I did an interesting exercise this week. If you’ve ever looked at a copy of your Social Security statement, you know that page 3 shows how much you’ve earned each year throughout your life. As I looked at mine, I was suddenly curious about something, so I grabbed a calculator and added up my lifetime income. Then I opened my financial plan to get a quick snapshot of my net worth and I divided my net worth by the total of what I’ve earned. The result was a rough calculation of what I have to show (financially at least) for twenty plus years of work.
This was at once both encouraging and discouraging as well as illuminating and thought provoking. Encouraging because I’ve managed to hang onto a decent percentage of that income over the years and then invest it in a way that has caused it to grow. Discouraging because there’s a larger percentage that we didn’t manage to hang onto. Sure, part of that went to feed and clothe us and part of that went to fund experiences and memories I wouldn’t trade for the world, but I know that a not insignificant portion went to a category I’ll charitably describe as “non-essential.”
The interesting and enlightening part of the exercise came when I widened the aperture a bit and rather than just thinking about my lifetime earnings, I thought about my lifetime instead. Or more succinctly, my time. How have I spent, saved and invested my time? I’ve been “paid” 45 years of time. How much of that have I used wisely and intentionally? Alternatively, how much have I just allowed to slip through my fingers? Have I used my time at work to create a career that is enjoyable, rewarding and useful to others? Have I used my free time to invest in my family, develop my friendships and pursue interesting things? Have I used my time and attention to invest in my health so that I can “earn” more time? The answers to those questions aren’t necessarily as black and white as a bank balance, but if you put “time wasted” on one side of the scale and “time well spent” on the other, you can get a pretty good idea of which way it leans.
Similarly to when I did the financial exercise, the time exercise was both encouraging and discouraging. Much of my time was well spent and much (either by omission or commission) was poorly spent. If I’m being honest, there are days, weeks and even years where I wish I could get a do-over. There’s nothing I can do about that now, however, except learn from it. So I’ll internalize those lessons and do my best to be a better steward of my “time wealth” going forward. I’ll try to be a good steward of my finances too, but I suspect that the closer I get to the end of my life, the less I will care about how I invested my money and the more I will care about how I invested my time. You too? Then do something about it so when you come to the end of your years, you’re not left wondering, “Where did it all go?”
“It’s not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it.” ~ Lucius Seneca
I’ve heard it said that the best way to spot a counterfeit is to be an expert in what is genuine. The Secret Service knows this well. When training their agents, they don’t start by giving them samples of fake bills. Instead they provide them with genuine bills and train them in every conceivable detail of those bills. The look. The feel. The ink. The borders. The serial numbers. The spacing. The portraits. The holograms. The seals. The details of Grant’s beard. The shading on Ben Franklin’s face.
Once the agents are experts in the details of genuine bills, spotting fakes is no problem. The slightest deviation from what is genuine is enough to expose the bill as fake.
Genuine vs. Counterfeit
Think about your life. Do you know what your “genuine” is supposed to look like? Do you have a clear understanding of what you really want out of life? The things. The people. The activities. The experiences. The priorities. How you spend your time.
If you haven’t done a good job defining your “genuine,” then counterfeits will slip by and begin circulating through your life. The more counterfeits you have, the further you’ll get from the life you actually want and the less happy and fulfilled you’ll be. Left unchecked, the economy of your life could become overwhelmed with counterfeits, at which point it ceases to function properly, just like a normal economy would.
How to find your genuine life
The application? You need to decide what you really want out of life and take those plans very seriously. That’s a theme I’ve touched on before. It’s a core element of Intentional Retirement. Below is a list of several resources and posts that take a deeper dive on this topic. Use them to help define your genuine and become an expert at spotting it. Then be diligent at tossing the fakes before they can take root.
Guides and eBooks
Have a great weekend. Be intentional.
My wife went to visit her sister a few weeks ago in New York. While she was gone, my daughter and I felt like doing something fun, so the two of us went to Washington D.C. to see the cherry trees in bloom. A hundred years ago, either one of those trips would have been costly, dangerous and impractical. Now for a few hundred dollars and a little planning, you can start your day at home and end it a few thousand miles away.
I sometimes take for granted how crazy that is and it illustrates a gradual change that has been happening for decades: The declining cost of distance. Technology has utterly transformed the cost, effort, time and risk involved with getting from A to B. In many cases, you don’t even need to get off your couch. Here are some examples from just the last few decades.
- Email has replaced physical mail.
- Expensive long-distance calls are a thing of the past.
- Video conferencing options like FaceTime and Skype allow us to see and stay connected with those we love.
- The internet has not only put the world at your fingertips, but allows you to have it delivered in 2 days or less.
- Cars have become safer and more fuel efficient.
- Flights have gotten cheaper and more prevalent.
- Services like Airbnb and Uber make travel easier, more enjoyable and less expensive.
This trend will likely continue and the cost of distance will become more and more negligible (think virtual reality, hyperloop, automation, 3D printing and supersonic air travel). How should this affect your retirement planning? Here are a few thoughts:
Live where you want. As the cost of distance continues to decline, location becomes less important. When distance is expensive, deciding where to live often involves some serious tradeoffs. “Should I live by my grandkids in the Midwest or in that laid-back beach town in Southern California?” When distance is cheap, you can afford to choose “both/and” instead of “either/or.” It just takes a bit of money, planning and intentionality.
Don’t get stuck in the past. Take advantage of the new economics of distance to live life and do interesting and fulfilling things both now and in retirement. That’s pretty self-explanatory. Don’t get stuck in the old way of thinking and orient your life around a “distance is expensive” fallacy.
Embrace technology. Look for ways to shrink the cost of distance further. Be the grandparent who is an expert at FaceTime. Be the first of your friends to have a virtual reality headset and use it to “visit” famous museums and faraway cities without leaving home. You might even consider becoming a medical tourist. Need heart surgery or hip replacement? India caters to medical tourists needing those types of procedures. They have some of the best hospitals and physicians in the world and the costs on average are about one-tenth of the cost in the US.
One last thought
Before I sign off for today, I mentioned that my daughter and I saw the cherry blossoms. Part of that decision was inspired by a poem I like by A.E. Housman. His sentiments are similar to our philosophy here at Intentional Retirement, so I thought I’d share it.
Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.
Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.
And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.
A blogger I follow recently shared the following paragraph from the book The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance:
“Scientists who study human motivation have lately learned that after basic survival needs have been met, the combination of autonomy (the desire to direct your own life), mastery (the desire to learn, explore, and be creative), and purpose (the desire to matter, to contribute to the world) are our most powerful intrinsic drivers—the three things that motivate us most.”
In other words, once you have a roof over your head and food in the fridge, you want to take a step or two up Maslow’s Hierarchy and focus on things that bring happiness and fulfillment. Retirement is the ideal time to make that a reality. Financial independence means that the money is covered, so you’re free to pursue the things that bring meaning. Both are important. The money will help you sleep at night. The meaning will give you a reason to get out of bed in the morning. With that in mind, here are 3 simple rules for retirement that will help you find meaning and purpose.
Rule #1: Control your time. We all want to feel like we are in control of our life and directing its course. The good news is, no matter how old you are or how much money you have, you control part of our life right now. Congrats! You’re (sort of) retired! Maybe you control 10 percent. Maybe 50 percent. No matter the amount, make the most out of it. Be motivated, intentional, creative, thoughtful, curious, introspective, willing to take risks, healthy and active. Be disciplined with whatever time you control now because the more you do it, the better you’ll get at it. It’s tough to flip a switch at retirement and go from decades of deferring your dreams to really living. Be a good steward when you control 10-20 percent of your time and that will help you when financial independence allows you to control 80-90 percent.
Why is controlling your time so important? Because, to paraphrase Annie Dillard, how you spend your days is how you spend your life. If you spend your time doing the things that are important to you, then you’ll look back on life as time well spent. If not, you’ll have plenty of regrets. In fact, the number 1 regret of the dying, according to the aptly titled book The Top 5 Regrets of the Dying, is this: “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”
We should learn from that. The author interviewed hundreds of people who are where we will one day be. They had lived their entire life. They got out of bed thousands of days in a row and with each new day they had the freedom and opportunity to do what they wanted. And yet, when they reached the end, their top regret was, “Man, did I make the wrong choice most days. I didn’t really live the kind of life I wanted. I didn’t do the things that were important to me.” So if you want a remarkable retirement, control your time. Know what you want out of life and take those plans very seriously.
Rule #2: Be a lifelong learner. We saw earlier that it’s human nature to want to learn, explore and be creative. Show me someone who loves to learn new things and I’ll show you someone who will most likely have an interesting, rewarding retirement. Why is that? Learning comes with a host of benefits. It keeps your mind sharp. It keeps you engaged with advances in society. It helps you to know yourself and discover new things. It gives you new people to interact with. It gives you something fun to do with your spouse or significant other. It provides personal satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment.
And when I talk about learning, I’m not talking about learning in the traditional, sometimes boring sense of the word (e.g. What year did the Spanish-American War start?), but in the fun, practical, interesting sense of the word (e.g. How do you scuba dive?). In other words, pursuing knowledge and experiences that enrich your life.
One of the great things about our world today is that self-learning (also known as Autodidactism) is easier than ever. Gone are the days when you need an expensive education or lengthy apprenticeship just to learn more about something that you find interesting. Now you can just sit down on your own time and access a plethora of resources, tools, apps, books, and videos on just about any topic that interests you. Take advantage of that. Be a lifelong learner.
Rule #3: Make a difference to someone or something. One of the most popular posts I’ve written at Intentional Retirement is 15 Practical Ways to Live a Purposeful Life. One of the most popular books in recent memory is The Purpose Driven Life. Neurologist, psychiatrist and holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl said that striving to find meaning in one’s life is the primary, most powerful motivating and driving force in humans.
In other words, we’re hard wired to want purpose and meaning. That need doesn’t somehow vanish when you enter retirement. If anything, it gets stronger. When I talk to clients that have been retired for a while, the desire to find purpose and to leave some sort of legacy that outlasts them is important.
Your bucket list doesn’t need to consist entirely of bungee jumping and exotic travel. As Shakespeare once said: “Leisure is a beautiful garment for a day, but a horrible choice for permanent attire.” Don’t get me wrong. You should absolutely do fun and interesting things. Splurge on yourself. Be a little selfish. Those things are great, but don’t forget to add items to your list like giving, serving and volunteering as well. Maybe that means doing something like my retired friend Dan who spent three months volunteering on Mercy Ships in the Congo. Maybe that’s building houses for Habitat for Humanity like my client Bill. Maybe it means volunteering in your church or running for town council. Whatever it is, be thinking of ways to use your time, treasure and talents during retirement that will have a positive impact on others and will bring meaning and purpose to you.
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 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.