The Fear of Becoming Institutionalized

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You’ve heard the popular saying: “If you want to boil a frog, first put it in cold water, and then slowly raise the temperature.” The idea is, if you start cooking at high heat, the frog will naturally want to jump out. But if you gradually crank up the heat, the frog won’t notice the subtle changes and eventually allow itself to be boiled.

Well, I’ve never boiled a live frog myself, so can’t confirm whether that actually works or not, but there is some truth to be had with that metaphor. In fact, I’ve noticed it since the beginning of my engineering career…

Change is Subtle

When I look back and examine my own life, I can’t help but notice how bland my life is these days compared to the days of yesteryear.

I used to LOVE learning and always wanted to seek out adventure… That’s still marginally true to some extent, but if I’m honest with myself, I can clearly see that I don’t do anywhere near as many cool things as I once did.

And this transformation didn’t happen instantly, or overnight. It took a bit of time, and in my case the changes span the course of over seven years. Year-by-year, I found myself experiencing less and less of life. First, it was no longer playing guitar on the side. Then, it was only snowboarding every other year. Next, it was foregoing flag football season… Come to think of it, things have gotten so bad that I don’t even play fantasy football anymore!

Sure, it’s easy to blame age… An even easier excuse is to say shoot I’m just too busy and have no free time…  Because, you know, I’m finally a true “adult” living a true “adult” life. Yeah, right…

I know that there’s more to it than just that. In fact, if I’m going to blame anyone, I’m going to resort to condemning my favorite whipping boy — work!

You Only Get One Life

I believe wholeheartedly that too much work is bad for you. In my case, it’s even easier for me to make such claims since I’ve witnessed first-hand the destructive damage stress can unleash on a body with enough time.

It’s just not natural. Human beings were not made to sit in cubicles 8+ hours everyday, arriving before the sun rises and leaving after the sun sets. We need a lot more exercise than we regularly get. We need more human interaction with other people besides our co-workers. And we sure as hell need to go outside and get more sun and Vitamin D!

When you strip away society’s expectations, what is it that your heart truly desires? For most people, the answers are:

  • Learning new things.
  • Traveling the world.
  • Gaining new experiences.
  • Being free.

Regardless of what it is you truly want, I doubt that at the beginning of your working career you would have answered:

  • To do the exact same thing day in and day out for the next 30+ years.
  • To spend the majority of an adult life working living at a single fixed location.
  • To play it safe and be comfortable.

But sadly, if you’ve worked in Corporate America for long enough, that’s what usually ends up happening over the course of a long career. You get good at one skill, and before long, you find yourself specializing in the same thing until you’re old and gray. If the last three bullets resonate with you more than you might expect them to, it’s because you’ve been brainwashed for a sufficiently long enough period of time. You’ve become institutionalized.

I’ve seen it happen first-hand to co-workers, and it’s the fear of becoming institutionalized that motivates me so deeply to achieve early financial independence.

A Scary Reality

Human beings are highly adaptable creatures. Kind of like the frog in boiling water, if changes are subtle, we might gloss over it and not take notice.

In the movie the Shawshank Redemption, there is an important scene that depicts how this can take form in a prison setting:

Red: “The man’s [Brooks] been in here 50 years! 50 years! This is all he knows. In here, he’s an important man… he’s an educated man. Outside, he’s nothing.”

Red: “These walls are funny. First you hate ’em, then you get used to ’em. Enough time passes, you get so you depend on them. That’s institutionalized.”

Heywood: “I could never get like that.”

Prisoner: “Oh yeah? Say that when you’ve been here as long as Brooks has.”

Those veteran engineer co-workers of mine that I speak about above? That’s exactly them! At work, they’ve become “the man” and highly, highly respected. They have deep specialized knowledge, and respect from all of their peers… In many cases, so much time has gone by that work has become the only thing that they really know anymore.

I’ve witnessed a co-worker who retired, threw a celebration party, only to return back to work after six short months of retirement… He was miserable at home. He didn’t know what to do with his newly discovered spare time. He had no hobbies… no interests…

All he knew was work!

It Could Happen…

I’m pretty stubborn, but not near naive enough to believe that the same thing couldn’t happen to me someday. Right now, I strongly detest work and have a million other things that I would rather be doing with my free time.

But even over the course of just seven years, I can see that I’m no longer the same person that I once was… Today, it is much more difficult for me to walk away from work than it would have been in 2008.

Sadly, these days I desire somewhat more structure and order in my life… Perhaps even a hint of a routine… Scary thought, I know!

I’ve adapted… Grown accustomed to the same ol’, same ol’ as mandated by work. Again, the changes occurred subtly through the years and aren’t very noticeable day-by-day. But there is a definite change that I’ve witnessed… that may or may not be reversible.

And that pains me to admit… That I’ve become even a tiny bit dependent on a system that I hate so much… What if I were to invest another 10 years into my engineering career? Another 20 years?

For sure, I would become institutionalized, no question… In fact, if I could peer off into that alternate universe, I probably wouldn’t even be able to recognize my future, institutionalized self…

Take Back Life

Luckily, not all is lost. As mentioned above, human beings are highly adaptable creatures. Although I’m no longer the same person that I once was, because I recognize that such a bleak future COULD exist, I know that I must do everything possible today to ensure that it WON’T ever happen.

This means never losing sight of the things that matter most to me. Reading. Writing. Exercise and fitness. Being inquisitive and asking questions. Exploring. Learning. Growing. Not being static and boring.

As I daydream about the future, I can’t help but smile. I know that I will do everything in my power to make sure that I get to live the life that I was meant to experience.

Last August, I traveled solo and got to experience Tokyo unscripted. I want more of that. A lot more! To me, early FI is about much more than just financial freedom. It’s about taking control of your life and being able to direct it just the way you want.

Prison walls are not a good fit for me. Neither is a pot of boiling water. I think I’m gonna opt out, instead, and live a more fulfilling life. 🙂

Sooner rather than later. Most importantly, to do so before it’s too late.

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Midwestern Landlord
Midwestern Landlord
5 years ago

FI Fighter, The movie Office Space is a classic and resonated with me when I was younger working in the corporate world. I agree with your premise; working for corporate america in many ways takes away who we are as individuals. Certainly the time commitment involved, doing repetitive work, and having limited creative freedom or control is not something that I found fulfilling on any level. Ultimately though, we just cannot discount the fact on how hard it is for the average person to retire early. Most people work for one reason; they need the money. I knew immediately after… Read more »

Mrs. Frugalwoods
5 years ago

I see FI in the same way–for me, it’s definitely about having control over my time and having the ability to pursue the projects I’m most interested in. The idea of being trapped in the same job/field for decades is truly terrifying to me. I crave diversity and new experiences and challenges!

P.S. I hope that you’re feeling better and are getting some much-needed rest!

5 years ago

Certainly, being indoors sitting all day is not good for our health. I will say you didn’t just suddenly become unhealthy. Your body has been suffering for a long time. This is most likely the biggest reason you haven’t been doing as many cool things. Our body purposely slows us down both mentally and, physically when we are sick to preserve energy for higher needs. When you get better you will find that spontaneity will not be a problem. 🙂 I know, because I have walked the path you are on. I am so much better. It took me years… Read more »

No Nonsense Landlord
5 years ago

It’s called old age, and responsibility. As you start to realize there is a such thing as mortality you begin to save for the future,. Not just money, but the lifestyle.

Look at the bars, there are plenty of people that have not yet given up the youthful spirit They still drink like a fish, and party like a rockstar. They still think about today, and not for tomorrow.

Human beings are a creature of habit. You have succumbed to being human.

Rat Race Quitter
5 years ago

I cant believe that with the point of this article, and with that as your picture, that I am the first one to say this:

“Get busy livin’, or get busy dyin'”.

5 years ago

One of the best explanations for why the life long worker keeps working and even comes back to work after retiring. There’s a guy at my work who I think has “retired” at least 2 times and is back for his 4th stint.

5 years ago

I think about this a lot and believe that it has happened to me in a sense. After 20+ years of working, it’s very hard to NOT have it happen. But, as work draws to a close for me, I’m getting a clearer picture of what retired life has in store, and I think that people can become institutionalized in any static environment, including retirement. Think about it: Years of puttering around the house, arranging knick-knacks, gardening, etc. could easily make you incapable of living any other way. Not a bad way to spend time unless one day you NEED… Read more »

5 years ago

Nice post. 🙂

Now that you’ve quit work at least temporarily would you consider living abroad for say 6 months, do a bit of geographic arbitrage and your $2,700/month will go very far…. if it goes well you could end up with pulling the plug completely and never going back (which would be awesome!)

I realise you have medical issues though so if you have to stay in the US for that then fair enough, but was just a thought.



[…] they are trapped in mundane, meaningless lives. If you stick around doing that for long enough, you are bound to become institutionalized. Aging becomes a growing fear because you’re so use to following orders that you have no clue […]


[…] See what happens when people become institutionalized?!? […]