I read an article recently about retirement, and in it they interviewed Marc Freedman, the author of The Big Shift: Navigating the New Stage Beyond Midlife. He describes it as an encore of life versus retirement. That resonated with me. It felt truer to what this part of life should feel like.
Modern day western society has put retirement in a box. It’s as if an entire generation is being escorted out to pasture. Of course, that’s not everyone and the age of when this happens varies, but the truth is as we approach 60, we begin to wonder, or even fear what comes next.
I’m a big believer that words matter. Oxford’s definition of retirement is, “the action or fact of leaving one's job and ceasing to work.” If we agree to that description of the word, then describing this time of life for most of us as retirement would be inaccurate.
It’s true, we may choose to or be encouraged to leave a particular position at work, but that is not the only place that meaningful, productive work occurs. Mr. Freedman’s word choice, “encore”, is more appropriate. It’s defined as “an additional performance of an item or act at the end of a concert.” This rings true as an encore of life.
Just reframing how we look at it creates space for so many possibilities. We aren’t on a conveyor belt to a recliner awaiting the end of days. In reality, death can happen at any point in life and we certainly didn’t just sit in a chair waiting for the inevitable before, why would we take that approach now?
Years ago the elderly were revered and sought after as wise sages to help guide younger generations. The older we are the more experiences we’ve had. We’ve learned how to persevere and how to overcome challenging times. We’ve experienced the dark night of the soul probably several times and know there are better days to come. Knowledge plus experience has value.
During the time of George Washington, men wore wigs to look more mature and wise. I’ve read that there were tailors that actually designed suits to make them look more hunched over than they actually were, all to add credibility to what they had to say. Still today there are cultures that cherish their elders and actually compete for the privilege of having their older loved ones reside in their home. Their wisdom is that invaluable.
Thomas Moore, author of Ageless Soul equates it metaphorically to the aging of cheese and whisky, the longer they age the richer and more complex the flavor. My grandfather made wine, and I remember he would routinely turn the bottles as they lay sideways on the shelf. When I asked him why that was necessary, he replied, “Complacency is bad for people and it's also bad for wine.”
It was unwise to leave a bottle of wine sedentary. Without constant nurturing it ultimately served no purpose. However, with consistent attention the wine would mature and age over time into a healthy, well rounded and robust, best version of itself. A purpose.
There are wine companies like Wapiso, that age wine on the ocean floor. Mark Oldman, a wine expert says that surprisingly this process added a “zesty life force”. Once skeptical, he returned home with several bottles to add to his collection.
What is it about this process that creates great bottles of wine when compared to storing them in traditional wine cellars for the same amount of time? There are various explanations, one of which is the constant jostling of the bottles by the waves keeps the wine in constant motion. This among other things affects the acidity level of the wine.
Just as a bottle of wine is often better when it ages in motion and under pressure, so are human beings. Of course there are always exceptions, but as a general rule, human beings are also better for it. Maturity happens as a culmination of experiences, good and bad, successes and failures. It doesn’t happen in a vacuum.
“Do not complain about growing old. It is a privilege denied to many.” — Mark Twain. At this time of life many of us worry about illness. We dislike feeling tired just a bit more quickly than before, forgetfulness happens, less endurance and maybe we just aren’t as quick or witty as we used to be. All that can come with age and often does come with age, but there are benefits to growing old too. We’re more seasoned, we don’t seem to sweat the small stuff anymore, opinions of others are much less important, we have more freedom to be ourselves. We know what we like and what we’ll tolerate. We’ve learned the importance of boundaries and forgiveness. We understand that human connection is essential to good health, and that exercise, whether formal or not, makes us more resilient. We have likely experienced the death of loved ones and discovered that we can survive extreme heartache.
Thomas Moore says, “Your soul becomes more visible with time.” Through our trials, tribulations, joys, and successes, we have grown to know the world and ourselves better. At this stage we have a better idea of who we are and what we want from life. He continues, “Aging is an opportunity to do less which allows the soul to come to the foreground, which allows us to live a more soulful life, one that more closely aligns with our values and yes perhaps with a different set of strengths.”
So during this transition, let's take inventory again. What are our strengths, our values? The dreams of youth change as we age. Trying to live our current lives with the strengths we had before and measuring ourselves to those standards, is an exercise of futility. It’s like measuring the ability of a fish to climb a tree. So yes, we’ve changed and we need to create a life around us that suits our current strengths and weaknesses. We all have them young or old.
Bob Iger, was and is the CEO of Disney. He retired from the company a few years ago. He was in his late sixties. This year he was asked to come back. When asked what has changed in his approach to running the company, he responded, “I’ve been known to say, I have a photographic memory. Now, at this stage of my life, I say, I still have a photographic memory, but I don’t offer sameday delivery anymore.” I love this quote. It acknowledges the strengths of the past, and values the wisdom of the present. Yes, in some ways we may not be as sharp as we once were, but we have an abundance of experience and wisdom to draw upon.
So we set out to identify what our current strengths and weaknesses are and how our dreams for the future changed. Does growing old gracefully mean living a life of leisure, where we focus on what brings us joy and doing it on our own time? Does it mean finally traveling to places we always wanted to see? Do we finally want to learn a new language and use it with purpose or learn to paint, play piano or create our very own botanical garden? Are there books you finally have the time to catch up on? Perhaps it's time to finally have a home that matches your current needs, desires and style. With all your experience and knowledge, you can volunteer at organizations that can benefit from your expertise and at the same time do it on your own terms without stress or pressure. And finally, you can decide that you have arrived at a place where you are financially stable and can afford to take the risk of finding that new job you’ve always wanted to try. You know, the one that resonates more with your soul. Also, the one that ignites your passions and makes you feel more alive and useful than you ever have before.
I once had a neighbor, who’s wife would complain that every spring he would trim the ornamental trees right before they bloom. She could never enjoy the spectacular flower show. She would tend to them, feeding and watering them faithfully. She’d treat them for diseases with loving care and lots of work and dedication. She’d watch them grow, hoping with anticipation that she would finally get to see them in full bloom, their ultimate purpose. Her husband had different ideas. He needed to keep that tree from growing. When it reached a certain height, he kept it in check. He wanted to keep it at what he thought was an ideal specimen of a tree, but that’s not the purpose of an ornamental tree.
In time, the wife became disillusioned and stopped caring for the tree. A few years later the tree became diseased and died. Aren’t we asking the same of ourselves? We live a full life and then right at the time when we can bask in the glory of all that we have done and become, we try everything in our power to stay young. Stagnant in time, we fail to embrace the splendor of what could be our best years.