I’m retired. Now what?
I was in L.A. a while back speaking to a group and during the Q&A a lady raised her hand and said something like: “Retirement is harder than most people think. Not necessarily the money part, but figuring out what to do. I thought I’d spend 20 years traveling, but got bored with it after 6 months. Any advice for someone like me who is trying to figure out what my typical day will look like?”
Some version of that question comes up more often than you’d think when I’m speaking to a group or talking with clients. It turns out that daydreaming about what to do with your free time is pretty easy when you don’t have any free time. Once you’re retired, however, and all you have is free time, it can be a challenge to fill your days with interesting and meaningful activities.
So, what advice to give? Thankfully, I’ve written on this topic before (e.g. 10 Questions That Will Help You Decide What to Do During Retirement), so I had a few ideas. What I didn’t want to do was answer her question by suggesting a bunch of activities. “Have you tried Cross Fit? What about volunteering? You could learn to paint. That Bob Ross guy always looked happy.” Somehow, “randomly try stuff” doesn’t seem like great advice.
Instead, I focused on two things. First, I reiterated something that experience had already taught her: Retirement is more than a math problem. Yes, money is important, but the recipe for a happy retirement includes many ingredients and financial security is only one of them.
Second, I shared this quote from Harrington Emerson, an efficiency engineer and management consultant in the early 1900s:
“As to methods there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.”
Methods vs Principles
Let’s unpack that a bit. Think of principles as the laws, rules or beliefs that are foundational to a particular thing. For example, the principles of flight are lift, gravity, thrust and drag. That’s only four things, but if you want to make a flying machine, it needs to tick all those boxes.
Once you understand the principles, you can use any number of methods to accomplish them. In fact, as long as you understand the principles and how they interact (e.g. a heavier plane needs more thrust and lift) then you’re free to do pretty much whatever you want in the design and construction of the craft. It can have a jet engine or propeller. The wings could be made of cloth, steel or some type of composite. It can be big or small. Fast or slow. Have one seat or hundreds. It can serve a specific purpose (e.g. float plane, fighter jet, crop duster) or be a jack of all trades. You get the idea.
Just like with flight, retirement has certain principles that are foundational to success. Things like financial security, meaningful relationships, health, time control, purpose and a sense of belonging, to name a few. Once you understand what those are, you’re free to try pretty much whatever methods (procedures, techniques, tactics) you want to accomplish them. And since a) you understand the principles and b) you know yourself, you can choose methods that both serve the underlying principle and align with your interests, skills, desires and priorities.
Consider our flight analogy again. You’ve probably seen those old videos that show the blooper real of early flying machines. The bicycle with the oscillating bird wings attached. The man jumping off the hill with cardboard wings strapped to his arms. The man on roller skates with…you guessed it…bird wings attached to his arms. It’s clear that these Wilbur and Orville wannabes were doing their best to copy the “methods” of birds without understanding the principles involved that make those birds successful.
Likewise, retirees will sometimes copy things like golf, travel or relocating without realizing that they’re confusing principles and methods. Travel is not a principle of retirement. Having meaningful pursuits is. Volunteering is not a principle of retirement. Purpose is. Tennis is not a principle of retirement. Being healthy is. If you ignore the principles or don’t understand them, any method you try will feel random, ineffective, unstructured and ultimately disappointing. But if you understand the principles then, to paraphrase Emerson, you’ll have unlimited methods to choose from and you can experiment and settle on those which suit you best.