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I Wish I'd Known This When I Retired

Today, retirement comes with certain expectations. Popular literature, feedback from friends, books, Internet articles....all sorts of sources paint a picture of this stage of life. Getting an accurate overview of what is likely to happen is not that difficult.

When I stopped full time work in 2001 things were different. There was very little retirement information that dealt with anything other than financial preparation. Sure, Sun City-type retirement communities painted a picture of never-ending leisure, happy folks playing cards, enjoying the pool, and tasting wine with friends every bit as good-looking as you. 

When our parents retired, the life of golf, playing bridge, and days spent in the wood-shop was an appealing model. For many, things didn't work out that way, but that was the dream to aspire to. Because there wasn't a lot to go on, I began my journey with the same idea of what retirement should look like. 

Within the first year away from my job, I began to grasp that my expectations were different from my parents. I was approaching the next 25 years with a different set of desires. I didn't really know what those desires would be, but the idea of being put on the shelf, of being relegated to days of leisure didn't sound fulfilling. Then again, neither did non-stop travel, or moving to Costa Rica and living as an expat. 

Honestly, 16 years later I am still adjusting. There have been times when I had a new challenge and some new goals. Other periods felt more like a pause or a lull between whatever was next. Some break was good, too much, not. My personality allows me to fall into a rut and feel quite stagnant if there isn't a goal in front of me.

What I wish I'd known, or understood, when I retired, was the simple truth about retirement: at its core it is very much like every other part of one's life. When full time work ceases, how you spend your time is much more under your control. But, the person you are doesn't change. The foundation you have built is what remains your bedrock.

How your relationships fare after retirement depend on the effort you put into them before leaving the work force. Your financial mindset doesn't change. If you have been a saver, you remain a saver; if you take the attitude that money is to be spent, that belief will follow you. If you are a homebody, happiest puttering in the backyard, reading a book by the fireplace, or having friends over for dinner, it is unlikely retirement will change that into someone who wants to be on the road for weeks on end.

Retirement is a stage of life, it isn't a complete reboot of who and what you are. If you believe your post-work life is going to be quite different, you may become frustrated and unhappy. A satisfying retirement can be filled with new opportunities and options. But, I contend, that the core of who you are, what you believe, and what makes you the happiest, isn't all that different.

If I had understood that truth I would have saved myself some disappointment. Early on, I would have spent less time trying to turn my life into an image of retirement that I had been programmed to expect. I would have been more content and less on edge about creating the perfect post-work life. I would have understood that I would be building on a foundation already constructed, not starting over.


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