“It’s an ill wind that doesn’t blow some good.” – Pa Ingalls in Little House on the Prairie
COVID-19 has been a tragedy. There’s no disputing that. Thousands dead. Millions sick. Millions more jobless. It’s hard to overstate the negative impacts of the pandemic. And yet, to paraphrase Pa Ingalls, even terrible situations can produce some good. As difficult as this time has been, I can’t help but think that many of us will look back on it as one of the best things to happen to us. Not in a “I just won the lottery!” sort of way, but in a “Painful, but positive” sort of way. Keep reading to see what I mean and to see how you can make sure that this “ill wind” blows some good for your retirement.
It forces us out of routine. It’s easy to get in a rut. Easy to put life on autopilot and live the same day over and over. Even if we don’t like the rut we’re in, we’ll often stay there because it feels safe. Human nature is such that we will often choose being unhappy over being uncertain. One thing this virus has done in spades is forced us all to live life in a different way. It grabbed the steering wheel and yanked us out of the rut. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it’s almost certainly a good thing. It gives us a fresh perspective. It helps time pass more slowly (because routine is the enemy of time). It opens us up to new experiences and new ways of thinking about things. It presents new opportunities. Yes, it brings uncertainty, but hiding in all that uncertainty is opportunity. Look for it.
It forces us to reexamine our priorities. Priorities are the things in life that are most important to us. They are the people, activities or things that we really care about and that bring us meaning. When life is going along swimmingly and we’re healthy and have plenty of time and money, we tend to get lazy. We allow things in that clutter or confuse our priorities. When life gets hard, however, and one or more of our priorities are threatened, it refocuses our mind on what’s important. Hard times force us to cut and say “no.” They force us to get back to the basics. That means a life less cluttered with filler and more focused on the things that bring you joy and meaning. That’s a good thing.
It forces us to think differently about debt. When the economy is strong and interest rates are low, it’s tempting to add debt. You almost feel foolish if you don’t. “One percent interest? Why wouldn’t I buy a $60,000 car?” But when hard times hit, servicing that debt becomes difficult if not impossible. Debt increases risk and reduces cash flow. It adds stress. It can derail your plans and dreams. It weakens your financial “immune system.” The pandemic is a good reminder to use debt sparingly.
It shows the fallacy of “appearances.” On a sunny day, a house built on the sand doesn’t look any different than a house built on rock. But when the storms come, the difference is pretty clear. It’s easy to get caught up in appearances. It’s tempting to keep up with the Jones’s. But even in the best of times, that strategy can be stressful and unfulfilling. In bad times it can be catastrophic. Machiavelli once wrote “The great majority of mankind are satisfied with appearances, as though they were realities.” Don’t be one of those people. Build a life that is happy, secure and fulfilling, not one that only looks good on Instagram.
It exposes our weaknesses. Warren Buffett once said “It’s only when the tide goes out that you learn who has been swimming naked.” There’s nothing like a combination global pandemic + financial crisis to help expose your weaknesses. Too much risk in your investments? Too much debt? No rainy day fund? Strained relationship with your spouse? Underlying health issues you’ve been ignoring? Settling for a life that isn’t what you want? If the tide went out and you find yourself a bit overexposed, maybe it’s time to go shopping for a swimsuit.
One of the most important ingredients to a successful retirement is to decide what you really want out of life and to start taking those things very seriously. COVID-19, while terrible, has likely helped you in that regard by forcing you to reexamine your habits, routines, priorities, purpose, relationships, finances, lifestyle and any number of other things. Embrace that process and you’ll likely come out the other side a stronger, more resilient, more self-aware person.
What are some practical ways to apply all this? I’ll put a few ideas below along with links to articles and resources at Intentional Retirement.
Quick thought for today.
If you want to live an intentional life, you should focus primarily on
the present. Let me explain. We all spend part of our days—either mentally
or physically—in the past, present or future.
You’re sitting there right now in the present, but maybe you’re thinking
about something you did this past weekend or dreaming about something you hope
to be doing 5 years from now. Past, present
and future. We all spend our time
inhabiting each of those spaces.
Unfortunately, most of us mess up the proportions. We spend too
much time and energy on the past and the future and not enough on the
present. We look back and worry about the
things we did or didn’t do. We look
forward and dream about the things we hope to eventually do. That only leaves a small amount of our time
where we’re honest to goodness living in and making the most out of the
I’m not saying that you should ignore the past and the
future, but the present should be your priority. Anything else means you’re focusing on things
you can’t change (the past) or things that might not happen (the future). Here are a few suggestions on how to get the
How to use your past:
Don’t obsess over it. Don’t
waste your time thinking about regrets or wishing you had done or said things
differently. Don’t cling to
bitterness. Don’t hold grudges. Instead,
think fondly of the good times and be grateful for the wisdom earned and lessons
learned from the challenging times. Use
it as a foundation to build on. Remember
the people, places and things that made you who you are.
How to prepare for your future: Don’t push everything to the future. Don’t treat it as some magical time where you’ll finally start living. Delayed gratification is great if it’s allowing you to work toward something, but it becomes a problem if it becomes an excuse for life avoidance. Use the runway between the present and the future for planning and preparation. Use it to set the proper direction for your life and to get any necessary prerequisites out of the way. Use it to set goals, dream, plan, save and even to experiment. All of those things will help you hit the ground running and make the most out of your future years.
How to live in the present: Don’t get bogged down in the routine of
life. Don’t focus all your time on the
maintenance of living. Don’t live a life
that is frantic and unintentional. Be
present in your days, with your friends and during experiences like vacations
rather than worrying about how to make it look a certain way on social
media. Decide what you really want out
of life and start doing that. Today. Even if you have to start small, start. Have intentional action in your relationships,
activities, health, hobbies, pursuits and every other area of your life. Be proactive.
Learn. Do. Go. Experiment. Take risks.
In other words, live.
A good balance of past/present/future is something like
10/60/30. If yours looks more like
30/20/50, you’re not really living life.
You’re worrying about the life you’ve already lived and dreaming about a
life you hope to someday live.
At Intentional Retirement, we believe that retirement is an
intentional way of living that prioritizes freedom, fulfillment, purpose and
relationships. It starts today and is an
incremental process of aligning your lifestyle and actions with your highest
priorities. To do that, you need to
focus on the present. Stop fretting over
what is past or dreaming about what is to come.
Today is a new day. Start doing.
How healthy are your friendships? The answer will have a huge impact on your retirement. Research shows that friends (or lack thereof) can affect your health, happiness and even your habits. Let’s look at the findings, examine some of the challenges your friendships will face as you age and discuss a few ways to make and maintain friendships during retirement.
How Friends Affect Us
According to the Mayo Clinic, friendships can affect your
health and happiness in a number of important ways:
They provide support in tough times.
They help you find belonging and purpose
They reduce your stress and increase happiness
They give self-confidence and self-worth
They can help you through difficult times like
death, divorce, illness or job loss
They provide accountability and positive peer
They help reduce the risk of things like
depression, high blood pressure and unhealthy BMI.
In addition to the benefits above, friendships can help keep
your mind sharp. Several studies have found
that there is a strong connection between loneliness and cognitive
decline. For example, a 2018 study in
the Journals of Gerontology found that loneliness was associated with a 40%
increase in dementia among study participants.
In another study, researchers in the Netherlands found that people who
feel lonely are about 1.6 times more likely to get dementia.
There’s also evidence that the importance of friendships
increases as we age. Dr. William Chopik
at Michigan State University conducted a study on how our relationships affect
our health and happiness as we age. The results
showed that the benefits we get from healthy family relationships stays level
throughout life, but the value of good friendships has a greater impact on our
health and happiness as we age. According
to Dr. Chopik:
“Friendship quality often predicts health more so than the quality of other relationships.”
The Problem + The Solution
So the benefits of friends are huge, but there’s a
problem. Making and maintaining quality
friendships gets harder as you age. In
mid-life you have competing priorities like kids and work. As you age, caring for your parents often
gets added to the list. And life isn’t
static. Circumstances change and
friendships ebb and flow. Major life
events—death, divorce, job loss, moving and retirement—can derail even the best
of friendships. So if you want to enter
retirement with good friends that have a positive impact on your health,
happiness and cognitive function, you need to be intentional.
That means investing time, effort and often money into your friendships. It means being kind, likeable and trustworthy. It means listening and being transparent. It means being reliable and available. It means celebrating victories and being there when life is challenging. It means being loyal and avoiding drama. It means being proactive about spending time together. All those things have a compounding effect over time. They deepen friendships and give them a solid foundation. And as we saw earlier, those deep friendships take on added meaning as you age.
A Few Practical Applications
The primary takeaway is this: Don’t underestimate the power of friends. They can make or break your retirement. Start working on them now. If you’re looking for a good place to begin, forward this article to one or two of your friends and start a conversation. Ask how you can be a better friend. Plan an adventure or fun outing. Start a new tradition. Discuss ways to deepen your friendship. Compare retirement plans and make sure they overlap in ways that will allow you to maintain your friendship. All of this takes effort, but it’s worth it. The payoff is a healthier, happier life for both you and those you care about.
“The big question about how people behave is whether they’ve got an inner scorecard or an outer scorecard. It helps if you can be satisfied with an inner scorecard.”
The scorecard he’s talking about is how you measure success in any given endeavor. Are you playing your game or someone else’s? Do you compare yourself to others and try to win based on what they or the rest of the world think of you? Or do you focus on the things that matter to you and judge your success based on the goals and metrics that you’ve set for yourself (i.e. your internal scorecard)?
You can “succeed” with either scorecard. It’s just a question of whether or not that
success is likely to bring you happiness and fulfillment. Most people use a combination of both
scorecards, but during the first two-thirds of life the external scorecard
often wins. As a student, you had a
literal scorecard and it measured how well you did compared to the other
students and whether you reached the milestones of success set by the school. You likely focused on that scorecard to
please your parents or gain acceptance into college or a career.
During your working years there’s pressure to focus on the external
scorecard as well. Are you the top
salesman? How much money do you
make? What is your job title? How much is in your 401k? What professional designations do you
have? What industry awards have you
And since we use the external scorecard at work, we often
use it in our personal life as well. How
big is your house? What kind of car do
you drive? What brand of clothes do you
wear? Where do you vacation? Are your kids in private school?
There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of those things,
but if the only reason you want them is to please others or win some foolish
game of status or achievement, then you’re winning at the wrong game. It’s possible to look totally successful on
the outside and be a mess on the inside.
The internal scorecard and retirement
When you retire, you buy yourself the freedom to design your
own game and set your own rules. You get
to decide what constitutes a success.
This is a much more rewarding game to play and it is more likely to
result in happiness and fulfillment, because the metrics you’re focusing on are
the things that are important to you. It
takes work, however, because you need to create the game and set the
rules. That means deciding what you
really want out of life and then holding yourself accountable to achieve it
using your internal scorecard. Your scorecard
will look different than mine, so I can’t tell you what to do, but I can give
you some general ideas on how to do it. Below
are a few resources that can help.
Read this quote from Jeff Bezos and then let’s apply it to retirement.
“I very frequently get the question: ‘What’s going to change in the next 10 years?’ And that is a very interesting question; it’s a very common one. I almost never get the question: ‘What’s not going to change in the next 10 years?’ And I submit to you that that second question is actually the more important of the two — because you can build a business strategy around the things that are stable in time. In our retail business, we know that customers want low prices, and I know that’s going to be true 10 years from now. They want fast delivery; they want vast selection. It’s impossible to imagine a future 10 years from now where a customer comes up and says, ‘Jeff I love Amazon; I just wish the prices were a little higher,’ [or] ‘I love Amazon; I just wish you’d deliver a little more slowly.’ Impossible. And so the effort we put into those things, spinning those things up, we know the energy we put into it today will still be paying off dividends for our customers 10 years from now. When you have something that you know is true, even over the long term, you can afford to put a lot of energy into it.”
What won’t change in retirement?
Bezos was talking about business, but you can just as easily apply his idea to retirement. Most people spend decades preparing for retirement. If you’re going to do that, you want to make sure that the time, money and energy that you’re investing will get you to where you want to be and will pay dividends for years to come. So, what won’t change? What is likely to be just as true 10 or 20 years from now as it is today? Here are three ideas:
You’ll want to be healthier. I have yet to come across the retiree who doesn’t care about their health. Everyone wants to be as healthy as possible for as long as possible. I’m sure the same will be true of you. So the time and effort you spend on improving and maintaining your health will be well spent. That could mean making a long-term commitment to eating better. Or hiring a personal trainer. Or buying better quality food. Or going to your doctor for regular checkups. Or going to a physical therapist to finally treat those aches and pains. Or flossing (seriously…new research links gum disease to Alzheimer’s). Or getting that knee or hip replacement surgery that you’ve been putting off. If it’s an investment in your health, it will pay dividends for years to come.
You’ll want to be happier. That was true when you were 2. It was true when you were 20. It will still be true if you live to be 200. So think about the things that make you happy and invest in those. Here are a few suggestions based on happiness research. Invest in relationships. Learn new things. Focus on experiences rather than things. Work on something bigger than yourself. Exercise. Meditate or pray. Spend time outdoors. Help others. Get enough sleep. Forgive. Stop comparing yourself to others.
You’ll want to be more financially secure. I’m sure everyone has dreamed of winning the lottery, but that’s not what I’m talking about. Financial security simply means you’re not worrying about money at night. It means having enough to buy your freedom. Enough to control what you do with your time. Enough to do the things that you want to do. Enough to help those you care about if they need help. Enough to take care of yourself if/when your health changes. Enough to design the kind of lifestyle you want. The desire for financial security will not change, but it takes most of us a long time to get there. So be a good steward of your assets. Save diligently. Pay off debt. Invest wisely. Calculate how much you need to fund the retirement you want and make a plan that will get you there. Hire an adviser if you need help. Get your finances in order and it will pay dividends (literally) for years to come.
Because retirement is a time filled with fun, travel and leisure it is easy to make the pursuit of pleasure your orienting principle. That would be a terrible mistake. There’s nothing wrong with pleasure, but it must exist in the context of something deeper. Let me explain.
Meaning vs. Pleasure
I’ve written before about Viktor Frankl. He was a psychiatrist and holocaust survivor who wrote the book Man’s Search for Meaning about his time as a concentration camp prisoner. Frankl founded a school of psychology called Logotherapy (literally “meaning” therapy). He believed that striving to find meaning is the primary motivational force in humans. This was in contrast to Freud, who believed that the pursuit of pleasure was the driving motivation.
I’m in Frankl’s camp. In my experience with retirees, those who focus on meaning often have a deep sense of satisfaction, purpose and happiness. Pleasure is a welcome byproduct of their pursuit of purpose. Alternatively, those who can’t find this deeper sense of meaning often self-medicate with pleasure. Pleasure with no greater purpose eventually feels hollow for most people. So how can you orient your retirement around meaning?
How to find meaning
According to Frankl, there are three different ways to find meaning in life. I’ll list those below and then relate them to retirement.
Through projects or work. All of us are designed to do something meaningful and productive. Retirement doesn’t somehow remove that need, it just means that you no longer have to base your choice on how much something pays. Maybe that means working part-time in a field that’s always interested you or volunteering for an organization you’re passionate about. Or maybe it’s running for your local school board or working on a big community project. Whatever it is, find something that will engage you and leverage your time, treasure and talents. What people really need, according to Frankl, is “the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task.”
Through experiences and relationships. Retirement (and life) is at its best when we have loving, healthy relationships with friends and family and we are engaged in meaningful pursuits.
Through challenges or suffering. This one might seem a bit counterintuitive at first, but if you think about the times in your life that made you who you are, that taught you the most, that filled you with pride and a sense of accomplishment, my guess would be that a lot of those times grew out of a significant challenge, heartbreak or tragedy. Frankl believed that we should welcome challenges and suffering, not because they’re fun, but because they can often bring meaning and growth. He knew that we can’t always control our circumstances, but we can always control our response to our circumstances. That from a guy who was in a concentration camp and found a way to redeem his suffering and use it as the soil from which he grew his philosophy, vocation and life’s meaning.
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” – Viktor Frankl
So as you move toward retirement, absolutely plan on doing fun and interesting things. Splurge on yourself. Be a little selfish. Just don’t treat the pursuit of pleasure as your ultimate goal. If you do, you’ll likely be disappointed. Instead, seek meaning and you’ll likely find pleasure and happiness as well.