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.
“Oh. Sorry. You’re on the wrong side of the mountain.”
That was the response I got when I called the park ranger help line. The number was conveniently posted on a big “You Are Here” board which I got out of my car to examine because it happened to be right next to the “Dead End” sign that marked the end of the road.
This new information presented a problem because my wife and I were planning to climb Mt. St. Helens and we needed as much daylight as possible to do it.
It was 10 am and we were at the aforementioned dead end, staring at the familiar crater in the distance of the mountain that erupted in 1980 with the force of 21,000 atomic bombs. We spent the previous night at Paradise Inn on Mt. Rainier and got up early for the trip to St. Helens. It’s only 35 miles as the crow flies, but three hours for any non-bird transportation that needs to follow the winding roads. Unfortunately, my poor navigation skills would now add another hour and a half to that.
Oh well. Back in the car. If it sounds like we didn’t spend much time planning this excursion, it’s because we didn’t spend much time planning this excursion. We didn’t even know we’d be climbing it until the week prior. The park service only allows 100 people per day to climb the mountain and all of the required permits had sold out months earlier. I found a website where people sell or trade permits they can’t use and kept checking for sales that matched our dates. At the last minute, an engineer from Nike decided that climbing an active volcano with his kids might not be as fun as it sounds, so I bought his permits.
We made it to the other side of the mountain by about 11:30 and found Climbers Bivouac, which is the beginning of the Monitor Ridge Route that leads to the top. As I put our information into the book at the trailhead, I saw, not surprisingly, that everyone else on the mountain that day had left hours earlier. “We won’t make it to the top,” I told my wife. “We’re starting too late. Better that we get that through our heads now.”
But as we started through the forest, I kept checking my watch and realized that we were making great time. The hike is 10 miles round trip and the first two miles of that are fairly easy. Then you break through the tree line and come to a boulder field that slows things to a crawl. Literally. We spent much of the next several miles and 2,500 vertical feet on all fours crawling over boulders the size of Volkswagens. I quit checking my watch because it was too discouraging.
The boulder field
At one point, we crossed paths with a climber on his way down and I was bemoaning our late start. He assured me that we were almost to the ash field. That’s the last mile and 1,000 feet of vertical. As a veteran of the St. Helens climb, he said we were lucky today because recent snow melt had compressed the ash and we would only sink to our ankles with each step. “Lucky us,” I said. “How far do you normally sink?”
“Sometimes shins. Sometimes your knees,” he said. “It’s usually one step forward, sink, slide back a half step.”
I tried not to make eye contact with my wife. When the climber moved on, I suggested we stop for a snack. “This is usually the part of the trip where I apologize for getting people into this,” I said. I told her if we tried for the top, we’d be coming down in the dark and then we had a four hour drive back to home base in Sequim. Best case scenario, we get home really late. Worst case scenario, we spend the night sleeping in the boulder field.
“It would stink to get this far and not see the view from the top,” she said. On we went.
We made it through the boulders and, sure enough, the ash was only ankle deep. Normally, that would have been a discouraging development, but now that I knew how much worse it could be, we were happy. Perspective is a funny thing. Unfortunately, there were no switchbacks on the route so the climb was very steep and slow.
Going down looked much more fun. The trail was bracketed in by two snow fields and several people who had summited earlier were glissading down the snow pack, using ice axes to slow their descent.
The ash field.
We kept on and finally (FINALLY!), the terrain leveled off and we were at the summit. It was a clear day and the views were incredible. Mt. Hood was visible to the South and it felt like you could almost reach out and touch Mt. Rainier to the North. Inside the crater is a bulging dome that is growing every year as the volcano below churns.
After taking some photos and enjoying the view, we donned our packs and started down. The descent went much faster, but the sun had set and it was nearly dark by the time we reached our car. We made it home in the small hours of the morning and crawled into bed still covered in sweat and ash, but I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. Beautiful scenery. Time with my wife. A sense of accomplishment. A fun memory. Those are some of the things that make life great.
Want to climb St. Helens? Here are some of the details:
Distance: 10 miles round trip Average completion time: 8-10 hours Summit elevation: 8,363 feet. It was 1,300 feet higher before the blast. Elevation gain from trailhead: 4,500 feet Gear: Good boots, poles, food, water, layered clothing, sunscreen, etc. Planning Info:Here Permits: Get one here If they’re sold out: Try here.
A panoramic of my wife at the crater rim. For scale, there is another person on the far right of the pic.
Last year I read a book called The Power of Habit that gave me some insight into what happens in our brain when we develop habits or get into a routine. I’ve thought about this topic before and had the sense that, while some routine is often necessary, too much routine can make life feel dull and short. It turns out that research backs this up.
In the book, the author talked about an experiment that the Brain and Cognitive Sciences Department at MIT did on rats. They hooked their brains up to a bunch monitoring devices and then put them, one at a time, into a simple T shaped maze. At one end of the maze, behind a partition, was a rat. Down the hall and around the corner was some chocolate. With the flip of a switch, the researcher would drop the partition (which made a loud click) and the rat would be standing there staring down the hall.
Slowly, it would start to sniff. It could smell the chocolate, but didn’t know where it was, so it would wander down the hall, stopping, sniffing, scratching and looking around. When it got to the end, it would usually look to the right, sniff, look to the left, sniff and then follow its nose to the left where the rat would discover the chocolate.
The more they did this experiment, the more the rats would hear the loud click, the partition would disappear and they would go straight to the chocolate. Once the rats had figured out the maze and developed a routine for getting the chocolate, the researchers compared the before and after brain scans. When the rat was new to the situation, his brain exploded with activity when he heard the click and the partition disappeared. Each time it scratched, sniffed and looked around the brain was buzzing with activity as it analyzed the sights, sounds and smells.
After repeating that experiment hundreds of times, however, the way their brains reacted started to change. Once they had the routine down—walk down hall, turn left, get chocolate—their mental activity started to decrease. The more automatic it became, the less the rats had to think. Almost every area of their brains quieted down. Even the part of the brain responsible for memory went quiet.
The only part of the brain that was still active was the basal ganglia, which is this ancient part of the brain that, up until then, scientist didn’t understand very well. What they learned from their experiments is that the basal ganglia is responsible for identifying the habits and routines that we have. Once it recognizes those patterns, it takes over and allows the rest of the brain to pretty much shut down.
The basal ganglia is your best friend when you’re trying to form new habits like going to the gym or eating healthy, but it’s bad news if life becomes so routine that your brain basically switches to autopilot. In that case, you’re not really creating new memories or being an active participant in big chunks of your day because major parts of your brain are switched off. If you do the same thing every day for a year, you don’t remember a bunch of unique days. You basically remember 1 day that you lived 365 times. The entire year kind of feels like it took 24 hours.
So if we want time to feel as if it’s passing more slowly and we want our memory banks full of unique experiences, we need to find a good balance between routine and novelty. Yes, we want a good exercise routine, but we also want to steer off the well-worn path of life once in a while. Especially in retirement. We need to find ways to break up the routine. We need to try new things and seek out new experiences. How can you do that in your life? What can you do this week to break routine? Experiment and see what happens.
Here’s a short video for inspiration. It’s by Jed Jenkins where he talks about coming to the realization that routine is the enemy of time so he quit his job and took a thousand-mile bike trip from Oregon to Patagonia. Some of you may remember the video from our Facebook page a while back. If you haven’t seen it yet, it will likely be the best 4 minutes of your day. Enjoy.
Note: Retirement is more than just a math problem. Yes, money is important, but you need meaningful activities and relationships too. When money and meaning intersect, you have the chance for something special. With that in mind, I’m starting a new periodic series called “aMUSEments” that will focus on a particular trip, activity, idea or adventure. Each article will be packed with links and resources to help you dream, plan and do. I hope they act as a muse to stir your imagination and help you plan your own adventures. Enjoy!
America’s Best Idea
Writer and historian Wallace Stegner called the national parks “the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.” Filmmaker Ken Burns summarized this sentiment when he named his wonderful national parks documentary “America’s Best Idea.”
With spring in the air, now is the perfect time to begin planning an adventure in one of the parks. Incidentally, I’m eating my own cooking on this recommendation. In about a month, I’m heading to the Grand Canyon to hike it from one side to the other and back again. Rim to Rim to Rim. My family and I will also be hitting a few of the other parks this year to do some hiking and camping. Assuming I survive the GC, I’ll let you know how it goes.
What they are
There are 59 national parks that cover 51 million acres in 27 states and two U.S. Territories. They contain some of the most beautiful scenery and natural wonders anywhere in the world. The first National Park was Yellowstone. It was signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1872. President Theodore Roosevelt established more national parks (5) than any other president. California has the most (9) and Alaska has the biggest (Wrangell-St. Elias) as well as the least visited (Gates of the Arctic). The most visited parks are the Great Smokey Mountains and the Grand Canyon.
It’s fun to visit exotic, far flung places, but let’s not forget that we have some pretty incredible places right here in the United States and the national parks are the crown jewels of that collection. They are relatively inexpensive to visit and because they’re spread out across the states there is a variety and selection that is tough to beat.
This year is the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service. There will be special programs at the different parks to celebrate the milestone and there will be 16 days where entrance fees will be waived in order to encourage people to visit. Throw cheap gases prices in the mix and this is the perfect year to plan a road trip to one or more parks.
Why retirement is the ideal time to visit
Retirement is the ideal time to visit the national parks. Why? For starters, you can get a lifetime annual park pass for $10 once you hit age 62. That same pass is normally $80 per year. Also, because you have a flexible schedule during retirement, you can visit the parks during the off season when things are less expensive and there are few crowds. Finally, there tons of volunteer (or even employment) opportunities geared towards seniors.
If you’re planning on visiting a few parks each year, it’s probably cheaper to buy an Annual Park Pass. The pass is normally $80, but is only $10 for a lifetime pass for those 62 or older and free for current members of the military. In addition to the pass, some parks require you to apply for permits if you plan on camping or staying in the backcountry. You can find specific requirements at the NPS website for the park you’re considering.
Best time of year to visit
This depends on the park, of course. If you’re visiting Death Valley, best to go January through March before the heat becomes unbearable. If, on the other hand, you’re heading to Glacier National Park, go in June when the weather is warming and the park is in bloom. Just Google “best time to visit <park name>” or visit the park’s official website to get recommendations on the best time to visit. In my opinion, the worst time to visit many of the parks is when the weather is the hottest and the crowds are the biggest. That means June and July for most parks when school kids are on summer break. Thankfully, one of the benefits of retirement is the flexible schedule so you can avoid peak crowds and visit in the shoulder seasons (just before or after peak season). September and October are often ideal months because the crowds have gone and the weather is mild.
What to do
Each park has a unique list of things to do and see like Old Faithful in Yellowstone, Half Dome in Yosemite, giant Redwoods in Sequoia and the Grand Canyon in…well…the Grand Canyon. In addition, there are plenty of other activities in the parks like hiking, camping, horseback riding, rafting, spelunking, snorkeling, kayaking, fishing, swimming, rock climbing, wildlife watching, sandboarding, hang gliding and leaf peeping. There is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to things to see and do.
Most of the official park websites have Trip Planner pages. Just visit the NPS site for the park you want to visit and look for the link that says something like “Plan your visit” or “Trip Planner.” Here’s the Trip Planner page for the Grand Canyon so you can see an example.
Can I take my pet?
Most National Parks don’t allow pets, but there are some parks that do. Acadia (Maine), Shenandoah (Virginia) and Cuyahoga Valley (Ohio) have hundreds of miles of hiking trails open to you and your pet. Other parks, like Yosemite and the Grand Canyon, don’t allow pets in certain areas of the park, but do have limited trails or other parts of the park where you can take your pet as long as they’re on a leash. If you want to take your pet, do some research before you go. The NPS website for each park lists their official pet policy.
There are thousands of videos online about the national parks, but I wanted to highlight a series by Jim and Will Pattiz called More Than Just Parks. They are brothers and filmmakers and have set a goal to create a short film using time lapse photography for each of the national parks. The videos are amazing. Click on the Zion video for starters. That 4 minute video will do more to convince you to get out and enjoy the parks than anything I could ever say.
If you’re thinking of visiting a park you might want to pick up a book or guide to help supplement the information you get from the park’s website. Lonely Planet makes great guide books and they have guides designed for many of the parks available at Amazon. Also, on April 19 they are publishing National Parks of America: Experience America’s 59 National Parks. It will be packed with photos as well as information, tips and sample itineraries for all 59 parks. If you’re looking for amazing photos, Ansel Adams in the National Parks is also a great option.
There is a new IMAX film called National Parks Adventure that is narrated by Robert Redford. It not only provides a history of the parks, but follows modern day adventurers as they explore some of the best things the parks have to offer. Here is a list of cities and theaters where the film is playing.
As I mentioned earlier, Ken Burns has a wonderful, six part documentary on the parks. It used to be available for streaming on Netflix, but I don’t see it there currently. You can try checking out a copy from your local library or it’s available for purchase at Amazon if you’d like to buy a copy.