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Not Either/Or




One of my favorite courses in college focused on creative problem-solving. One of our primary activities was devising not just one way to get through a challenge, but many routes—some even ridiculous ones. If we can concoct a variety of ways to tackle a problem, we don’t just stop at the first idea that works somewhat well. Instead, our ideal solution might be a combination of the multiple methods we formulated.

I don’t want to live an either/or life if I don’t have to. If I’m lucky enough to have many opportunities, I’d like to try them all.

It's like if you are trying to decide how to liven up your living room, you might think, “I’ll look at new couches.” Then, you narrow it down to two and find yourself struggling to decide which is best. If, instead of trying to choose between a sectional and a sleeper, you go back and remember what it is you really want in your living room—say a quiet place to read—you might end up deciding that what you really want is a big, comfortable chair and ottoman. Clearly, our personal problems or life choices are more significant than living room furnishings, but the idea is the same. I find myself remembering that class often when I’m perseverating about big decisions, and I have to remind myself that life is hardly ever either/or. It is much more complicated than that—and also much more interesting. Still, we spend most of our lives choosing between one thing and another, or so it seems.


These days, I’m building a life following a long, enjoyable career in higher education. What we know when we’re nearing the ends of these kinds of ventures is that we’re tired of the stress, and we want to just enjoy each day at a leisurely pace. We want to relax and enjoy this end of life. For most of us, reared on the either/or approach, this means that we stop working and we pursue hobbies, or we read all of those books we never had time to finish, or we travel, or maybe we do a little of each. But we don’t work—at least that isn’t part of what we think about when we think of retirement. In our careers, we work. In retirement, we don’t. I know this, because I’m retired, and I often go back to work, and people are shocked. Few folks can understand why anyone would go back to work—even temporarily—when they retire. I know why I go back, but I almost always feel embarrassed because it seems like such an odd decision to other people.


This week—while doing a temporary job and really enjoying it—I realized that, for me, working occasionally is probably often going to be a small part of my life, even in retirement. I mean, I doubt that I’ll be working when I’m in my 80s—and I hope someone will tap me on the shoulder if I stay too long—but for now there are many things I like about it. When I’m retired and not doing any work out in the world, I don’t have the same kinds of social interactions and intellectual stimulation I do when I’m working. When you’ve been involved in an interesting area of life for 30 or more years—in my case community college education—it isn’t easy to give up that engagement. And really, why should I? Especially if it’s part-time or temporary.


This isn’t an earth-shattering discovery, but it’s a comforting one. I don’t actually have to choose a work-filled life over a life that involves no work. At least not right this minute. This may seem very basic to the average person, but it took me a while to remember to think bigger. I don’t want to live an either/or life if I don’t have to. If I’m lucky enough to have many opportunities, I’d like to try them all. As I create this new construct for myself, building big is high on my list of priorities.