I just finished reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It’s a bestselling classic, but I must confess that I wasn’t a huge fan. It did have a few great nuggets that made me think, however, and today I’d like to share a short passage from the book that could have a profound impact on how you approach retirement. Consider it Zen and the Art of Retirement.
In the passage, the main character is talking about the problem of value rigidity, which refers to our tendency to cling to certain preconceived ideas of what’s important and what’s not, even when events or circumstances change. To make matters worse, we sometimes put a high value on things that we shouldn’t and then stubbornly cling to our error. Here’s the text followed by a few takeaways for your life and retirement.
“All kinds of examples from cycle maintenance could be given, but the most striking example of value rigidity I can think of is the old South Indian Monkey Trap, which depends on value rigidity for its effectiveness. The trap consists of a hollowed-out coconut chained to a stake. The coconut has some rice inside which can be grabbed through a small hole. The hole is big enough so that the monkey’s hand can go in, but too small for his fist with rice in it to come out. The monkey reaches in and is suddenly trapped…by nothing more than his own value rigidity. He can’t revalue the rice. He cannot see that freedom without rice is more valuable than capture with it. The villagers are coming to get him and take him away. They’re coming closer — closer! — now! What general advice…not specific advice…but what general advice would you give the poor monkey in circumstances like this?
Well, I think you might say exactly what I’ve been saying about value rigidity, with perhaps a little extra urgency. There is a fact this monkey should know: if he opens his hand he’s free. But how is he going to discover this fact? By removing the value rigidity that rates rice above freedom. How is he going to do that? Well, he should somehow try to slow down deliberately and go over ground that he has been over before and see if things he thought were important really were important and, well, stop yanking and just stare at the coconut for a while. Before long he should get a nibble from a little fact wondering if he is interested in it. He should try to understand this fact not so much in terms of his big problem as for its own sake. That problem may not be as big as he thinks it is. That fact may not be as small as he thinks it is either. That’s about all the general information you can give him.”
Here are three important takeaways from this story:
Sometimes, especially during times of change or major life transitions (e.g. retirement), we need to revalue things so that we can realign our actions and beliefs with our new life. Said another way, the types of things that are important to us in the new life stage are likely different from the things that were important to us during the previous life stage. We need to decide what those new things are and elevate them to their proper position. If we don’t, we’ll cling to things that used to be important to us (e.g. work, certain relationships, houses, how we spend our free time, hometowns, etc.) and our tight grip on those keeps us stuck in the monkey trap, unable to pursue our new plans.
Sometimes holding the tangible thing can cause you to lose the intangible. There’s nothing wrong with having nice things, but everything we own takes some of our time and some of our money. If we focus too much on the tangible (houses, cars, gadgets, etc.), that leaves little time and money left over for the intangible (travel, experiences, hobbies, relationships, pursuits, etc.).
Sometimes we don’t understand how much we value the intangibles until we lose them. I was reading a study recently that listed out the types of things that were important to retirees. Number 1 was financial security (no surprise there). Number 2 was health. In the story above, the monkey got the rice, but it cost him his freedom. I don’t know about you, but I’ve definitely made sacrifices to my health as I pursued wealth (a.k.a. career). I’m sure you have too. We work hard. We’re busy. No time for a healthy lunch. No time to exercise. No time to get enough sleep. We take our health for granted. In our own way, we’re grabbing for the rice, but if we’re not careful it could cost us a major intangible like our health, and consequently our freedom to pursue many of our retirement plans. We may take it for granted now, but it will be sorely missed when it’s gone.
How can we avoid monkey traps?
What that question is really asking is this: How can we tell if we’re hanging on to something trivial at the expense of something important? How can we tell the genuine from the counterfeit? To answer that, let’s look at an example from the Secret Service. In addition to protecting the President, the Secret Service is in charge of protecting against counterfeit currency. When they’re training new agents to recognize counterfeits, they don’t sit them down in a room with a bunch of counterfeit bills and point out the flaws.
Instead they sit them down in a room with currency experts and pristine examples of genuine bills. They go through every detail. Why it’s there. What it represents. How it deters counterfeiters. How difficult it is to reproduce. How to look for it. They learn what the ink looks like. They learn what the paper feels like. They learn what the bill smells like.
By studying what makes a bill genuine, a funny thing happens. Without ever studying the counterfeits, agents can spot them from a mile away because they know what the genuine bills look like. We can do something similar. If we sit down and decide what’s genuinely important to us—what we value above all else—then when imposter opportunities come along, we will be able to recognize them for what they are. Then rather than shoving our hand inside and grabbing for the rice, we’ll keep right on walking because we have a clear idea of what we really want out of life and we’re taking those plans very seriously. If we can all do that, then we’ll be well on our way to an intentional, meaningful retirement.