4 Lessons From 4 Years of Retirement

Whether retirement is in your distant future or is knocking on the door, just around the corner, it’s useful to understand what life will be like when you’re not clocking in, badging in, doing rounds, or anything else.

Not just in terms of a few days off, or a month off – but what is life like when you’ve hung it up for good?

Let’s learn from someone already on the journey.

In today’s post, we’ll take a look at four lessons — one for each year — that one retiree has learned.

This post was originally published on The Retirement Manifesto.

 

 

Many folks wonder what retirement is “really” like.  In my final years of work, I wondered about it a lot.

On June 8, 2018, I stopped wondering.

On that date, I crossed “The Starting Line” and entered an exciting new phase of life.

I’ve spent the past four years in retirement, and they’ve been the best years of my life.  To capture my lessons from retirement (and, to help those who wonder what it’s really like), I’ve been writing a series of posts on various milestones in my retirement.  Since my 4th anniversary of retirement is less than a week away, it seems a good time to add my thoughts on the longer-term lessons from retirement to the Retirement Reality Series.

The Retirement Reality Series:

The “retirement mystery” has been solved in my life.  It’s no longer a curiosity.  It’s my reality.

Looking back over the past 4 years, what have been the biggest lessons from retirement?   That’s a big question, and today I’ll answer it.  With the longer timeframe, my answers are different than they were earlier in retirement.  Interesting, that, and an example of how retirement evolves through various phases.

 

My Biggest Lessons From Retirement

 

I’m glad that I’ve been capturing my thoughts as my retirement has evolved in the Retirement Reality Series.  It’s been interesting to see how my perspective has changed as time has passed.  As I wrote in my very first post, this blog “is the story of my journey, told in The Present before it becomes The Past.”  Now that the early days of my retirement have become The Past, I’m thankful that I captured them while they were still in The Present.

My thoughts are different now.  Time has a way of doing that. In my earliest days of retirement, the focus was on Freedom.  The following quote from my first week captures this sentiment well:

Freedom to do whatever we want to do, whenever we want to do it.   For the first time in our lives.  Wow, that’s big.  And THAT, in my mind, is what the first week of retirement is really like.

Looking back, that sense of newfound Freedom was certainly the highlight of early retirement.  After decades of grinding it out at work, the handcuffs had been unlocked.  It was an amazing feeling, but I don’t think that’s one of the biggest lessons from retirement.  It is, rather, simply a reality of life without work.

As I finished my first year of retirement, I realized life goes on after you retire. By the two-year mark, I realized retirement is fluid, and you need to learn how to roll with it. The following quote from year two captures that mindset:

Retirement changes as the days go by, and it’s best to embrace the fluidity.  Go with the flow, listen to your mind, and follow your instincts.

In my fourth year of retirement, the bigger question is what new insights have I gained now that my retirement has stabilized?  What lessons from retirement am I applying in the quest to live the best life possible?  What can others apply in their journey, with the goal being Helping People Achieve A Great Retirement (my byline)?

Whereas Freedom is a physical reality, and fluidity is the flow of life, my thoughts wander to more philosophical answers as I ponder my biggest lessons from retirement.  And, thinking over the past 4 years, I realize that “my thoughts” is the right place to start:

 

1. Retirement (Like Life) Is What You Make It

 

I remember two relocations in particular from the ten relocations we endured during my working years.  In one of the early ones, my wife and I weren’t too happy about the move.  We weren’t excited about where we were going and weren’t looking forward to it.  Predictably enough, we didn’t enjoy our 2 years in the location in question. We were looking for the experience to be a negative one, and it was.

Compare that to the next relocation, when we felt excited about where we were going.  We were looking for the experience to be a positive one, and it was. We loved our time in that new city and learned an important lesson.  From that point on, every time we got relocated we decided to be positive about the move.  We couldn’t stop the change from happening, so we decided to look for the “good” and be intentional in avoiding thoughts of the “bad.”

From that point on, we enjoyed every place we lived.

Fortunately, we applied that same mindset to retirement.  We intentionally decided in advance that we were going to enjoy this new phase in our lives.  Did we have anxiety?  Of course we did, but we chose to focus on the positives.  Just like a mandated relocation, we couldn’t stop the change, so we chose to embrace it. Anxieties were “bad,” so we limited our mental time to the practical realities of what we could do to offset the risks (e.g., exercise more, keep some cash, etc.). We spent the majority of the time getting excited about the positives, about what our lives would become in retirement. I have no doubt that choosing to focus on the positives is one of the primary reasons our retirement has been successful.  The same lesson applies to life.

Focus on the positives.

You’ll find what you’re looking for.

 

2. Your Life Has A Purpose.  Your Job Is To Find It.

 

I hate to break it to you, but work doesn’t stop when you retire.  Quite the contrary.

While the first 1-2 years of retirement can be fulfilling by simply relaxing and enjoying a well-earned break, the reality is that it gets old after a while.  Based on my experience and others I’ve talked to, you’ll know the feeling when that time comes. As Stop Ironing Shirts wrote in this post, it happened to him 6-18 months after retirement. You’ll find yourself feeling a bit “adrift,” knowing there’s something more you’re meant to accomplish.

I believe that’s by design.

Each of us is meant to make a difference in our own way (perhaps, even, to make people cry).  We have an intrinsic need to be doing something that matters with our time. Only you can determine what that is, and I’ll warn you that it takes a lot of work.  Regardless, I strongly encourage you to listen when you start hearing that quiet voice.

Dedicating your time to discovering your Purpose is the best use of your time in retirement.  If you’re lucky, you’ll find something.  If you’re really lucky, you’ll find several somethings.  Don’t be surprised if the “something” you find only lasts a few years.  I’ve discovered that in my own retirement, and it’s one of the reasons I’m writing less. Enjoy the flexibility of moving between things that bring you a sense of purpose, and never stop seeking out new opportunities.  Your Purpose will evolve, but it gets easier to find as you spend more time seeking it.

There are few things more rewarding in life than doing what you’re meant to do.  It won’t be easy, and it doesn’t come naturally.  Heck, I wrote a whole book about how to do it. In short:

Pursue it, and exercise that long-dormant muscle of creative seeking.  You haven’t been free to explore since you were a child, so grasp it with both hands and never let it go.

Your job, should you choose to accept it, is to find that special something to do with your time in retirement.

Something that matters.

 

3.  Focus On Others Over Self

 

By definition, our working years were primarily dedicated to ourselves.  Each of us was focused on achieving results in our chosen careers, getting those assignments done, getting rewarded, and earning that raise.  With our time being consumed by the need to earn a living, most of us didn’t have the luxury of focusing on the needs of others.

That all changes with retirement.

While we’ve earned our Freedom, there are countless others out there who are still held in bondage.  Barely scraping by, dealing with a health issue, challenged with emotional problems, struggling with aging parents, worried about the next meal, feeling alone and helpless.  Those people are all around you, and it hasn’t been your practice to take notice.

Start paying attention.

I’ve found the best path to a great retirement is to practice the art of focusing on others more than you do on yourself.  If you start paying attention, you’ll quickly see the needs all around you. Use that as a starting point, and spend some time thinking about how you can make a difference in the lives of others.

Then, take that first step.

It’s where the greatest happiness is found.

 

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4. Retirement Can Be The Best Time of Your Life

 

Most of us have some anxiety about retirement, especially in our last few years of work.  While it’s true that retirement increases the odds of depression by 40%, it doesn’t have to be that way.  The fact that you’re reading a retirement blog is a great sign that you won’t be among those who suffer.  You’re thinking about retirement, you’re planning for it, and you’re trying to learn as much as you can.  The highest correlation found between those who had a good retirement and the steps they took leading up to it was how much time someone put into planning for their retirement.  Put in a lot of time and your odds of a great retirement increase.

The inverse is also true.

From my experience, the thing I did “most right” was taking the time to really think about retirement in the 2-3 years before I crossed The Starting Line.  Not just the financial stuff, but the stuff that really matters.  Just scan through the 7 years of writing I’ve done on this blog and you’ll see what I was thinking, every step of the way.

If someone asks me for retirement advice, I give the same answer every time:

“Take as much time as possible to think about what you want your life to become in retirement, then make a plan to get there.  Focus as much or more energy on the non-financial side as you do on the money issues.  In time, you’ll find they’re more important.  There’s no bigger step you can take to increase your odds of a successful retirement.”

As you’re taking that time to think about it, reflect on these lessons from retirement I’ve learned over these past 4 years.  I won’t guarantee that they’ll work for you, but I strongly suspect that if you attempt to apply them, your life will be better as a result.

 

Conclusion

 

I’ve learned a lot of lessons from retirement over these past four years.  If you read through the Retirement Reality Series, you’ll see the learnings have evolved as my journey progressed.  That’s natural, I suspect, and I enjoyed challenging myself today to highlight my four most important lessons from retirement.  It was also more difficult than I thought it would be.

There are no right or wrong answers in this personal “life quiz.” The important thing is to take some time to reflect as you walk your journey.  Be introspective, and consider the things you’re learning along the way.  Apply the things that make your life better, and discard the ones that don’t.  Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

If you’re really courageous, try sharing the lessons you’re learning with other people who care.

I just did.

Now, it’s your turn.

Your Turn:  What lessons have you learned in life?  In retirement?  How have they changed with time?  Let’s chat in the comments…

 

26 thoughts on “4 Lessons From 4 Years of Retirement”

  1. Great read everyone & thanks to all!
    I just retired 8/27/22 after 22 years of private practice as board certified psychiatrist. Divorced after 25 yrs of marriage 3 yrs+ now. Got my own condo. Did some limited raised garden beds in back porch since condo association has rules on all these. Loves traveling: Caribbean cruises in winter 2023 – reaching out to friends who can come with me. Looking into river cruise to Vietnam/Cambodia for Sept 2023. Prepaid Croatia for 10/2023.
    Currently, I’ve been busy with closing office, packing things for mover Dec 3/2023, professional shredder Dec 2/2023, getting records to the last 20 pt stragglers. Doing ERx. Catching up on my CME’s to continue practicing 5-10 hrs telehealth/teaching NP’s which I will start after March 2023. Only son -27Y/O just got engaged. So will plan engagement party for just families come April 2023. Looking at where to travel from hereon.
    The main issues I encountered immediately after retirement is where to get my health/dental/vision insurances since I’ve been in private practice for past 22 years & I’m still 22 mos shy of Medicare. This is the most expensive/challenging concern immediate to my retirement.
    I had to withdraw from my ROTH/annuities since I am 4 yrs pre-SS. That’s the next concern – income source/s after retirement.
    I’m looking forward to my retirement though. Despite my recent back pain, biceps tendinitis , HTN Med adjustment, catching up on all tests/all MD appts I need, life is still great! Thank God for this! Reaching out to my Med classmates (1 at 65 y/o was recently Dx St ; lung CA with several Mets ) & neighbors.
    Take care everyone! God bless!

    Reply
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  3. Now that I am past what most consider “retirement age” by several years I’ve had time to consider why I have continued to work albeit in a non clinical setting. I think people retire for one of four reasons: 1. a reward for long and successful career, 2. illness and can’t do the job anymore (by far the worse reason!). 3. Hate the job and can’t wait to quit. 4. Put out to pasture as not able to do the job anymore. Fortunately I do not fall into any of those categories right now. I realize that to be successful one must retire TO a new beginning and not FROM their old job. I have begun to find my “to” but I don’t feel ready to pull the trigger yet. Working from home during the pandemic was a good bridge to feel like what it will be not going into the office every day. Recently I have started to have more interaction with my alma mater and I think that will likely be my “to”. Thanks for sharing your journey!

    Reply
    • Michael, I’d add a 5th to your list: 5. Have things you’d like to accomplish in your life beyond work. You could argue that you covered that with your “TO vs. FROM” comment, but thought it would be a good addition to your list. It’s definitely the reason I retired early, and I’ve never regretted a single day.

      Reply
  4. After 42 years, I retired from my group practice in Connecticut, but I wasn’t really ready to hang up the stethoscope at age 73, since being a physician is an important part of my identity, and because I liked the work (most of the time). So I signed up for a locum tenens position in a small community hospital in Maine, where I worked two weeks per month for another 18 months before stopping completely. This step-down allowed me to ease into full retirement without feeling that the rug had been pulled out from under me. Now I have to look at my calendar to see what day it is, because every day seems like a Saturday!

    Reply
  5. I appreciate these posts as I face retirement in the next few years! I am in my 42nd year of practice and have always enjoyed the profession. I have few outside interests as I work: 12+ hour days.
    I will enjoy exploring opportunities over the next few years as physician workload diminishes. I like the idea of slowing down the practice and building new options to fill the day.
    Keep up the dialogue.

    Reply
  6. I have been retired for 1 year from a specialty I have loved since my board certs (Peds and Derm) in 1979. The last 5 yrs of work were PT in my home state of TX. Retirement became nec due to my wife’s health (declining memory), so we are in the process of dealing with that on a daily basis. I realize that in our beautiful rural location caregiver help is hard to come by. Our 5 adult children are urging us to move back north to be near them, so that’s a matter of time now. I know that I need help and with God’s direction we can adjust, and can still enjoy our time. We have our church family and other friends who do include us – we are very grateful for that support, and are remaining positive. This was not expected but I am determined to embrace it for what it is, and to honor my commitment to my wife that we made together 48 yrs ago.

    Reply
    • I retired 4 years ago after 40 years in the same emergency department. Same house for 39 years, same wife for 52 years. Hang in there and do some little things together that you love.
      It seems rare to find couples who stay together for life. God bless you brother !

      Reply
    • If you enjoy reading, consider the book written by a physician who cared for both his parents with dementia and in light of his own likely future with dementia, Finding Grace in the Face of Dementia, by Dr. John Dunlap. He wonderfully addresses how we can thank God for dementia and seek His love and strength throughout the various trials it brings. His letter to his family at the end of the book is worth the price of admission. May the sovereign Lord draw you close!

      Another favorite I recommend often to spouses is, A Promise Kept, by Robertson McQuilken! Keep a box of tissues close by!

      Reply
  7. Left very demanding full time national in scope job 4 years ago. I maintain very limited private practice ( 3 hrs/week) and 10 hours of consulting. Involved with 2 non profit Boards, chairing one with a grand vision serving neurodiverse adults. Do big travel trip each year: India & Nepal, Egypt & Jordan, African Safari in Kenya & Tanzania and multiple trips visiting children and grandchildren in Costa Rica and Kentucky and family in Trinidad. Still involved with national professional medical organization, mentoring young medical students and trainees and presenting at national meetings. Caretaker for older husband with significant medical needs using caregiver help 2 days/ week. Making time to exercise and to socialize with friends regularly. Life is full, rich and good. Attending church weekly. Grateful for excellent health as I approach my 79th birthday!

    Reply
  8. I was forced to retire when my RA progressed to the point I was unable to trust my “hands” as a surgeon. It was not easy and it took time to find fulfillment in my hobbies and non profit involvement. I had always been a wood worker but had difficulty with my hands. A friend gave me a wood lathe and I was again able to create wooden art.

    I expect involvement in non medical activities which increased social interaction helped me heal the loss I so deeply felt when I was no longer needed by my patients. In many ways the hardest part is going from being needed to not being needed.

    Reply
    • “In many ways the hardest part is going from being needed to not being needed.”

      Charles, we’re always needed. The tricky part is finding a need you can fill in your retirement years. I’ve found in my personal experience that looking for the need is a skill we all must develop post-career. Needs are all around us, and it’s rewarding to find a place where we can put our time and talent to use serving others in need. Best of luck on your journey.

      Reply
  9. How about a perspective from a single/divorced physician with adult grown kids and no grandchildren to dote on? Just wondering, are there any other readers out there albeit contented, without a life partner wondering if that retirement outlook merits additional insights?

    Reply
  10. I have been retired for almost 5 years and have not looked back. My suggestion for a happy retirement is to retire to something(s), not from something (work). I worked as a Family Physician for > 35 years (finished my residency 6/1982, retired 12/2017) – opened my own practice 4/1984 and retired from it > a third of a century later w/ no regrets. If I could go back in time, I wouldn’t change anything. Starting about 10 years before retirement, I dropped inpatient responsibilities and only worked in the office – that immediately reduced my workload/ hours. I then gradually decreased my work hours and increased my vacation time (I had always taken 4 weeks off a year my 1st 20 or so years of work). By the last 4-5 years I worked, I had reduced my schedule to 3 to 3-1/2 days of work/ week and increased my vacation time to 8 weeks/year + 3 out of 4 holidays off (had 3 partners). This allowed me to develop several outside interests (travel, sailing/ snorkeling/ scuba diving, hiking, gardening, visiting children and grandchildren, etc) to retire to. Since retiring I continue to add hobbies and interests. Life is Good (actually Great!!!).

    Reply
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  12. I retired my full time job in 2014 and my part time job in 2018. I never looked back. I have other interests and hobbies. I love to dabble in painting & upcycling furniture and real estate with has become a part-time business. I know not some but many of my classmates are still practicing medicine. I think that there is in retirement or non retirement enjoyment to be had.

    Reply
  13. Glad to hear of your contented retirement. There is another option – keep working. Am still seeing patients and supervising residents ( psychiatry) in my 80s. Am fortunate that my specialty – and being part of the well-old allows me to.

    Reply
    • Jim, I agree the “existential dilemma” is a common theme as folks work through their retirement transition. I’ve made it a major focus of my work, and recommend folks think not only about the financial aspects as they plan for retirement, but also about the things that really matter. I’ll be interested to see how your journey unfolds…

      Reply
  14. It worked out well for me not to have any idle period after work because while I retired from full time paid work my volunteer roles only increased. I never really had time freedom after retiring from full time work with all kinds of board meetings to attend, community projects to pursue and part time consulting roles and church roles. Squeezing in three or four tennis and three pickle ball matches each week was sometimes difficult to pull off. I might have to wait three or four days to find a free day to go fishing or hiking. I guess you could argue that I’m choosing to do those things whereas before I “had” to work. But to me retirement feels very much like working, I enjoyed life before retirement quite a lot and enjoy retired life even more. But much of what I do still feels like a job.

    Reply

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