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Look Before Leaping

James Kerr

WELL, I’M SIX MONTHS into my retirement from the corporate world. How are things going? Any regrets? Any big surprises?

No regrets, for sure. I knew that leaving the workplace at age 61 would be a tradeoff of freedom gained versus money forgone. But I had a second-act dream to pursue—becoming an author—and, for me, that tradeoff was worth going for. So far, it has been. I have my first book out and another in the works. While I’m not making much money, having the freedom to pursue my passions without having to ask permission from anyone is, to quote a notable credit card commercial, priceless.

But there definitely have been some rough moments along the way. If you’re thinking about retirement, here are six considerations to keep in mind before you jump:

1. You have to create an entirely new identity for yourself. For 30 or 40 years, you had an identity conferred on you by an organization and by the working world in general. You could see that identity on your email signature, your business card, your LinkedIn profile. That identity came with fancy titles that brought certain privileges and power.

All of that’s gone now. It was all part of a game and the game is over. Outside the organization, you’re just a person, like anybody else. Who am I now that I’m no longer vice president of global public relations for a Fortune 250 company? I’m just a writer, an unknown one. I’m starting over.

Even for someone like me who never put much truck in titles, the void is startling and I’m still getting used to it. What I’m finding is that we’re never really as important as we think we are when we’re working, and that we’re more important in other ways than we ever realized. Those new aspects of identity, however, need to be discovered. Which brings me to my second realization.

2. You need to find a new purpose for your life. We humans need purpose in our lives, and work provides that. We don’t just work to make money. We work to make meaning for our lives and our time here on earth. You may not love your job—most people don’t, according to surveys. Still, that job gets you out of bed in the morning, which is a good thing.

Now that you’re no longer working a job, what’s that purpose that gets you up and (hopefully) raring to go? It can’t be about closing deals and making money any longer, so what’s it going to be? Giving back to the world? A new creative hobby? Helping your kids?

I consider myself fortunate that I’ve always had a powerful sense of purpose in my passion for storytelling. From the time I was a kid, I always felt my calling was to be a writer, and that never left me. Because of that, I never felt a strong connection to my identity in the corporate world, and finding a new purpose in retirement hasn’t been particularly hard. If anything, it’s been a huge relief, since all through my working years I felt like I was trying to serve two masters. Now, there’s only one, and happily it’s the master that gives me the greatest satisfaction.

3. Ramping down your spending is tougher than you think. I spent years preparing for an early exit from the grind. I built a nest egg, downsized, eliminated debt and slashed my monthly expenses to a fraction of what they’d been. The expectation was that the early years would be tight since I don’t plan to take Social Security early and I have to cover medical expenses until I can go on Medicare. I knew I’d have to budget carefully to make the plan work, but I’m pretty frugal to begin with, so I didn’t see a problem with that.

What I didn’t expect was how hard it would be to cut some of the frills out of the budget—like eating out. When I was bringing home a steady paycheck and wanted to go out to eat on Friday and maybe Saturday, too, I could do it without worry. Now that I’m living on my savings and I know those savings have to last me for the rest of my days, I need to weigh every expenditure, pondering what I will gain and what I’ll lose. Should I spend $70 on dinner and drinks, or save it for the property tax bill coming up next month?

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To ease the transition, I’ve picked up a few writing and PR consulting projects on the side. Nothing too onerous—I don’t want to take away from my personal writing time—but enough to bring in some extra “frills” money. That’s helping a bunch.

4. You need to keep to a structured routine. I heard plenty of warnings about this before I retired, and they were all correct. Having a routine is critical in retirement.

Let me repeat: Having a routine is critical in retirement. It’s critical to both our physical and mental vitality. All the studies show that, without structure and routine, our cognitive capacities tend to decline more rapidly as we age. I don’t want that, and so I’ve kept to pretty much the same daily schedule I had when I was working.

I still get up early—usually around 5:30 a.m.—to get in a workout. From there, I make coffee, take Cassie for a walk, and come back inside and start my work. I usually write until 2 p.m. or so, and then I take a break and work on other projects, writing or otherwise. The difference now, of course, is that my routine is devoted to what I want to do, rather than what a big company wants me to do.

5. You need to give yourself permission to take it easy. This is the flipside of No. 4, and it’s been the hardest transition for me. When you’ve been working a high-pressure job for 30-some years, it’s hard to all the sudden take the foot off the gas and say, “Hey, it’s time to relax.” This is particularly the case for someone like me who has always invested a good deal of his identity in the notion of accomplishing things.

It’s okay to still want to accomplish things in retirement—things that are personally important to you. I certainly have a lot of things I want to accomplish in the years ahead. Still, if I’m not going to find time to smell the roses now, when am I going to do it?

So that’s what I’m working on: Giving myself permission to do non-work—meaning non-writing—things that give me pleasure. I’m getting back into fly fishing and tying flies, which I didn’t have much time to do when I was working. I also plan to start golfing again, once I get this arthritic left hip replaced. Ugh.

6. You need to discover new ways to socialize. For me, the biggest loss I’ve experienced in retirement, more than the steady paycheck and the benefits, has been the camaraderie of the people I used to work with. I didn’t like spending hours of my day in fruitless meetings, of course. But I enjoyed being able to message people on the fly, work on projects together, have lunch or dinner while traveling—the things we take for granted while working.

All of that’s gone now. I’m still in contact with many of my former colleagues, but rarely do I talk to them during the workday. I’ve had to find other ways to connect with people and make friends. The gym is one of those places. I’ve already made a few new friends at the gym, all by just spending a few extra minutes there in the morning and taking the chance to speak to people. I’m also doing volunteer board work for a nonprofit and have met new people there as well.

No matter what age you are and how much planning you do, retirement likely will be a shock to the system, like jumping into a cold pool. I’m still adjusting to the water. But I sure am enjoying the swim.

James Kerr led global communications, public relations and social media for a number of Fortune 500 technology firms before leaving the corporate world to pursue his passion for writing and storytelling. His debut book, “The Long Walk Home: How I Lost My Job as a Corporate Remora Fish and Rediscovered My Life’s Purpose,” was just published by Blydyn Square Books. Jim blogs at PeaceableMan.com. Follow him on Twitter @JamesBKerr and check out his previous articles.

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AKROGER SHOPPER
AKROGER SHOPPER
5 months ago

Thanks for the article Jim. Indeed every day is a Saturday after leaving the daily grind. There is no hurry or worry, and puttering is taken to the next level. Each day is a gift, so we stumble about tinkering with whatever sparks our interests. Mr. Clements has assembled us all here to learn from each other and I am great full for all the time and effort put forth in publishing the daily articles.

tshort
tshort
5 months ago

First of all, reading your story and the comments that follow it just confirms a thought I’ve had now for several years: “retirement” is a dumb word. 65, gold watch, pension for five years, seeing the Eiffel tower, and then dirt nap. No. That’s not what’s happening with our generation. The problem is, no one has written the playbook for us to follow, because there hasn’t been one. So we’re discovering it as we go.

I retired w2 corporate life four years ago, and like one of the commenters, when wifey does the same in a week, 2022 will be the first year we cut the cord and go paycheck free.

I wish I had some marvelous insight to add to what you and others have already shared here, but I really don’t. All I know is, 30-40 years is a looong time to have to one’s self – no master to serve – especially for those of us who were not and are not entrepreneurially inclined.

So far, I haven’t had time for a job anyways, so my hope is that we’ll continue that. We shall see.

As for those of you who haven’t yet pulled the plug on work and are reading this, trying to glean some nuggets, beyond comments about figuring out some routine and purpose, there are no silver bullets. It’s a journey – your journey – and one that only you can figure out for yourself.

TomCoombes
TomCoombes
5 months ago

Thanks for sharing Jim. Been wondering what it would be like. a way off for me but still.

evan rayers
evan rayers
5 months ago

You might read this book & a few others considering your hips health issues.
You are your own best advocate if you are knowledgeable.

https://www.thriftbooks.com/w/anatomy-of-an-illness-as-perceived-by-the-patient-by-norman-cousins/277526/item/3817720/?gclid=Cj0KCQjw06OTBhC_ARIsAAU1yOVH8j0vOe2zGHoJMlwt7Spt0N8bz4dl0jdH1a3yeNk3vY-JBCtNPtUaAtIGEALw_wcB#idiq=3817720&edition=2218531

I’ve read over decades the longer one works, data dictates the longer one lives. Research that data.

Good luck & Best wishes!

Donny Hrubes
Donny Hrubes
5 months ago
Reply to  evan rayers

Yes Evan,
The more you know, the better for you. LEARN!

Rick Connor
Rick Connor
5 months ago

Great article James. I’m going through some of the same issues, even thought I stopped working full time 5 years ago! I think some of the reason is I kept working part-time, and still am somewhat, so I don’t feel “fully’ retired. I enjoy the work – it keeps me sharp without a lot of stress. 2022 will be the first year for my wife and I without any significant earned income. That’s a bit scary for me even though I’m confident in our plan. I still have a saver’s mindset, and seeing our retirement savings go down (from the market drop or withdrawals) still nags at me a bit. I’m getting better at it I think. Good luck with your writing.

Ormode
Ormode
5 months ago

I too retired at age 61, and I’m now 68. Answering of your points:

  1. I am now an elected official in a retirement community. Everyone seems to know me, and they’re all happy to share their views on what we need to do.
  2. Besides my life a politician, I’m in charge of a large blog, and I’m an official of my investment club, and will probably end up as president.
  3. I saved so much that I don’t have to cut back – in fact, I am spending much more than I did when I worked. But I’m still saving quite a bit of my income.
  4. I’m so busy with my to-do list I’m running around all day. Did I really retire? How did I ever have time to go to work?
  5. Once or twice a week, I take a day off and don’t do anything that can be considered a task that has to be done.
  6. If you are involved in all these organizations, you will meet plenty of people. I also belong to a private group that meets every Friday from noon until 7 PM – lunch, cake and coffee, wide-ranging discussions.
TN Steve
TN Steve
5 months ago

Interesting article, thanks!

I continue to be bemused by how different the process of retirement is for everyone. It truly all depends on the person.

My wife and I retired cold-turkey 5 years ago (57 and 56) from OBGyn medicine and commercial litigation. We retired to travel somewhat slowly (6+ months of the year), increased our after-tax spending, and never gave any thought to adopting some type of new identity. (We just took off our doctor and lawyer hats and did what we had been planning to do since our 20s.)

Like you, we are definitely enjoying the swim.

Jerry Pinkard
Jerry Pinkard
5 months ago

Thanks for the article James. My first reaction was what can a guy who is only 6 months into retirement tell us about retirement? Some of us are 10+ years into retirement and still learning. That said, you did raise some very key points about retirement that are great advice for all.

I retired 11 years ago and had planned my retirement pretty well. I had lined up a management consulting part time role with a global non profit. I had a lot of remodeling plans for our home. My mother lived 3 hours away and I planned to spend more time with her. I was very busy those first 2 years of retirement. I spent 2 days a week with the global non profit and really enjoyed the work and people. I did a complete remodel of our kitchen and dining room as well as other home improvements. My mother got sick and spent almost a year in rehab and skilled nursing. I handled her financial affairs and arranged her care. I spent at least 1 day a week with her and sometimes two.

My mother passed away in 2012. The consulting gig fizzled out due to a change in management. I finished all of my remodeling. I went from being extremely busy the first 2 years to having lots of free time. Others have told me this is quite common that the first 2 years of retirement are very busy and then things slow down. I do not like slow. The life of total leisure is not for me. I need to stay busy and be doing meaningful things.

Thankfully, I adapted and now am doing useful and meaningful things that I enjoy doing and that make a difference to others.

Best wishes in your writing career. You have a good writing style and your target areas are interesting and should help many people. I seriously considered writing a book about retirement a few years ago. I have read numerous books on retirement and generally found them to be poor and not very useful. I did a lot of research and was convinced that I could write a book that would be very useful to many. I finally concluded that I did not have credentials in the retirement planning field that would be necessary to sell a book. I was an IT executive the last 30 years of my 44 year IT career. What can an IT guy tell people about retirement?

I look forward to reading the 2.0 version of this article that you write in about 5 years.

Kind regards,
John

parkslope
parkslope
5 months ago

All the studies show that, without structure and routine, our cognitive capacities tend to decline more rapidly as we age.

Such a claim should be documented.

Brent Wilson
Brent Wilson
5 months ago
Reply to  parkslope

I think it’s healthy eating, exercise, and mental stimulation that preserve our cognitive capacities. Structure and routine just help many people stick to those practices. I also think a good routine may help reduce the stress of figuring out what to do and help combat isolation and boredom. Also at some point, I think most will struggle with memory loss. A good routine can help us remember the critical self-care activities we need to perform each day.

Mike Fuchs
Mike Fuchs
5 months ago

James,Thanks so much for sharing . Please keep us up on your next 6 months in retirement. Its so helpful .

T Redd
T Redd
5 months ago

James, I retired due to an chaotic health issue in 2018. I was 60. Work for me as a VP of comms just stopped..full stop. $22B company loved me, but my brain was toast so they said you gotta go…I agreed. But what to do? Like most comms people I had a brand in a segment of the industry, was well-known, funny, and had been at this game for over 40 years.

Well, I learned fast who are your business friends and who are your real friends. Business friends fade faster than a $50 bill in Vegas and real friends last longer than vinyl siding.

It has taken me way too long to just settle down with the fact that work is over. I have hobbies, a schedule, new friends, and a crappy golf game. Still hunting for that purpose and still do feel like I am wasting time if I am just reading or sitting and looking out the window.

Things will settle, but it sure takes a hell of a long time to go from 70 hr weeks to 0 and adjust…Thanks for your writings and will grab your book when it rolls off the presses.

T

steveark
steveark
5 months ago

I retired at age 60, six years ago. Because I recognized the possibility that abrupt change from being fairly famous to being a regular guy might be jolting, I slid from full employment to only working a few hours a week, and now a few hours a month. But I found no jolt. Life is even better retired. I don’t think any of your six are wrong, but they also are not critical in order to have a great retired life. I think there are many good paths. And I don’t get cutting spending, I didn’t retire until I had a surplus of assets. If retiring meant budgets and frugality I’d have worked a little longer until that wasn’t necessary. But that’s me, my retirement rules suit me, but probably not others.

Mark Royer
Mark Royer
5 months ago

James, your experience and observations so far in retirement mirror mine. My wife and I are both busy with volunteer work, going to the gym, and babysitting our twin granddaughters (16 months old) so we actually need to plan to find time to do something special together. But we love what we do. I miss my colleagues but have no friends at the gym and hospital where I volunteer. It sure beats sitting around watching TV all day.

Mark Royer
Mark Royer
5 months ago
Reply to  Mark Royer

Correction: New friends at the gym.

Michael Alberts
Michael Alberts
5 months ago

Thank you James for this piece. While I am still probably seven years away from retirement, you have given me some golden nuggets to ponder.

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