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.
I’m a big believer in the benefits of reading so I usually have a reading goal each year. In 2017, my goal was to read every book, short story, poem and play by Ernest Hemingway. A few years ago, I set a goal to read 500 books between age 40 and 50.
I’m guessing many of you enjoy reading as well, so if you’re looking for a few book ideas for 2018, I created a page on Intentional Retirement with a list of everything I’ve read over the last five years. I’ll keep it updated going forward, so feel free to check back periodically. It contains a pretty eclectic mix, so there’s something for everyone. And if you have an idea or two for me, please send them my way.
As always, thanks for following along. Have a great weekend!
There are so many things that sound great in theory, but aren’t always great in practice. Take retirement for example. No work. Loads of free time. Travel. Those all sound great (and most of the time they are), but I’ve had retirees complain about every single one of them at one point or another over the years. That’s why it’s so important to think about your plans and ask yourself this question before you enter retirement:
Do I really want this or do I just think I want it?
Another way to ask that might be “Do I want this in theory or in practice?” Ask it of every major item on your retirement “To-do” list. The only real way to answer that question is to experiment with your plans. In other words, you actually start doing things. Shocking concept! You need to take all the things you have planned for “Someday” and start experimenting with them today.
This is not a trivial exercise. It turns out that we’re pretty bad at predicting the things that will make us happy. Scientists like Dan Gilbert at Harvard have done research that proves this. So experimenting and doing the things on your list is a critical step to determine whether you’re on point or you need to go back to the drawing board.
And don’t feel bad if you don’t have things totally figured out. None of us do. That’s what experiments are for. Ralph Waldo Emerson once said:
“Do not be too timid and squeamish about your actions. All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better. What if they are a little course, and you may get your coat soiled or torn? What if you do fail, and get fairly rolled in the dirt once or twice? Up again, you shall never be so afraid of a tumble.”
Take those words to heart. Don’t wait. Get out of the lecture and into the lab. Experiment. Test. Refine. Who cares if it’s not perfect. Who cares if you get dusty or bloodied. You’ll learn from it and get better. Just start trying things. As you do, your brain will make certain connections, you’ll meet people that will be integral to your plans, you’ll develop skills you need, you’ll build confidence, you’ll sharpen your focus. None of that stuff happens overnight. You can’t flip a switch and have total clarity regarding your purpose, plans and priorities. It takes time. The sooner you start, the better prepared you’ll be to make the most out of your retirement years.
In business, a sunk cost is a cost that has already been incurred and can’t be recovered. Economists tell us that we shouldn’t factor these costs in when making a rational decision about how to proceed. Since we’re human and hate losses, however, we often use these previous costs as justification to invest more.
The more we invest in something, the harder it becomes to abandon. To change would be to admit that those previous investments were wasted. That’s a tough pill to swallow, so we engage in what economists call a sunk cost fallacy or what psychologists call irrational escalation. You and I might more easily refer to it as throwing good money after bad. Or for my British readers, in for a penny, in for a pound.
Most of the discussion around sunk costs has to do with money, but money isn’t the only metric. Time is another resource we invest. So is effort. We invest those things in relationships, life pursuits, plans for retirement, a career. Sometimes those investments pay off and get us to where we want to be. Other times we realize, if given the chance to do it over, we would have chosen differently. In those cases, just like the business person should not throw good money after bad, we should not throw good life after bad. Or good time after bad. Or good friendship after bad.
The time, energy, effort and emotion we previously put into all those things are sunk costs. We shouldn’t use the fact that we invested badly as an excuse to continue to invest badly. Yes, changing course will force you to admit the mistake. That might cause pain, stress, confrontation or ridicule, but it will be temporary and you will have the opportunity to move forward in the right direction. If you continue in your error, you won’t have the short-term moment of pain as you admit error, but you will have the long-term pain and regret that comes from persisting in your error. Which is worse? The latter, by far.
It’s Monday morning. You’re starting a new week. Maybe you’re heading off to work. Maybe you’re already retired. Either way, be honest with yourself. Is there anything on your calendar this week that you’re doing, not because you want to or because you think it’s the right thing for you and your life, but because you’ve invested a bunch of time/money/life pursuing that path and you don’t want to admit failure? I do. This article is your permission to stop. If not today, someday soon. For today, at least make a decision if not an action. Decide “this is not what I want to do.” And then start figuring out exactly what it is you do want and what needs to change to make that a reality. In short:
Admit your mistake. Choose temporary over permanent pain.
Decide what it is you really want out of life.
Have the courage to pursue that, regardless of what came before.
I was in L.A. a while back speaking to a group and during the Q&A a lady raised her hand and said something like: “Retirement is harder than most people think. Not necessarily the money part, but figuring out what to do. I thought I’d spend 20 years traveling, but got bored with it after 6 months. Any advice for someone like me who is trying to figure out what my typical day will look like?”
Some version of that question comes up more often than you’d think when I’m speaking to a group or talking with clients. It turns out that daydreaming about what to do with your free time is pretty easy when you don’t have any free time. Once you’re retired, however, and all you have is free time, it can be a challenge to fill your days with interesting and meaningful activities.
So, what advice to give? Thankfully, I’ve written on this topic before (e.g. 10 Questions That Will Help You Decide What to Do During Retirement), so I had a few ideas. What I didn’t want to do was answer her question by suggesting a bunch of activities. “Have you tried Cross Fit? What about volunteering? You could learn to paint. That Bob Ross guy always looked happy.” Somehow, “randomly try stuff” doesn’t seem like great advice.
Instead, I focused on two things. First, I reiterated something that experience had already taught her: Retirement is more than a math problem. Yes, money is important, but the recipe for a happy retirement includes many ingredients and financial security is only one of them.
Second, I shared this quote from Harrington Emerson, an efficiency engineer and management consultant in the early 1900s:
“As to methods there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.”
Methods vs Principles
Let’s unpack that a bit. Think of principles as the laws, rules or beliefs that are foundational to a particular thing. For example, the principles of flight are lift, gravity, thrust and drag. That’s only four things, but if you want to make a flying machine, it needs to tick all those boxes.
Once you understand the principles, you can use any number of methods to accomplish them. In fact, as long as you understand the principles and how they interact (e.g. a heavier plane needs more thrust and lift) then you’re free to do pretty much whatever you want in the design and construction of the craft. It can have a jet engine or propeller. The wings could be made of cloth, steel or some type of composite. It can be big or small. Fast or slow. Have one seat or hundreds. It can serve a specific purpose (e.g. float plane, fighter jet, crop duster) or be a jack of all trades. You get the idea.
Just like with flight, retirement has certain principles that are foundational to success. Things like financial security, meaningful relationships, health, time control, purpose and a sense of belonging, to name a few. Once you understand what those are, you’re free to try pretty much whatever methods (procedures, techniques, tactics) you want to accomplish them. And since a) you understand the principles and b) you know yourself, you can choose methods that both serve the underlying principle and align with your interests, skills, desires and priorities.
Consider our flight analogy again. You’ve probably seen those old videos that show the blooper real of early flying machines. The bicycle with the oscillating bird wings attached. The man jumping off the hill with cardboard wings strapped to his arms. The man on roller skates with…you guessed it…bird wings attached to his arms. It’s clear that these Wilbur and Orville wannabes were doing their best to copy the “methods” of birds without understanding the principles involved that make those birds successful.
Likewise, retirees will sometimes copy things like golf, travel or relocating without realizing that they’re confusing principles and methods. Travel is not a principle of retirement. Having meaningful pursuits is. Volunteering is not a principle of retirement. Purpose is. Tennis is not a principle of retirement. Being healthy is. If you ignore the principles or don’t understand them, any method you try will feel random, ineffective, unstructured and ultimately disappointing. But if you understand the principles then, to paraphrase Emerson, you’ll have unlimited methods to choose from and you can experiment and settle on those which suit you best.