When the number of people who do what you do is small, it’s easy to be considered an expert on it. That’s the conclusion I’ve come to after serving as an early retirement "expert" for a panel discussion. Fortunately, by all accounts, I held my own and lived up to the title/role.


The other month, I received an email out of the blue from Laurie Churchman, an instructor at Johns Hopkins University’s Carey Business School in Baltimore, Maryland. Laurie teaches 3-day Executive Education seminars on Design Thinking. For each seminar, she chooses a challenge to focus the students' efforts. For the seminar she was reaching out to me about, the challenge was to be "reimagine retirement". In order to stoke the fire, Laurie starts each seminar with a panel discussion made up of subject matter experts. Laurie was asking me to serve as a panelist.

Given that I love talking about the topic of FIRE (Financial Independence and Retiring Early), I was tickled to be invited and quickly accepted. It also helped that the class was located a relatively short drive away, free parking was included, catered lunch was provided, and a small stipend was offered. Laurie stressed that serving as a panelist would not require any preparation.

A week before the class, Laurie sent an email to finalize the panelists and expectations. When I read the backgrounds of the other two panelists, I couldn’t help but smile at the mild ridiculousness of the situation I had found myself in. One of the other panelists was Angela Heath, an accomplished public speaker and book author. The remaining panelist was David Mercier, an accomplished life coach, accredited university instructor, and book author. Me? I was a retired software developer who had written one blog post about FIRE. Compared to my fellow panelists, not a whole lot of bona fides on my part.

But, I was definitely still game for the discussion and was looking forward to it. As icing on the cake, Laurie was gracious enough to allow me to invite two guests to the class - a FIRE-interested friend (Lisa) and my lovely Deborah.


The panel discussion, itself, went great! Laurie started off the discussion by asking a question that essentially allowed for each panelist to briefly tell their story, especially as it related to reimagining retirement. From there, the students quickly took to asking questions, which drove the rest of the discussion. Both Angela and David were impressive with what they brought to the table - and I’m very proud to say that I held up my end. (Fortunately, with both Deborah and Lisa in attendance, I was able to confirm as much.)

Listing of panelists for a discussion on "reimagining retirement" at Johns Hopkins University’s Carey Business School.

Laurie Churchman introducing panelists for a discussion on "reimagining retirement" at Johns Hopkins University’s Carey Business School.

Michael Scepaniak speaking as an early retirement expert at a discussion on "reimagining retirement" at Johns Hopkins University’s Carey Business School.

The students definitely seemed to be interested in the subject and engaged in the discussion, as we exceeded the allotted time of 90 minutes. After the panel discussion wrapped up, Angela, David, and myself made our exits and Laurie continued on with her class. All three of the panelists were invited to return two days later to review the students' work, an offer which I accepted. The students divided up into 6 groups of ~6 students each. It was a pleasure watching and commenting-on the product/service/concept (all related to reimagining retirement) that each group presented.

In the end, Laurie seemed very pleased. In turn, I was pleased, too. I had been a bit skeptical with what "expertise" I would be able to bring to the discussion, but I shouldn’t have been. Expertise is relative. And the amount of reading I had done about FIRE- and the amount of living I had done doing it was plenty enough to carry me through a 90 minute discussion on it.

After it was all done, I went ahead and made a new addition to my resume - "professional speaker". Now that I think of it, maybe I should modify my title - replace "Software Development Consultant" with "Early Retirement Expert". Maybe it's time - Michael Scepaniak, FIRE Expert.