Retired, Abruptly: Here Are the Lessons I Learned

This piece comes from Scott Allen who is now five years into enjoying his retirement and pursuing more active work and service opportunities.

My retirement did not go according to plan.“Involuntarily separated from the organization” was the official, legal term for my then, current, employment situation. “Smoked, like a Hormel canned ham” was how my friend and colleague, the Vice President of Human Resources put it. Four years of hostile corporate mergers or, “affiliations” as we called them, and five CEOs later, it was time for some more change management. This time the change was me. I was out.
How I went from laid off to full-on retirement bliss….
This wasn’t quite the plan my wife and I had been working on for the last 15 years that would culminate in a smooth transition for both of us from careers to rewarding, carefree, early retirement, together. It was about 5 years too soon and we weren’t ready, in ways I didn’t foresee.

Taking Stock, We Did Some Things Right

We had lived fairly modestly and saved for retirement. We bought a house and stayed there, rather than buying up and into bigger mortgages and bills. My wife works in corporate communications and I was a healthcare lawyer. We never carried any credit card debt, car loan payments or other short-term debt after the first ten years or so of our marriage. We were both fortunate to be gainfully employed for a few decades straight, dutifully maximizing both of our 401k’s along the way and doing some additional investing.

When the last recession hit, we avoided the impulse to bail on our stock portfolio, following the advice of our financial advisor to stay put and ride it out. We continued to stuff our 401k’s and take advantage of corporate matching dollars but, we focused significant resources toward wiping out long term, mortgage debt for a few years.

When the recession wore off, we were almost at our target retirement savings goal. So, why not move that early retirement up a few years? This was a gift; lemons to lemonade and all that.

We luckily had our finances in order. What I would be surprised to learn was that I didn’t necessarily have my “life” in order.

Making the Jump and Loving My Early Retirement (At First)…

After a lot of discussion after the lay off, we decided that I would actually retire; my wife had a few years left at the company to qualify for her pension and health benefits in retirement. I would take over the household “stuff” so she could come home from work, not run errands and do chores, have dinner cooked for her and relax. I would find other fulfilling things to do; things worthy of real retirement. It was a simple, impromptu plan. Maybe a bit too simple, as it turned out.

The first few weeks at home were euphoric. Not having to get up early, adorn my corporate, sartorial armor, slog the commute to and from and slay the endless parade of paper dragons, I felt unweighted.

No staff to manage, no CEO hounding me, no other C-Suiters anxieties to soothe, and best of all, no more epic meetings that began with the statement “I think we have a legal problem” and then got worse. I celebrated casting off everything, without much thought to what was left. In my rush to accelerate my retirement, I hadn’t bothered to build one, first.

…And Then, Not Loving Retirement At All

I welcomed the silence at first. Then, it got louder and louder. The phone wasn’t ringing, my email wasn’t filling up with messages, just piling up with spam. My calendar was wide open for weeks; no, months. I had more time than needed to exercise, do all the yard work, home and car repairs, shopping, cooking, just about everything I never had time to do, or, at least not well.

All my colleagues, friends and my wife were working. It was just me, the dog and the quiet. I was anxious, but couldn’t put my finger on why. I started to feel isolated and, dare I say it, lonely. I definitely did not see that coming.

I realized that whatever retirement was, it wasn’t merely throwing off the yoke of work with all its attendant responsibilities and time demands. It also wasn’t filling up the day with another set of tasks, domestic or other.

It needed to be a new routine that had some purpose. It also needed some people in it.

Finding My New Life

Thankfully, my wife was very empathetic and challenged me, repeatedly, about what this retirement needed to look like for me and taking steps to get there. Over months of dinner conversations, I grew to realize that the thing I missed most about work life wasn’t the work, the title, even the paycheck so much; it was talking to smart people, every day, about lots things, even arguing with doctors, lawyers and judges. I was craving the mental challenge and needed to find an avenue for that.

I’ve always pursued physical challenges, too, mostly in the form of sports. In recent years, mountain biking and downhill skiing have become my big passions. Some component of physical challenge needed to be in the mix of a new retirement routine, for sure.

Then, there was the purpose part. We had always given money to charitable causes but very little of our own time. We were sort of charitable service bystanders for a long time. That needed to change, and this was a great time to do it. Community service could bring some purpose and the people. If I could find some physical, maybe sporting activity to go with it, even better.

Taking A Stab (Spin) at It

Fortunately, I live at the edge of one of the largest, urban wildlife preserves in the country. The preserve covers 33,000 acres of Sonoran Desert and a small mountain range, with 200 miles of hiking and riding trails. I had mountain biked there for 20 years but, had always viewed it as merely an outlet for my work stress.

The Preserve is run by a large conservancy group that requires services from hundreds of volunteers to maintain and protect the preserve and its visitors every year. One of the volunteer groups just happens to be mountain bike patrol stewards. So, I signed up. After some orientation, training, first aid certification and mentoring from the senior stewards, I was plugged in.

Having some experience and skill on the bike, I was quickly able to get involved in teaching new rider skills clinics. Then, came guiding group rides in the various regions of the Preserve. Other times, I’d be riding the trails and just helping people out hiking and riding in the preserve; usually giving trail-finding directions, providing first aid or just pulling cactus needles out of guests and their dogs and keeping them all away from the rattlesnakes lounging on the trails in the sun. On a recent ride, I discovered a more seriously injured hiker who had fallen in the preserve and was able to assist in a legitimate mountain rescue.

Getting involved with the Conservancy provided a jump start for me to make my retirement days much more rewarding. I’ve met a group of like-minded people, from all walks of life, who share a passion for nature preservation and outdoor adventure, among other things. Having the opportunity to serve the public every time I ride out, even in the smallest ways and briefest of encounters, helps fill up my tank.

Now, when I say I don’t miss work, it’s a little more emphatic, with a big smile!

Ready to Find Your Retirement Purpose? Here Are 3 Steps to Take…

While the timing and circumstances of everyone’s entry into the retirement world varies widely, I think some of the emotional challenges are universal and must be grappled with to be successful.

For me, it distilled into three questions and the all-important answers:

1. What are the key elements of your current work life that propel your forward motion, fill a need, feed your soul? Maybe it’s creativity, spirituality, human connection, scientific wonder, physical or intellectual challenge, and so on.

What is it for you? That’s what matters.

2. What activities or pursuits in retirement could help satisfy those needs? Think about the need first, then the pursuit to fill it. It might lead you to a totally new endeavor you might not have thought of otherwise or, a fresh look at a hobby or interest you already have.

3. What steps can you take now to start your new routine? Don’t wait until you are in a retirement vacuum to start your new life. Get the ball rolling while you’re working. Sign up for a class, join an organization, seek out whatever and whomever you need to get access to your desired pursuits.

And, don’t be afraid to try something and not like it; it’s retirement. It’s like the gelato shop where you get to try as many flavors as you want before choosing one (while driving the server crazy).

Make it fun. Enjoy!

What unexpected struggles or challenges did you face when you retired?  Tell us about it in the comments below!

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