September 2, 2013

Ambition and Retirement: The Odd Couple?

I had an interesting question posed via e-mail not too long ago. That person had yet to start his satisfying retirement journey. He was still a few years away but had a solid financial game plan and a hobby that he was anxious to spend more time enjoying. His marriage was satisfying and his relationship with his adult children was good. Yet, something was bothering him enough to ask for my thoughts.

His concern was simply this: does having ambition end when work ends? Does the striving for some type of achievement or distinction  and the willingness to work toward it stop with the last paycheck? I could tell from his question that his definition of ambition is a traditional one, rooted in the concept of power, or wealth, or recognition. He was really asking if striving toward more was soon to be over.

I assured him that wanting more, working toward more, and hoping for more didn't stop with retirement. In fact, the desire for more actually intensifies. What changes is the definition of ambition and the meaning of more.

During my radio consulting career my ambition was pretty fearsome. I wanted to be a major figure in my industry. I was willing to travel 100,000 miles a year, be away from home for almost half of each year, take on more business than I could comfortably handle, and strive for more. While my ambition was adequately fed for several years, eventually things started to fall apart. It took the closing of my business and a few painful years of readjustment to understand the type of ambition I was seeking was ultimately unsatisfying. It was based on the totally false assumption that there is never enough, in the bank, in the garage, in the size of the house, or in the influence over others.

Retirement allows for a completely different meaning of ambition. Being ambitious is about the quality of one's life, the fullness of relationships, and the satisfying feeling one gets when volunteering to help others. It is about the desire to live each moment as fully as possible. It is about the opportunity to discover a side of one's personality or talents that was always there, just waiting for the chance to burst forth. It is about more joy, more freedom, more acceptance.

I assured the fellow of all of this.... and received no response. Maybe my answer was so profound I erased all his mental doubts. Maybe he decided I had no ambition myself and was trying to sell him on the concept of becoming a sloth. Or, maybe, he is still thinking about the concept of being ambitious with a whole different range of experiences and payoff. Whatever his thoughts were, I am glad he asked the question. It gave me the chance to clarify my own thoughts and motivations.
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It is Labor Day. This post is shorter than normal because you have more interesting things to do than read a long blog post, and I have family coming over for a cookout.

My ambition for today is simple: to not burn the burgers.

35 comments:

  1. For me, this is one of the challenges of retiring. I spent nearly forty years in my chosen career and, like you, burned out on the travel, the reports, the deadlines, the budgets.

    When the opportunity was presented, allowing me to "retire" at 57, I took it. But, almost immediately, I jumped back in and took a new position. And, when that job turned out to be a dud (in part because my heart was no longer in it), I took another and then, another. At each turn I have looked for the opportunity to continue contributing and achieving even as I wonder how much energy I have for this career.

    I want to, but I but I don't want to...... I'm in sort of a no-man's land between work and retirement. I attribute at least some of my lack of direction to the fear of giving up in retirement.

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    1. Your path is more typical than you may think. In fact, a post scheduled for next weekend deals with this phenomenon of "false starts" in retirement.

      You identified one of the key indicators that can tell you that more work isn't really in the cards: "....because my heart was no longer in it." If you'll believe my experience, the fear of giving up in retirement is a real fear, but an unfounded one. If you have ambition and drive during your working years, it will follow you into retirement.

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  2. Insightful. I wonder if those individuals who spend a lifetime in pursuit of Quantity of Life have greater difficulty in transitioning to Quality of Life pursuits. They are two vastly different concepts and life styles, regardless of the retirement context.

    As a teacher, I think I was extremely ambitious, but it was more about my program goals rather than publicity or climbing the ladder of position, i.e. becoming an administrator, as so many (men, in particular) seem to aim for. Now, in retirement, I still see myself as extremely ambitious in the pursuit of a great marriage, finding outlets for my creative whims, and enjoying many good books.

    Good luck with them thar burgers. :)

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    1. As I noted in the comment above to Anonymous, if you are ambitious during your working years you will be ambitious during retirement....it is just serving a different purpose. I like your Quantity versus Quality of life definition.

      I'll be careful with the burgers. Think of me around 4:30 this afternoon (that is 7:30 your time).

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  3. Interesting. I will say that I don't thing ambition is necessarily wanting more stuff or more rewards, and that for many it's human nature for many to want to continue achieving, to do better and more. There is nothing inherently wrong with that. I would suggest to this guy that he would have the same opportunity for achievement, just at his own time and his own level, be it starting his own business in retirement, or doing somethings. Some of us need a goal with a finished product. Most artists are actually that way, although you would not think that we are goal oriented. I ALWAYS even as I am creating something am looking to see what I can create that is better, more different or more challenging.

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    1. I agree, Barb. I think humans are hard-wired to want more. Unfortunately, our culture has corrupted that to mean more consumer products, more power, a bigger house, a more expensive car, etc.

      I remain ambitious. I want more every day...a stronger marriage and relationship with my daughters and grandkids, a closer walk with God, a continuing commitment to my health and well-being, and a fuller use of my particular talents, .....and more blog readers!

      Betty is an artist so I understand completely your point about the artistic personality.

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  4. Oh, and the secret I understand at least with a gas grill is to sear quickly and then lower the temperature.

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    1. I am using charcoal so I move the burgers to the side to have the same effect, I hope.

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  5. It's about quality, not quantity. The quality improves when you're doing what matters to you and the money is secondary. It takes many people a lot longer to 'get' the concept, but once they do it's magical.
    b

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    1. It is like a door opening that you didn't even notice before. When you do, you wonder why it took so long to understand that quality is really the goal.

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  6. WHat a great post,Bob.Both Ken and I struggle with the ambition issues,I believe, without realizing it. Your post and the comments all point out that ambition and goal setting can certainly follow you into retirement and be channeled into volunteer activities,hobbies, and most importantly, to relationships.I like the idea of having a lot more time to ambitiously enhance my friendships, how much I serve my community, my marriage, and my spiritual practices! Thanks again - Your burgers are bound to be delish!

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    1. Thanks, Madeline. In fact, I'd state the link between ambition and retirement even more firmly: ambition MUST follow into retirement. A person without any ambition is going to waste away, mentally and physically.

      Ambition operates an all sorts of different levels. As retirees our "job" is to figure out which ambitions and at what intensity.

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  7. Happy Labor Day! Enjoy your bbq!!
    I think that when I retired I had some difficulty switching gears because I was always in overdrive. But, I knew one thing for sure, I was ready to start using my time to be creative and control of my own time....but not stagnant and complacent. All my energies can now be focused on what I choose to direct them to....and there are many goals. As all have stated....these hours can now go to things that really matter to me:God, family, friends, my community, etc. Before, it seemed they always got the leftover energies I had...sad to say. You retire with all you are when you walk away from your job...you don't stop being "you"....you just now have time to let the real "you" develop and soar freely...sorry if that sounds corny:)

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    1. Thanks, Linda. Except for that fact that it will be 103 degrees later this afternoon, I'll do my best slaving over the hot grill.

      Your thoughts aren't corny...just dead-on accurate.

      Occasionally I read a blog or web post by someone who is obviously several decades from retirement claiming that he or she will never retire to a rocking chair and a shuffleboard court in Florida because that is a slow death. This clichéd view of retirement is still common among those who have no concept of what retirement looks like in 2013.

      You, and I, and virtually everyone who reads this blog and is retired wouldn't be caught dead in a rocker (pun indented) fulltime. We have way too much life to live at full throttle.

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    2. Well said, Linda - and it was most certainly not corny.

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  8. Ditto about quality vs quantity. I received a card at the time of my retirement 5 months ago - Retirement is when you stop living at work and begin working at living. Ahhh.

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  9. I am experiencing a surge of ambition in retirement very similar to what I experienced during all but the last two years of my working career. Really, there is no difference that I can discern. I've always been goal focused, and I'm still goal focused. The goals themselves have changed, but not the discipline and energy required to achieve them.

    You cannot be lazy in retirement and expect life to be grand. It doesn't work that way for most of us. You have to continue to exert effort, just as you did when you worked. The difference is that most of us our now directing our energies at those things that feed our soul, not just our wallet.

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    1. "The difference is that most of us our now directing our energies at those things that feed our soul, not just our wallet" is the battle cry of the satisfied retiree.

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  10. That was an interesting question, and an interesting answer. I agree that it's hard to answer the question without considering what ambition means. The real question, which I think you addressed, is not how to reconcile ambition with retirement, but rather how to reconcile ambition with satisfaction, whether in retirement of otherwise. I enjoyed your Oregon posts--it was great to have you and Betty here.

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    1. We loved every minute of it and our time with you was very special. Our "ambition" is to come back whenever we can. How is that for an appropriate ambition?

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    2. perfect...and guaranteed to be satisfying!

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  11. Funny, I haven't thought of the word "ambition" in quite a a while. I guess I think ambition is inexorably linked to competition -- for jobs, promotions, raises, bigger offices, more people reporting to you. It's objective and measurable. But "ambition" in retirement is more inner-directed, self-fulfilling, non-competitive. Isn't it? Should we have another word for achievement along these lines?

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    1. Better synonyms for ambition might be aspirations, eagerness, enthusiasm, or objectives.

      Good question, Tom. And, yes, ambition in retirement means something very different from its traditional definition.

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  12. Hi Bob. I've been lurking here for the past month or so since I discovered your blog while in the process of starting my own. I'm really enjoying the comments on ambition and agree it depends on ones definition of the word. I think the perspective changes at or near retirement. I'm continually amused when my Facebook page displays friends who also "worked at retired" as if it were an empoyer. And retirement does require some work although maybe not the traditional kind, but more planning and defining what a retired life should entail for the retiree. Anyway, I enjoy your blog.

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    1. First, I like the picture of Lake Marie on your blog...very dramatic.

      Maybe the "work" in retirement is the effort being expended to do all the fun and creative things that are suddenly options! Yes, making retirement into a chore entirely misses the point.

      Thanks for reading and the complement. Best of luck in your blogging effort, Cheryl. It is really quite a blast.

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  13. Cari in North TexasTue Sep 03, 12:55:00 PM MST

    I started out like you in my career, Bob. I was very ambitious and wanted to set the world on fire. Back in the 70's, women were starting to realize that they could be more than just secretaries, nurses, teachers, or wives and mothers. I bought into that and had lofty dreams of becoming a CEO (or something similar). The problem was, I was more focused on the perks than I was the job/duties/responsibilities. I quickly realized that it took a lot of work, and often actions I wasn't comfortable with, to get to that point, and I wasn't willing to make the sacrifices necessary to break the "glass ceiling." So I decided to be the best at my job, whatever that was, and through various iterations, I succeeded in that. However, towards the end, with the recession and tech industry bust, I had to focus on a)finding a job and b) getting a paycheck. I knew I'd be getting a pension from the military so I "settled" for whatever I could find that would pay enough to pay the bills.

    Now I'm getting my pension and have my "retirement" date in sight, so what are my ambitions/goals? I see myself, as others have said, working on my quality of life, not the quantity, and focusing on experiences rather than the "stuff" I used to want to accumulate. Doing more volunteer work, picking up my genealogy research again, traveling - these have become my new goals for retirement. Enjoying life, giving back to society, those are the key things for me in the future. Rocking chair? Only when I am doing needlework or resting from my other activities!

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    1. You have a clear-defined set of goals which is probably the most important first step toward making it all happen. Like any other stage of life, letting events carry you along isn't a wise choice. After all, as the old cliche says if you don't know where you are going any road will take you there.

      Thanks, Cari.

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  14. I appreciate this blog post because it is something that has been lurking in the back of my mind lately. I am pre-retirement. My last day of work will be December 13th, and I drive away from my home here to my new home "there" (Salmon Arm, BC) on December 14th. I am doing some emotional pre-retirement work. Mostly I am looking forward to unstructured time, but am also nervous about being bored. Your comments about ambition help a lot. :)

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    1. I'm glad you found some support here, Nita. Remember that some boredom and dislocation is normal. It happens while you are working, so why shouldn't it when you retire?

      BTW I just pulled up some pictures of Salmon Arm. My heavens, it is beautiful!

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  15. My Retirement 2013 thoughts are:

    My checking account balance going down much quicker than I planned and anticipated.
    My friends and family have become more important and actually more important then ever.
    As the life expectancy is increasing, as retired people I risk living into my 90s. I feel my account balance is not enough.
    Whether I have saved a lot for my retirement or not, I have to be wise now and start making money.

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    1. After retiring earlier than I had originally planned my retirement account will only last until I am in my mid 80's and my wife about 80. Obviously that would not be sufficient if there wasn't a backup plan: my dad's estate.

      One's financial status must be constantly reassessed.

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  16. When your friend said he wanted to pursue hobbies struck a chord. I recall reading on the web: When what you want to do outside of work becomes more important than what you do at work, it's time to retire. I realized immediately that it was time for me. Nita: I haven't been bored for one minute of the last year!
    Great post as always Bob.

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    1. When your away from work life is so much more fulfilling than your work life then it is time to start the clock ticking to retirement. The only caution I raise is to never retire because of one bad week or month at work. Quitting because of emotions is rarely a good idea. And, quitting before your financial house is in order is not wise, either.

      Thanks, Rose.

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  17. A lighter take on ambition...something I'd written quite a while back: http://losers-paradise.blogspot.in/2008/07/wanting-to-be.html

    Btw, I'm nowhere close to retiring...not yet :)

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