Retirement is a Head Trip
In the run-up to leaving full-time work behind for good, retirement shimmers in the distance like a misty, magical land — Shangri-La or Brigadoon. As the hero of your own life, you imagine one day traveling to this land to be rejuvenated and liberated. You will “find yourself” at last.
I have two words for all the Quixotical questers: Wake up. Your magical land is an empty dirt field but for the tumbleweeds blowing through. You must build it — this lovely place — yourself.
Let’s talk about how you begin to do that.
First, note that I loathe the word “retirement,” which derives from a seventeenth century French verb, retirer, originally meaning to withdraw to a place of safety or seclusion. By the eighteenth century, retirement took on its modern meaning — to withdraw from one’s position or occupation or from active working life.
Every time someone asks if I’m retired, I bristle. That’s because the word “retirement” is oriented to deficit, loss, diminishment, and ultimately, death. No one transitioning from a traditional full-time job deserves to be prematurely shoved six feet under or onto a front-porch rocker, simply because they stop collecting a traditional paycheck.
Every time someone asks if I’m retired, I bristle.
Ironically, people often define their own retirement in terms of subtraction rather than addition. So many negative phrases are associated with retirement: No paycheck. No schedule. No boss. The bumper sticker that says: I don’t want to. I don’t have to. You can’t make me. I’m retired. Or this one: I’m out of bed and dressed. What more do you want?
Since when are retirees (still hate the word) indistinguishable from cranky fourteen-year-olds?
This isn’t right. Retirement, in its optimal form, should be synonymous with rebirth, not regressive behavior. That said, becoming a retiree isn’t necessarily easy. Conventional wisdom asserting that all you must do is find something you love to do, and do it, is criminally misleading.
At the outset, retiring is less about what you plan to do, and more about managing a shift in your thinking about time, space, identity, and other weighty matters. I suggest three core paradigms are involved in that shift, each of which must be acknowledged and grappled with before retirement becomes your new happy place.
1. Reorganizing Your Identity
I know of a judge who was shocked to discover when he retired that people no longer addressed him as “Your Honor” and stopped show him the deference he’d grown used to. He was unhappy and unprepared for this perceived change in status. For decades, you may have needed little more than three words to sum up a huge chunk of your identity: ‘I’m a teacher.’ ‘I’m an attorney.’ Retirement unravels that sentence — sending you back to the identity drawing board for perhaps the first time since adolescence. You don’t need to fill the gap immediately — and it isn’t really a gap, it’s a shift. You haven’t lost anything of value.
It isn’t really a gap. It’s a shift.
Acknowledge that you are, and always have been, a human being first, and that you still claim many other identities (spouse, parent, volunteer, artist, athlete). You are not what you do and never have been; it felt that way because the shorthand was easy. You are still you. Make a list of all the things you are, apart from your work role. “I am ______.” The answer need not be associated with an activity; it can be a quality. “I am curious…I am a reader…”
There are no wrong answers. Retiring is an opportunity to reconceive your identity in richer, more complex ways. Let the professional title go and embrace every other aspect of your personality. Give yourself permission to cut this cord. It’s okay to feel untethered for a time: that still doesn’t make you less than you were. Actually, this is about recognizing who you really are in the first place.
2. Redefining Your Relationship to Time
I used to worry that when my favorite former boss retired, he wouldn’t know how to spend his weekends, which for years had been consumed, in part, by catching up on hundreds of work emails. For him, that was an important way to spend time — not quite in the office and not quite out.
In our culture, time and productivity are nearly inseparable. Work life segments time and measures productivity for you (just as your professional title provides a ready-made identity). In retirement, you control the clock (apart from prior claims, such as caring for an elderly relative). The loosened bonds of time may give you psychological vertigo, bordering on panic, like bungee-jumping off a cliff. On top of that, productivity will be uncoupled from time. In your work life, for instance, you devoted eleven hours a day to teaching, prepping for class, and grading papers. Productivity equaled time and vice versa.
You can, and should, throw those old formulas out the window. You have earned the right to make a new time map for your days — and to redefine the meaning of productivity. A single hour, or an entire morning, may no longer constitute meaningful, measure-laden segments of your day. And that’s fine.
The loosened bonds of time may give you psychological vertigo.
To reallocate time and rediscover a new value paradigm for the passing hours, you first need to shake loose from your prior relationship to time’s passage. Don’t expect to figure this out all at once. Day 1 of your retirement should not be styled around re-allocating eighteen waking hours into identifiable chunks.
Learn to sit with time by allowing it to flow on without a plan in place. This could mean sitting still, reading, gardening, exercising, welding — all without a timekeeping device in view, and without predetermining when to engage in the activity. Perhaps 10 a.m., perhaps 2 a.m. You’re time’s boss, now, not the other way around. Again, there is no wrong way to do this — except to try to recreate a workday-like structure with the same attributes as before, i.e., where time equals productivity.
There’s nothing wrong with structure, especially if you crave it. But you should assign new values to structured time — including, perhaps, no value whatsoever. Each minute, each hour, is as valid as every other, regardless of what you are, or are not, doing. Your self-worth in retirement is not to be measured by any 24-hour yardstick.
Assign new values to structured time.
3. Rediscovering Your True Needs
My father was a C-suite executive who retired a few years ahead of schedule to care for my terminally ill mother. He pivoted from work to caregiving with patience and devotion. After my mother died, my father found a new love, and they traveled around the world having fun. My father successfully jettisoned the markers of corporate success in favor of living for love and new experiences. For so long, he’d needed a board of directors and a big salary to feel validated. Until he didn’t.
It’s easy to assume you need standardized external validation to define success in terms that you, and everyone around you, easily understands. Getting a raise, a promotion, or landing a high-status job are easy markers of success. Strip away that framework, and it’s up to you to figure out what you need to get up in the morning, engage with the world, feel fulfilled, and achieve a measure of peace and contentment. (Sustaining economic equilibrium is a separate issue.)
You’re pivoting from allowing external factors to define what makes you feel okay, to seeking internal drivers that help you achieve at least a comparable sense of balance.
This shift demands honesty above all else. You can tell yourself all you need is time in the garden, and that may be true, but it may also be an absolutely lie that leaves you feeling adrift and bored. You can tell yourself it’s imperative to join several boards and take on three new volunteer jobs. Maybe that works for you — but maybe those claims on your time make you miserable.
Start by doing nothing or as little as possible. Give your inner voice time to assert itself — and listen to it closely. If long, lazy days make you feel good, embrace that; don’t fight it. Just be honest.
Consider shadowing some friends who have already retired. Spend a few days with each of them and watch how they fill their time. As a dispassionate observer, ask yourself how their ways of organizing the hours makes you feel. That exercise may provide insightful clues about what you really need, not what you think you need.
Give your inner voice time to assert itself.
Case in point: A new retiree who declares, “At last, I can spend time writing!” has probably not sat for a spell and watched a writer at work. It’s definitely not for everyone. It’s hard, quiet, introspective work.
In conclusion, retiring takes skill, patience, and honesty. Get ready to meet yourself all over again. And perhaps delete the word “retiree” from your vocabulary. You are an explorer, now, so buckle up for the ride.
Amy L. Bernstein is pulling floss between her ears.