"What do you want to be when you grow up?"
It's the question we got asked all the time when we were kids. Answering it was like playing pin the tail on the donkey. Without any sense of the world (or ourselves, in most cases), we blindly took a stab at what seemed like a good response: "a doctor," "an astronaut," "a baseball player," "a movie star." We pulled a profession out of the hat and hoped it would stick.
But as we approach our retirement years, the question shifts from "What" to "Who do you want to be?" Suddenly, it's time to take stock -- of goals forgotten and dreams deferred -- and to figure out how to allocate our emotional capital so that these future years are among the best of our lives. Retirement, after all, is no longer just about leisure-time recreation, it's about re-creating ourselves.
Know your "life portfolio." One of the ways to do this is to build a diversified "Life Portfolio Program®," a concept developed by New Directions, a nationally recognized company that is a leader in the field of helping senior-level executives with career transitions and retirement.
Mike Jeans, the president of New Directions, defines the life portfolio as "an agenda for living that we always carry with us...a balanced mix of some work, ongoing learning, recreation, travel and avocations, reconnecting with family and friends, and giving back." He sums it up by saying, "A career has a shelf life; a life portfolio is ageless."
Check your balance. Jeans is one of the contributors to "65 Things to Do When You Retire," a collection of essays I edited on creating a successful retirement that also features essays by Jimmy Carter, Gloria Steinem, John E. Nelson and Liz Pryor. What I learned as I developed and compiled the book was that we need to look at our personal "balance sheet" to see if we've created a well-rounded life portfolio. That's how we'll know if we're really prepared for life after work.
In the book, I was inspired by the stories of people who found their "calling" in their retirement years, whether it was writing a novel, starting a nonprofit to help street kids or running a marathon. Often, they were surprised to discover a passion they never knew they had. Sometimes, it even meant going out of their comfort zone. But reaching for those dreams redefined them, giving them a sense of purpose and reinvigorating their lives.
Face your fears. Bob Lowry, who was a management consultant to several hundred radio stations, couldn't have predicted how radically his life would change after he retired in 2001. When he was asked to be a spiritual guide to men in prison, he was wary. "Trust me," he writes in his essay for "65 Things to Do When You Retire," "up until that point I had zero involvement with this segment of society." He began exchanging letters with an inmate at the state prison and when they met, the prisoner confided he was "so nervous he hadn't eaten in two days. He was worried I wouldn't show up and his cellmates would ridicule him." This was the start of Bob's prison ministry, and a meaningful life that has taught him lessons about "pushing back" against his own limits. "Volunteering your time and skills can help you face some of your fears. It can push you to grow."
Know your score. Whether you're decades away from retirement or you're about to cross the finish line of your work life, it's time to think about the balance sheet of your life portfolio. Start by taking this "Are You Ready for Retirement?" pop quiz:
- When you take work out of the equation, how do you view your identity? (Bonus points: Name three hobbies or volunteer activities you're currently engaged in.)
- How much time do you devote to your family?
- Who do you speak with about your feelings?
- How often do you get together with friends?
- How do you give back to the community?
- Do you make time for your spiritual life?
- How often do you exercise?
- Where have you traveled recently?
- Do you have a post-retirement budget plan that allows you to meet your basic needs and cultivate new interests?
- What are the dreams you're currently pursuing that have nothing to do with a paycheck?
Mind the gaps. Did your responses reveal areas that need more attention? Welcome to the club. We all have gaps in our balance sheet that need to be filled. But by rethinking priorities, you're on your way to answering the question that's key to creating a successful retirement: "Who do you want to be for the rest of your life?"
(Note: All the contributors to "65 Things to Do When You Retire" provided their essays on a pro-bono basis since all the royalties generated from the sale of the book will be donated to nonprofit organizations dedicated to preventing and curing cancer.)
Mark Evan Chimsky is the editor of "65 Things to Do When You Retire," published by Sellers Publishing, Inc.
"I have over ten thousand names in my [genealogical] file and am hooked on not just the facts, but the story-writing. I reconnect with cousins I haven't seen since I was a teen. I meet new relatives online and in person, even fifth cousins, who I never know I had... There's nothing like knowing that you had an ancestor in the Battle of Saratoga..." -Jean Benning, 75
"I traveled with the Hershey (Pennsylvania) Community Chorus to sing in Wales. When you visit the valleys in the east it's like going back in time; people aren't attached to their computers and mobile phones. I started renting an apartment in the city of Pontypool for six months a year. Now I have a lot of friends there and even volunteer at a shop where the proceeds support cancer research." -Judith Emmers, 69
"I'm lucky enough to live across the street from a gym. I go over there two mornings a week and work out for an hour at 5:30 a.m., and then see a trainer for another hour. I also do water aerobics three times a week. I do it so I can keep doing the things I love, not because I love the exercise. I didn't start exercising until I was sixty-six." -Corinne Lyon, 74
"I spent my seventieth birthday in a hot tub six thousand feet up Mount Hood. I didn't want my kids to think they had to do something special." -Carolyn Rundorff, 71
"A group of us organized a trip along the Natchez Trace from Nashville, Tennessee, to Natchez, Mississippi. We researched stops and places to stay, and every day one of us was the designated driver to haul the gear. You want to know the people fairly well before you set out on something like this. We covered 444 miles in less than a week." -Bill Dunn, 65
"We started the Canetti Literary Society in December 1981. [Elias] Canetti...had just won the Nobel Prize for Literature. I have a Masters in Literature and had never heard of Canetti. So I thought it was a good time to read his work, and the best way would be to have a book club with other women who might be interested in reading good literature. We are still in existence." -Anne Richtel, 95
"I'm training to be a museum docent at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu. The training to be certified is rigorous -- six hours a week for six weeks, then shadowing a certified docent, then delivering your spiel to two different staff members in two different areas of the museum." -Therese Wilkin, 63
"I began morris dancing in 1984 and long sword dancing in 1989. These forms are English and date back several centuries. I get exercise; a very close bond with a group of people of both genders and a variety of ages; the challenge of learning and performing a wide variety of rather complex and demanding dances; and the satisfaction of helping keep ancient traditions alive and growing." -Robert Orser, 79
"It is lovely to come to this physical and spiritual, scientific and creative body of knowledge at this point in my life. When I talk over the back fence with my gardening neighbors or give someone a bouquet of flowers from my garden, I know just how my grandmother and mother felt when they did the same thing." -Ally McKay, 68
"We had one piece that we were doing at a festival, which we had only a short time to learn, and we rehearsed on the bus to Abilene. We were the last to perform, and our director was very nervous. We rehearsed one last time before going on, and everyone in the choir got every note right. It's a pleasure you can't understand if you haven't done it. It really keeps you going." -Mary Roberson, 70
"The best part of community theater is that no one cares about your politics, your religion, or your money. Everyone's on the same bus. I've gotten so much out of it. My closest friends come from there. The ones I depend on, the ones who have my back, come from the theater." -Ellen Kazin, 71
"When I retired I took several Road Scholar watercolor trips and subsequently read everything I could find on Winslow Homer... My wife suggested that I had uncovered so much material on Homer that I should write a book... The rewards are beyond my fondest dreams...I believe that has brought me as close to the Master as one can get." -Robert Demarest, 83
"I started [studying Italian] when my husband and I were planning our first of four Road Scholar trips to Italy. I have found other people -- over two hundred of them, to be exact -- in an organization called Il Circolo Italiano on the Philadelphia Main Line, who come together to speak and promote the Italian Language and culture... They are the warmest people you would every want to meet." -Jean Benning, 75
"I wanted to do something in retirement that would give back to the community and to people in need, and this seemed to be an excellent candidate... The major reward is seeing families that are living in great need...partner with us in building first other people's and then their own homes, and then move into what in most cases is the first home they have ever owned." -Robert Bond, 75