I’VE READ A LOT of retirement books touting the “keys to a successful retirement.” Some have great ideas. But I think they miss a key ingredient. My contention: To have a successful retirement, we need to start with a proper understanding of work.
Admittedly, it’s a counterintuitive way of looking at retirement. But sometimes looking at a problem backward can help us find creative solutions. In other words, examine the opposite of retirement for lessons about retirement.
To that end, ponder this: What is it about work that’s rewarding that we never want to lose—and, once retired, what is it about work that we want to eliminate? If you can answer those two questions, you’ll be well on your way to designing the ideal retirement.
As I see it, work offers five rewards that we should strive to hang on to. First, it allows us to feel part of something bigger than ourselves. Many of us started our career with a vision of how we could change the world for the better. Teachers and health care workers epitomize this desire.
For some people, this drive is a reflection of their faith. In many religious traditions, work is seen as a way to honor God, care for the world he created and help others to thrive. Meanwhile, non-religious folks often get a similar sense of satisfaction from their work, especially when they feel it helps others to prosper. In all cultures, we see this universal desire to contribute to society—a desire that typically doesn’t disappear when we leave the workforce.
Second, I don’t think I’ve ever felt as alive as when I was fully engaged in creative learning at work. There’s something exhilarating when we have an “aha moment” and learn something new or find an innovative solution to a vexing problem. In retirement, I’d like to continue tapping into that exhilaration.
Third, work provides us with a sense of identity. I was a banker. I was comfortable with that identity for 40 years. Saying I’m “retired” doesn’t capture who I am today and isn’t how I want to define myself.
Fourth, work creates social bonds with co-workers. Spending time together striving to accomplish a noble purpose leads to close friendships.
Finally, work provides income. In many ways, that’s the easiest benefit to replace: If we save for the future by living on less than our salary, we’ll have income in retirement and can enjoy a financially stress-free life.
Given all these benefits, why would anyone leave behind meaningful work? Consider Jerry Seinfeld. Jack Welch, then chief executive of GE, offered Seinfeld $5 million a show, or $110 million total, to do one more season of Seinfeld. Seinfeld said “no” and walked away.
Why? One possible reason: He didn’t have time for anything else—like family. After the series ended, he got married and had children. It’s also been suggested that he wanted to go out on top. Seinfeld had devoted so much time to the show that he wasn’t able to lead a normal life, where he could gather material observing others.
While we aren’t in Seinfeld’s salary league, we can find common ground in the reasons he left. I’ve talked to friends who have worked for law and accounting firms who left because the time cost was too high.
On top of that, even noble professions can grind down workers with red tape and other distractions from their work’s main mission. For some folks, the toxic personalities in the workplace eventually become too much to bear.
How can we synthesize these insights to design an ideal retirement? Here are my six suggestions:
1. Ramp up creativity and learning. Last winter, I spent a few months in an active retirement community. One of the first things I noticed: There were hundreds of clubs available, where residents could learn and create. It reminded me of the thrill of going to college, but without the stress of final exams. My career provided creative outlets, but retirement potentially offers so many more.
2. Redesign work. A fulfilling retirement isn’t about 100% leisure. Instead, it should include some work and service to others. What’s changed is that we no longer have to put up with the nonsense of the workplace—because we aren’t doing it for a paycheck. The choices are countless: Churches, nonprofits and entrepreneurial efforts are all potential ways to continue with the best of our meaningful work without the baggage.
3. Redefine identity. As we step out of our old world, we need to fill the identity void with our new interests. “What do you do?” When I’m asked that today, I say, “I’m a writer and bank consultant.” That leads to much more rewarding conversations than recounting what I used to do.
4. Build deep friendships. We need to replace the work world’s social network with a new one. Work relationships can be intense because they’re centered on a shared pursuit of the organization’s goals. Losing those relationships leaves a hole we need to fill.
We will likely find that the quality of retirement friendships is correlated with the depth of our shared goals and aspirations. My advice: Look for friendships where you find yourself most passionate. Perhaps it’s a hobby or a cause you care deeply about. Friendships found in these areas are likely to be more enduring and satisfying.
5. Capture Kodak moments. Use the extra time offered by retirement to reconnect with family. Many of us missed some of those special family moments in our work years. I’m trying to make sure that doesn’t happen anymore.
6. Eliminate the toxins. Don’t waste a lot of time in this new season of life with toxic relationships or annoying red tape. We sometimes had to endure unusual personalities in the workplace. But if we’re prepared financially for retirement, this season of life shouldn’t require such pain.
Joe Kesler is the author of Smart Money with Purpose and the founder of a website with the same name, which is where a version of this article first appeared. He spent 40 years in community banking, assisting small businesses and consumers. Joe served as chief executive of banks in Illinois and Montana. He currently lives with his wife in Missoula, Montana, spending his time writing on personal finance, serving on two bank boards and hiking in the Rocky Mountains. Check out Joe’s previous articles.