The tweet you see above was sent to me by a thoughtful friend who, like me, is probing the definition of retirement. The definition seems to shift and mutate a little with every person I meet who either loves retirement or fears it. But for me one thing is clear: the kind of retirement I want takes work. It's often hard work because it's largely emotional work.
Retirement clichés about laziness, or doing nothing, or retreating for the rest of one's life to the spongy confines of a recliner are, frankly, getting so outworn that they resemble a cookbook from the 1950s with recipes for deep-fried hot dogs and sugar-coated lard balls.
Anyone can choose to be a sugar-coated lard ball in retirement. Or we can choose to devote our new wealth of free time to the work of being our best selves. If you haven't been aiming at that, now's your chance.
Here's what I wrote to my thoughtful friend in response to that Anne Frank quote in the tweet:
Laziness never appeared attractive to me. In fact, it appears indolent and empty. The "industry" of freedom is what I'm after. It's another kind of work, done in satisfying doses between periods of relaxation. No bosses. No dictated hours or places. But productivity, for sure. Meaning in life relies on that.
This is the kind of productive work I'm thinking about:
Much of it is the work of countering long-ingrained tendencies, habits, and outright phobias that have accumulated on most of us like barnacles on the hull of life.
There's the work of overcoming all the things about ourselves that we don't like or wouldn't respect in other people. Laziness might be one. Anger another. Being out of shape. Being out of touch. Being too far away from dreams we once held tight. Realizing our dreams.
For example, there's the work of managing habits. This is no small task. Long-practised habits are almost tattooed into us. “All our life,” wrote William James, the 19th century American philosopher and psychologist “so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits — practical, emotional, and intellectual— systematically organized for our weal or woe, and bearing us irresistibly toward our destiny..."
Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, wrote about the work it takes to make constructive changes to habits that don't serve us well:
Hundreds of habits influence our days — they guide how we get dressed in the morning, talk to our kids, and fall asleep at night; they impact what we eat for lunch, how we do business, and whether we exercise or have a beer after work. Each of them has a different cue and offers a unique reward. Some are simple and others are complex, drawing upon emotional triggers and offering subtle neurochemical prizes. But every habit, no matter its complexity, is malleable. The most addicted alcoholics can become sober. The most dysfunctional companies can transform themselves. A high school dropout can become a successful manager. However, to modify a habit, you must decide to change it. You must consciously accept the hard work of identifying the cues and rewards that drive the habits’ routines, and find alternatives.
There's also the work of overcoming our biases. We are all constantly looking to confirm our biases. Understanding other points of view is hard work that few of us want to do. And most of us are enslaved by our negative biases. We tend to think negatively. It's an ancient protective skepticism. It's also limiting, especially if it's applied to other people. Some people deserve it. Others don't. Knowing the difference is part of the work.
There's the work of reducing anxiety that has been so viscerally inscribed over years of jousting with work dragons. We now have a chance to replace that anxiety with calm. Calm, for me, is work. I have to remind myself to go there. I have to monitor myself. I have to consciously draw down from the high perches of reactivity. It takes work. (It's working.)
There's the work of finding validation in doing work that doesn't pay in dollars. That's another big one for me, and I've almost worked through it. I used to meter life in dollars. An hour spent doing something other than paying work was an expensive hour. I used to tell myself that awful story. And it was effective. An ocean of weekends was sacrificed to well-paid servitude. None of the things I wrote in those many years are memorable. I might as well have been punching out high-priced fenders in a stamping factory. (I did like the money.)
There's the work of creating things. Once we are free from having to be paid, we can put our energies into any form of creativity that makes us happy. This blog is an example. Or gardening. Or, like one my neighbors, transforming old wooden windows into artfully crafted hanging collages. Or playing music. Or building Pinterest boards. There are infinite options. All take work.
There's the work of getting educated. Most of us think we are educated. But we only know a tiny slice of what's out there. Great lawyers might know the law, but it's normally to the exclusion of almost everything outside of the law. Likewise doctors, landscapers, and retailers. We specialize. Generalizing is the vast opportunity, when we have time, which now we do. We also have the bottomless internet. Whatever you want to know is there. All you need is curiosity.
There's the work of simplifying. Most of us have too many choices. We waste life in confusion. Our attention is splintered. We are implored from a thousand angles by luring commercialism and contagious materialism. We bounce again and again, seduced by the next glimmering thing. Blogger and author Mark Manson calls this "fake freedom." In a recent Globe and Mail interview he said:
"There’s a lot of psychological effects that come with having too many options, or having access to too many things. We don’t become more free, we actually become lost in distraction and envy and FOMO and all these other things. My argument is that what real freedom is is the ability to choose your commitments, to essentially choose what you give up."
In the freedom of retirement, that's the opportunity: to choose, to limit, to immerse in what matters and dispense with what doesn't.
There's the work of mindfulness. I believe most thinking people eventually come around to the temptation of cultivated calm and the skill of being able to step back from it all and just... witness — through meditation, yoga, and unaroused, introspective, quiet contemplation. But damn, it's hard work, at first anyway. It takes diligent practice, also known as work.
There's the work of opening up. After a lifetime of forming and hardening opinions, the last thing most of us feel like doing at this time of life is opening our minds to contradiction and uncertainty (see biases, above). But opening is healthy. It improves tolerance, patience, and cooperation. It reduces the stress of not getting our way or having others see our point of view. And for men, the job of showing vulnerability, a form of openness, is a life preserver. Without it, friendships, even long ones, can only be superficial. We have to be able to get down to what matters with our friends. We have to get personal. For a lot of men, that takes uncomfortable work.
There's the work of all relationships. If you think your relationships are secure and need no work, think again. I could go on for too long about the productivity in cultivating new friendships, and the work of self-examination so badly needed if you are a person who mainly talks about themselves or dwells incessantly on the tiny details of your existence. Some of the most important work is with your spouse. Men are notorious for coming home after a career and spoiling the satisfying routine of their wife's life. Some wives, much to their husband's shock, can't stand it and leave.
There's the work of healing old wounds. This is also about relationships. It's a form of hygiene. We have a chance, with time and effort, to repair what has long festered. Old animosities can be replaced with cordial levity. Resentments can be smoothed over with kindness. Time can be spent where lack of time spent together over the years created emotional distance. We also have the option of weeding: dropping people who exert persistent negativity. There's good in that too. And, of course, there are the self-inflicted wounds. Where do we begin? That's a pile of work that probably begins with a skilled therapist.
There's the work of overcoming the stereotypes of retirement. Swimming against the current is never easy. It gets harder with age. But ageism must be resisted, and dopey pigeonholes around working and not working and growing old really have to be disproved. It's almost a mission — assuming you're up for it. I am. Missions take work.
There's the work of staying in shape. Physically. Mentally. Emotionally. Fitness is work. Unfairly, it seems to me, we older people have to double down on exercise to achieve the same uplifting results because our bodies are headed in the opposite direction. We have to do more exercise and stretching with less energy for less return. Work. Work. Work.
There's the work of understanding the human condition. Another big one. But it's unavoidable if you, as an elder, are going to pass along the right wisdom to the next generation and one after that. We have an obligation at this age to convey helpful advice. To have something to offer takes work. Conveying it skillfully takes work.
There's the work of contributing to your community. Most people in demanding jobs are usually too busy... working. If you aren't, here's an idea: start a group. It can be a book group, a coffee group, a group of retirees looking for good conversation, or to cook together, or build birdhouses together. Gather formally because our society (thank you, internet) is devoted to individualism, and individualism cuts us off from the essential wholesomeness and fertilizer of socializing.
(There's a new movement called "social prescribing." Apparently, as many as half the people who visit doctors show up for non-medical reasons. So doctors are starting to suggest social programs. This came in this week from Guelph Today, a local online news source: "Social prescribing refers to people being referred to non-clinical programs that can make them healthier. It can be anything from yoga and zumba classes to postpartum depression and breastfeeding support groups." It's big in the UK, where a Minister of Loneliness was appointed last year to help avert that crisis, especially among older people. Obviously, there's work to do.)
There's the work of getting old gracefully. We don't want to be ambushed by old age after hiding behind busyness and denial for too long. At a point, it's prudent to see the pitfalls, understand our coming limitations, fortify our spirits, strengthen ourselves and our team, and work hard at enjoying all the days we are blessed to have left on this miraculous planet.
There's the work of change. Being able to embrace change is good for us, our loved ones, and the rest of the world we touch — because the alternative is to stubbornly resist change and cause pain for everyone involved, including ourselves. To flow with reality is an elegant life skill. And it's work to get there. We have to work on some of those other jobs first, like emotional resilience, mindfulness, grace and kindness, and the all-important skill of not giving a shit anymore about much of what seemed to be so important when we were younger. Men have to tame the charging bull.
Of course, the forerunner of change — and all the other work on this list — is desire. Also this week, Seth Godin wrote:
People don’t change
(Unless they want to)
Humans are unique in their ability to willingly change. We can change our attitude, our appearance and our skill set.
But only when we want to.
The hard part, then, isn’t the changing it.
It’s the wanting it.
Here's what all this good work doesn't include:
No one is telling you where to go every day, what to do, and what time to arrive and depart.
No fire-breathing boss is looking over your shoulders or trampling your spirit just because he or she can. (There are plenty of those.)
There are no workplace politics to wear you out, because there is no workplace. Your head is the primary workplace.
There is no "leftover living" on scant islands of time that remain after the work is done, the chores are done, the meals are done, and the hoped-for sleep is achieved. Self-actualization is no longer a leftover.
Industriousness runs through all of this work. It's the industriousness of getting up every day, facing all of these worthy new challenges, overcoming obstacles and solving problems, mastering new skills of personhood, then planning your next steps and stepping ahead into the rest of your promising life.
The productivity is in things made (especially changes), friends made, commitments fulfilled, repairs properly done, discoveries logged into your book of things that matter in life, skills learned, knowledge earned, influence exerted, kindnesses bestowed, experiences identified, pursued, and lived.
In short, a life in full. At last.