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Finding My Own Direction


I do not let things go easily. Even if I like to occasionally pretend that I am an open, easygoing person, in my heart, I am not. In my case, it isn’t slights from other people that I hang on to, but my own inability to do things the way I had hoped I would do them. I could write forever about the ways my childhood set me up to be a person focused on the need to control and make things perfect, but it’s really not that interesting. Many things play into my deep desire for calm and certitude, but these days I’m blaming work, or at least the world of work and the ways in which it trains us to think small and focus on coloring within the lines.

When I was in my 20s and finishing grad school, the idea of finding a job and then a career seemed daunting. I’m sure I was just anxious about it, but part of me felt that I was too unfocused and lazy to be a good worker. Still, once I got my first real job, I slipped into it quickly and easily and never looked back. This isn’t to say that I didn’t struggle or feel stressed, but I was in a safe world that had a clear set of rules, a schedule, a collection of people with whom I could socialize, and a path to follow. The only thing that would have made it better was if we’d had to wear uniforms. I was in love.

As the three-year anniversary of my retirement nears, I am almost overwhelmed by all of the possibilities in front of me.

For the next 30 years, everything in my life fit within that framework and in a certain way it made my life very easy. And then, I retired. It’s been three years, but it has begun to occur to me that I may have done a disservice to myself all those years. Granted I made a lovely salary that would have been difficult to earn outside a big structure, and overall I enjoyed a stimulating career. But in the end, I realize how narrow and uncreative my view of myself in the world became. Most organizations and businesses depend upon a tight structure to succeed and, if we’re good employees, we adhere readily to that arrangement.

The important point—the one I’m realizing now that I feel more comfortable out in the world of retirement—is learning how to open and grow now that I’m not required to be so small. It’s a little like diving into the deep end when you haven’t been swimming in a long time. You know how to do it intellectually, but you have to get used to the water and you need to remember what to do with your arms and legs. My first response to every situation that feels new or anxiety producing is to reach for the rules. But I’m trying to remind myself as often as I can that I can create my own guidelines for this part of my life. Still, I find that I haven’t compared myself to other people this much since I was in junior high. What do they do with their time? How much money did they save for retirement? Did they have a second act or career?

On one level, it’s great to know that, in many ways, I can do whatever I want to do. But it has taken me this whole three years to internalize that. I can do whatever I want to do. I’m almost embarrassed to say there is a burden within that, as well. I wonder if I should be doing more, or less. I worry that I’m not volunteering enough or reading enough or catching up with old friends enough.

It’s funny that I wasn’t as aware of all of this compartmentalization when I was so enmeshed in the world of work. Then it was just my life. But as the three-year anniversary of my retirement nears, I am almost overwhelmed by all of the possibilities in front of me. And, because I was such a poster child for following the rules when I was working, a huge part of me wants to be the rebel now, wants to take a big risk or make a big move.

Recently I read that it takes us about six weeks to make or change a habit. Once we’ve done the new activity consistently for a month or two, it becomes how we do things. I think that’s one of the reasons it has taken so long to peel off the vestiges of work and figure out what I really do want to do now that there is such a beautiful, meandering path in front of me. One of my biggest insights is that it doesn’t have to be one thing as it was when I was working. Now I can devote my day to reading, writing, running, playing with the dogs, going for a walk, talking to my friends, and whatever else crosses my path. Tomorrow I might spend the whole day at the computer.

The first thing I did when I retired was to make a schedule for how I would use my time each week. People laughed, especially those who had retired years before me. They knew that I needed to make a daily plan because that’s what I was used to. Eventually, of course, my days began to take their own form, focused around their own schedule of sorts and I felt much more relaxed. But I’m still learning.

One of my favorite parts of this time of life is realizing that a new door really does open practically every day. Many are passages that were there all along; others are offshoots of paths I’ve just entered. My first reaction when I get it that I’m headed someplace new is to be nervous, but I’m learning every day that the anxiety is an old feeling that no longer has as much of a place in my self-concept as it once did.

I can’t say exactly where I’m headed, even though knowing that would calm that crazy part of me that needs to know the exact plan. I do know that I have many more resources within me than I realized when I was working. When you do something for 30 years, you learn to do it gracefully with less fanfare. Now I feel as if I need all of what I’ve got inside me as I head out in new directions. It is a total surprise to me that this turns out to be the most exciting part of life. My biggest challenge is to stop looking for the rule book and to trust that I’ll find my way on my own.