Ten Keys to A Creative Retirement

Ten Keys to a Creative Retirement (even when this means continuing to work)

 A useful analogy for understanding the word “creative” in the phrase creative retirement is the concept architects use to describe renovating and repurposing an existing building or home — “adaptive reuse.” The goal is to honor the attractive features, historic style, “good bones,” and handsome materials of the structure while updating, renovating and equipping the building for a new function. We’ve all seen the outdated school turned into an attractive condominium or into a lively community center, a warehouse made over into an art museum, a barn turned into an intimate theater. Likewise, when we honor our life experiences, knowledge and expertise and explore ways to reinterpret our accomplishments to engage in new ventures, we’re practicing “adaptive reuse.”

So with this idea in mind, I want to offer a few principles I have learned while in the process of both guiding others through retirement decision-making and making the journey myself. 

  1. Understanding and accepting your unique disposition with regard to change. Each of us experiences transitional periods in different waysFor some, heading off to kindergarten or to a college dorm or to a new job in a new town, is a dramatic, highly emotional experience. No one has ever gone through this in the way it’s happening to me, we believe. But other people experience life changes in less dramatic fashion. They seem to just “adjust.” Depending on where your are in the spectrum, from highly emotional to nonchalant, you’ll probably find it hard to believe that others react so differently to change. This is also true about the change we call “retirement.” For some, thinking about ending a career or even changing jobs in midlife, is a melodrama. For others, it’s a matter of analyzing options, collecting information, and taking steps to move forward. Research studies on retirement as a stressful event place it below challenges such as divorce, death of a loved one, or a serious illness. Researchers report that retirement is mainly a transitional adjustment period that can take, for some, just a few weeks, and for others, a few years.

  2. Allowing yourself the time and patience. About one-third of men and 12% of women who retire from their bread-winning occupation return to work within six months. Some by choice, others by default. Some people have already figured out a series of next steps before they turn in their office or laboratory keys. For others, disengaging from the workforce is like being handed a blank notebook and told to write the next chapter of their life. Exciting, yes, and scary, too. For many of us, it’s a relative first because somehow our pathway into our working life just kind of happened by virtue of earlier choices in education, an internship, a family connection, or just an impulsive decision to seize on an opportunity that popped up in front of us. Historical events such as wars, depressions, scientific breakthroughs,and economic booms often play a role as well. From these jumping off points, things just seemed to unfold organically. But now when contemplating retirement, to actually bring considerable life experience and critical judgment to bear, and to plan and choose with deliberateness — wow, that’s challenging. Some people say, “I’m just going to do nothing for awhile, and see what comes.” With no way to structure daily life, doing nothing quickly becomes boring and debilitating. Anxiety builds and, voila! you’re looking for a part-time job doing anything (but staying at home). So, yes, you do need to be patient with yourself and try not to seize on the first thing that comes along because the creative process (adaptive reuse) requires personal reflection, patience, a lot of hard work, discipline, and openness to the unknown and uncertain. But it’s also a good idea to have some activities to structure your week (see below).

  3. Learning to structure doing nothing. For those individuals who look forward to retirement as a transitional period that may lead to self-change, the next life incubation period involves passage through a series of stages. But you won’t really understand these stages while you’re going through them. Only afterward. As the Danish existential philosopher Søren Kierkegaard put it, ‘we experience life forward and understand it backward.’ So to make the best use of a period of being open to new possibilities, you need to have some intermediate structure and purpose. One way to do this is by signing up for classes at a community college or university to try out new interest areas, update your existing skills, gain new skills and to meet new people who can stimulate your thinking about the future. Going back to school gives you a little time structure and a way to use your mind. You will quickly discover both what appeals and does not appeal to you as well as some surprises concerning things you didn’t think you would like or would be good at. Another approach is to find an apprenticeship or volunteer intern opportunity to learn, up close, what it’s like to be, for example, a landscape designer (you’ll be doing some grunt work, at first), run a lady’s clothing store, teach math in a public school (as a teaching assistant), and so forth. A third activity involves setting up some informal job interviews with HR directors at businesses you think you might like to enter. This will give you practice when there’s not a lot a stake (like a real job for which you’ve applied). HR staff persons will review your resume and tell you what you might need to qualify as a viable candidate for some position with their company or they might tell you how, with your skills and experience, you could fit in to the company if and when a position opens up. 

  4. Transitioning for men. The sharp delineation of how retirement transitions vary by gender is blurring. In research from the NC Center for Creative Retirement’s Paths to Creative Retirement workshops, it was found that professional career women are encountering many of the same challenges as their male counterparts — fear over loss of role identity and power, diminished sense of purpose, decline in joie de vivre, and so on. Still, women appear to possess better social engagement skills than men. They are more likely to belong to clubs and civic organizations and have greater capacity to replace work-related friendship than do men. Lack of purpose, social outlets, and activity structure may lead men either to scramble back to the workforce, withdraw into isolating home projects, or sink into escapist activities such as TV watching, Internet surfing, or obsessive perusal of stock market reports.  While keeping men busy, these compensatory strategies hardly qualify as steps toward a creative retirement.So, what’s the remedy? The goal is to expand social connectivity, purposeful activity, self-esteem through productive engagement, and overall enjoyment of life. Ways to get in motion might include: reading books about men’s life transitions (e.g., Sheehy’s Passages for Men, Jones’s The Elder Within: The Sources of Mature Masculinity, Bridges’ Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes, Manheimer’s A Map to the End of Time: Wayfarings with Friends and Philosophers), joining a men’s group, enrolling in educational classes, scheduling breakfast or lunch conversations with friends and with family members, joining or reactivating membership in volunteer organizations, entering counseling or psychotherapy, seeing a career counselor about finding a meaningful second or third career, and exploring a spiritual practice (especially in groups).  

  5. Expecting resistance and inertia. Here’s what they usually don’t tell you in advice books and articles about creative retirement transition-making: the process can be stressful. If you can remember some of the struggles of adolescence or early parenting or recovery from a physical injury or death of a loved one, then you know that growing through a major life transition takes time, effort, self-knowledge, help from others, rebuilding activities, faith and trust in one’s own capacity for self-renewal, and so on. I’ve used the phrase “vortex of nothingness” to talk about the sensation of free fall into the darkness of uncertainty and despair that is, paradoxically, also the exhilarating feeling of freedom, openness, and transcendence. Writing about self-change, Kierkegaard said “the way is not the problem, the problem is the way.” By which the enigmatic Dane meant that in our resistance to self-change (anxiety, stubborness, fatigue, habituation, blame), we may slowly discover the passage we had been seeking. You have to accept that, at times, you’re going to be stuck at a crossroads or bound up by a contradiction. Take the example of choice making. Deliberation over choices benefits from gaining information and knowledge, but it also requires an act of will and self-determination. Choice making may also involve letting go of earlier decisions, and putting yourself into a stance of receptivity — which can seem the opposite of willful action. So there you are in the paradoxical position of wondering whether to go charging up the mountain or sitting in contemplation under a tree in the surrounding hills. The trick, paradoxically, is to do both; to embrace contraries.

  6. Not expecting resistance from others. There’s another kind of resistance to self-change connected to retirement, the reaction of others such as one’s spouse or partner, adult children, family members, friends and acquaintances. Any or all of these folks might not approve of your search, struggle, experimentations or occasionally erratic emotional states. When you make changes in your life, they tend to trigger discomfort in others. They, too, have to adjust. And retirement, if you go that route, has a subversive-like quality, especially if you’re having too good a time and go around saying things like, “I wish I had done this five years ago.” Or, “I can’t believe I was so addicted to working.” Statements like these can make other people wonder whether they too are overdue for a new venture and that can be disconcerting. So don’t be surprised by a push back from those close to you. They’ll want to help you resolve your dilemmas. Humor them as you gently entice them to enter the journey with you.

  7. Opening the philosophical window. People don’t necessarily get wiser because they get older. They may simple repeat the same tired lessons over and over. But for those individuals who are able to welcome all the perplexing questions that may arise while enduring the limbo-like state of a retirement transition, the opportunity to practice a life review (exploring your attitudes, beliefs, values and goals) is invaluable. A good reading list might nurture your exploration. I recommend the following, some of which are in the realm of popular or general audience works and others are a bit more academic, yet highly readible: H.R. Moody, The FIve Stages of the Soul, Josten Gaarder, Sophie’s World, David Norton, Personal Destinies, Bryan Magee, Confessions of a Philosopher, John Kotre, Outliving the Self, Sharon Kaufman, The Ageless Self, James Carse, Breakfast at the Victory Cafe, Laura Kaplan, Family Snapshots: A Philosopher Explores the Familiar, and my own A Map to the End of Time. These, and other books like them, will help you turn confusion and uncertainty into Wonder.

  8. Engaging the world. What and who is creativity good for? In the 1960s, existentialists like Sartre and de Beauvoir insisted that literature (and other artistic venues) must have social relevance to be authentic (see Sartre’sWhat is Literature? and de Beauvoir’s Ethics of Ambiguity). But other critics insisted the opposite was true, creative work should be first and foremost aesthetically valid otherwise it becomes mere propaganda. They lofted the banner of “art for art’s sake.” Should this debate concern you? It might. The gift of leisure time and the opportunity to practice adaptive reuse (see introductory paragraph) means that you can make something beautiful out of your life (and hopefully you already have), something that enriches you and, possibly, others. I am not one to exhort people to “give back” or leave a legacy. We all have our own callings and priorities and sense of the rightness of time. But I do think that there is more energy available to us when we can attach our life transitions to aspects of the external world as well as the internal one. So while spending time on personal reflection, why not simultaneously start writing an autobiography. This narrative is for your own discovery purposes. It may turn out to be a document that would interest other people such as adult children, grand children, and even the person with whom you’ve spent decades but had no idea all this stuff was going on inside you. The point here is that the creative process works best when it also involves the search for form. That’s what you’re doing anyway — shaping and reshaping your life. Giving that shaping process some kind of externalization also intensifies the exploration and often yields surprises. Organizing these surprises into a way of conducting your life bring you beyond the more superficial concept of “life style.” To find form, engage the world.

  9. Consulting star charts, pursuing your destiny. In the discursive world of life planning, career coaching, and other forms of counseling, we often hear exhortations to ‘seek your destiny,’ ‘follow your bliss,’ or ‘pursue your passion.’ The implication is that each of us has an innate or intrinsic Self with a built-in life plan waiting to be discovered and enacted. Such beliefs are impossible either to prove or disprove. Sartre gave the term “false consciousness” to the tendency to select sources that affirm what we already believe. And if things don’t turn out as the stars and planets advise or the uttering of an inner voice command, than we may quickly revise our expectation to preserve the claimed veracity of our favorite source. A person may derive considerable confidence in feeling he or she is merely following the commands of a higher power or a predestined plan. It’s certainly a less lonely orientation than feeling you’re solely responsible for your actions and plans. But to safeguard against magical thinking and wishfulness that may lead to poor choices or passivity, you need to strike a balance between waiting for a cosmic chime to sound that announces your next life chapter and thinking the only reality that exists is the one you make up through intention and action. So going with the flow and making your own waves may both be true.

  10. Harnessing your horses. Activities that require considerable concentration can sometimes lead to a feeling of timelessness that has been variously called “flow,” “groove,” or “peak experience.” Whether you’re centering a lump of clay on a pottery wheel, solving a complex quadratic equation, or running in a half marathon, this ecstatic feeling is both disembodied and embodied — you’re at once wholly engaged in the activity to the exclusion of all distractions and you feel like you’re a vehicle for energies and insights that seem to come from beyond yourself. The sensation of Flow affirms the feeling of being rightly related to Self and World. The most poignant experiences of creativity of whatever sort have this almost anonymous quality such that, after the spell dissipates, you wonder “Did I do that?” or “How did I manage to do that?” The temporarily anonymousness of creative action bring us to a greater appreciation of life and life’s difficulties, heightens our sense of gratitude and humility, and helps us accept our finitude.