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The Joy of Work

Joe Kesler

I’VE HAD SOME dreadful jobs in my life. I spent one summer putting metal plates under a huge press for eight hours a day. Once the plates were in the right position, I’d push some buttons that would cause the press to crash down and shape the metal into something useful.

The goal was to work fast because that meant more pay. Some of the workers disabled the safety features so they could produce more widgets and earn extra money. It was a joyful day when I walked out of that factory for the last time with all 10 fingers still attached.

Factory jobs made me appreciate landing a job in finance. The industry pays above-average wages, it isn’t back-breaking work and you get to use your brain to find creative solutions for customers.

But even a cushy finance career came with some curses. Granted, they weren’t physical curses, but more mental in nature. For one thing, everyone in finance is focused on the money. As a result, I think there are more fights over salaries and bonuses than in other industries. Those experiences partly explain why I find retirement so liberating.

And I’m hardly alone. In retirement, many of us can, for the first time, untether the value of our work from the paycheck it generates. The habit of thinking about work as something we do to make money is deeply ingrained. We can scarcely imagine what a Copernican revolution it is to evaluate work without considering the dollars involved.

Are you enjoying financial freedom or hoping to get there one day? Here are four suggestions to help you rethink the relationship between work and money.

First, take the idea that work is what we need to do to live, and turn it on its head. The goal is to live to work, not work to live. In its optimal form, work isn’t drudgery, but a delight in and of itself. A retired banker I know has restored numerous old Corvettes since leaving his job. He’s now considered a world-class restorer. He doesn’t do it for the money, but because of his love of the craft.

In the first half of life, when we get an idea at work, we’d ask, “Will it sell?” In retirement, we might instead ask, “Is it good?” Rather than considering what kind of profit our work can produce, we’re free to focus on whether it will challenge our spirits.

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Second, in retirement, work is no longer something we want to get done as quickly as possible. In our careers, most of us looked forward to Fridays and a weekend of leisure. By contrast, in retirement, our leisure is often found in work. I never had much time while running banks to pursue my interest in writing. Today, I write because I have more free time, but also because it’s work that I love.

I have a good friend who pursued drag racing in his spare time while he was managing a company. Now that he’s sold his company, he is “working” more on his drag racing—and finding success. But it doesn’t feel like work. He doesn’t hurry to finish working on his cars so he can go fishing.

Third, in retirement, there’s no longer any need to strive for the applause of others or for monetary reward. Instead, we can focus on the satisfaction that comes from looking at the results of our labor. This is a reason many retirees find volunteering so fulfilling. They see the needs of their community met because of their unpaid efforts. Similarly, it’s no surprise that many retirement communities have a woodworking shop for residents. There’s a feeling of pride in craftsmanship that comes with spending hours with chisel and lathe.

Fourth, once retired, we’re able to devote ourselves to work that fits our nature. Some are gifted creatively, while others shine when it comes to technology or interpersonal relations. Retirement provides the time to eliminate the work for which we have no particular skill, and instead devote ourselves to work that matches our personality and gifts.

To be sure, some people may be “tap dancing to work” every day like Warren Buffett, who is still a CEO at age 91. For those lucky ones, there’s no reason to change. But for those of us who left our careers with sufficient wealth and have other interests, this season of life can be especially fulfilling, as we rediscover the joys of work.

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.

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Roboticus Aquarius
Roboticus Aquarius
1 year ago

Great piece. This topic is important and as time goes on it consumes more of my head-space.

Andrew Forsythe
Andrew Forsythe
1 year ago

Well said, Joe, and you make some excellent points. I’ve always liked the old saying: “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life”.

It is, however, a lot easier to do that before you have kids and a big mortgage. Once that happens, there’s more pressure to work at something which pays well even if it’s not really your cup of tea. Keeping your “personal overhead” low yields a lot of freedom, and we’ve encouraged our kids to experience that before taking on the big commitments.

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