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Skillful Retirement 101

I recently heard a TED talk that truly spoke to me.

I actually heard it by accident. You know, when you are listening to one thing on YouTube, and it finishes, but you don’t turn it off and it drifts into the next talk?

This one drew me in and though I was in the middle of something else, I grabbed a piece of paper and started taking notes.

The speaker was Dr. Riley Moynes, best-selling author, and lifelong educator. He turned his excellent communication skills into a lucrative financial advisory business and is now, a retirement coach. He clearly knows of what he speaks.

Moynes prefaced his talk with the fact that in the age of seat belts, driver warning devices, improved nutrition, and modern medicine we might spend a third of our lives in the stage we call “Retirement.” So, like in our school years, career, and family rearing, we have two choices. We can strive to get good at it, or just passively let it happen to us.

He lays out four stages of retirement and urges us to work our way to stage 4 and “squeeze all the juice” out of this phase of our lives. Here are the stages and what my personal experience has been. Whether the commencement of your social security years are in your future or in the rear view mirror, I hope this is helpful as a guidebook or a “damn, I’m not the only one” moment.

1. Vacation Phase

This first phase of retired life is that euphoric moment when you think the world is your oyster. You sleep late, add “Take This Job and Shove It” to your playlist, think about the nice things they said about you at the party, have that extra cup of coffee each morning, and read travel brochures. You find that comfortable chair at the Barnes and Noble and joyfully bid adieu to routine.

Vocabulary occasionally gets a little weird in this phase. I remember going on summer vacation with the family for the first time after retirement and literally wondering what to call that week. It was the week that I had typically looked forward to all year long. I could unplug, turn off the phone, not check my email, and concentrate on the family. But hey, that’s what I did the week before vacation. That’s what I’d be doing the week after vacation. Gee, this is different.

Depending on who you are, the experts say that this phase can last for a month or a year. You’ll know damn well when it’s over. Read on.

2. Loss

This is the stage when you realize that you’ve lost five things that you never realized were important to you. In their absence, you can hear the echo of your own voice rattling around in your head. For some of us, the perception and fear of this loss is why we never retire. We realize that they are such a part of our fabric that to lose them would mean the loss of our soul. Those are the “work till you die” folks.

That was not me.

I broke the sound barrier, took my year or two of vacation and hit the loss skids.

Oh, and what are the five things?

Lets repeat them together: routine, identity, relationships, purpose, and power.

For me loss of routine has not been a big deal and I still, after ten years of retirement kinda’ enjoy a mix of schedules. I have tried to force it from time to time, adding repetitive things to my calendar, but with the possible exception of three meals a day, it has never stuck. Ironically, the one week of the year that has more routine than the rest is my summer vacation.

Loss of identity, however, was a big one for me. I am embarrassed to say that no longer having a business card was a gut punch.

While you tell yourself that you are not your professional title and your professional title is not you, when you officially decouple from your job and become the “former”, it stings for some of us. It did for me.

That cocktail party question, “So, what do you do?” was one I dreaded. A friend advised that "absolutely nothing" was a good response and I must say that I enjoyed the look on people's faces when I delivered that line. The combination of shock, embarrassment, and envy were delicious.

But as I have gotten older, and have lost the battle with gravity, youthful dermatology, and hair care (see, Hey, I'm Bald, January 25, 2023), I now get the question that is even worse. “So, what DID you do?”

The loss of professional relationships is also hard.

Hayden and I not only retired, but relocated at the same time. I am sure that had I stayed in Washington DC, this one would not have been as painful. When you have spent a life in politics and public service, being in the loop is a big deal. Knowing things that others don’t know and being part of an information network that is communal and tribal is something you quickly lose if you no longer have a need to know or a scoop to share. I’d “like to know” isn’t as strong a bond.

The salve that treats this wound is the occasional phone call that begins, “I need your advice on something.” But enjoy those calls while they last. They have a limited shelf life.

When you work for an organization like the National Archives or the Legal Services Corporation, your purpose is written down for you and emblazoned on your job description, your elevator speech, and even the very building you work in. As I walked into the National Archives Building each day, there looming above me was Robert Aitken’s 1935 statue, “Future”. The inscription beneath the statue was “What is Past is Prologue” a quote from William Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest. Those five words summarize the purpose of archives and succinctly stated my purpose. Learn your history or you’ll be doomed to repeat it.

When I went to work at the Legal Services Corporation, we had a nice building in Georgetown, but it was missing a similar symbol and that drove me crazy. When you came off the elevator to our reception desk on the second floor, you were faced with a blank wall. I went to the President of the Corporation, got a budget, and worked with my staff to put our name, our logo, and a color-photo collage of our low-income clients on that wall. I wanted the same experience that I had at the Archives. Not a statue, but a wall that told everyone in one glance our purpose.

It took me a while at home to figure out that the family photos on every wall, on every tabletop, and in every album did the same thing. They were my purpose. And in a larger sense, I am reminded each Sunday from the pulpit what my forever mission statement needs to be.

Finally, that other p word that we never want to admit missing is power. We judge our politicians, our judiciary, and the surly clerk at the DMV, but guess what, we all have a bit of it in our careers and we miss it when its gone. As we age and lose physical power, it is just a metaphor of what we lost the day we walked out the office door for the last time. The trappings of office, the respect shown by others, the polite laughter at even the lame jokes, we don’t miss them until we miss them. They are meaningless in the grand scheme of things, but hey, so is a lot of stuff that we grow to like.

So, how to we escape the fear, anxiety, and for some, depression that marks this season of loss? Throw in some funerals along the way and the pressure to escape this tunnel increases.

Hopefully either we’re smart enough to put on our virtual shoes and "go for a run", or someone tells us to snap out of it. We innately know that there is something or someone out there that needs our attention and talents for the next 25 years. Welcome to phase 3, Search and Discovery.

3. The Search

Depending on how you are wired, this phase is either intentional or accidental. Some think you can skip the loss stage and go to this village right after “Vacation”. Maybe, but I am one who thinks you need the walk through the valley in order to appreciate the view from the mountaintop. Hot and cold, light and dark, slow and fast…from our first moment of awareness we are beings who sense contrast. Many literary metaphors spring from this human awareness because they are universal. So once you have stumbled in the dark loss of retirement, the need to search for the light becomes very obvious.

What are my skills and what do I really love to do? What brings me joy? What did I hate in my career and never want to do again? With what kind of people do I want to interact? What do I need to learn to actually tackle this avocation? Is it one thing I want to do or is it many?

Trial and error is inevitable, as is that feedback loop that we learned eons ago in the systems model scrawled on the chalkboard. Staying open to the possibilities is the key.

4. Re-invent and Re-wire

Here comes the sun. This is what Dr. Moynes means by “squeezing the juice” out of retirement. Getting to phase four and finding the light, the warmth, the speed, and the joy of a new pursuit, a new purpose, is the goal.

I have friends who have taken a deep dive into art or woodworking. Others have found joy in service through non-profits. Still others have kept a hand in their profession as consultants or mentors. The church has drawn in the talents of some as dedicated volunteers, lay, or ordained clergy. The possibilities are virtually endless.

For me, writing this blog that you are reading today is my re-wire.

It began as an effort to leave something behind for my kids and my grandkids, but has taken on a life of its own. This is my 100th blog since I began this venture on October 5, 2021.

Here are some things I’ve learned about this phase that might help you:


  • If it is right for you, you will literally lose track of time in its pursuit.

  • If it serves others, it will serve you.

  • Its purpose can change over time, and you can expand it to meet the needs of more people.

  • It can help you become a lifetime learner.

  • It will teach you that some of the things you lost in the transition from career don’t mean anything at all.

One last thing, not from Dr. Moynes, but from me. If you are struggling with any of the four phases of this journey, don't be afraid to ask for help. There are counsellors, pastors, and psychologists who deal with folks like us every day. Your spouse, your friends, or your old associates might not be the right ones to guide you or to give you that accurate kick in the butt.

Having been kicked before, during, and after my career, I know.

Ride to the Sunshine and squeeze the juice.


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