When It Comes to Retirement, Are You an Orchid or a Dandelion?

Dr. Thomas Boyce is a pediatrician and Distinguished Professor Emeritus in the Departments of Pediatrics and Psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco. His best-selling book The Orchid and the Dandelion summarizes two types of individuals: dandelions (hardy and propagating) and orchids (requires extraordinary care, but are intricately beautiful).

Are you an orchid or a dandelion?

What type you are may tell you something about how you respond to stress. And that can be a guide to the right kind of retirement planning for you.

Who Are Dandelions and Who Are Orchids?

Dr. Boyce claims that there are basically two types of children: dandelions and orchids.

Dandelions: The great majority of children are as hardy as weeds (Dr. Boyce dubbed them “dandelions”). The benefit of being a dandelion is that they are able to thrive in most situations. 

Orchids: Orchids can be amazingly beautiful, but they require some special handling to thrive.

Dr. Boyce and his colleagues found that about 20 percent of children are genetically pre-disposed to context-sensitivity. They are more likely to be shy or introverted, they pick up more easily on emotional cues from the adults around them, and they are more likely to exhibit signs of physical distress in emotionally stressful situations.

The 20 percent of children who are very sensitive are a handful to parents and teachers, and unfortunately, they may be the ones who act out, get in trouble and go from misfortune to misfortune. 

But Boyce’s team was surprised by another fact indicated by the data: The orchid children who were raised in households that nurtured them, cultivated their quirks, and patiently helped them master new situations had better health and well-being outcomes than most of the dandelions. 

Dr. Boyce says our genes are like books packed in boxes: they have to be unpacked, removed, opened, and read in order to inform and change the individual. What does the unpacking is our social context. The good news is that cultivating metaphorical dandelions and orchids is similar to cultivating real flowers.

 The important components of cultivating a successful orchid are:

  • Recognizing who that person really is
  • Developing and sticking to routines and habits
  • Celebrating difference
  • Engaging in imaginative play 
  • Balancing fear with mastery

The genetic programming that can lead to health problems and poor decisions can also be the genes that lead orchids to outperform peers — if they are allowed to grow in the right soil. 

Recognizing who you are — a dandelion or orchid — is the first step in learning how to cultivate yourself — at any age.

Dandelions and Orchids in Retirement

The deal is, it’s never too late to recognize who you are and make a change for the better. The same principles that Dr. Boyce discovered in childhood development hold true for adults, as his studies show.

Dandelions — the majority of savers — are fairly adaptable, but they may not tap their creativity to increase their happiness. Orchids, on the other hand, are by nature more risk-averse, but if they have developed their innate sensitivity to context, it might be a tool for continuing to improve their lives after retirement.

Dandelion Retirees

This group of savers is even-keeled, and if they have been even a little bit vigilant, they probably have a decent amount of money saved. They also are probably not as likely to make big mistakes with their savings as orchids.

But dandelions also don’t deviate from the script given to them by their parents, tradition, common sense, or a financial advisor. As a result, they may get bored in retirement instead of living it to its fullest.

These savers should use the opportunity of creating alternative scenarios for their post-work lives to engage in imaginative play. What would happen if you sold your house and put the money into a fixed income, inflation-adjusted annuity, bought a camper and set off on an open-ended road trip?

Dandelions are also more likely to put their faith into prescribed retirement strategies instead of carefully taking stock of themselves and their situation. This could be a liability if the situation changes dramatically. 

Orchid Retirees

These people are more likely to overreact to their environment. Market fluctuations and disturbing news about the economy or the government can cause them to panic and make bad financial decisions — like going to cash in fear of the apocalypse.

On the other hand, if orchids are allowed to make mistakes in a safe, controlled environment, they are more likely to bring their creativity to bear and outperform their peers. Balancing fear with mastery means trying out risky (or even dangerous!) ideas without worrying it will wreck your life.

The NewRetirement retirement planner allows users to run scenarios that model risk and reward. It’s a safe way to let your creativity run wild.

The same rules listed above for nurturing orchid children can help orchid retirees to control their fears, understand their risk appetite, and flourish in the life after work.

One example of developing and sticking to a habit in the realm of finance is to use dollar-cost averaging to even out market volatility. If you are prone to anxiety, making an iron-clad rule about contributing to your IRA or 401k in good times and bad can save you from the temptation to stay in low- or zero-yield investments like cash. Better yet, make contributions automatic, so you don’t even notice the money has moved.

What’s Good for Orchids Is Good for Dandelions Too

Celebrating difference means being OK with who you are. If you don’t want to take a risk and become an Airstream nomad, don’t do it! Life is full of negotiations. Find out what is non-negotiable for you and the rest of the time pursue your bliss.

The real secret, of course, is that everyone — dandelions and orchids — benefits from these rules. The difference is orchids may use the extra care to do something extraordinary.

Log into the NewRetirement Planner and try out a scenario that might feel foreign to you. See how cultivating new ideas can help you thrive now and well into your future!

NewRetirement Planner

Do it yourself retirement planning: easy, comprehensive, reliable

NewRetirement Planner

Take financial wellness into your own hands and do it yourself retirement planning: easy, comprehensive, reliable.

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