I’m in the bowels of a large ocean liner steaming across the open sea. My heart is pounding and my arms ache. I’ve been shoveling coal from giant reservoirs into the furnace. Me and dozens of workers are in a giant boiler room and have been shoveling non-stop for 10 hours.1

The burning coal provides the steam that turns the 8 giant 30-foot pistons just behind our massive boiler room. The pistons in turn rotate the two enormous propellers just aft of the ship. The more coal, the more steam. The more steam, the more pressure to turn the pistons and apply power to the propellers – and the faster we get to our destination.

But I don’t know where our destination is? The captain from his perch in the pilot house has voiced on more than one occasion that the destination is a tropical island of unbelievable beauty. The passengers have all paid good money to visit this place. And to stay on schedule the ship must travel as fast as possible. Requests for more coal and more steam are a common refrain from the pilot house.

So I dig and shovel. Day and night.2

Finally the ship arrives. Calls for more coal cease. I can feel the ship slowing as we come into port. I hear the call for passengers to disembark.

But I am not offered that option. I am not a passenger.

My orders are to transfer more coal from the main depot in another part of the ship to the large reservoirs in the boiler room to make ready for the next part of the journey.

The task takes most of the day. I never glimpse a window. I never get a peek at the glorious island just outside, let alone set foot in the soft sands. In fact, the scenery for me is no different here than when we were in the middle of the ocean or even back at our original port. I’d be hard pressed to prove that any change in location had occurred at all.

Abruptly I hear the captain call for engine preparations as the passengers begin returning to the ship. We’ll be leaving port in a matter of minutes. That’s when two very powerful revelations erupt within me.

First, if I never get to see or experience the destination, then the destination doesn’t actually matter.

Sure, it matters to the passengers who are paying good money to get there, and those wages trickle down into my salary, which I value greatly. But does the invisible destination impact or change me in any way? Would it be any different if the destination was a polluted backwater with overgrown brush and rocky beaches?

If you never see the destination, the destination loses all meaning.

The fact that the destination is a wonderful tropical island is just a means of getting passengers to pay money to board the ship. To me, the destination no longer matters. Just the money.

The second revelation is I realize what moves the ship.

It’s not the propellers, or even the massive pistons. None of these objects move on their own to propel the ship forward. It is in fact me, and my co-laborers, who manually move the coal from the depot to the reservoirs to the furnace that makes the ship go.

The coal does nothing by itself. The furnaces would gladly sit idle. It is my willingness to expend time and energy moving the coal that makes the ship capable of reaching the destination.

It is me that makes the ship move.

It seems moving coal is the only thing I truly control.

So now you have two options.

  1. I decide the money is more valuable than experiencing life outside the engine room. I go back to relentlessly shoveling the coal, but inside I start resenting the ship, the passengers, the furnace, the coal – everything. I do my job, but begin to hate my job. It’s just a means to receive money to supply my needs, nothing more. I have become a slave to my work.

  2. I stop shoveling coal. I exit the boiler room. I walk up the stairs to the upper deck and cross the bow feeling – for the first time – the ocean breeze on my face. I stand at the railing at the edge of the ship and truly see the massive ocean for the first time in my life. The ship is moving forward to it’s next destination as the crew below continues shoveling coal, the same as always.

I have chosen option 2. I have chosen to experience the ship. I have chosen to experience life outside the boiler room.

I know that once the ship returns to port I’ll likely be fired, losing my job and my paycheck. But for some reason that feels right.

At the next port I’m abnormally calm. Nobody talks to me. There are no reprimands, no paperwork. I disembark the ship, just like the passengers, but unlike the passengers, I won’t be getting back on. I stroll along the beach and stare at the beauty of the sunrise. I imagine my old crew frantically gathering coal from the depot and stocking the reservoirs in hopes to be done in time for the ship to move on.

I’ll miss them, but I now understand that each of them is making a choice each day to shovel coal…or not. Then, a moment of sadness as I realize some of them likely don’t even realize they’re making a choice. But most of them know, and I don’t hold any grudges against those who choose that life. But I have made my own choice – to experience the destination.

I finally realize it was always my choice to make.

This was a dream I had the other night. I don’t typically remember my dreams, so that was significant by itself. The parallels between my real life work and our path to FI seem prescient. Of course, I don’t work in the bowels of a ship or do hard labor. (I work on a computer all day.) But I can see that sometimes there is a pull between just doing the work to make a dollar, rather than doing the work to see the finished product and the value it provides.

I’m not looking to overanalyze this dream, but it struck me as worthy to write down. Maybe to come back and revisit later.

1 Apparently I’m very aware of specific time durations in my dreams.

2 Apparently I can also operate without sleep in my dreams, which strikes me as very meta. My own personal Inception.