June 23, 2019

My Projections: Was I close?

A handful of years ago I contributed an article for the book, 70 Things To Do When You Turn 70. At the time I was 64 but took a shot. I assumed that I would be be doing many things differently six year in the future, but exactly what was impossible to predict. Retirement had taught me that all my great plans were in a constant state of flux. My only requirement was to open to them. Like everyone else I was still working on the answer to common retirement questions even a dozen years after I began this journey.

Now that I am 70 I took a fresh look at that book to see what the other sixty nine contributors had to say. I expected to find some fresh ideas or perspectives. What I had forgotten was a dash of "elder" humor included. A sampling:

Elaine Madsen said, "The first thing to do when you turn 70 is to plan on being 80."

Samuel Eyser noted, "Some men drink. Some men womanize. I play the Trombone."

One of my favorite authors, Mary Sarton, who lived to be a feisty 87, had her thoughts included in the book: "In answer to the question, "why is it good to be old?' I said because I am more myself than I have ever been. There is less conflict. I am happier, more balanced [and] more powerful." 

Marshall Duke wrote, "...if indeed there is a battle between nature and nurture, nurture may have its day, but in the long run, nature always wins. And, that needs to be OK."

Of course, there are those folks who insist on trying to keep our bodies in semi-shape. Edna Levitt urged us to squat when we turn 70. Some explanation is required. For those of us she calls 'vintage adults' her advice is to do three sets of 12 squats while standing at the kitchen counter waiting for your morning coffee to brew. Several large muscle groups are used, and our rear porch (butt) gets some toning, too.

June Lands reminds us that Wolff's Law keeps it simple: Use it or lose it.

Allan Schwartz made a very important point: "The stereotype of people who are aging is that they become less flexible in their attitudes and opinions. Speaking for myself, it's become easier to admit my mistakes. Perhaps that's because I no longer worry that asking for help or seeking clarification will be perceived as a sign of weakness. Ego and pride are no longer associated with not knowing."

I like Patricia Rockwell's suggestion that we become detectives, curious about what life has to offer.

In his contribution, Robert Rector echos that feeling: "The sun is still above the horizon, though not by much. But, I'm not ready to say goodbye yet. Like a six-year-old, I'm still searching for worlds to explore and adventures to be had."

A quote from 96 year old Alyse Laemmle says, "Never run out of responsibility; if you don't have one, find one. Find a cause and knock yourself out for it."                

Ilene Little recalls one of my favorite movies, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. She writes, " I loved that movie for its portrayal of scenarios where high-spirited seniors resist the efforts of 'well-meaning' relatives to organize their lives."

"Becoming 70 is a chance to open new doors and enjoy life to its fullest," says Susan Kersley. "Recognize with gratitude that you are able to have opportunities to make a difference in both your own life and the lives of those around you."

Carol Osborn provides a perfect closing quote for this post: "When it comes to planning for your later years, the most important part is knowing what you can have control over, what you must accept, and as Reinhold Niebuhr put it, 'the wisdom to know the difference."

When I wrote my piece in 2013 I really didn't know where my life and attitude would be. I am happy to report in the intervening years I am satisfied with how things have evolved. Frankly, I was wrong: I am doing much of what I was doing 6 years ago, but more satisfied and content with the pace of things and my place in it all.

Life is good.

June 19, 2019

If I Am Retired Have I Stopped Working?

Let's start with two definitions:

Retirement means "The period of life after leaving one's job and ceasing to work."

Work means "an activity involving mental or physical effort done in order to achieve a purpose or result."

Most of us think of "work" in a much more specific way: "an activity or physical effort done in order to earn money."

But, that isn't the literal definition of the word. And, that is part of the problem with the whole concept of living a satisfying retirement: the words are mis-defined. Retirement has nothing to do with no longer working. It has to do with no longer working at a particular job or career for money. But, nowhere should it be assumed that retirement means no more work.

Do you play golf? I am willing to bet you'd say that the game involves work, both physical and mental, even if you ride a cart for 36 holes.

How about growing some of your own vegetables? I know from our recent experience: this is work! Forget check the need for watering for even one day and things start to wilt. Don't pull weeds and your efforts suffer.

Do you exercise? Sorry, but even with an endorphin "high" that is work.

Do you flower garden, read, paint, build furniture, play a piano or a banjo, cut the grass, attend a Spanish class, write a blog, travel, basically do anything other than sit in a chair 18 hours a day staring at the wall? Then, you work....at something.

Retirement does not mean not working...it is supposed to mean working at something you enjoy. It is a life reimagined or redefined.

Now, let's pause for just a moment and admit a very common reality: folks who have retired from one job may start another. Whether that employment is full or part time, self-employed or working for pay for someone else, the economic realities of the world can require additional income to lead the type of life someone desires.

Is that person still "retired?" I suggest it depends. If I spend 25 hours a week writing this blog to satisfy my creative urges and manage to earn a little extra money through those efforts I consider myself retired. I am not writing Satisfying Retirement for the money. The dash of extra cash is a nice side benefit but it isn't a motivator.

If, on the other hand, I go back to my part time tour guide job I would think of myself as partially retired. That job would be taken with money as the primary motivator. There are side benefits, but I certainly wouldn't do it for free.

Or, what if I had the ability to build wood cabinets and coffee tables and sold them? I would be working with a passion of mine: woodworking (this is a made-up scenario!) and generating income. Because I choose to use a talent and enjoy it, I would consider myself retired with a lucrative hobby.

I know, this is splitting hairs and it really doesn't matter how someone is "categorized." The individual determines how he or she feels about his life or control of her time.

The point is much broader: retirement absolutely does not mean we stop working. We work at something until we die. It is part of being human. We do stuff.

So, the next time someone asks how come you aren't bored by not working, educate him about the meaning of the word. 

The hardest working "retired" person I know: Betty refinishing a door

June 15, 2019

The Worst Thing That Could Happen

....rarely does.

We are experts at imagining all sorts of improbable scenarios, outcomes of decisions gone terribly wrong, undiagnosed diseases, or catastrophes of all shapes and colors.  As Mark Twain said, “I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened."

Sure, unpleasant things happen to us. Our bodies act as if the warranty has expired and begin to break down. Loved ones and friends die with unpleasant frequency. Financial plans and expectation are met with a cosmic laugh. The path forward suddenly seems to be leading us into a dark forest.

Buit, for most of the time, for most of our lives, and for most of our worries, when we ask the question, "What's the worst that could happen," it becomes obvious that the worst isn't really much of a likelihood.

Or, the "worst" isn't really all that bad. If the computer dies and I lose 5 years worth of emails, I won't miss 99% of them. If the car develops a fatal hiccup, I can afford another. It will knock my carefully crafted budget for a bit of a loop, but compared to something really serious, that doesn't begin to reach the level of "Worst."

The good news (see how I injected an optimistic tone into a discussion of pessimism?) is we are  prone to assume bad outcomes. Studies show at up to 70% of our mental chatter is negative. Maybe when we were cave men and women, believing the saber tooth tiger had us on the menu kept us violent and alive. Whatever the reason, you are not unique in this regard.

Psychologists call it a cognitive distortion, a habitual and unconscious way of thinking that isn't based on reality. In this case, assuming the worst, is our distortion. While there might be an underlying personality cause, in many cases we just have to break the habit of assuming the worst outcome.

Another phase to describe this condition is catastrophizing: everything will end poorly, we will be blamed, guess I'll go eat worms.

For those of use in the retirement stage of life, "the worst that could happen" is not something we leave behind, like a paycheck. Health problem, relationship issues, financial meltdown...you name it and we can worry about it.

Writing in Psychology Today a few years ago, Meg Selig, offered three alternate thoughts to help us break this self-perpetuating cycle:

  1. It’s not happening now. Focus on that
  2. Whatever happens, I can cope. I am stronger than I think I am.
  3. I am causing my own suffering. Could I stop? 

The worst that could happen may actually occur. We live in a very unpredictable world. But the odds are exceedingly low. To spend our mental energy on spinning a web of what ifs just doesn't pay off.

June 11, 2019

The Value of An Education

Carnegie Library Syracuse University
I was raised with the very firm belief in the requirement of a college education for success in life. There was never any question of my going somewhere after high school. The cost of my four years at Syracuse University was equal to what one year at a major university costs today. But, in the late 1960's and early 70's  my parents sacrificed to make sure I had both the opportunity and a debt-free start to my future. I did work full time as a radio DJ during my senior year to cover my costs. When I got that diploma it came without a bill.

What we called Junior Colleges, or community colleges today, provided a more cost-sensitive way for many  to further an education after high school. Since the core classes that virtually everyone studies during those first two years are pretty much the same, the choice of a local two year institution for much less money was a wise choice. With good grades it was usually possible to transfer your credits to a four year university.

Of course, plenty of people made a very nice living and were quite content following a path that didn't include college. Working in the trades, starting one's own retail business, following in dad's footsteps...all were legitimate career paths. It was very possible to build a solid life with just a high school diploma.

Since I wanted to be an on-air radio performer, college wasn't really a requirement. But, in my social circles,  there wasn't even a debate: get that degree, list it on your resume, and your future is solid. As my parents noted more than once, when I "outgrew" my DJ lifestyle I'd be set for a grownup job. Today, the situation is so different I wonder if I would have selected the same path that had been predestined for me.

Approximately 70% of high school graduates continue in some form of higher education. Just a high school degree means a tough path forward. But, that education after high school isn't necessarily in a typical university setting.

With experienced plumbers, electricians, carpenters, or HVAC technicians able to earn incomes well in excess of what many white collar workers bring home, spending time in technical schools or learning a trade as an apprentice is a perfect choice for many. A computer-savvy young adult can skip a "formal" educational path and find employment quite readily. His or her skills are very marketable.

OK, so with that background, I am circling around to my question: is a college education always worth the cost? The average for tuition, room, board, supplies, and incidentals for a four year public university is between $25-$45,00. Want an Ivy league education, or attendance at a prestigious private school? How about $55-$67,000 per year.

We are aware of the number of young people who leave college with a lifetime of debt. We have been reading of wealthy parents who pay enormous sums of money to simply get their prodigy into a well-ranked school. For those caught, that can result in fines, jail time, and the expulsion of their child. Such is the net result of attempting to cheat the system.

A recent research study showed 95% of grandparents believe it is important for their grandkids to get a higher education Yet, our influence in this is probably a bit limited. We may be able to voice our opinions about what the educational path of a grandchild might look like, but the final decision will be made by the parents, with input from the young adult. If we have the resources, we may be able to help cover some of the costs, either voluntarily or after "hints" from the parents. The same study says 21% of us give money to be used for a youngster's tuition.

But, doesn't that beg the question? Even if a college education can be paid for, should it? Is the path to success always through the ivied halls of an institution of higher education? If the young adult will leave with a sheepskin and a looming debt, is the cost-expense ratio still in his or her's favor?

Sure, wanting to become a doctor, lawyer, teacher, scientist, or other endeavors that require specialized knowledge equals four, six, or even eight years of schooling. But, a liberal arts education with a degree in English Lit, International Relations, or History? Does that on a resume equal solid employment?

I come from a family deeply involved in higher education. My answer remains, yes, college is important. But, my reason why it is important has changed. Being away from home at a four year school should do two things: teach someone how to manage the art of living and responsibility, and to develop the ability to think and reason. College isn't so much about any individual class. It is about learning how to learn, how to think on one's own, and how to begin to form a world view that is not just a copy of one's parents.

The actual degree means much less today. Electronic resumes emphasize experience and personal skills. Educational achievements are often listed last. Someone will be hired based on what they have done, what skills they possess, and how they help an employer achieve goals, not because the 3.7 GPA from State U.

So, go with me for a minute. If what I just wrote is true, then gathering life experiences is the real path to success. Working well with others matters. Being computer-literate, knowing how to use Excel, understanding the use of social media for promotion and marketing.....these are the skills that may get someone hired.

Is a four year education after high school required for everyone? If your grandchild decides that type of environment (and cost) isn't best for them, would you support that choice, and more importantly, feel good about it?

My bottom line straddles the fence a bit: college can be a time to learn to develop one's independence and function in an adult world. It is when one can use the priceless gift of time to learn how to think.

At the same time, it can saddle someone with debt and give them freedoms they are not equipped to handle. Four years in college may actually delay a young person's career path if their skills are not enhanced by a standard degree.

So, here are my questions to you: 

1) If you attended college, was it worth it to you and your family? Did the skills you learned directly apply to your employment? Did you get a return on the investment of time and money?

2) If a grandchild asked for your opinion about attending college, what would you say? If that child decides to skip the university path, would you feel disappointed, worried for their future prospects, or supportive of that decision for that particular person?

3) What is the value of a college education today? How much debt is it worth?

June 10, 2019

Nine Years and Counting!

Today, June 10th, marks the ninth anniversary of Satisfying Retirement. Over 3.3 million views, in excess of 1,000 post...I am as surprised as anyone I am still at this! 

So, just a thank you for your support, comments, ideas, and constructive criticism that has made this process a creative joy.

I must add that the civility and graciousness of the vast majority of blog comments and emails means I haven't had to go to more restrictive  procedures or spend too much time deleting spam and hate messages. In today's blogosphere that is no small thing.

If you are so inclined, I'd love to read any comment you care to leave. What are your favorite parts of this blog, and what could you live without? Are there any posts that have stuck with you over the years, posts that helped you over a retirement hurdle of some kind?

Bottom line: thanks for 9 years. The tenth year of Satisfying Retirement has begun!

With fondest feelings,

Bob (and my wife of almost 43 years, Betty)