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What comes Next

I failed at retirement the first time I tried it. I thought I had a good plan for how to transition from a long and busy career to a wide open field ahead, but that didn’t last long. The first time someone from my old job asked me to come back in an interim role, I jumped at it. Then, for the next several years, I worked pretty much half of every year. Occasionally I would advise other people that they should retire, but the irony of me having this conversation while sitting behind my work desk was lost on no one.

Born in 1951, I am about as much of a baby boomer as one can be. By the time I was in college, most women my age were headed for careers. If we also wanted marriage and family, that would be the icing, rather than just the cake. I started out to be a writer, but fairly quickly realized that it was a tough way to make a living. When I got the chance to start teaching, my shyness made me reluctant at first, but I got over it—fortunately. What followed has been a nearly 40-year career in higher education, mostly teaching, but also being an administrator. What I didn’t realize as I was living that life is how much it became my source of meaning in the world. It wasn’t just what I did; it’s who I was. It’s also who I still am, at this moment, because I went back again a couple of years ago and liked it so much that I applied for the permanent job and “unretired.” I remember early in my first retirement when someone asked me what I did and I stumbled—not because I forgot, but because I couldn’t quite bring myself to say, “I’m retired.” At the time, it felt like saying, “I’m nothing,” because I hadn’t quite figured out what I was without work.

I thought I needed a well-constructed outline of what I was going to do in retirement--partly because it would give me a good answer for when people would ask, “So, what do you do?”

The combination of the pandemic and entering the year that I will turn 70 has made me realize that I’m ready to try it again. I want to say that this time I will have a better plan than I had the first time, but I think the opposite is actually true. On the first attempt, I thought I needed a well-constructed outline of what I was going to do in retirement--partly because it would give me a good answer for when people would ask, “So, what do you do?” I also thought I knew myself well enough to know that I don’t do well with lots of unplanned, unscheduled time. One thing I’m learning as I get ready to retire again, though, is that I probably feel that way because I’ve never given it a fair shot. So, my preparation for this round is purposely minimal. It’s reminding me a tiny bit of when I graduated from college with only a list of jobs I knew I didn’t want.

I think of what I’m doing now as exploring—letting myself be curious about what I really want to do. There’s no shortage of opinions from other people about what to do in retirement, and maybe some of those will be my choices, as well. But I don’t know that yet, and I’m kind of trying not to know. That’s part of what I did the first time—I was relatively sure that I didn’t want to do certain things without really trying them out. Others that seemed to hold a lot of promise in my head—like home improvement projects—turned out to be much less interesting than I imagined.

Part of what I know is that I’m not just looking for activities. I’m looking for what has meaning for me. I want to focus on what I like about working—relationships, problem-solving, and creativity, for example—and seek those qualities in what I do next. The first time around, I thought I had to start over and work my way through other people’s lists—golf, pickle ball, volunteering, and gardening—which sounded awful at the time. Those may all be activities that offer me meaning, but I didn’t think of it that way six years ago.

Happily, it’s all new again and I’m excited to see where I head and how it feels. It’s all just life anyway—with a different background and maybe new people and new scenery. But who knows? We’re all braver than we think—and I’m reminding myself of this on a daily basis.


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