Two Decades to Yes

James E. Mitchell

IN MY LATE 30s, with my architectural apprenticeship complete, I opened my own firm. Even with a low income, I saved.

Nine years later, in 1988, Philadelphia’s Drexel University invited me to develop its brand-new architectural engineering program. A retirement plan with a generous match was an unexpected benefit, and I always contributed the maximum. As I aged, family inheritances helped somewhat. By 1999, both Quicken and a financial advisor confirmed that, if I chose to, I could retire. I was in my late 50s.

Moving to Drexel had led me to resume writing a daily 300-word journal entry. It was a special form of meditation, settling the day’s events. Over the next 32 years, I created 12,000 entries and 3.5 million words, against which I’ve checked my memories of my path to retirement.

I discovered that I began contemplating retirement far earlier than I expected. The first mention came in 1999, in an entry where I recognized that I could retire if I wished. I wasn’t ready, but at least I could. From there, through my actual retirement in August 2020 at age 78, I addressed retirement on 149 days. I didn’t obsess, but I spent many words considering it, often in clumps followed by months and even years of silence.

The principle that served me well was clear from the beginning. I wanted to “move to,” not “move from.” I had to know I’d find meaning in my next life. Many times, I considered retiring in anger at the latest stupidity of academic politics or because of frustrated ambition, thinking, “I don’t need this.” But I stuck with it. I loved teaching, students and my opportunity to make life better for many as a mid-level administrator. I put up with nonsense because so much was good.

Throughout those 20 years, I regularly searched for activities to fill my days after retirement. I wrote long lists and ranked activities. I experimented with photography, serving on nonprofit boards—I’m in the give-back camp—and pursuing a private pilot license. In the journals, I fantasized about traveling the U.S. in an RV, or living the poet’s life, or building a small computer consulting business. A few ideas were one-week flops. Most were pleasurable, but none sang of a rewarding new life. Academia was too good a fit for me. And, of course, forgoing Drexel’s monthly contribution to my bank account weighted the seesaw, too.

What ended my 20-year search? Age helped. My wife developed Parkinson’s, requiring me to shift to a caregiver role. We moved to a large condominium to deal with her medical issues. I quickly found myself on the building’s board and ultimately its president. Thanks to my many retirement experiments and the advance of technology, I’m now able to provide online, volunteer computer consulting across the U.S.

And those years of journals became the inspiration for writing something substantial, first a self-published autobiography and now articles like this one. My role at Drexel changed as well, reducing its attraction. When, in 2019, the university offered a big retirement package, my decision was easy. The time had come. I knew “moving to” was now right.

My journaling continues. When I looked at the year after the paychecks stopped, I found no mournful entries. The few times I met with faculty members and staff, I smiled, but had no urge to return.

My review of my journals did expose one major omission. As an engineering professor, I taught that the beginning of any design effort required that you know the literature of your field. Yet my journal entries show no effort to learn about retirement beyond being financially prepared. I did make an early change from stock-picking to low-cost, diversified investments, thanks to reading the theory and the results.

What I neglected, as have many others until recently, was pursuing literature on retirement itself. The first I read was Larry Swedroe and Kevin Grogan’s excellent book, Your Complete Guide to a Successful & Secure Retirement. There must have been earlier material that would have helped. I hadn’t searched for it.

When I finally read the book, I was relieved. The authors generally confirm what I recorded in my journals. We agreed that saving consistently works. My “move to” rather than “move from” principle is consistent with their recommendation of identifying non-monetary life goals. That principle saved me from making a rash decision. My efforts to try a new life in imagination, and with small-scale experiments, was consistent with the book’s recommendations, too. Those efforts were an enjoyable and noncash version of saving for retirement, and ensured I was ready for my new life the day the old one ended.

James E. Mitchell is a professor emeritus of architectural engineering. He spent 32 years at Drexel University. Before that, Jim was a principal in the architecture firm Jordan-Mitchell, Inc., in Philadelphia. He’s currently the unpaid president of The Philadelphian Owners Association.

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