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.
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
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.
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.
For a while I’ve wanted to show up at the airport with no plans, no luggage and no ticket and ask the agent to book me a flight somewhere. I think it would be a fun experiment. Travel roulette. So a few days ago, I sent this text to four of my friends:
To my surprise, three of them took me up on it. We’ll all be at the airport tomorrow morning trying to snag a last-minute seat somewhere interesting. I’ll try to post a few pictures or videos to the Intentional Retirement Facebook page to let you know how it’s going. Maybe it will be fun. Maybe it will be a colossal mistake. Either way it will be memorable.
Enjoy your weekend! And remember. Life is short. Be intentional.