration came from the style with which Parisians carry themselves, the passion they show for politics and debate, the delicacy of the food and the wine and the beauty that is all around you. The beauty that is Paris.

Whereas Hemingway might have been lost in the many changes, in transport, in the food and the taste of the wine, he would, nevertheless, have still been able to make his way past the Pantheon, down the Rue Soufflot, across the immaculate gardens of the Jardin du Luxembourg and to the apartment of the long since dead Gertrude Stein.

As a fan of literature, it is a route I often walked myself, in those first few lonely months, from the early morning starts to the ambling walks after midnight. I often wondered, especially on those late nights, if I was actually walking in his footsteps.

I suppose, in some way I probably was, although it was clear that I was not driving ambulances or writing articles for a newspaper, but rather working for a global audit and accounting firm, who had paid my travel and first month’s accommodation and paved the route to an amazing journey in an extraordinary city. A journey that still continues today. But that’s another long story, so let’s stay in the past for a moment, shall we?

My work life as an auditor in Paris was of little difference to my work life as auditor before I arrived. The processes and documents I reviewed were very similar, all be they in a different language. One I had yet to master. The first few months rushed by in a haze of making friends, understanding the basics of the language, apartment finding, furniture buying and lots of wondering if I had made the right decision.

Interestingly the concept of wondering whether I had made the right decision was a defining moment for me, as it was my first lesson in letting go and seeing where life would take me. Up until that point, things had been very controlled. I had always been competitive, in sports as well as in academic endeavors. I had never let go of the control I wanted to have on the outcome. But in my first apartment in the Latin Quarter, I was confronted by an epiphany that I could not control the situation.

I realized that I had made a decision and that I was powerless in how that decision would play out. Of course, I could have got on a plane and gone home. I contemplated that more times that I can recall, but I also knew that I had been presented with a wonderful adventure and, maybe, I could learn more by going with it than fighting it.

And I went with it, and that has made all the difference.

The initial high of being in such an amazing place slowly started to fade, as the reality that I was still just an auditor began to dawn on me.

As all great, life changing movements should happen, I started to ask myself lots of questions:

  • Was this the rest of my life?
  • Was I proud of what I was doing?
  • Was being chained to a desk the rest of my life for me?
  • What if there was more to it out there and it was passing me by?
  • I deserved to have something better.
  • I didn’t want to be a corporate grey suit forever.

As these above questions and myriads of the same nature began to crawl into every recess of my mind, I finally made a decision that I knew I could no longer avoid.

My first “Early Retirement”

One day, almost 12 months after my arrival in Paris, I walked into my boss’s office and put a piece of paper on the table. I had rehearsed the conversation, of what I would say, one hundred times but it all came out wrong and he started speaking before I could finish my first phrase.

“What company are you moving to? How much are they paying you? Do you want more money? I can get you that. You should have told me.”

“What does it mean you have no job to go to? What are you going to do?”

“Please reconsider. We need people like you on the team. You can not have nothing to do. How will you pay your rent and eat?”

Good question: how was I going to pay my rent?

I will not say the decision was easy as it wasn’t. The question my then boss asked me was one of many I had asked myself. Coming to terms with a sudden drop in income and having to pay rent and food bills is a delicate equation to solve.

However, maybe it was my youth, maybe in was my self-belief that I could not fail or maybe it was the knowledge that I could always go back to being an auditor (and that I had a fall back plan) that finally tipped the scales and got me to decide on my first early retirement.

When I walked out of his office and into the Paris sun, I felt elated. I felt free. I felt that life was an endless source of possibilities and that I was surfing on the edge of a majestic wave, toward a beach I had yet to imagine.

I also had a side hustle lined up.

To make friends in a place you don’t know and where you don’t speak the language is not easy and since one of my languages was English I decided to do the only thing I could think of: I started going to an English-speaking pub. A funny thing happens when you start to become a “local” at a pub – which is what I found out I had become: you start to get asked more and more questions about your life, and what you do, and when you’re in finance the conversation invariably leads to financial matters of the pub in question.

The owner and I had grown to close terms and I had advised him on a new remuneration model for his staff. When he had heard I was contemplating retiring from my day job, he was quick to offer me an alternative: come work in the bar. “You can choose your hours and which days you work. Completely flexible”.

And that’s how working in a bar became the side hustle that helped me pay my fixed costs.

However, the side hustle wasn’t enough.

I had also aggressively saved up one year of living expenses. My side hustle gave me the possibility to stretch that pot of money out over a number of years, if I had needed it. Being only 27 years’ old, my fixed costs were fairly limited and as I had no family to take care of, my variable expenses could be kept fairly low.

But what was I doing retiring at that age?

Retiring at 27 is probably a bit extreme, I must admit with hindsight. I had actually spent more years studying than I had working at that stage.

But I wanted to achieve something else with my life, and I felt that it would only become clear to me, what that something else was, if I stepped away from all the noise of a corporate career.

So, I stepped away and into an adventure which taught me several key things about early retirement and myself.

However, I didn’t step off the veritable cliff into the unknown abyss, as I had a very specific goal.

I wanted to write a novel. I had little idea during the first few days what the novel would be, where it would be set and what style I would write it in, but it was my target.

Having a goal gave meaning to my time and my decision. My side hustle gave me the financial flexibility to not just live off my savings but also stretch the time to as long as I needed it to be.

My days significantly changed after I stepped out the office and into the Parisian sun.

I was able to make my days into whatever I wanted them to be. I was in charge of my time and even though I had a side hustle, I was able to build the side hustle into my own agenda, in a way that it was built around my agenda rather than the other way around.

My days were rich and never a bore and my novel took me in directions that I would not have been able to imagine when I was still back in that office. I believe that the office stifled my creativity and effectively added too much structure to my thought process. Being unbounded by those restrictions was a game changer for my creativity and my general well-being.

As my creativity started to soar so did my ideas about my life. I started seeing new opportunities opening up. I began to consider other dimensions to my life which I hadn’t seen before. My side hustle also introduced me to an amazingly broad cross-section of people, whom my office job would never have brought me into contact with.

-As an auditor I would never had met a Romanian gang leader, who used to proudly show me his gun and tell me if ever I needed something cleaned up he would help me without a problem.

-As an auditor I would never have met a French Foreign Legionnaire who would delight me with his exotic tales of North Africa.

My choice to walk a different path opened up a world of opportunities and ideas and enabled me to see who I was and what I could do into a much clearer way.

As my days went by, and as I finished my novel and started a second, a new vision of my life and my career started to form. I could have remained retired and maybe even published my novel at one stage to increase my financial wellbeing, but I finally decided that I had to retire from my retirement.

I had begun to understand what I was and what I wasn’t looking for.

A new goal slowly formed, and replaced the old goal, and I quickly moved to set things in motion to achieve that new goal.

What did I learn from retiring at 27?

When I sit back and think about all the things I learnt and how that period shaped me to what I am today, there are 6 key things that I think important to know before you set out to retire.

1. You need to have a goal when retiring

Don’t go into retirement without a goal.

Retiring is not an end in itself, it is another form of a continuum that started when you were born. As our goals change from learning to walk, to playing in the school team, to becoming CEO, to saving the planet or in whatever form yours may be, what remains important at all stages, is to have a goal. Goals give us direction and direction moves us forward.

2. You need to have some money set aside

Having a financial net is important. The size of the net is enough to continue to fill debates and websites the entire internet over for the rest of our lives, but the constant truth is that you need a net. Up to you to define the size of your net.

3. You need a side hustle

Doing something for money is an enormous reward and provides a very real sense of pride and self-worth.

Don’t walk into a retirement without something to do and don’t rely only on pension payments or investment returns to cover your needs. We all need mental and physical stimulation and side hustles can provide both.

4. You need to have a fall back plan

Things can always go wrong. Our hopes and plans are all targeted on nothing going wrong, but having a fall back is like having a financial safety net: you never know when you’ll need it, but knowing it is there takes away a lot of the pressure.

5. You need to explore and be open to new boundaries and adventures

Like any journey, the fun is in the actual journey. To make the most of it and really understand what it can bring you you need to be open to having fun and learning from the journey.

You can’t be mechanical about it or do nothing during the journey. Make the most of your time and what you are doing and be open to learning new things. Know that these new things may bring you new goals and open doors you never even imagined were there.

6. You need to be able to change if your goal changes

As with any journey, at some point you may decide you don’t like your next destination or that you prefer some other place.

Don’t be afraid to be flexible.

Don’t think that heading for a destination is now locked in stone and you need to get there at all costs. You need to be willing to accept changes to your destination.

When you accept that your goals can change, you’re more able to see the benefits of those goals changing.

My early retirement was a key moment in my life and laid the foundation for much of what I am today and what I have achieved in my career and life.

It also taught me about letting go and being open to new ideas and ways of doing things. That sometimes you don’t need to use force for things to change.

It pushed me in ways I would never have imagined and opened doors I didn’t believe existed. I am all the more better for it.

And I can’t wait to do it all again soon.


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