Hardly a day goes by that I don’t see an article about how to live a longer life. Drink coffee. Don’t drink coffee. Eat a paleo diet. Be a vegetarian. Do yoga. Meditate. Do this to avoid Alzheimer’s. Do that to minimize the risk of prostate cancer. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to be healthy and live a long life, but what about actually having a life worth living? Isn’t that more important?
A long life is good, but only if you’re healthy, happy and fulfilled. So try to get your recommended fruit and veg, but don’t forget why you want those extra years to begin with. Is it just to be alive? To check off another year on planet earth? Or is it to actually use those years to live a meaningful life? Of course, everyone would say it’s the latter, but our actions don’t always reflect that. We procrastinate. We don’t take our plans and dreams seriously. We put things off until “someday.” How can we do better? Below are a few practical ways to add life to your years (rather than just years to your life). Each is punctuated with a quote taken from the essay On the Shortness of Life by Seneca.
Carl Sandburg once said “Time is the coin of your life. It is the only coin you have and only you can determine how it will be spent.” A few extra years would be great, but how have you spent the last 10 years? How are you spending this year? How about today? Stop wishing for more time and start actually using the time you have wisely.
“It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing.”
Don’t spend your precious time and money pursuing and maintaining a lifestyle that isn’t what you want. That feels pointless and toilsome. Decide what’s important to you. Invest in that. Cut out everything else.
“It is inevitable that life will be not just very short but very miserable for those who acquire by great toil what they must keep by greater toil. They achieve what they want laboriously; they possess what they have achieved anxiously; and meanwhile they take no account of time that will never more return.”
One of the biggest unintended consequences of “planning for retirement” is that it trains us to procrastinate. Yes, it’s important to save for your future, but that doesn’t mean ignoring your present. Life is meant to be lived. If you’re trading the very best of your present for some uncertain future, you’re doing it wrong. Plan for your future. Make the most of your present. Those things aren’t mutually exclusive.
“Putting things off is the biggest waste of life: it snatches away each day as it comes, and denies us the present by promising the future. The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today. You are arranging what lies in Fortune’s control, and abandoning what lies in yours. What are you looking at? To what goal are you straining? The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.”
In life, we often have the option to do things the easy way or the hard way. We can choose between the wide and narrow roads. Paradoxically, choosing the easy way out often leads to a hard life while choosing the hard way often leads to an easy life.
Narrow, difficult decisions that require discipline and sacrifice usually pay off by leading us into a place where the road is wide and our options are plentiful. On the other hand, taking the wide, easy path often ends up funneling you down a narrower and narrower chute until all good options are gone and all that is left are painful consequences. In short:
Easy choices, hard life. Hard choices, easy life.
Nowhere is this more true than with our finances. We all stand at a fork in the road when making decisions on things like debt, saving, investing and giving. Path A is wide and well worn. Reach for that credit card. Try to keep up with the Joneses. Feed those desires. The other path, as Robert Frost might say, seems a bit grassy and in wont of wear. Live within your means. Give generously. Save for the future. Steward those resources wisely.
Perhaps not surprisingly, my advice on finances (and pretty much everything else) encourages you to take the road less traveled. Sure, doing so will be difficult and take discipline, but it will ultimately lead you to a place of peace, security and comfort.
Retirees are Unretiring in record numbers. You read that right. After decades of work and anticipation, people are entering retirement only to reverse course and head back to work. The RAND corporation conducted a survey in 2017 and found that almost 40 percent of workers over age 65 had previously been retired. That’s a lot of people. What’s going on here? Why do so many retirees unretire and how can you avoid the same fate?
It’s not usually about money
First, let’s look at what is NOT driving the trend: It’s not usually about money. The research shows that most of the people returning to work did so not because they didn’t save enough or because they experienced some sort of financial shock, but for other reasons. What were those reasons?
It’s about choice…
The study found that for many people, returning to work was planned. For example, they quit their full-time job to go part-time or they quit a high-stress job to take something more low key. This likely explains why younger retirees return to work in much higher numbers. They retire early with every intention of re-engaging in the workforce under different circumstances.
It’s no secret that people are living longer, healthier lives. That, along with the fact that jobs are less manual than in years past, can open the door to longer careers. In other words, returning to work in your 60s and 70s is an opportunity that exists today that didn’t necessarily exist when most job opportunities consisted of things like mining coal and riveting together skyscrapers. The data reflect this. Those with less education and more manual jobs tend to unretire at lower rates than those with more education and less physical jobs. Still, choice and opportunity don’t entirely explain the trend.
…But also about disappointment and unmet expectations
If you retire and then return to work by choice or to take advantage of a great opportunity, that’s a win. You want to do it and you’re able to. Where unretiring is a problem is when you either have to because of the money or you decide to because you find retirement unfulfilling. Unfortunately, the latter group accounts for a large number of Unretirees. They have their finances in order, but retirement is less fulfilling than expected. This problem can often be traced back to poor planning. If you don’t do a good job figuring out what’s next, you’ll likely drift back to what’s familiar. How can you make your transition successful? Here are several thoughts and takeaways that I had, both from the Rand study and from my 20 plus years of working with retirees.
Takeaways and Applications
Answer the right question. The retirement question most people seem intent on answering is “How am I going to pay for it?” That’s an important question, but retirement is more than just a math problem. In my opinion, we spend too much time thinking about how to get there (math) and not enough time thinking about what we’re going to do once we arrive (meaning). If you focus solely on finances, you risk having a retirement that is cash rich and lifestyle poor. Not surprisingly, that can be unsatisfying and can cause you to miss work, if only because it added structure and purpose to your day. To avoid that fate, put some serious effort into defining what you want to do during retirement.
Don’t just subtract. If all you do is subtract things—work, obligations, commitments—you will create a void in your life. That void can open you to self-doubt, regret, lack of purpose and boredom. Nature abhors a vacuum. If you take something out, you need to replace it with something else. If you subtract your career, you need to add in other things that will provide purpose, challenge and social engagement.
Avoid the temptation to do nothing. The temptation to do nothing can feel pretty strong after years of drinking from the fire hose of daily life. Unfortunately, doing nothing is not a good strategy for long-term fulfillment. It can be rejuvenating for a while, but it will get boring.
Your goal should not be to do nothing. It should be to do what excites you. If you’re feeling spent and burnt out after 40 years of work, by all means take some time off and recharge your batteries. But after that, you need a plan that will keep you challenged and provide meaning and fulfillment.
Practice. Not surprisingly, the better you are at something, the more you tend to like it. How likely is it that you’ll be really good at retirement on Day 1? Not very likely, right? You’re going from something that you know how to do really well (i.e. your job) to something that feels awkward and unnatural (e.g. travel, hobbies, more time with family and friends). There is a learning curve that can be frustrating and intimidating. But the more you practice, the better you’ll get and the more you’ll enjoy it. Acknowledge ahead of time that it will likely feel a bit unnatural, but keep practicing until you improve. Ideally, you should start this practice before you even retire. Start early with whatever portion of your time you control and practice, practice, practice.
Become an intern. This summer I have a young man interning with me. He has an interest in the financial industry, but wants to get some exposure to it before jumping into a 30 year career. Working as an intern will give him a chance to learn about the financial field, gain some experience, develop skills, make connections and evaluate his interests and abilities in a hands-on way. Why not do something similar before you jump into a 30 year retirement? Chances are that you know some people who are already retired. Ask them if you can shadow them for a bit. Spend some time talking to them about the experience. What is going well? What took them by surprise. What advice can they give you?
Consider partial retirement. Remember that work is a totally acceptable option in retirement. Maybe you don’t want to work 60 hours per week, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you don’t want to find some sort of meaningful work where you can use your skills, make a difference and have some social interaction. If that’s the case, consider partial retirement.
Consider mini-retirements. With traditional retirement, you defer the good stuff to that 20-30 year period at the end of life when you have more time and money. The idea of mini-retirements takes some of that 20-30 year period (say 5 years), breaks it up into 1-3 month chunks and spreads it out over your working years. A mini-retirement is longer than a vacation, but shorter than…well…retirement. As you might imagine, there are a number of benefits to taking these extended periods off. You have time to actually experience a place rather than just visiting the touristy spots. It allows you to enjoy some of the benefits of retirement while you’re still young and healthy. It rejuvenates you and can help you come back to work more engaged and more productive. For more on mini-retirements, read this, this and this.
Retire to something, not from something. All the previous points can be summarized by this: Retire to something, not from something. Retiring to escape a job is a recipe for misery and discontent. Retiring to pursue things that you are passionate about is a recipe for meaning and fulfillment.
Retirement often involves making important decisions with incomplete information when the stakes are high. You won’t have everything figured out on Day 1. More likely, you’ll arrive at your ideal retirement through a process of trial and error. You’ll make mistakes. That’s unavoidable. The important thing is that you learn from them. How best to do that?
Ray Dalio is an investment legend on par with people like Warren Buffett. He owns Bridgewater, the largest hedge fund in the world. Ray has a saying:
Pain + Reflection = Progress
In other words, pain is a good instructor and a strong signal. According to Dalio, success is nice, but it just causes you to do more of the same. You don’t learn much from it. Pain, on the other hand, has a lot to teach you. Whenever you make a mistake about anything, you feel some sort of pain. There’s a message in that pain somewhere. It’s hard to see while you’re going through it, but if you reflect on it once it’s over, you’ll probably be able to see what that message is.
As you experiment with retirement, write down these pain points and think about them. What caused the pain? What should I learn from it? What would I do differently in the future? If you do that, you’ll come out with a principle that relates to the people, places, activities or philosophy of your retirement. That principle is the progress in the equation above. It’s the newfound wisdom that gets you a bit closer to your ideal life and retirement. The more you experiment, learn and iterate, the better your odds of having a happy, meaningful retirement. In some ways, you might even learn to enjoy the pain as an indication of progress. Again, Ray Dalio:
“Encountering pains and figuring out the lessons they were trying to give me became sort of a game to me. The more I played it, the better I got at it, the less painful those situations became, and the more rewarding the process of reflecting, developing principles, and then getting rewards for using those principles became. I learned to love my struggles, which I suppose is a healthy perspective to have…”
I recently played a game of travel roulette with my friends. We showed up at the airport at 5 am with no tickets and no plans and told the ticket agent we’d go anywhere warm. The only conditions were that the flight had to leave that morning and cost less than $500. After running through half a dozen potential destinations, we ended up with the last four seats on a direct flight to Phoenix. The trip couldn’t have gone better. We had a blast.
This post started out as a handful of lessons and takeaways from that experience. It included my thoughts on spontaneity, the declining cost of distance, the demystification of travel, the benefits of packing light, living a proactive life and allocating your resources based on your priorities. Then I erased all of that and instead decided to write about only one key takeaway: Relationships.
Many times during the trip, as we laughed and had fun, I thought to myself “It’s so great to do stuff like this.” After reflecting a bit more, however, that initial thought evolved into “It’s so great to have people to do stuff like this with.” In other words, the hero of the story isn’t the experience, it’s the people. The friendships.
In What makes a good life? I wrote about the Study of Adult Development that Harvard has been conducting for the last 80 years. The key finding of that study is that relationships and social connections are really, really good for us. Those with close relationships were happier, healthier and they lived longer than those who self-described as lonely or lacking friends.
Psychologist and author Susan Pinker has done research that resulted in similar conclusions. In her popular TED talk “The secret to living longer may be your social life” she discussed the importance of friends. She cited a study that attempted to answer the question “What reduces your chances of dying most?” You can probably guess where this is going. Here are the variables in the study ranked from least powerful impact on longevity to greatest: clean air, hypertension treatment, lean vs. overweight, exercise, cardiac treatment, flu vaccine, quit boozing, quit smoking, close relationships, social integration/interaction. Just like the Harvard study, this research shows that relationships are critical. Ms. Pinker went so far as to say that those who prioritize their face-to-face relationships over time create a biological force field against disease and decline.
Now that we know how important relationships are, each of us should do a little self-examination and reflection. How many close friends do you have? Are you proactive in making and maintaining your friendships? How is your relationship with your spouse, children and other family? How much time, energy and money are you investing in relationships?
All of this obviously has huge implications for your retirement. As I’ve said many times before, retirement is more than a math problem. Money is important, but so are relationships. Don’t take them for granted. They will affect how happy you are and how long you’ll live. Reflect on some practical ways that you can be more intentional with your relationships. Here are a few ideas:
- Focus on the little things. Small gestures can make a big difference. Send a card to say thank you or to let them know you appreciate them. Call to catch up.
- Look for ways to help. Bring a meal when a friend is sick. Be a shoulder to cry on when they’re going through a tough time.
- Organize activities. One way to strengthen bonds is through shared experiences and memories. Organize a book club. Arrange a movie night. Plan a trip.
- Be trustworthy and a good listener. Nothing will end a friendship faster than gossip, backbiting or a lack of empathy.
- Be quick to fix problems. Don’t let small issues fester. Admit when your wrong. Forgive when you’ve been wronged.
- Start a group. We have a close group of friends that we’ve been meeting with every Sunday night for the last 22 years. We had no kids when we started and now the kids outnumber us. We travel together, share meals together, laugh and cry together, pray for and support one another, and generally experience life together. We’ve been through the best and worst that life can throw at you and I wouldn’t trade them for the world. Having a friend is great. Having a group of friends is even better. Consider starting a group around shared interests, activities, life stage, beliefs or whatever.
- Lay the groundwork for retirement. If you’re planning on moving somewhere new in retirement, start visiting that place now to make new friends. Talk with current friends to see if they have any interest in landing there as well.
I just finished watching the new Ken Burns documentary on Vietnam. During the war, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara had commanders and soldiers in the field collecting vast amounts of data each day that was then put onto punch cards and fed into a mainframe computer for analysis. The hope was that by measuring hundreds of different variables—casualties, villages pacified, roads cleared—they could gauge progress and prove that we were winning the war.
In hindsight, there were many problems with this strategy, not the least of which was that the things they really needed to know—the state of Vietnamese politics, the loyalty of the people, the intentions of Hanoi—were almost impossible to quantify and thus weren’t being factored into the equation. An Army adviser summarized it this way:
“If you can’t count what’s important, you make what you can count important.”
When I heard him say that, it struck me that you and I do something similar when it comes to life in general and retirement specifically. There are things that really matter and that have a huge impact on our happiness and fulfillment. Things like our sense of purpose, the quality of our relationships and the depth of our experiences. Unfortunately, those things are nuanced and hard to both measure and manage, so instead we tend to focus on things that are easier to quantify like the size of our bank accounts, square footage of our houses or the number of friends we have on Facebook. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with those things, but they don’t form the complete picture obviously.
This morning I spent time reflecting on the types of metrics I use in my own life and how I can do a better job measuring the things that are important and not just the things that are easy to count. As a part of that process, I went back and re-read some of my past articles. If you’d like to do something similar, I’ll post links to those that were particularly helpful to me.