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Retirement: Destination or Experience?

August 28, 2020

During my introduction to a flight school, a pilot entered to turn in a rented plane. He lives in Alaska and said he returns monthly to NH for his job. He said he was the envy of his retired colleagues because he is working a week every month rather than being fully retired. He is a surgeon. He obviously likes his profession enough to make the monthly trek from Alaska. We talked further about the struggle his peers were having in this new phase of their lives.

Physicians are considered to be some of the brightest individuals. They are certainly dedicated given the complexity of their schooling, the rigor of their residencies, and the responsibility for their patients. This is an all-consuming profession regardless of specialty. Learning is career long. These are intelligent, life-long learners. Why then would they be challenged with retirement? Are they any different than others who leave their career for the rewarding retirement life?

Why do some people struggle with Retirement?

Retirement is one of several transitions in most people’s lives. There is adolescence, graduation, adulthood, marriage, full time employment, parenthood, and promotions. We all have experienced some if not all of these. There are also terminations, firings, divorce, illness, and accidents which are also transitions some of us have experienced. Each transition is a change from something familiar to something different. There is a period within the transition to the something different when we feel uncertain, overwhelmed, and worried leaving us questioning our direction and resolve. The larger the change potentially the greater we are affected during the transition.

Physicians are different from most professions in the level of commitment demanded of their practitioners. This is an all-consuming path. There is opportunity for self-direction and self-discovery as with all professions, however the path is well defined. These individuals in fact may have a more difficult time than other professions because what it takes to be a physician. Some might be in this profession for their love of the studying. It could be for the need to be a specialist and the pride they derive from that unique knowledge. This has been their life and defined their place in society. They may not have taken the time to separate what they do for work from what they like to do. Noticing what part of their work or lives gives them joy or happiness could give them the clues needed to find happiness outside of their profession.

Retirement: Did you buy a ticket to a destination or an experience?

Many retirees come to this phase of their life as if they bought a train ticket to a destination. Their career delivered them to this destination. The brochures said this would be filled with sun, laughter, and joy but no one told them arriving at the proverbial retirement station isn’t enough to having these things. We are like physicians. In our twenties we are gaining knowledge and experiences that set us up for greater responsibilities and experiences. We focused on our families and doing our jobs well so our children succeed and we have enough money for retirement. This dominates our attention and is the focus for the majority of our professional lives. What is missing is how to take care of ourselves. The skills of taking care of ourselves while attending to our responsibilities are often times the lesser developed.

Retirement is a shift from taking care of others to taking care of me. It is the reward for a life well lived. Well, your life isn’t over when you retire. It’s a transition to the next phase. For many it becomes a time to learn about myself, to develop the skills in areas that give me happiness. It can take five to ten years developing some skills to a level sufficient to give sustained happiness. If you are retired without these skills, your choice is to sit on the porch bemoaning what you should have been doing or accepting the reality that learning these skills is part of your retirement. Returning to what you did could be more profitable but is likely taking you away from finding sustained happiness. Retired or not, take time daily to do something that is building your skill or capability in an area you enjoy. Practicing this will broaden your options and build a life that gives you sustained happiness.