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The Purpose-Driven Retirement

Dec 26, 2007
What is so hard about retirement? This sounds like a made up question. Many people feel retirement is no big deal; you just stop working! But, let us ask the question another way: what is a good retirement? After all, we pretty much know what a good education is and have some ideas about a good career, but what are the qualities which make a "good" retirement? If you believe the ads from financial service companies, you probably think that money is the answer. And certainly money is important. But there is a lot more to it than that.

A friend of ours, Bill, got a new puppy, and hired a dog trainer. The trainer arrived at his home, introduced herself, and asked, "Now exactly what is this puppy going to do?" "What do you mean," Bill replied, "he's going to be a puppy!" "No, no, no!" she exclaimed, "Is he going to fetch the newspaper? Is he going to guard the house? Is he going to heard sheep? If he's going to be happy, he has to have a purpose!"

Just like that puppy, we all need a sense of purpose in our lives, and we continue to need it after we retire. We had a sense of purpose when we were in school. For some of us, it was qualifying for the next grade or the next level. For others it was getting through to get out. No matter. During our working years, we also had a sense of purpose as we built our careers and raised our families. Our careers were central in helping us define who we were by what we did and it occupied the bulk of our days. And we knew what it felt like to be successful, to be recognized for our contributions. And we could usually find a way to measure our progress against others.

But retirement is different. What are the measuring rods? Thank goodness, you say, I'm glad I'm getting out of all that competitive stuff! And perhaps you do want to give up the aspects of belonging to a stressful, competitive community (like the workplace). But there is always a need to find a sense of purpose, of making a contribution. Previous generations choose one of three general ways forward: (1) a hedonistic pursuit of "not working," (2) a dedication to non-profit causes, or (3) grandparenting, which was work but not for pay. And for many people those directions satisfied the few years they had between retirement and either physical frailty or death.

The baby boomer generation is different. If you are now in your 50s or early 60s and active, the chances are that you will live another quarter of a century or more, and for most of that time you will be in good health. What are you going to do with this new time, which some call the "30-year bonus round." There are no real models to guide you. History has few answers. For 99.9 % of human existence, there was no such thing as retirement. We worked until we dropped. When the first government-supported pension program was started in 1889 by Germany's first chancellor, Otto Von Bismarck, pension payments began at age 65, at a time when the average life expectancy was 47! So most people died before they ever saw a check! And our families do not offer much help as a reference. Oh yes, there is usually someone in the family who lived to be 93 or more, but he or she was usually living most of those later years in a state of physical, and frequently emotional, frailty.

So how do we find our sense of purpose, or how do we recreate one? In our book, "Your Retirement, Your Way," we explain two different but complementary methods for finding a sense of purpose. The first can be done at home on your own time. We encourage exploration of times in your life when you have experienced an extreme sense of purpose. And we train you to mine these memories, helping you to explore and analyze them. Like an anthropologist, an explorer, or acting as your own psychoanalyst, you explore your motivational needs when you were deeply engaged. Now frequently the information may be coded. If you remember loving to play football, for example, that doesn't mean you want to be a football player in retirement, but it can mean that you love being part of a team and having a schedule! And that is what you need to do: understand what motivates you.

The second method involves a process for analyzing your own personality. We use the Birkman Personality Profile (a customized brief version) in our book. Having a deeper understanding of your own personality will help you create a retirement lifestyle that will complement that personality. The point is to get enough information to become the architect, the visionary, and the author of a retirement lifestyle which will give you a sense of purpose and also make you feel satisfied and fulfilled.

Compiling this information will help you begin the planning of a journey, one which may be exciting enough to last a quarter of a century or more! And it has been statistically proven that happy people live longer.

Best wishes for a wonderfully long retirement, full of meaning, excitement, and purpose.
About the Author
John Trauth is the co-author of Your Retirement, Your Way (McGraw-Hill, 2007), a step-by-step curriculum which helps readers prepare for the psychological, strategic and financial aspects of this major life transition. Learn more about the secrets for a happy retirement in this book and take the free "retirement readiness quiz" at http://www.yourretirementyourway.com.
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