Living On The Edge

At the podium (all photos courtesy of WAHHI)

At the podium (all photos courtesy of WAHHI)

I am sometimes asked by readers what they should do to have a fulfilling retirement. That is a very personal question, which only they can answer. What I do know is they have to live on the edge — their personal edge. Living on your personal edge means leaving your comfort zone. Last week I did exactly that.

Back in November a question came to me through the blog from Lilabeth Parrish, Program Chair for the Women’s Association of Hilton Head Island (WAHHI) asking if I ever did speaking engagements. Before emailing an answer I thought about the question. Prior to retiring, speaking before audiences was a regular part of my routine, especially as a real estate instructor. After I retired, I gave several presentations on gardening as part of the Master Gardener Program. Did I speak publicly about retirement? No, never, because, until now, no one ever asked me to.  However, I was open to the idea.

After a phone conversation with Lilabeth and WAHHI President Kathy Reynolds, I agreed to give the presentation at their February 8 luncheon. To my surprise and delight I learned this is an organization of several hundred. Giving a speech before even a fraction of that number was enough to make my knees quake.

I was definitely about to live on my personal edge. From the get go I would be leaving my comfort zone. I would need to write the speech. I would have to practice the speech. I would have to deliver the speech. I would have to be confident and assured. I would have to motivate, inspire and entertain all at once.

Kathy Reynolds, Me and Lilabeth Parrish

Kathy Reynolds, Me and Lilabeth Parrish

The entire process reminded me of work, but in a good way. I felt challenged, excited and even a little afraid. My mind conjured the usual self-imposed limitations. All the what-ifs crowded in trying to supplant my confidence in my ability to deliver. I pushed them aside, enlisted the help of some friends to read the speech, listen to the speech and give me honest feedback. Thank you Claudia and Paulette! The speech was written, re-written and re-written and re-written so many times I lost count. It was recorded and played back, and recorded and played back, and recorded yet again and played back yet again.

On February 8 I was uncertain no more. Quite comfortable with what I was about to do, I mingled with this wonderful group of women. Their February mission was collecting cookies for first responders in the community and jewelry for a Valentine’s surprise for nursing home residents. Valentine themed centerpieces adorned the tables and many of the women wore red or pink. The organization’s energy filled me to the brim.

A meaningful retirement belongs to those of us who take a leap into uncharted territory. If someone told me five years ago I would be standing on a stage in Hilton Head giving a speech on The Changing Landscape of Retirement, I would have thought them crazy. At that time, this blog was not anywhere on my horizon. Stepping outside my comfort zone created a new work life for me in retirement. And, I love what I’m doing.

Living on your personal edge at any time of life provides a feeling of empowerment. You did it, whatever ‘it’ is. In retirement it’s easy to sit back in the comfort of what you know. Taking some risk, trying something new, discarding self-imposed limitations is the only way to find what fills you up in your retirement. By doing exactly that, I found my personal edge — what’s yours?

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Leaving The Comfort Zone

 

This post originally appeared March 28, 2013 when I was not quite comfortable with retirement.  The story of the lottery winner reminded me it takes time and effort to acclimate to retirement just as it takes time and effort at other junctures in life.

 

Earlier this week there was mention on the news of a man who won a $30 million lottery. Of course, with his newfound wealth, he left his job at a concrete company. That’s probably the first thing we’d all do. Then, we would go off on a travel log or buy the dream home or the Ferrari.

Well, within a month, this accidental retiree asked for his everyday grind of an old job back. For the millions who play the lottery dreaming of winning, this guy must seem like he’s crazy. He told his former co-workers he was bored. Bored? Are you nuts? With $30 million to spend on whatever, unless this guy has zero imagination, it’s hard for me to believe he’s bored. More likely, he was moved outside his comfort zone.

We all have a comfort zone where we feel safe and secure psychologically. Stepping outside your perceived zone can be challenging, upsetting or even exhilarating, depending on your personality. That’s what happens when you retire. Like the lottery winner, you leave behind the known, which even if your job is just a daily boring grind, offers a certain security because it’s a given. There’s security in the routine. There’s security in your work community. Even if you work with someone you don’t like, there’s security in knowing they will be their engaging selves every day, day after day. Even if your routine at work is upended, you still have a sense of security in the safety net of your work community and place.

During my 40 years in the workplace, I stepped outside my comfort zone on many, many occasions. I even worked at one company where employees were deliberately placed in positions, which took you outside your zone, if only for a while. If you were an accountant, get ready to work sales. If you were in sales, get ready to work in operations. Our CEO thought it was beneficial for people to stretch their limits. He believed if you did something new for a certain amount of time, it would eventually become routine — old hat — part of your comfort zone. Exposure to new ideas eventually make you a more resilient person.

So, at that time in my life I was stretched plenty just by doing my job. I went from working in an office 8 hours a day to flying into a new (to me) city just about every week for a year. This was a time when there was no GPS, no cell phones. At most airports you still walked across the tarmac to board your plane!

Once you reached your destination, you went to a car rental company, standing in line for your turn to rent a car. When your turn came, a customer service rep ran (and I mean ran as in at the mouth) through your choice of rental cars, pushing a couple of forms in front of you to sign, a map of the city ripped from a thick pad of maps on the counter (remember, no GPS) finally handing you a set of keys.

In the rental lot you joined other souls wandering around looking for their rented vehicle. Once you located your car, if you were lucky, you found your way out of the lot and onto the highway where your ability to read a map and drive at the same time was tested.

That was before carrying out my job in each unknown city with people I’d never met before. After the first year of doing this, my CEO was right, it became routine. My comfort zone expanded. I also learned how taking some risk, trying something new, shaking things up is actually an opportunity to grow.

 
Over the next twenty years 77 million baby boomers will step out of their comfort zones and into retirement just as Martin and I did. Most won’t have the $30 million the lottery winner-turned-accidental-retiree has. Unlike him, I’ve learned I like shaking things up. Finally getting acclimated to neither of us going to a workplace, we’re creating a new comfort zone for our lives. It’s been more stressful than we anticipated. In many ways, it’s also been more rewarding than we anticipated. One of the rewards is we can shake things up whenever we want by trying something new on our terms.

Choices. That’s what the lottery winner has in common with us – choices. With a $30 million dollar lottery win, he can pretty much choose to do whatever he wants. But, his first choice must be to step outside his comfort zone. Don’t go back to your old job, fella. Take a chance. Take some risk. Shake things up. Buy a Ferrari, shop for the dream home and get yourself a great travel agent.

Putting Your Dent In The Universe

 

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The universe as seen from the Hubble telescope

Everyone has unique potential because everyone has innate talents just waiting to be used by the universe. For example, while cleaning out a box of keepsakes a while back I looked at my second grade report card (yes, I still had it) and noticed how I excelled at spelling and grammar, not so good at arithmetic. Spelling abilities later led to A grades in English, which led to Journalism classes and a stint as copy editor of my high school newspaper. See, even as a child my gift for verbal acuity was clear, innate. Retirement is a time to discover or rediscover talents, passions, gifts. We only have one chance to put our dent in the universe. If you haven’t done that to date, your last third of life is your last opportunity.

A couple of weeks ago a reader, Paul Wilkes, sent me a copy of his most recent book Your Second To Last Chapter. Paul has written some twenty books so writing a book isn’t unusual for him. However, what he writes about in Your Second To Last Chapter is in keeping with much of what I spout on this blog.

Paul’s small but insightful book chronicles his feeling empty and unfulfilled in retirement until he found, yes, I’m going to say it again, new meaning and purpose. The cover catch phrase “Creating a Meaningful Life on Your Own Terms” sums it up nicely. Paul already had a very enviable gig as a visiting professor at a university, a supporting role to his wife, Tracy’s volunteer work and the ability to travel to far off destinations. Yet, he felt something was missing in his life.

Then, on a month-long trip to India he serendipitously met a former street beggar at a home for girls. Her story and the conditions at the home would tug at anyone’s heart strings. But, Paul decided to take a small step to help the girls’ home. What began as a quest to obtain mattresses for the girls, so they wouldn’t be sleeping on straw mats laid upon a concrete floor, turned into a full-fledged passion to change their lives completely. In doing so, Paul changed his own life, filling up the empty place inside him.

While we are not all cut out to raise huge sums of money and wend our way through the logistics to transform a home and educate children living in deplorable conditions, we are all cut out for something bigger. Oftentimes, in my life, while going on my merry way, something happens out of the blue, something unexpected, which if I stop and listen, may change my life or someone else’s life or both.

I call this a personal Black Swan Event. Technically, a Black Swan is an unexpected, surprising event with huge cultural changing influence on the world in general. Behind a Black Swan Event is an outlier. For example, Bill Gates is an outlier, a person, who through their actions, brings about a world-changing event, such as Gate’s software to run personal computers. We all have events in our lives that, in hindsight, changed our personal trajectory.

I’m no Bill Gates, but I have done a few things in my life, which changed some other lives. For several years I helped raise money and planted garden beds at a domestic abuse shelter. I pleaded with friends and neighbors, business connections and anyone who would listen to give. I called and emailed state and Congressional legislators to support bills to thwart domestic violence. A starving cat eating bird food off of a rock wall behind my house led to my rescuing many, many cats.

I did not seek out these causes. They just knocked at my door and I chose to open it and let them in. There are others I turned away from because they did not speak to my passion.

Another event that knocked at my door was the creation of this blog. I know from your comments and emails, I have helped more than a few of you figure out some things about retirement or, at the very least, know there is more to retiring than having enough money. Writing a blog was not even a tiny seed of a thought in my mind when I retired. My personal frustration with finding answers to what I was feeling led me to dust off my innate writing talent and launch the blog. Then, you found me. Thank you for the following! I humbly hope I continue to offer insights and ideas of value.

Finding our passion is not easy. Even if we approach this quest with an open mind and heart, the answer can elude us. Our society is one of accumulating stuff, spending money to make ourselves feel better about the emptiness gnawing at us or to add a moment of pleasure or excitement to our lives.

That moment, however, is a flash in the pan as the feeling, the newness of our purchase quickly wears off. Ditto for retirement adventures such as traveling the world or buying an RV to see the country. I’ve spoken to plenty of retirees who spent years in the retirement honeymoon stage of enjoying themselves with travel, golf, tennis, book clubs, art or whatever. Then they woke up one day like Paul Wilkes and said, “I feel empty. Now what?”

None of these leisure activities put our dent in the universe unless, of course, we take them, somehow, to creating something meaningful, purposeful. All they do is take up a patch of time and temporarily fill the hole in our soul and help fuel the economy, making Wall Street happy, but doing little to permanently fill any personal void. With the possibility of living to be one hundred becoming more and more likely, you could spend ten years playing and still have twenty years or more left to put your dent in the universe. Then what?

If you are one of the people voicing disillusionment with retirement, ask yourself these questions:

  1. Is there something I did as a child or teen that excited me yet I never thought it possible? We all had childhood dreams. You may have an adulthood dream but backed away from trying it for fear of failure. I met a man last year who didn’t go to college until later in life because he thought he wasn’t smart enough. He thought he would fail. Conversely, some people back away because they fear success. How will they handle their dream if it actually materializes? Will they be able to step up to the plate and keep their success afloat?
  2. Do you give up too easily? Paul Wilkes talks about the obstacles, the set backs, the mistakes. His passion for what he is doing moves him forward. We never know what we are capable of doing unless we try.
  3. Speaking of trying, are you willing to try new activities until you find your passion? Or, do you place self-imposed limitations on yourself? Being open is imperative to finding your passion. Remember the old adage ‘if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again’? Keep going until you find the activity that sets your soul on fire.

If you are spending too much time on busy work, if you are spending too much time meeting people for coffee or lunch, if you find yourself watching too much TV, if you find yourself depressed in retirement, if you spend money on stuff you don’t need, if you find yourself bored, if you’re complaining a lot, if you don’t like your life, if you don’t have an activity that feeds your soul, then take the leap.

 
Get out of your comfort zone. Be open to finding your passion. Be open to listening to life as it whispers to you about how to use your unique potential. We only have one chance to put our dent in the universe. Don’t blow it!