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My Five Lessons

Joe Kesler

FOR MOST OF MY LIFE, I didn’t plan to retire. Probably reflecting the influence of religion, I’ve long thought we were put here to spend our time working in the productive service of others.

This was reinforced by my experience as a manager early in my career. I often had to oversee folks in their 50s and 60s who were no longer engaged in their career and yearned to retire. I never wanted to become like them. Staying productive and continuing to work seemed like the wise move.

But my views on retirement began to change as I read about how baby boomers and the FIRE—financial independence-retire early—movement were changing the definition of retirement: It was no longer seen solely as the pursuit of leisure. I liked the redefinition, which included remaining fully engaged in life, including doing work that you love. My resistance to retirement was slowly softening.

Then it was accelerated by a really bad day.

It was a frigid Montana morning. My car said it was five below zero. I left early to drive more than three hours to one of the remote bank branches I oversaw as the bank’s CEO. I was going around 75 mph when I rounded a curve and hit some black ice. My Suburban, almost in slow motion, began to drift until I found myself going backward in the wrong lane. It was the first time I ever thought, “So, this is how it’s going to end.”

I was lucky. The car drifted into a ditch and crashed into the side of a mountain. The impact blew out all the passenger side windows and burst two tires. But I wasn’t hurt. My first thought was a prayer of thanks that I had more life to live.

After the battered Suburban was loaded onto a wrecker truck and we were on the road, the driver asked me what I did. As soon as I said I was the CEO of a bank, he exploded, “You SOB, why did you take my home from me without working with me?”

For the second time that day, it dawned on me this was the day I might die. Fortunately, I was able to talk him off the ledge, and he realized that he was confusing my bank with the credit union that had repossessed his house.

After two brushes with death within two hours, I decided it was time to explore this new world of retirement. After another year of work, I took early retirement at age 62. Six years later, what have I learned on my new journey? Here are five lessons.

First, my wife and I wanted to experience what it was like to live in a retirement community. We rented a place for six months in a Sun City development in Tucson. The benefits were real: more than 100 clubs to join, new friendships came easily, and the restaurants, fitness and other facilities offered were great.

Still, the almost college-like atmosphere couldn’t compete with our overwhelming longing to be a part of our grandchildren’s lives. We decided it was a great experiment, but we’ll do our future snow-birding on the East Coast, where the weather isn’t quite as nice as Arizona, but the family ties are strong.

Second, much of the literature on retirement is about staying curious and learning new skills. It sounds good in theory. I’d always loved music, but never played. My neighbor in Sun City told me about the ukulele club. Seemed like a great idea, but my ukulele now sits in my office accumulating dust. Perhaps someday I’ll pick it up again. Still, I’ve found it difficult to get excited about a new hobby unless I already had some history with it.

Pickleball, on the other hand, is a different story. Having played lots of tennis and ping pong during my life, it was a natural extension of my past into the present. I’m pretty good at it, and the sport offers a great opportunity to meet others and make new friends.

Third, I’ve never been a big fan of the worship of youth that’s so common in American culture. Indeed, throughout history, many cultures have revered not youth, but rather the elders in their community.

I think about this in terms of today’s work world. The stress of managing people and budgets is better suited for younger professionals. But there’s a role for those of us with decades of experience. I sit on the board of a couple of banks, as well as some nonprofits. A seasoned board can offer an organization wisdom and good governance—including the hard-earned lessons of our own mistakes.

Fourth, many of us prepared well financially for our retirement years. One joy I’ve learned over the past six years: the happiness to be had from giving generously with the retirement income we don’t need.

A few years ago, when I was elected to a bank’s board of directors, I called the outgoing director I was replacing. He gave me some good advice: “I don’t need the board fees, so I give all the money to the local food bank.”

Finally, I was a hypocrite for much of my life. I served as a church elder for many years, encouraging church members to slow down, and set a regular time each day for prayer and meditation. But I didn’t follow my own advice. I was too busy raising five kids, managing banks and working in nonprofits to have much time for quiet reflection.

Today, I’m happy to say that I’ve finally learned to slow down. I’ll enjoy a cup of coffee, while practicing the spiritual disciplines that I’ve long encouraged others to pursue.

I know it’s just a matter of time before I enter retirement’s slow-go and no-go years. When pickleball is no longer an option, I’m hoping I can fall back on the spiritual muscles I’m now developing, and they’ll help me to find meaning and contentment as I age.

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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