We spent an amazing week at a retreat in Otavalo, Ecuador in November 2019. This was one of the well known Chautauqua’s in the FIRE community which was originally conceived by Cheryl Reed and JL Collins together and started occurring in Cheryl’s adopted country of Ecuador back in 2013. We first heard about these events back in 2014 and though the idea of attending a FIRE retreat was appealing to us, the events seemed like math camp for software engineers didn’t completely appeal to us. But then early in 2019 we got notifications about a Chautauqua Cheryl was hosting where she had assembled an all female presenter lineup that was very intentionally geared towards creating a meaningful post-FIRE life. And that event was perfect for us!
This was the dream team of presenters that finally motivated us to signup for a Chautauqua:
- Vicki Robin, author of “Your Money or Your Life”
- Paula Pant, of the “Afford Anything” blog and podcast
- Tanja Hester, of the “Our Next Life” blog and author of “Work Optional”
- Cheryl Reed, an architect of FI Chautauqua’s from Above the Clouds Retreats
We were not shocked to learn that this Chautauqua sold out immediately. With room for 28 attendees, 21 women and 6 men filled the roster quickly and then spilled over into an even longer waiting list. Our group ranged in ages from 25 to 74 years old and included people from all over the US, the Caribbean, and even as far away as London. Our group included people with careers in healthcare, science, marketing, engineering, the military, politics, finance, the arts, real estate, etc. By far the biggest job category in our group was healthcare with over a half dozen people who were nurses, physical therapists, or doctors. We were also impressed to learn that almost 25% of the attendees in our group were LGBT+. This group definitely had a bunch of like-minded people so we were thrilled to make some real friends during the retreat.
We stayed in an amazing hacienda at the foot of a dormant volcano. The guest rooms each had a fireplace and (*gasp) no wifi! We were spread out across a large estate with lots of different quiet spaces with couches, fireplaces, and wifi. It was easy to find places to visit with each other and check in with the outside world. But mostly we talked, listened, laughed, sang, and danced our way through the week. Apparently this was the first time an Ecuador Chautauqua group spent their evenings dancing and singing broadway show tunes at the top of their lungs!
Each presenter hosted longer sessions about big life topics such as finding your happiness, building your community, using your FI for the good of others, communication, creating meaningful change, healthcare options, and owning rental properties. There was also a panel session with all of the presenters speaking more collaboratively on topics relating to “knowing you have enough” in life. There were also breakout sessions covering ethical investing, nonviolent communication, and goal setting. During our week we also had plenty of alone time and personal time to read, take walks, visit with each of the presenters, and build relationships with our new friends.
Our very diverse group came together quickly and started sharing our past experiences, lessons learned, and our hopes and dreams. Our group included people at all stages on the path to FI, as well as lots of us who are already post FIRE. Of course we talked about the obvious Chautauqua topics of money, investments, FIRE numbers, savings rates, real estate, and spreadsheets. We also talked about travel experiences, the places we lived, our families and communities. And then as the presenters shared what was on their minds we all shifted our focus to accommodate new ideas. From my perspective the overall message was that FI is much more than just getting the numbers right. FI is really about owning your personal freedom and being intentional about how you choose to live in the world.
As each of the big group sessions unfolded before us several themes started to come together for me. I have been pondering these topics non-stop with Ali since our time chatting with that amazing group of thinkers at our Chautauqua.
Theme 1: A fair amount of our capacity to be happy is genetic, a small amount of our happiness is one-off and event driven, and the rest is what we make of things. I want to do what I can to boost the part of my own happiness that I can control. Personally, I enjoy being different and unlike everyone else. I can’t completely control health related things but I can control how I respond to the situations I have to deal with. And most importantly, I can definitely do my best to avoid complaining or comparing myself to others, since those behaviors tend to have a relatively huge impact on my happiness.
Theme 2: As members of the FIRE community, we are prone to acting like “money rats,” scurrying around trying to collect every penny then running off into the corner to count and recount what we’ve collected. At this point in my life I am ready to shift my focus from collecting to sharing. Ali and I are now thinking and planning for how we can share our time, resources, and energy with others. We are less focused on saving and protecting what we have and more focused on how we will build our community both now and in the future.
Theme 3: Being financially independent means we have the ability and the power to use our influence to help others. Since we aren’t saving and collecting full time anymore, we no longer have to optimize every choice about our money or time. We can choose to flex towards others and put more of our money and time towards important causes that we value. We want to be more open to our community and the people in our lives. Rather than optimizing and hoarding like little money rats, we will work on how we can donate more or pay more taxes, or both, to help our community.
Theme 4: Our life vision is really a collaborative story we build in ourselves, our families, and our community. Our story is constantly shifting because of new interactions and changing input from the world we live in. A lot of this is related to our current lifestyle choice of full-time travel. Everyday we are exposed to new places, stories, events, data, and people. I feel very lucky to be having the experiences I’m having at this stage in my life, and especially lucky to have the time and energy to look for ways we can contribute to making other peoples’ lives better.
What Changed For Me
Before our Chautauqua experience, my focus was on adding up all our numbers and making sure we are strategic tax planners. One of my favorite projects this year was planning big Roth conversions to avoid RMDs down the road. But after our Chautauqua experience last week, something in me has shifted. Don’t get me wrong, I still LOVE my spreadsheets. But spending that week with our new FIRE friends has shifted my thoughts away from money and towards the people in my life who I want to include in my community and my sense of abundance. Over the past week I’ve been retraining my brain away from optimizing our money, so I can focus on an abundance mindset where we all have more if we all find ways to share. Money is not the only thing that holds value in my life. Of even greater value is our time and being present for one another.