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.
If you’re like me, you want to live a long, healthy life, filled with purpose and surrounded by those you love. What are some practical ways to make that dream a reality?
Best-selling author Dan Buettner, along with a team at National Geographic, think they have the answer. They scoured the world for communities of people that lived longer, healthier lives and then researched those people to determine what they were doing differently than the rest of us. His team came up with 9 key traits.
Move naturally. None of the people studied by Buettner exercised in the way that you and I have come to think of exercise. They didn’t run marathons, lift weights or do CrossFit. Instead they moved naturally. They walked, climbed stairs, gardened and/or road their bike for transportation. Movement was a regular, natural part of their day.
Have a purpose. Apparently, if you have a reason to get out of bed in the morning, you’re much more likely to be alive to get out of bed in the morning. Buettner points out that the people in the Blue Zone of Okinawa Japan have even given this a name. They call it Ikigai. It means “a reason for being” or “a reason for getting out of bed in the morning.” What is your Ikigai?
Find ways to relax and shed stress. Buettner’s researchers found that when you’re in a hurry and stressed, it triggers an inflammatory response in your body. That inflammatory response can lead to all sorts of health problems and diseases. By finding ways to relax and de-stress, Blue Zone people live longer.
Eat less. Those who live longer tend to eat less than the rest of us. Buettner points out that it takes your stomach about 30 minutes to tell your brain that you’re full. Blue Zone people naturally recognize that and stop eating before they’re full. The Japanese even have a name for it: Hara Hachi Bu. It’s a Confucian teaching to stop eating when your belly is 80% full.
Eat more plants and less meat. Blue Zone people aren’t typically vegetarians, but they tend to eat a more plant based diet, especially beans. They eat meat, but usually only 4-5 times per month.
Drink in moderation. Those who drink in moderation tend to outlive teetotalers. The antioxidants and resveratrol in red wine, for example, have been shown to improve artery health and increase good cholesterol (HDL). Consume too much, however, and the negatives outweigh the positives.
Have faith. Buettner and his team found that those who attend some sort of faith based service four times per month tended to live, on average, about 14 years longer than those who didn’t.
Live close to and be committed to loved ones. Blue Zone people tend to live close to their loved ones and they are committed to those relationships. They have a healthy marriage. They keep parents and grandparents close by and they help them as they age. They have their children nearby and have a good relationship with them.
Have a strong social network. Blue Zone people tend to have strong friendships. Not only that, but their friends tend to support healthy behaviors and they are a positive influence—both mentally and physically.
On the surface, Buettner’s research seems like common sense—eat right, get exercise, have friends—but I think that misses the main point. The power of those behaviors only shows up when they become lifestyle habits. The people in the Blue Zones do those things every day for a lifetime. So if you want to gain some of the same benefits (regardless of where you live), consider how you can design your lifestyle, environment and daily life to incorporate those 9 things regularly.
If you want to read more about Blue Zones, Buettner has two books based on his research:
Note: I periodically recommend books to readers and I belong to the Amazon Affiliate Program. That means that, at no additional cost to you, Amazon will pay me a few cents if you purchase a book through one of my links. Obviously I’m not doing that to get rich, but because I believe in the things I recommend. Please don’t buy anything unless it will help you accomplish your goals for a meaningful retirement.
We put a lot of emphasis on saving enough money for retirement, and rightly so. Money is important, but as I’ve said time and again, retirement is more than a math problem. One negative side effect of our obsession with our “number” is that we forget (or never decided) what we wanted all that money for in the first place. With that in mind, here are 5 things that are more important than (or at least just as important as) money to a happy, fulfilling retirement.
1. Health. Emerson once said, “The first wealth is health.” You don’t need to be a millionaire to enjoy a nice walk on a beautiful day. Conversely, you can have millions, but if you’re constantly in pain or physically unable to do even simple things like walk up stairs or pick up your grandkids, then the options available to you during retirement will be small indeed.
2. Curiosity. Thomas Hobbes once said, “Curiosity is the lust of the mind.” Lust is an emotion or feeling of intense desire. Curiosity, therefore, is a lust to know “Why?” and “How?” It’s an intense desire to learn, explore and discover. It’s a passion to do and be. It’s an appetite for experiences and an interesting life. Money can’t buy that.
3. A willingness to act (a.k.a. Be intentional). Donald Miller once said, “If you happen to be sitting in the theater of your mind, watching through the camera lenses of your eyes and the story you’re watching isn’t very interesting, there’s something you can do about it. You can edit it. You can change it.” You are not a passenger on the plane of your life. You’re the pilot. Some initiative and a willingness to be proactive can often go a lot further than a few extra bucks in your bank account.
4. Relationships. David Rockefeller once said, “I am convinced that material things can contribute a lot to making one’s life pleasant, but, basically, if you do not have very good friends and relatives who matter to you, life will be really empty and sad and material things cease to be important.” I can’t add much to that.
5. Time. Carl Sandberg 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.” Carnegie had more money than you. Kennedy had more power than you. Clark Gable (or Grace Kelly) was better looking than you. Elvis was more popular than you. Shackleton had a more adventurous life than you. Would you trade places with any of them? No, because they ran out of the one commodity that makes any of those things worthwhile: Time. Time is your most important asset, but you have less of it now than when you started reading this article. It is your only asset that never grows. Use it wisely.
Photo by Nick Kelly
Some of you know that my wife is from Alaska. Her dad (pictured above) was a fighter pilot in the Air Force and Alaska was the final posting. Until my in-law’s recent move to Washington, we would visit the 49th state almost every year. It is a beautiful place and I highly recommend it, but it can be a very harsh place too.
Alaska often presents you with unusual situations that don’t come up in the Lower 48. For example, when playing golf and your ball rolls against a freshly killed moose (unfortunately this is a true story), does the rule book say that you should a) Dislodge your ball and take a drop, b) Take a one stroke penalty and hit again from the fairway or c) Pick up your ball and slowly back away to the next hole because you can hear the moose murdering bear huffing angrily just beyond the tree line? If you said C, you should start making your summer vacation plans now.
I share my connection to Alaska by way of explaining how I came across a book that I read over the holidays. On Thanksgiving our post-meal conversation somehow meandered to the topic of the Alaska bush and my father-in-law told me about a book called One Man’s Wilderness. It is the story of Richard Proenneke who, at age 51, decided he had had enough of “electricity” and “indoor plumbing” and moved out to the bush. Using a few hand tools, a sharp mind and a strong back, he built himself an amazing little cabin, doing everything from felling the trees to carving the door hinges out of tree stumps. (!?!) While building the cabin, he had to grow/shoot/catch his food, cut his own firewood, and generally be a backwoods superstar. He lived that lifestyle from age 51 until he decided it was to time to return to civilization at 86.
His retirement was almost certainly more physical than yours and mine will be (hallelujah!), but something he said really struck me. He talked about how he needed some money to pay the material cost of his time in the bush (he’d have a pilot periodically fly in certain supplies), but more than the monetary price, he learned that the things he wanted to do had a physical price tag. From his journal:
“After a supper of navy beans, I sat on my threshold and gazed off toward the volcanic mountains…I thought of the sights I had seen. The price was physical toll. Money does little good back here. It could not buy the fit feeling that surged through my arms and shoulders. It could not buy the feeling of accomplishment. I had been my own tour guide and my power had been my transportation. This great big country was my playground, and I could afford the price it demanded.”
I’ll concede that you probably won’t need to hand carve your own cooking utensils in retirement or build a food cache to keep the neighborhood grizzly out of your supplies, but I’ll bet the things you want to do have a physical price tag in addition to their monetary price tag. And if you’re like most people, you’re saving so you can afford the monetary price of your retirement dreams, but that won’t matter if you can’t afford the physical price tag.
Yes, you might be able to afford the golf membership, the fancy garden tools or the trip to Spain to hike the Camino de Santiago, but if you can’t afford the physical price that those things demand then they are just as out of reach as they are to a person with no savings.
So as we start the New Year, think about your health and how important that is to everything you want to do in life. What can you do now to start making deposits into your “health” account so it will be adequate to see you through retirement?
And if you want to read Proenneke’s story (which I highly recommend) you can pick up a copy on Amazon over here: One Man’s Wilderness.
One of the benefits of my job is that I get to see a large group of people all making decisions about the same thing: Retirement. Over the years, that has given me a large data set of decisions and their consequences. Some of those decisions are minor, while others have consequences that ripple out for decades. Some of those decisions pay off big, while others tend to blow up—often in spectacular, catastrophic, almost comical fashion.
Below are 7 decisions—big and small—that will impact your happiness, fulfillment and options during retirement. They are decisions you will never regret.
The decision to decide. Recently a palliative nurse recorded the regrets of her dying patients and compiled them in a book called “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying.” The number one regret was “Not living the life I wanted.” To avoid this regret, you need to (Surprise!) decide what kind of life you want to live. But don’t stop there. Once you decide what you really want out of life, you need to start taking those plans very seriously. Imagine the satisfaction you could have if you arrived at the end of your days knowing that you did everything you possibly could to live the life that you wanted. For some practical ideas on how to do this, read Part 3 of the Intentional Retirement Manifesto A Brief Guide to Retirement Bliss.
The decision to “cut the branch.” A month or so ago I brought in an expert to help me trim and prune the trees in our yard. Most of the work went pretty quickly until we got to a large tree in our back yard. He informed me it had a branch that shouldn’t be there, but it had been allowed to grow for so long that cutting it now would make the tree look a bit silly for a few years. As I pondered what to do I asked him “When that little branch started growing ten years ago, should I have cut it then?” He said yes. Then I asked him “Ten years from now, will I look back on today and wish I had cut the branch?” Yes again. So I fired up the chain saw (it was a big branch) and started cutting.
No doubt each of us can listen to that story and use the branch as a metaphor for something in our own life. What is it for you? A job? A relationship? An unhealthy habit? Whatever it is, maybe now is the time to cut the branch.
The decision to do less. If you’re like most people, your default setting is for more. More commitments, more work, more stuff, more relationships, more money, more sporting events for your kids, more television, more house, more projects. More, more, more. The funny thing about “more” is that it can be incredibly diluting. If you have 30 projects at work, for example, you’ll probably have less impact than if you were allowed to focus on 3. This is the paradox of more. The more you try to do, the less you end up doing. If you want to do more, figure out a way to do less. Cut the unimportant (especially in retirement) so you can free up space, time and money to focus on the things that really matter to you. Less > More.
The decision to improve your marriage. Middle age is a risky time for your marriage. Hardly a year goes by that at least one of my clients doesn’t call it quits in that phase. This year was particularly bad. Divorce is never fun, but it’s even less so when you’re on the doorstep to retirement. Your assets get divided in half. Your kids will likely take sides. Your friends will certainly take sides. The dreams you had for “Someday” are off the table. How much better would it be to enter retirement in a happy, fulfilling marriage—plans, family and finances in tact—ready to enjoy the next phase? Yes, that takes work. Especially if the problems have been allowed to fester over the years. But take a long, hard look at the consequences before deciding that divorce is a better option.
The decision to bury the hatchet. A client called me earlier this year and told me that her ex-husband had just stopped by. They had been through a messy divorce due to infidelity about 20 years previously and hadn’t spoken since. Needless to say she was a bit surprised to find him on her doorstep with tears in his eyes. He wasn’t there to try to fix things. They had both moved on and married other people. He simply wanted to apologize and ask for forgiveness. My client later found out that when her ex left her house he went to her parent’s house and several other people in the family and did the same thing. It’s tough to go through life without hurting someone or being hurt by someone—usually our kids, friends, spouse or extended family. Carrying that baggage around can cause bitterness, resentment, and regret. Why live with that pain year after year until one of you eventually takes it to the grave? If it was your fault, acknowledge as much, apologize and ask for their forgiveness. If it was their fault, have grace and move on.
The decision to bet some chips. Have you ever seen the movie Rounders? It’s a movie about a poker player, starring Matt Damon. I was watching it on Netflix the other night and a quote stuck with me. Talking about poker Damon said “You can’t lose what you don’t put in the middle. But you can’t win much either.” It’s easy to play life too conservatively. God knows I’m guilty of this more often than I’d like to admit. Too often we go through life unwilling to take a chance and bet some chips. This can feel safe in the short run, but like Damon said, it never results in much of a payoff. Is there something that you’ve always wanted to do, but been afraid to take the risk? The clock is ticking. Maybe it’s time to bet some chips. Win or lose, you’ll at least have the satisfaction of having tried.
The decision to get healthy. Most of my clients are in the 50-75 age range. They seem healthier than most, but here’s an abbreviated list of health problems that they have dealt with so far this year: prostate cancer, breast cancer, diabetes, hernia, heart attack (survived), kidney stones, dementia, severe back pain, glaucoma, TIA stroke, broken wrist (due to osteoporosis), arthritis, lung cancer and depression. Those are just my clients, just in the last 10 months. Health problems are a fact of life as we age. Obviously we can’t prevent all illness, but doing everything you can to be healthy can improve your odds of a long, active retirement.
Last summer we visited my wife’s grandma in Oregon. Even though I’ve known her for nearly 20 years, I had to introduce myself because dementia has slowly erased her previous memories of me. Dementia affects millions of people as they age and often robs them of an active, independent retirement. Are there things you can do to minimize your risks of developing it? New research offers encouraging results, but before getting into that, let’s look at a quick definition of dementia and how it affects people as they age.
What is dementia?
Dementia is not a single disease, but rather is a general term used to describe a loss of brain function or decline in mental ability severe enough to interfere with your daily life. It affects memory, thinking, attention, language, judgment, problem solving and behavior. As it worsens, it can affect your ability to take care of yourself and can often lead to further problems like depression and anxiety.
Dementia was referred to as far back as Aristotle and Plato and has long been considered to be an inevitable sign of aging. Only recently has the “inevitable” part begun to change, which brings me back to the research that I mentioned earlier. It points to two key ways to slow, minimize or even prevent dementia.
Exercising your body
A pair of studies out of the U.K. reveal that exercise seems to play a significant role in reducing the risk of dementia and improving cognitive function later in life. In other words, what is good for your heart is good for your head.
In the first study, researchers tracked the exercise habits of 9,000 different individuals between the ages of 11 and 50. They interviewed each person about their workouts at ages 11, 16, 33, 42, 46 and 50 and then tested their cognitive functioning at age 50. The results? The more intense and regular a person’s exercise was throughout life, the better they performed when tested on things like memory, learning, attention and reasoning.
In the second study, researchers tracked 2,235 men over 35 years to see how things like regular exercise, not smoking, low bodyweight, healthy diet and low alcohol intake affected their probability of getting different diseases. People who followed at least four of those variables had a 60% decline in dementia rates, with the number one factor being exercise. As a bonus, they also had a 70% decline in diabetes, heart disease and stroke compared to the other participants who weren’t following any of the five variables.
Exercising your brain
Exercising your body seems to be an effective way to stave off dementia, but what about exercising your brain? Companies like Lumosity offer “brain games” that purport to keep you mentally sharp, but do they work or are they just expensive computer games? The National Institute on Aging just released a major study that finally provides some concrete evidence.
The study was published last month in the Journal of American Geriatrics Society. It followed 2,800 people in their early 70s and gave them both computer based and pencil and paper tests. The volunteers were divided into a control group (which received no training) and three test groups, which received training in either reasoning, information processing speed or memory. Immediately following the training, the three test groups were performing significantly better in their particular area of training compared to the control group. Those benefits were still evident five years later when all four groups were retested. Ten years later the reasoning and speed groups were still showing significant benefits, but the effectiveness of the memory training seems to have faded.
Still, study coauthor Sharon Tennstedt, said that the training “helped participants carry out everyday activities as if they were about 10 years younger, allowing someone at 80 to function more like a typical 70-year-old.” Interviews with participants seemed to back this up. Most reported less difficulty than the control group with everyday activities like shopping, cooking and handling their money. The bottom line? Brain training won’t prevent dementia, but it can delay its arrival.
Focus on what you can control
You’ve heard me say before that you should focus on what you can control when planning your retirement. That includes things like saving, reducing debt, deciding when to take Social Security and planning meaningful pursuits. We now know that minimizing your risk of dementia is on that list as well. Do what you can to keep yourself physically and mentally fit and you will greatly increase your odds of an active, independent, rewarding retirement.