Happy New Year! It’s that wonderful time of year when we all get a blank slate and a chance to make a resolution or two. That got me thinking about actions and aspirations. What if I told you that my goal for 2019 was to become an Olympic swimmer, but I never got in the pool? Or if I said I wanted to write the great American novel, but never bothered putting pen to paper? How confident would you be that I’d reach my goal? Not very, right? That’s because most people realize that major accomplishments require major effort. You’re not going to achieve an exceedingly rare outcome by putting forth a mediocre effort. Said another way, your actions need to match your aspirations.
How about this one: What if I told you I want to retire someday. Big deal, right? Actually, it is. We take it for granted because it has become so ingrained in everyday life, but when you think about what retirement really is, it’s a wonder anyone can do it. Retiring is like saying: “I want to quit my job tomorrow and never work again, but I want to be healthy enough and have enough money to do fun and exciting things and also maintain my standard of living for 30 years or so.” Seriously?! I think most of us have a better shot at the Olympic team.
The 1% Life
I recently saw a video of writer/speaker/businessman Gary Vaynerchuck talking to a young man who was describing the kind of career he wanted—meaningful work that paid handsomely but gave three to four months off each year for travel. He was lamenting that it wasn’t happening and asking for advice. Gary asked him several questions that made it pretty clear that, aside from daydreaming, the kid wasn’t putting forth much effort to get his dreams off the drawing board. This was Gary’s response (and I’m paraphrasing): Look, you’re asking for a 1% life. In other words, a life that is so unique and amazing that only 1% or less of the people in the world get to experience that. What you’re asking for is ridiculous and you’ll have to do ridiculous things to have any hope of making it a reality. So you’re asking for this 1% life, but you’re not really doing anything to achieve that. If you want a 1% life, you need to do 1% things.
To borrow Gary’s phrase, retirement is a 1% life. And if you want to make that 1% life a reality, you need to do 1% things. And I’m not just talking about money. Finding meaning is pretty darn hard as well. There are plenty of retirees who are cash rich and lifestyle poor.
Unfortunately, we often treat retirement like it’s a 99% life that happens to everyone as long as you make a few 401k contributions and maintain a pulse. It’s not that easy. You won’t reach your retirement goals by simply having a certain number of birthdays. It takes financial stewardship, intention, hard work, effort and sacrifice. It takes deciding what you really want out of life and taking those plans seriously. It takes being proactive. It takes experimenting and practicing so you can refine your plans and get good at actually doing stuff. It takes building into your relationships and working on your marriage. It takes eating right and exercising so you can maintain your health. All of those things are in your control, but they’re not necessarily easy. But neither is retirement. It’s rare and unlikely. It’s a 1% life. Are you doing 1% things to get there? Stick around because I’ve got a ton of stuff coming your way this year that will help. Here are two that you’ll see in your inbox soon:
January Health Articles
I don’t care how much money you’ve saved, retirement won’t work without your health. Take care of yourself so you can get out there and enjoy life. Follow along at Intentional Retirement during January and I’ll post several health-related articles and resources to help you start the year off right.
Sometimes you just need a little inspiration. A muse, if you will. With that in mind, each Friday in 2019 I’m going to send out a quick list of the coolest and most interesting things I’ve found that week relating to retirement.
The list might include trip ideas, articles, products, quotes, retirement tips or anything else that looks interesting or inspiring. The goal is to give you a quick dose of motivation as you head into your weekend. Keep an eye out for the first one in a few days.
I mentioned that the book I brought on this trip was Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, ruler of the Roman Empire from 161 to 180 AD. To the extent that I read books on philosophy, I tend to enjoy those that give practical insights into how we should live. As a Christian, I read the Bible on a regular basis for that type of instruction, but I also enjoy reading the occasional Stoic, such as Seneca, Epictetus and the aforementioned Marcus. (Note: I’m not equating Christianity and Stoicism. There are certainly differences between the two (e.g. religion vs. philosophy), but some similarities as well. In particular, their emphasis on things like wisdom, kindness, humility, stewardship, contentment and self-control).
As I was reading at breakfast this morning, this passage from Meditations caught my eye:
“Suppose that a god announced that you were going to die tomorrow or the day after. Unless you were a complete coward you wouldn’t kick up a fuss about which day it was—what difference could it make? Now recognize that the difference between years from now and tomorrow is just as small.”
That is so true. How many times have you looked back on a year or two or ten and thought about how quickly they passed?
If I told you that you were going to die 30 days from now, you would likely use those days very intentionally, spending time with those you love, mending relationships, maybe even doing a few of the undone things on your bucket list. I think the point Marcus is trying to make is that if I told you that you were going to die 30 years from now, it should produce the same response. The difference between 30 days and 30 years is minimal. They will both go by in the blink of an eye. So be very intentional with each day. Don’t procrastinate or put things off until “Someday.” Don’t use “retirement” as an excuse for life avoidance or as a synonym for when you actually plan to start living. The clock is ticking and, even if you have decades left, you barely have any time at all. Be intentional and make the most of it.
Where is Joe?
Good question! I’m starting to get a little confused myself. Apologies for being behind on my writing. I mentioned in my last post that I was in Italy. I flew from Paris to Naples and then from there spent several days in a little seaside town called Positano. From there I went to Munich, Germany where I connected with a few friends, explored the huge open-air market, and took several tours, including a beer and food tour of the city’s many breweries. I’ll write more about all that soon, but for now, I’m in London and I’ve got a flight to catch as I keep pushing west. I hope you’re doing well, wherever you are today.
A few years ago, my family and I took a one month mini-retirement to Ireland and England. Before that trip, we applied for two British Airways Visa cards (one for my wife, one for me). Each card gave 100,000 frequent flier miles for signing up and meeting a minimum spend. We used some of the miles on that trip, but most of them have been sitting unused (dumb!). I recently got an email that said the miles were about to expire, so I did what most people would do. I booked an 18-day, 25,000-mile trip around the world. I’m leaving soon and I’d love to have you follow along.
A bit about the trip
I’ll keep the specific destinations under wraps for now, other than to say I’ll be leaving home and flying west. My itinerary has 10 flights and I’ll be spending time in 4 countries (plus two more for connecting flights). That’s waaaaay more stops than I would normally recommend for a trip of this length, but I’m not really looking at the trip as a relaxing vacation. Instead I’m viewing it as a bit of a combo between a work trip and a lifestyle experiment that will give me some interesting things to write about at Intentional Retirement (as well as our Facebook page). I’m able to connect into my work computer remotely and I have a phone plan that works seamlessly in 170 countries, so I’ll be communicating with clients and working a “normal” day most days. I also have some fun activities booked at each destination, so I’ll be writing about those, as well as about things like how I plan trips, how to pack, demystifying travel, spontaneity, being proactive in retirement, designing your ideal lifestyle, taking risks, finding your purpose, location independence, remote work, overcoming excuses and living an intentional life.
The expiring miles were a good excuse, but truth be told, the trip has a bigger purpose. My goal with Intentional Retirement is not just to sell books or write articles, but to help people actually make positive changes in their lives. To nudge them from apathy to action. So I hope the trip is fun and interesting, but mostly I hope it inspires you, in some small way, to get your own dreams off the drawing board.
Next week I’ll post an article or two about how I plan trips and what I’m packing for this trip (hint: almost nothing). Then I’ll hit the road. I’ll be posting articles to the site as I go, but I’ll also be posting some pictures and videos to our Facebook page, so follow along there to see the good, the bad and the ugly of how the trip is going. And if you have any friends who might be interested in following along (or who, like you, want to live an intentional, meaningful life), please email this article to them or share it on social media. Have a great weekend! And as always…
As you enter retirement, 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, 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. You need something that will help you stay active and use your gifts.
During your working years, that “something” was, to one degree or another, your vocation. Your job. That thing you did every day between 8 and 5 in exchange for money. But most people jettison their job once they retire. And when you subtract things—work, obligations, commitments—you create a void in your life where those things once were. That void can open you to self-doubt, regret, lack of purpose and boredom. The solution? If you take something out, you need to replace it with something else.
What is that something else? Leisure has a role to play (travel, relaxation, sipping mojitos at the beach), but it isn’t enough. As someone once said: “Leisure is a beautiful garment for a day, but a horrible choice for permanent attire.” My suggestion? Replace your vocation with an avocation.
A vocation is something you primarily do for money. You do it because you have to. An avocation is something you do because you want to. Because you’re passionate about it and it gives you a sense of purpose. It often has all of the positive aspects of a job—challenge, learning new things, social interaction, purpose—with one important exception: you probably won’t get paid. That might sound like a bad thing, but it’s actually good. First off, in retirement you don’t need the paycheck. That’s being handled by your portfolio and other sources of income (pension, Social Security). Second, when you remove the pay requirement, it opens the door to almost any hobby, activity or pursuit you can think of. If I had to feed my family based on my ability to create and sell paintings, we’d all starve. Remove the financial constraints, however, and I can paint for the pure enjoyment of it. I can take as long as I want to learn, practice, grow and develop without the pressure to monetize it.
History is replete with examples of people who pursued both vocation and avocation. Copernicus was a cleric by day and astronomer by night. Sir Edmund Hillary paid the bills as a beekeeper, but you likely remember him for his avocation as a mountain climber and the first person to summit Everest. Franz Kafka was an insurance assessor, but you probably remember him as a writer. Tolkien was a philologist, but you probably remember him for his novels. Harrison Ford pays the bills as an actor, but he moonlights as a pilot and a carpenter.
How about you? What would you do if money weren’t an object? If getting paid wasn’t a precondition? Not sure? Test some things out. Start experimenting. Maybe you want to go back to school or start a second career. Maybe you want to volunteer or start a small business. Maybe you want to learn to bake, paint, cook, collect something, write, garden, take photographs, draw, birdwatch, make pottery, scrapbook, sew, play a musical instrument or do woodworking. Maybe you want to become an amateur dietician, actor, archeologist, beekeeper, computer coder or songwriter. The possibilities are endless.
Again, the goal is not to do nothing. That just creates a void. The goal is to do what excites you. Yes, you may look forward to the day when you can quit your job, but just because you don’t want to work 60 hours a week anymore, doesn’t mean that you don’t want something that will give you satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment. If you want your retirement to be remarkable, have a plan to replace your vocation with an avocation.
“We try more to profit from always remembering the obvious than from grasping the esoteric. It is remarkable how much long-term advantage people like us have gotten by trying to be consistently not stupid, instead of trying to be very intelligent.” -Charlie Munger, investing partner of Warren Buffett
Sometimes we make things too hard. Retirement (and life) works pretty well if you get the big things right. Things like a roof over your head. A good relationship with your spouse. Meaningful friendships. Your health. Satisfying pursuits. A healthy spiritual life. Freedom and independence. We should all spend our time, money, brain power and willpower getting those things right.
If your life were a house, the big things we’re talking about would be the foundation and load bearing walls. They are what gives the house structure, support and a secure footing. Once those are in place you can worry about paint colors, furniture and decorations. Those things are important too, but the color of your living room won’t matter much if the house is on the verge of collapse.
Get the big things right and then you can worry about improving things at the margins. Too often we do the opposite. We focus on the trivial many instead of the vital few. Most of those details don’t matter much. Yes, they can take something good and make it a little better, but they can’t take something bad and make it good. Get one of the big things wrong, however, and no matter how good everything else is, life will be tough.
So today, as you live your life and plan your future, look for big wins. There’s no prize for making life complicated. In fact, it can be pretty simple. As Charlie so eloquently stated above, often times you don’t need to be brilliant, you can have enormous success by just trying to be “consistently not stupid.”
Quick note: This past week I’ve been up in Sequim, Washington visiting family and enjoying the great outdoors. Today we meet up with some friends and drive south toward California where we’re going to be hiking and camping along a rugged section of coastline called The Lost Coast. Cell reception will be spotty, but I’ll try to post some pics and videos to our Facebook page and (newly created) Instagram page. Tune in if you want to see some beautiful scenery or are just interested to see if I get eaten by a bear. Now on to today’s post.
The traditional definition of retirement contains 4 key elements:
- Age (65+)
- Work status (not working)
- Money (you need millions)
- Idealized pursuits (take those millions and buy a vineyard)
Not surprisingly, I’m not a huge fan of that definition. Among other problems, it puts you on the deferred life plan. You push your dreams off until “Someday” rather than living life to the full now. Not only that, but it doesn’t give you much time. If you retire at 65 and stay healthy and active until 75 (a stretch for many) then you’ve got 10 years to do everything you’ve been putting off for the last 40. Ten years is not enough.
Seneca did a good job pointing out these shortcomings over 2,000 years ago:
You will hear many men saying: “After my fiftieth year I shall retire into leisure, my sixtieth year shall release me from public duties.” Are you not ashamed to reserve for yourself only the remnant of life? How late it is to begin to live just when we must cease to live!
A better definition
My definition takes a different approach and attempts to deal with the problems I mentioned earlier. It has evolved over the years and will likely continue to do so as I live, learn, test and refine. Here’s my 10 word definition of retirement:
A system for living that optimizes for freedom and fulfillment.
Let’s unpack that for a minute:
It’s a system… I mean two things by this. First, it’s a system in the sense that it’s a set of connected parts forming a complex whole. Retirement has a ton of moving parts that need to work together to produce the results that you want. Those parts include things like money, relationships, pursuits, Social Security, Medicare, health, housing and insurance to name a few. Those parts work together in a complex system. If the parts work, the system works. If one or more parts isn’t functioning properly, the system breaks down.
Second, retirement is a system in the sense that it involves a set of principles or procedures for doing something. Your retirement should involve actions that you do on a regular basis with a reasonable expectation that doing them will get you closer to the life you want. Read this for more.
For living… There are no qualifiers here. It’s not a system for living once you hit 65 or have a certain amount of money in the bank. It’s a system for living now. Today. Retirement is not a life stage that you automatically arrive at after a certain number of birthdays. It’s an iterative process that starts today and evolves as you proactively work to gain more control of your time and then use that time in very intentional ways. Read thisfor more.
That optimizes… Your system should be optimized to produce the results you want. Otherwise it’s a bad system. It should move you efficiently and effectively toward the life you want. Fortunately, optimization is a natural byproduct of the iterative process described earlier. Rather than waiting until “retirement age” to figure out what you really want out of life (and wasting some of your best remaining years in the process), you’re testing and refining now.
For freedom… You can have all the plans in the world, but if you don’t have the time and money to get your dreams off the drawing board, then what’s the point? So yes, money is an important ingredient to a successful retirement to the extent that you use it to buy your freedom. Just remember that your goal isn’t to have more money for money’s sake. Your goal is to have a better life. Ralph Waldo Emerson said it well: “The desire of gold is not for gold. It is for the means of freedom and benefit.”
And Fulfillment… Retirement is more than a math problem. Yes, you need money (as we just discussed), but don’t forget about meaning. Money will help you sleep at night but meaning will get you out of bed in the morning. You need both to have a fulfilling life doing the things you want with the people you love. So decide what you really want out of life and then get very intentional about making that vision a reality.
How about you? I’d love to hear how you define retirement. Feel free to share in the comments. Have a great weekend!