Lessons from a midlife retirement

My visit to the top of Vulcan Concepcion on the island of Ometepe in Nicaragua.

My visit to the top of Vulcan Concepcion on the island of Ometepe in Nicaragua.

Tomorrow I begin my second adult life. It’s been 17 months, one week and two days since I  woke up on a Monday morning having a 40-hour work week ahead of me. I need to remember how my alarm clock works, find an ironing board somewhere and try not to get killed during a rush hour I haven’t experienced in a long while. 

I’ll deal with that tonight and tomorrow. Today I’m going to enjoy my weekly brunch with friends, take in an afternoon workout and grab an early dinner at one of my favorite Durham places. I’ll call my folks  because I know they’re excited for me and I’ll spend a little time with my roommate’s dog since she’s going to be seeing a lot less of me now.

This morning I thought I’d share what I learned over the last year and a half away from the grind, or rat race, or whatever else we’ve become accustomed to calling our professional lives. In some ways this is for you, in others for me. For while I’m always happy to share my experiences with those that are interested, I want to be able to look back at this in case I ever fall into the bad habits of my first adult life.

Most people are not out to get you.  It’s actually the opposite, but when we hit our capacity for stress we have a tendency to tell ourselves stories that aren’t true. If you find yourself thinking that the whole world is against you, it’s probably time for a change.

The truth is you probably have more people in your corner than you think. I did, and I’m glad I got the chance to be a better friend to them. Being able to connect with people on a friendly level is much more rewarding than trying to determine appropriate behavior as a colleague, subordinate, protege, boss, spokesman or liaison. Having some separation between your professional and personal life is good, total separation is not. Moving forward I want to be a friend first and sort out the rest as I go.

Being retired is a bit like being an entrepreneur, except your only customer is you. Without a job full of responsibilities to get you out of bed in the morning, you could essentially rot away. You have to set the goals in your life and plan the route to get there.  You’re handling a budget because without an income you better be careful about how you are spending money. You’re managing your brand because your identity is no longer tied to a business. Your feedback comes in the mirror.  Take it seriously because retirement is either a tremendous opportunity or a remarkable waste. Don’t be the latter.

It’s…just…a…COUCH! One of my favorite lines from American Beauty, Kevin Spacey screamed that at Annette Bening when she interrupted an intimate moment out of concern for the fabric. I’m not kidding when I say I haven’t seen or used 95% of the things I own in about six months. For almost seven months I lived out of a backpack. Who knows why we acquire so many things, but when you don’t have the money to spend on them anymore, you realize how little you cared about them in the first place. Retirement is an opportunity for the ultimate spring cleaning.

Moving forward, I’ll be asking these three questions before I spend any money beyond basic necessities or time with friends and family. 1) Will this make me a more valuable professional? 2) Will this make me a smarter, more cultured, or more efficient person? 3) Does this get me closer to permanent retirement? If I can’t answer yes to one of these three questions, I want to say no to the purchase.

A second career makes more sense than you think. Are you the same person you were 20 years ago? How about 10? We have different tastes in music, food and entertainment. Many of us have changed spouses and friends, homes, cities, states…even countries. Yet choosing a different career from the one you wanted when you were 22 is still a bit of a challenge for people (and employers) to digest. If it wasn’t for the fact that my new company is run by people that had changed careers, I’d probably still be looking.

Even if you don’t decide to take a retirement like I did, it’s worth taking at least a weekend to yourself to decide whether or not you’re still doing what you love. There’s no shame in determining that your career tastes have changed. In fact, you might find that you have more to offer by doing something new. The death-knell is getting louder for the 45-year career. Embrace the change!

Finally, take some time to feel free. I realize this seems cliche, but there’s a reason our country was founded on this desire. It is a powerful human need and incredibly satisfying when fulfilled. It makes you feel strong, independent and capable of doing anything you want.

For me, standing at the departure board in a major train station in Europe armed with a Eurorail pass that allowed me to go anywhere I wanted, whenever I wanted, was the greatest feeling of freedom of my life. I can’t recommend this experience enough.

I’ll see you all tomorrow.

About Matt DeMargel

Public Relations Flack, Health-Conscious Cyclist, Personal Finance Nerd, Global Wanderer and slightly deranged fan of St. Louis and Mizzou Sports. I only write when I have something to say, but I talk constantly!
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