The retired and graying former executive slumped in his chair in his immaculately appointed and overly private home office in sunny Florida. “This isn’t how I thought it was going to be,” he thought to himself through an indifferent fog of seemingly endless emptiness. “I worked extremely hard and made a lot of sacrifices all those years so that now I’ve got plenty of money and all the free time I want to do whatever I want. It seems like I should be ecstatic with this situation, but I feel terrible. A person can play only so much golf; I think that if I play one more round I’m going to throw up. Why do I feel so bad? What is wrong with me?”
You be the doctor and pick your diagnosis: 1) boredom, 2) lack of fulfillment, 3) depression, or 4) all of the above. One of the real joys of my work is interviewing executives about their lives and careers, and “the retirement myth” is one of the patterns that I’ve seen emerge all too often.
It looks something like this: leaders work extremely hard their entire careers, making extreme sacrifices in their personal lives to achieve a high degree of career and financial success. They rationalize these personal sacrifices by telling themselves that they will enjoy the fruits of their labors in retirement; but lo and behold, when they retire they find that they feel empty, unfulfilled, and even depressed.
Can you appreciate the extreme irony of this situation? These folks settled for less happiness than they really wanted in the present based on the belief that they would enjoy a higher level of happiness in the future. However, when the future arrived they found that they, once again, had less happiness than they desired and deserved. This has the familiar ring of a less-than-happy life from start to finish. Surely there is a better way, you say.
While I’m on a rant, let’s talk about the American Puritan “work ethic.” Too many of us have been taught to believe that we are not good enough as we are, but that we can somehow redeem our self worth if we work hard enough. This erroneous belief leads to a host of needless and sometimes tragic mistakes, from the mildest form of “working more hard than smart” to the most severe form of “working yourself into an early grave.”
How many leaders do you know who can’t sit still or relax? It’s easy to get the impression that their main motivation is constant motion; i.e., “if I work hard enough maybe I’ll be okay.” In fact, I will often ask them point blank, “What is your goal here, to stay busy or to achieve results?”
It is well documented that two of the strongest needs we humans have are: 1) to belong, and 2) to contribute. These needs don’t go away just because we retire.
In addition, I think we should heed the advice of the Greeks when they said, “All things in moderation.” Our need for balance, fulfillment, and happiness in our lives doesn’t go away just because we’re in the middle of our most productive career years. What’s that booming voice I hear from cliché heaven? “It’s not the destination that’s most important…”
By the way, our retired executive needs to get involved with some activities that meet his needs to belong and to contribute; golf alone doesn’t provide that for most of us.
Technique #1: Strive for balance in both your career and your retirement.
Technique #2: Meet your needs to belong and to contribute in both your career and your retirement.
Technique #3: Beware of extreme sacrifices and postponements where your happiness is concerned—you may not be able to recoup your investment before the market closes.
Copyright Terry "Doc" Dockery, Ph.D. All rights reserved.