I have read many books on retirement promoting the “keys to a successful retirement.” Some have great ideas. But I think they miss a key ingredient. My argument: to have a successful retirement, we must start with a proper understanding of work. It’s certainly a counterintuitive way of looking at retirement. But sometimes looking at a problem upside down can help us find creative solutions. In other words, examine the opposite of retirement for lessons on retirement.
Read: What is the best place to retire? Choose the most important and you will be amazed. To that end, ponder this: What is it about work that is rewarding that we never want to lose, and, once retired, what is it about work that we want to eliminate? If you can answer these two questions, you are well on your way to designing the ideal retirement. The way I see it, work offers five rewards that we should strive to hold on to. First, it allows us to feel part of something bigger than ourselves. Many of us began our careers with a vision of how we could change the world for the better. Teachers and health workers personify this desire. Read: What Nelson Mandela and Arnold Schwarzenegger Can Teach Us About Aging For some people, this drive is a reflection of their faith. In many religious traditions, work is seen as a way to honor God, care for the world he created, and help others to prosper. Meanwhile, non-religious people often get a similar sense of satisfaction with their work, especially when they feel that it helps others to prosper. Across cultures, we see this universal desire to contribute to society, a desire that does not normally go away when we leave the workforce. Second, I don’t think I’ve ever felt as alive as when I was fully involved in creative learning on the job. There is something exhilarating when we have an “aha moment” and learn something new or find an innovative solution to an annoying problem. In retirement, I would like to continue taking advantage of that joy. Third, work provides us with a sense of identity. I was a banker. I was comfortable with that identity for 40 years. Saying that I am “retired” does not capture who I am today and is not how I want to define myself. Read: The Smart Things Some Workers Are Doing To Retire At 55. Fourth, work creates social bonds with co-workers. Spending time together striving for a noble purpose leads to close friendships. Finally, work provides income. In many ways, that’s the easiest benefit to replace: if we save for the future by living on less than our salary, we will have income in retirement and can enjoy a life free of financial stress. Given all these benefits, why would anyone leave meaningful work behind? Think of Jerry Seinfeld. Jack Welch, then the CEO of GE, offered Seinfeld $ 5 million per show, or $ 110 million in total, to do one more season of Seinfeld. Seinfeld said “no” and walked away. Why? One possible reason: he didn’t have time for anything else, like family. After the series ended, he married and had children. It has also been suggested that he wanted to get to the top. Seinfeld had spent so much time on the show that he was unable to lead a normal life, where he could gather material by observing others. While we’re not in the Seinfeld salary league, we can find common ground in the reasons he left. I have spoken with friends who have worked for law firms and accountants who left because the cost of time was too high. On top of that, even noble professions can burden workers with red tape and other distractions from the main mission of their job. For some people, toxic personalities in the workplace eventually become unbearable. How can we synthesize this knowledge to design an ideal retirement? Here are my six suggestions: 1. Increase creativity and learning. Last winter, I spent a few months in an active retirement community. One of the first things I noticed: there were hundreds of clubs available, where residents could learn and create. It reminded me of the excitement of going to college, but without the stress of final exams. My career provided creative outlets, but retirement potentially offers many more. 2. Redesign work. A successful retirement is not about 100% leisure. Instead, it should include some work and service to others. What has changed is that we no longer have to put up with workplace bullshit, because we don’t do it for a paycheck. The options are myriad – churches, nonprofits, and entrepreneurial endeavors are potential ways to carry on the best of our meaningful work without the baggage. 3. Redefine identity. As we leave our old world, we need to fill the identity gap with our new interests. “What is your job?” When they ask me that today, I say, “I’m a writer and a banking consultant.” That leads to much more rewarding conversations than telling what you used to do. 4. Build deep friendships. We need to replace the social network of the world of work with a new one. Labor relationships can be intense because they focus on a shared pursuit of the organization’s goals. Losing those relationships leaves a void that we must fill. We will likely find that the quality of retirement friendships correlates with the depth of our shared goals and aspirations. My advice: find friends where you feel most passionate. Maybe it’s a hobby or a cause that matters a lot to you. Friendships found in these areas are likely to be more lasting and fulfilling. 5. Capture Kodak moments. Use the extra time that retirement offers to reconnect with family. Many of us missed some of those special family moments in our working years. I’m trying to make sure that doesn’t happen anymore. 6. Eliminate toxins. Don’t waste a lot of time in this new phase of life with toxic relationships or annoying bureaucracy. Sometimes we had to put up with unusual personalities in the workplace. But if we are financially prepared for retirement, this stage of life shouldn’t require so much pain. This column appeared in Humble Dollar. It was republished with permission. Joe Kesler is the author of Smart Money with Purpose and founder of a website with the same name. Joe served as CEO of banks in Illinois and Montana. He currently lives with his wife in Missoula, Montana, and spends his time writing personal finance, working on two bank boards, and hiking in the Rocky Mountains. Check out Joe’s previous articles.