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That thing that you do


Although I obviously have no cattle in my suburban backyard, that doesn’t stop my dog Tucker from patrolling the perimeter or herding our other two dogs. As a Corgi, this is his job; his ancestors before him were bred to herd cattle, and their short legs kept them close to the ground and free from getting kicked in the head by the cows. Tucker is an old guy now, but he hasn’t forgotten that instinct to circle the yard, using his agile legs to cut and turn and be sure all is well. Even on days when he’s tired, he likes to run along the edge of the fence or make sure our other dogs get back into the house when they're called.

I love this idea of having a job in the world, one that is just who we are and what we do, not what title we have or for whom we work. And when I think about this, it’s when I realize how limited we are in the way we spend most of our lives. When we’re kids, people ask us what we want to be when we’re grown up. We learn early on that we need to respond with a job title like teacher or doctor or oceanographer. We would never think of saying, “I am really good at organizing things and schedules, so I think I’ll become a person who keeps things moving efficiently.” Even with interest tests in college, students immediately go from learning their true interests to the list of jobs that people with those interests might do. They barely slow down to enjoy the scope of those great things they love and know how to do. Obviously, it’s good to find work that emphasizes our skills, but I think we’re a little short sighted in our lack of true appreciation of our abilities.

Concentrating more on the jobs we have than on our strengths and abilities is what causes us stress when we’re working and leaves us feeling a little empty and displaced when we retire.

We’re all naturally good at certain things, whether it’s human relations, math, cooking, or painting. These are the undertakings that bring us joy, that make us feel good about being alive. It’s great if we can find work that sings for us and lets us show our genius, but it’s even better if we can include these skills in our regular lives, whether we are earning a living doing them or not. It's best if we can acknowledge each other's unique skills, even if they don't match a particular job description or pay grade.

This is especially true when we retire and we don’t have a business card to hand to people when they ask us what we do. It took me months to stop saying what I used to do. But even when I was working as a teacher or a dean, that isn’t really what I did. When I think about my skills, the first thing that comes to mind is that I’m good at seeing and hearing people and understanding what they need. I can’t always get it for them, but I can help them figure out ways to find some of what they’re seeking. I realize in retirement that I still do that—with my friends and their kids, my family, my neighbor. But when people say, “Hey what are you doing in retirement?” I never answer, “Being empathetic.”

Concentrating more on the jobs we have than on our strengths and abilities is what causes us stress when we’re working and leaves us feeling a little empty and displaced when we retire. When I was thinking about all of this, it occurred to me that I haven’t really retired at all. I mean I don’t go to the specific job I held for many years, but the things I did well on a daily basis are still a part of what I do in this new life. The outlets are different, but the energy is the same and I still get a sense of accomplishment when I feel like I have given someone room to be who they need to be.

I think it’s a little like Tucker must feel when he chases the last squirrel over the fence. To him, whether it’s a squirrel or a cow, it really makes no difference. It’s just what he does.

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