Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Building an Off-ramp – it takes more than money to retire

People ask me at least once a week about being retired.  “Do you enjoy it? Or “Do you find enough to do?” Or “Do you miss going to work every day?”  For the record, the answers are “Yes!” “Yes!” and “Are you kidding?”  People keep asking, though, because they hear about other folks who retired who struggle with it. 

Search the Internet with the phrase "advice for planning retirement" and you’ll find a list of articles about financial planning.  People think about preparing for the monetary part of retirement, and if they’re fortunate the finances come together.  But they often don’t think about what retirement will mean for their daily experience.  In my experience, how I prepared to use my time was as important as how I prepared financially.  

I was fortunate to have had a career that I enjoyed and that I found fulfilling.  Not every day (or sometimes month) was rainbows and daisies, but it was a good way to have spent a working life.  As an educator who spent a third of his career in as a junior high and high school teacher and the last two-thirds in community colleges and universities, I contributed to people’s lives and helped them dream and build their futures in small increments.  I even helped a few institutions move forward and think of the ways that they served or didn’t serve learners. 

I still continue to do that on a smaller scale, as I advise a few doctoral candidates as they complete their dissertations, consult with institutions on issues and programs, conduct studies that I find interesting, and write and edit articles that I believe are important for the profession.  So I haven’t disassociated from my professional life.  But what I have now is the flexibility to do the work that’s important to me without the demands of a job that requires me to be in certain places, doing certain tasks, and working at certain times.  In brief, I control my own life with few demands from external sources. 

Because I control my own life, I also decide how better to balance my professional life with my personal enjoyments.  When I’m not isolated from a pandemic, I can take time on a week night to meet a friend to play music without worrying about getting up early for work the next morning.  Or I can take a motorcycle trip along the Olympic Peninsula on a week day.  Or I can take the time to work on something I’m building, and if I don’t like my work, I can undo it and start over.  Or I can just relax at home, or have a standing, virtual cocktail party with friends from around the country – without worrying that some work demand will interfere.  After 46 years, three months, and 27 days of having a job that scheduled my life, now I’m scheduling my life.  That’s an incredible gift that I see as a privilege and a responsibility as I use my time.  If you haven’t yet deduced this, though, I’m really enjoying retirement.  So I write this in order to pass along some wise advice I received that helped me prepare. 

My already retired colleagues encouraged me, most importantly, to build what I think of as an off-ramp to retirement.  It’s important to think about retirement not being a finite point, but, rather, as a continuation, just like a freeway off-ramp isn’t a dead end.  That’s why I continue to have professional activities.  I’ve been consulting on the side for 25 years.  In the first year of retirement, my consulting practice had its busiest year ever, and its tapered a little from that in the last two years.  I don’t see that work continuing forever into the future.  But that helped me have an outlet for the professional energy that I maintained for a very long time during my career. 

Similarly, finishing out my doctoral candidates allows me to continue a teaching relationship with each of them – a relationship that I find incredibly satisfying.  Also, conducting a few studies, co-editing an issue of a professional journal, and co-writing some articles all allow me to make contributions to my profession, while I’m also mentoring the people who are working with me on these projects and helping them to gain publications that gain them status in our profession.  As I left my job and the part of identity it provided, these were the components of the off-ramp that allowed me to develop a new self-identity that’s not that much different than the one I’ve had for a long time. 

In my personal life, that off-ramp began about seven years ago as I built a music studio behind the house.  We have a small house, and there’s no space for the Hammond organ and other instruments I play with (note the phrase “play with” as opposed to “play”).  Four years ago, I replaced the older motorcycle I was riding with one that is better suited for touring because being on the open road helps me to meditate on life.  Then two years ago, we finally demolished our ramshackle garage and replaced it with a much larger one where I built a workbench with space for tools and working.     

The off-ramp also includes people – its most important component.  My wife and I’ve been fortunate to have made deep and lasting friendships over the years of married life.  Also, we both have family members who are important to us.  Although we only see some of those friends and family periodically, maintaining our connection to them grounds us in an understanding of the significance of human contact.  That’s part of the off-ramp that we started building a long time ago, and it’s one that we continue to build as we now have more time to nurture relationships.

Okay.  I understand that some of what I describe about building the off-ramp to retirement takes money.  In our case, it was the good fortune to have the resources to make choices a few years back.  As we had some extra dollars, we would invest in the off-ramp (e.g., building the studio or replacing the motorcycle with a newer one).  But that’s not any different than what we did in paying into our retirement accounts.  It was a conscious decision to understand that our lives were about to change and that we needed to prepare for that change.  In return for this opportunity, we try to live responsibly in the world around us because we understand how fortunate we have been to prepare for this time.

Like I said, I didn’t come up with this off-ramp idea.  I learned it by listening to and watching others.  None of the people who taught me did exactly what I’m doing because who they are and how they did it are all different.  The friend who retired and spent five years as a consultant with various companies providing his expertise.  The colleague who began a new research center after his retirement in his late 50s and then spent 30+ years managing that.  The neighbor who was a carpenter and now helps people with construction projects.  There are also people I know who have made their hobbies their life, or have completely reinvented themselves in retirement.  The key is that they had lives that extended from who they were to whom they became.  They built an off-ramp.

So in my third year, I’m still becoming.  It’s interesting that I had plans to do things that I haven’t yet done.  I’m okay with them never getting done.  Unlike my professional life, my goals now are now more fluid and less about an end product than they are about the experiences.  For now, I’m enjoying this latest episode of life, and I’m looking forward to seeing what it brings next as I transition through this off-ramp to whatever the fully retired me will be.  It seems to me that it’s never too late to start building that off-ramp.  Even if you’re retired already, you can start thinking of ways to bridge from where you are to where you could be.  My wife, for example, has taken up indoor gardening of late as a way to extend her enjoyment of seeing things grow without the demands of yard work.  The key, it seems to me, is to build forward to what’s next instead of looking back to see what isn’t.  After all, going to what’s next is what off-ramps provide us.