Is Retirement Cancer of the Soul?

…and is it still the American Dream?

by Lin Weeks- Wilder, PhD

Dr. Lin Weeks Wilder holds a Doctorate in Public Health from The University of Texas School of Public Health and has over thirty years administrative experience in academic health centers ranging from critical care nurse to hospital director. She spent twenty-three years at the Texas Medical Center (as Dr. Lin Weeks) and another three years as Hospital Director at University of Massachusetts Medical Center. While serving as Chair of the Hermann Hospital Institutional Ethics Committee for five years, Weeks-Wilder was featured in TIME Magazine and in Lisa Belkin’s award winning book on the committee and Weeks-Wilder.
Now a full-time writer, Dr. Wilder has published over 38 articles and 6 books on topics such as hospital management, institutional ethics, cardiovascular physiology, nursing practice, management and Catholic Christianity. She is currently writing the sequel to The Fragrance Shed by a Violet.

Is retirement the American Dream? Or the promise that those now under forty will never see fulfilled? Or is the problem definitional in that the word itself may mean one thing to you and something entirely different to your neighbor? Exactly what do we mean when we talk about the dream of retirement? Although there are some baby boomer over sixty or ‘over 65ers’ who would be content with a life of leisure: sleeping as late as late as they please with all the time in the world, most of us are happiest when we are working, studying, learning, risking, making a difference and using our gifts, regardless of our age.

Four, or maybe five, careers ago, during the early nineties, I was teaching a management course at University of Texas School of Nursing along with my full time administrative job at Hermann Hospital in the Texas Medical Center. Constantly on the lookout for relevant, practical and inspiring content, I came across a book by a British organizational theorist named Charles Handy, either The Age of Unreason or The Age of Paradox, and was fascinated by some predictions he made about the twenty-first century work force; about the economic, global and technological changes which were imminent and would change the face of the traditional corporate worker. Among his many prescient forecasts were that much of the work would change place: from office to home and that many of the new careers would be entrepreneurial. Moreover, the concept of retirement would change: The average Westerner would change careers an average of three or four times during his or her working life; for many, the concept of retirement would be obsolete due to the choice to work far past the average age of retirement at sixty-five.

Dangerous Retirement

I recall many laughter filled conversations with my thirty or forty something year old colleagues as I attempted to explain that I believed retirement to be dangerous; the consequential boredom, the reality of having too much time one one’s hands can result, I opined, all those years ago that boredom was a cancer of the soul and that retirement as my colleagues defined it sounded ghastly. Thirty years later, my predictions of the inimical consequences of boredom are reflected back to me from too many friends and neighbors whose interests seem bounded by their dwindling investment portfolios and the increasing number of maladies that are applied with each visit to their doctor. They are consumed by what they watch each evening on the nightly news and feel depressed, anxious and sad about the country, the government, the economy and their lives: tragic, unnecessary and such a waste of skills and gifts.

In the twenty-first century, the potential for multiple careers seems unparalled. Cyberspace has levelled the playing fields for the young, the old, the educated and the not so educated. Sure, we can argue endlessly about the socially redeeming value of Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and hundreds of other mega-billion dollar businesses created by the under forty group but there are some of us, like my husband and me who were able to build a million dollar business because we agreed early in our relationship that work-some kind of work- was essential for our happiness; further, that the notion of quitting work completely was anathema to us both. Occasionally others have called, visited, even worked for us but quit after they realized that this was really work. Although we worked from our home, we weren’t playing around.

It could be the voice of your long dead mother of first husband who always said you were stupid. The source of the voice does not matter. What matters is only this: That dream, hope may be the reason you are here

Here are the ten elements for anyone – older or younger-essentials for your new venture or career to have a chance. The list will not surprise anyone who was successful in previous careers.

  • Love of learning
  • A passion for the work
  • Tolerance of failure
  • Persistence
  • Financially able to lose money in the first few years
  • A deep desire to help others
  • Humility
  • Plenty of sleep
  • A healthy diet
  • A consistent exercise regime

Love of learning goes with the territory of being human; we are placed here some believe purposely, others believe randomly but each of knows that we are here to learn. Whether it was Robert Greene or Malcombe Gladwell who first coined the measure of ten thousand hours for mastery, the metric applies to every huge project I have attempted in my life; from the textbook through the dissertation through my latest book, each took between five to six years.

Although I dislike the word passion because it has become a cliché, I can think of no other word to describe the feeling we need to endure ten thousand hours without losing our minds, we must love it. I mean the love that describes a good marriage not the emotion of it; rather the decision to love throughout squabbles, dirty dishes and even affairs, that kind of love…ten thousand hours is a long time especially when each hour feels like a yearlong.

Managing Failure

Persistence and tolerance of failure go hand in hand. Perhaps the order should be reversed because it is possible to persist only if we are able to push through the failures because there will be many and they are often crushing.

Only eighty-five per cent of businesses will survive past five years, the data tell us. The numbers of people I have spoken with who told me that they had to make their new business work, if they didn’t have money by the end of the month, they would be on the street number in the hundreds. The fact is inescapable: Any new business will cost money in the first few years.

By the time we have been in this life for thirty-five, forty or sixty years, most of us have accumulated some wisdom and the idea of passing it on to others is natural.

Humility is something that confuses most of us. While many see the word to mean letting others step all over you, others see the humble person as someone who lacks wealth or material things; part of the sentimentalizing of poverty that some of us do. Both are wrong. The word derives from truth, the innate desire to know and to understand our world around us in truth.

The last three on my list may seem peculiar but as I age, I witness the critical need for uninterrupted sleep, exercise and a way of eating that when ignored, cry out for attention when my energy level drops or creativity seems absent.

If, while reading this piece, idle thoughts have been drifting across your brain, thoughts like:

‘Could I really write a book?” or “I’m xy years old, I’m way too old to start learning a, b or c” or “ I always wanted to….

Please know the voice has a name, Stephen Pressfield calls it “Resistance’ in his awesome book The War of Art. It could be the voice of your long dead mother of first husband who always said you were stupid. The source of the voice does not matter. What matters is only this: That dream, hope may be the reason you are here.