Are You Retiring TO or FROM?

When you think about it, we spend most of  our lives learning. As babies we discover a new sensation every day. We spend our formative years in the structured environment of school. Then we enter the work force with the expectation that we’ll continue to learn, grow and gain mastery.

But if your work life is a continuous learning and growing experience, and at the end of four, five or six decades you retire, then what? Have you created a pathway to a life that’s full, rich and meaningful? Or is your post-career life a looming question mark? In my experience, the latter is most prevalent, particularly among men. While many men claim they look forward to spending their days chasing a small white ball over hill and dale, from tee to hole, the reality is vastly different.

When I talk with clients about what they’re actually going to do with their lives once they have their money in place to retire, many say they’re looking forward to an end to the long tedious commute or the  pressure of constant demands. When I ask what’s next, common responses are: “I just want to do nothing for a year,” or “I have enough home projects to keep me occupied for a while,” or “I’ll travel,” or “I’ll figure it out…”

If that’s the way you are viewing retirement, you’re retiring from the life you’ve been leading, rather than retiring to the next chapter. While it’s true that you can eventually figure it out and find a rewarding new direction, that can take years, just at a time when each year is precious and shouldn’t be wasted. People who’ve had high-powered careers have to redefine what it means to be relevant once they retire. I think of a doctor who, after stepping down from the profession that had defined his entire adult life, told me he was completely at loose ends. “I’ve been a ‘Dr.’ all my life,” he said. “I don’t want to be a ‘Mr.’”

It’s the fortunate few who have fully mapped out a new pursuit and are retiring to a life of exciting possibilities. Planning is a magical process that opens the door to change, growth and freedom. Women are often better at this, at least from what I’ve seen. I think it’s because they’ve done a better job than many men at mastering the art of human relationships, and at recognizing what they find meaningful beyond their jobs.

In other words, men, you have some serious work to do to prepare for life after you relinquish command of your career. You build an abundance of core competencies, then all of a sudden you’re no longer the prominent physician, or lawyer, or business leader. Yet if you are financially secure and in reasonably good health, you can retire to that life of possibilities—minus the daily grind—if you approach the next stage with openness and optimism instead of fear and dread. View it as your time to learn something entirely new. Whether you’re a man or a woman, here, broadly speaking, are the main things to consider:

  1. Financial and life issues go together. Get your finances in order. Get a firm grip on the fixed and discretionary expenses you’ll have in your retirement, and identify the big traps that can negatively impact your ability to live within a safe spending zone.
  2. Take stock of your physical health and your limitations or areas of concern.
  3. Begin exploring the possibilities and opportunities that align with your values. Are you going to relocate, downsize, remain in place? What makes sense in your specific situation?
  4. Think about how you’d like to fill your time. Do you want to continue in your professional path as a consultant? Have you always wanted to play the piano? Study archeology? Be an artist? Or maybe there’s an important cause or social issue you support, and you’d like to contribute your expertise as a volunteer.
  5. Explore possibilities that might be outside of your comfort zone. You’ve already proven what you do well. Now you can try learning something new just for fun.
  6. Reject the push/pull of friends, family and the media telling you what you need. Keep your values front and center of your thoughts and actions.

Just as you devoted a lot of time and effort to making a success of your work life, you can take the same approach to your next phase and retire to something worthwhile and wonderful.