In response to last Friday's email, a reader sent me this about her impending retirement after years of high-level professional achievement:
I admit to struggling with transcending the guilt feelings of (almost) walking away from something I love (and loathe at times) and the sadness and grieving that comes over me as I’m starting to cross that river. Looking back at those who are still playing the game and keeping score. Feeling left out of the action. Self-inflicted self-pity (a necessary redundancy). Who knew this part of one’s career (the ending of it) could be as anxiety producing as the beginning of it?
I’m so grateful you are shedding light on the inner turmoil. “Name your demons, tame your demons.” Or at least calm them down.
I wrote this to her, describing my own travails:
For two years after declaring myself retired, I experienced debilitating anxiety that rose out of nowhere in my chest and literally made me feel ill, or at least profoundly uneasy. It happened every few weeks. My psychotherapist wife wisely told me it was normal and I should just let it happen. I felt like something was wrong with my heart. And there was: I loved the work that was taking up all of my life, and yet I had to break away from that intensity. I knew it was time, maybe past time. It was like a breakup. There was guilt, grief, and fear. I just didn't admit it to myself. My body experienced it because my mind was thinking it underneath all the bracing stories about newfound freedom.
I still do some paying work. But it is no longer an imperative. It's more like dabbling. The serious stuff is now the emotional work of not having something control me like that, and enjoying life more. I'm now serious about play. I think Jacques Cousteau once called his oceanographic work "serious play." I heard that in my twenties and was charmed, and promptly forgot the underlying message for the next four decades.
Soon enough the changes happen after you pull the plug, and I believe they are permanent. After three years, I'm starting to really enjoy not caring about things that are not worth caring about any longer, and caring more about things I formerly didn't care enough about. We all have things on both sides of that ledger. For me, the new "job" is to re-sort that ledger as if I was dealing with my worldly assets. And I am, in a sense.
Another reader, a soon-to-retire professor, sent me this wonderfully personal email about life and sport and work and what now:
Honestly, it was your very best one yet. But a country kilometer. I haven't read ALL your blog posts since you started writing them, but for me this was the most poignant one since I joined your blog club. So much of it resonated with me. And so much reinforced many of my own emerging realizations about entering this very challenging next phase of life.
The golf metaphor made me laugh! I had the exact same epiphany a couple of years ago playing hockey. I am the oldest guy in my group, and started to fade a little before the rest of my cohort. I had always played a pretty competitive, higher-level hockey with younger guys. I LOVED playing hard, playing well, and winning. It comes from a lifelong passion and involvement in competitive athletics. But then, my "game" started to deteriorate as it naturally does when a 65 year old plays with guys 10-20 years younger. I was going to quit playing, because it wasn't fun any more. I happened to share my angst with a couple of guys on the team, and they admitted feeling the same! So we packed up our team, quit the league, added a few more players, and moved to playing in a private arena owned by a friend of mine. Pick up rules. No refs. We randomize the teams every week. We play three 25-minute "games." We go hard and laugh at our mistakes. There's no bullshit on or off the ice. We have a beer in the dressing room after. Voila! Everyone says they are having more fun than ever playing hockey. The reason? We let go of the competitive "winning" part, and concentrated on the "game." Lots of passing. Trying to set the other guy up rather than score the goal ourselves. The physical workout. The camaraderie with friends. The love we all had/have for the "game" has been restored. Loosening the grip as you say. Or "soft hands" we call it in hockey. Pretty much like your golf story.
I also loved the description of the resumé virtues and eulogy virtues. I've been thinking a lot about this over the past week, having experienced only a few days apart the deaths of a beloved family member, a close friend, and employee. It makes you reflective of course, about your own life, as funerals usually do.
I'm still struggling with this whole "next phase" thing, but chatting about it is really helping. So is reading your blog posts because they capture so many of my own thoughts.