Tuesday, 10 December 2019

Criticisms of ChooseFI

Old logo depicting their original intention
Having gone back and listened to ChooseFI from the beginning (I originally subscribed episode 90, on veganism) I have seen quite an interesting trajectory of how ChooseFI has branded the FIRE movement. Originally, they were to experiment in 'FI', presumably to try out different tactics and report back with the data + results. This actually sounds really interesting - wouldn't it be neat to see a before and after of somebody's finances after driving for Uber in the evenings for a month? Or what about batch cooking breakfast for the next two weeks and looking at the physical and financial results then? Put into an audio format under the lens of FIRE and you have yourself a really neat podcast.

The Good Episodes
As I'm sure you all know, this concept never materialised for the most part. The most we ever saw from this line of thinking was 'Travel Rewards', 'Skinny Waist Fat Wallet', 'The True Cost of Car Ownership', and 'The Aspiring Minimalist VS Reluctant Frugalist' among a few others. Typically, the episodes where Jon and Brad don't have a guest is when they revert back to this model and it always works out in their favour. Think about it, do travel rewards really provide you with low-cost travelling? Does eating healthy cost a lot more - or is it in fact cheaper? What about buying a new car? Or should I lease? Minimalism, what gives?

These episodes addressed something so fundamentally interesting and to do so in an audio format with relatable hosts sky rocketed ChooseFI into the mainstream conversation about FIRE. They also had incredibly great guests on the show, probably most notable of which was The Madfientist, JLCollins and Alan Donegan. These guys are rockstars within the FIRE scene and all three have very approachable content to learn from and experiment your life around (the first two if you're American - for the most part).

The Bad Episodes
But then comes the inevitable point of this article.. my criticism. Jon and Brad have done a very bad job of including a lot of guests that just aren't all that interesting to hear from. I'm not trying to bash individuals here nor am I saying that their own story isn't good enough - I just think it fails to captivate an audience and boring interviews are almost always the fault of the interviewer - in this case Brad and Jon. I don't want to single out multiple episodes because I'm certain most readers won't even remember the ones I'm talking about so I'll limit my criticism to three episodes. 

Episode 148 called 'Struggle' with Andrea Motenko
Here's this woman with an incredible story. To say the least she's seen some shit from life. But Jon and Brad just gloss over a lot of the uncomfortable parts of her story and push ahead with zero information and little reflection. While the story is meant to be serious and illustrate the financial hardship that comes from crappy circumstances, there is hardly any takeaways and no points or conclusions drawn from the story, rendering it difficult to understand and hard to appreciate. So now this episode is just some woman's sob story because Jon and Brad didn't ask the right questions nor did they share enough of their own experience or opinions. They (the hosts) talked for probably all of 10% of it which is another mistake I'll get into with the next episode.

Episode 131 with Mr. Money Mustache & 1500 Days
Okay, here's an episode literally everybody has been waiting for. Off the bat I'd like to just point out that Carl's participation in this episode was really kind of weird. I really like Carl and I don't think he ruined the episode by any means but come on, this is MR MONEY MUSTACHE! Maybe Pete didn't really want to come on and Carl dragged him there. I dunno.

Anyways, just above I critiqued Jon and Brad for being too silent with Andrea's episode, and here I feel like we got the exact opposite. Jon and Brad were roughly 50% of the episode, especially with Jon reading one of MMM's article out loud for some reason. He of course should've pulled quotes but it seemed like a really odd way to fanboy the undisputed thought leader of the FIRE movement. While I think Pete and Carl sounded great on the podcast I would've liked to see MMM on his own and speaking a lot more to his written work and to MMMHQ and his thoughts on the FIRE movement as a whole and the future it's headed in. You've finally got Pete on the podcast, let the man talk! The listeners didn't need any help understanding him (that's not my own bias - Jon said they won't cover his origin story and assumed everybody knew who he was). This felt like a squandered opportunity especially considering that ChooseFI is incredibly capable of putting out really thought provoking audio. For what it's worth, I did enjoy the episode but that had everything to do with the nuggets of truth MMM actually go to speak about.

Episode 52 and 52R called 'State of the Union' with Todd Tresidder
This might be the worst episode ChooseFI has ever released and I'm curious as to why they thought it was appropriate for their audience. I think the point of the episode originally was to compare Early Retirement Extreme to Fat FIRE. If you've listened to the podcast in order up to this point, you'll note that Jacob Fisker of ERE never made an appearance. I point this out because Jon was quite vocal about releasing these two potential one after the other and as we've seen this turned out much differently than he hoped.

Okay, so now let's talk about the problem with the episode and where things begin to derail for ChooseFI. 

Todd does a bang-up job of attempting to disguise his hatred for MMM by stating over and over again that Pete hasn't done anything wrong nor has deceived anybody with his lifestyle. But then Todd questions his successful blog, his annual spending, and his emphasis on frugality. It becomes very clear that regardless of how many times you might say you don't have a problem with Pete, that you actually do. Okay fair enough, attacking a leader in the FIRE movement might not be a popular choice for a FIRE podcast but I respect his informed opinion.

BUT THEN this guy goes on to say he's correctly guessed all the recent market corrections (Dot com bubble, housing crash, etc.). He's highly critical of people who don't spend money on what he values, such as private education. He goes against a lot of the risk-averse thinking that has made FIRE a repeatable process for a lot of people - don't stock pick, don't try to time the market, don't quit your job for a startup that might not work, don't reduce your expenses because they're not worth your time, all of it. Because he's succeeded with money in his own way that means we are all just leaving money on the table and wasting our time collecting cents when we could be earning dollars!

This type of thinking is an incredibly narrow minded delusional part of start-up culture, that one day you're going to make it so don't sweat the small stuff and keep dreaming big. The typical FIREwalker will optimize his or her life around the cents and the dollars. Calling to cancel your cable is a good thing and you're better off for it. Switching to a low-cost cell phone carrier makes complete sense to anybody pursuing FIRE in Canada but not to Todd - that's a waste of time! As you can see, his advice is based off of his circumstantial success and anecdotes about how we should be spending our time and money which is just how he wants to spend his time and money. It's an incredibly near-sighted message to spread to the masses when reducing your spending DOES WORK.

Todd correctly points out that if you follow only the perceived FIRE path such as cutting expenses and investing everything with VTSAX that you are missing a broader picture of making money. This is the only part of the episode that makes any sense and where I thought the whole ERE versus Fat FIRE was headed in. More complicated lives need more money and Fat FIRE seems to be the reflection of this. So Todd's point is 100% true and I've made it part of Canadian FIRE's and Explore FI Canada's mission to highlight the ethos of FIRE (which is increase your income, reduce your spending and invest the difference). Following the media's portrayal of FIRE (save until your rich!) isn't going to work, you need to really focus on what you value and where you want to go.

The last gripe I'll say on the matter was 52R's follow up to the episode. Jon and Brad admit that Todd didn't play over well to their community but wow, did they ever try to cover up his tone. Brad even admits, and I'm paraphrasing here, that if you can just get over the fact that Todd is a condescending douchebag that criticises the most fundamental FIRE principles that he has a lot of wisdom you should hold onto. Well, I don't know about you guys but somebody that far off the mark on something so obvious is going to be peddling dangerous advice in other areas, guaranteed. Since the topic of money is diverse, maybe you can get away with picking and choosing what you want to learn from Todd but in my opinion the guy is fundamentally against the FIRE movement most sacred cows. I think I'll pass.

Last Criticism
This article has gone on way too long so I'll end with my final criticism of ChooseFI - the fact that they say they aren't about early retirement. This could not be more hypocritical and quite easy to see through. All they talk about is early retirement! Brad has FIRE'd. Jon is on his journey to FIRE. They talk about FI as if it is independent of the choice to retire but that's simply untrue. The entire point of collecting a shit-tonne of money in the first place is to give you that choice. To sell FI as something different is simply a branding technique for people who don't get it yet. They think FI is all about money and that's simply not the case. But by branding yourself away from the philosophy they are really just selling you the things you can do and buy to keep more of your money. 

I'm definitely not saying it's wrong to monetize their podcast or to sell you their book - by all means give the people what they want. But don't tell people early retirement isn't the goal when you end every single one of your episodes with "The FIRE is spreading". If you doubt my theory of this, go back and listen to episodes 1 through 30 and then try and tell me they don't focus on RE. Every time you hear Brad say the same thing he says every single round up ("It's about deciding what you value and making choices around those values") he's actually just telling you to believe in the philosophy of FIRE and that those decisions he wants you to make are inevitably leading up to the most groundbreaking decision of your life, your retirement.

Conclusion
Brad correctly wants you to choose how you will value your time with much smaller incremental decisions and that is the exact purpose of FIRE. I've said it before and I'll say it again: FI is the actions one will take, the series of decisions that improve your financial well-being (your money) and the RE is the reason behind why you choose to make these decisions so you can improve your physical well-being (your time). They go hand-in-hand you guys. Brad is living proof of the philosophy, regardless of the nonsense that spews out of his mouth from time to time.

Also, I don't care whether people call their blogs FI or RE or variations thereof. We all want to sound unique and to be honest, sometimes things sound better one way or the other. I thought my own podcast 'Explore FIRE Canada' sounded cooler than Explore FI Canada but I was outvoted (jerks!). In all seriousness, it really doesn't matter what you call yourself and to not take a name or the acronym so seriously.

Before anybody gets their knickers in a knot, no, I'm not saying EFIC is better than ChooseFI. I'm also still subscribed to the podcast and look forward to episodes that provide value. What I'm really trying to emphasize is the obvious marketing surrounding the "drop the RE' style garbage when people sell you their version of FI. Everybody just wants more readers, viewers, listeners, affiliates, advertisements and therefore more profit. The more people you pay attention to who peel away from the FIRE philosophy but still call themselves an "FI" podcast are likely strapping you onto the slippery slope to signing you up for useless credit cards, bullshit seminars and get-rich-quick schemes.

Ryan Myricks
You can email me here: canadianfire1@gmail.com
You can listen to me here: exploreficanada.ca

2 comments:

  1. Ryan,

    An interesting and courageous critical post. Not everybody is up for slinging mud at such a Titan in the FI-space. I listened to maybe about 1/2 of their episodes, selectively trying to omit the ones that were very US-centric. I agree with much of what you said especially about the Todd Tresidder episode. I will say that I respect that they were willing to air controversial viewpoints ... it makes them less likely to devolve into an echo chamber.

    I think that the attempts to divorce FI from RE are well-intended for the most part. Why alienate people from the Get-Go? As soon as you say the word "retire" and you look younger than the person thinks "you should look" ... their back gets up against the wall. I remember for the first few years as a practicing physician, patients would make statements like "You look too young to be a doctor." I shrugged this off at first, but eventually it grated on my nerves, so I came back with "Oh really? And what is the minimum age that you deem it appropriate to be a doctor?" That shut them up. Of course, now I'm in my 40's and I don't have such delightful problems.

    Despite the above, I think I would wear "RE" as a badge of honor and strive to be (appropriately) proud of the achievement. Somewhere between the tone of MMM and Brad from ChooseFI. I think it could be a great conversation starter in certain situations (e.g. meeting somebody sitting next to you on an airplane who asks the almost inevitable "And what do YOU do?" question).

    Keep up the good work!

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    1. Love the story Fringe Doc. And yes, I'm perhaps a bit over my head shooting ChooseFI with my little nerf gun of a blog.

      I for one love the instigation and awkwardness that surrounds the FIRE. its a very abnormal thing to do, even the naysayers who say they're just going for FI (and not RE) are actually doing something monumentally different from the norm. They're going to look like weirdos anyways and the attempts to mainstream the movement will just dilute the message down to the point where the only "safe and acceptable advice" is going to be save 10% and don't get into consumer debt (lest you offend anybody with early retirement!!). We already have choice - it's called The Wealthy Barber. So I say fuck the mainstreamers! Full FIRE or Wealthy Barber. Pick one, they're both good options for living a financially healthy life.

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