Welcome to Week #6 of a 9-part blog series on Life After FIRE.
So far, we’ve identified the core challenges in transitioning from full-time employment to early retirement and discovered our unconscious beliefs about retirement. We’ve also explored five important questions:
- Who am I?
- What are my gifts and talents?
- What do I love?
- What is my purpose? and
- What are the many possible expressions of my purpose in the world?
Last week, we started pulling the answers together into a format that can help you answer the question: what will I do with all of my time in early retirement? I suggested mapping out all of your answers into a simple diagram that I call a “purpose map“:
This week, it’s time to explore your possibilities by getting into conversation with some “retirement role models”. In other words, it’s time to start collecting data on the possibilities you generated. What are they really like? How would you get started? What type of impact can you have if you choose one of these possibilities as your “work” in early retirement?
We’re doing this because so many people generate exciting possibilities in their purpose map, but don’t know how to make their idea a reality. But one thing I know for sure is that if you want to learn about something, the most effective and efficient way to figure it out is to ask someone who is already doing it.
And to restate the central argument of this series: early retirement does not mean that you stop engaging in meaningful activity. Instead, it’s the chapter(s) of life where you have the freedom to chose what types of “work” are meaningful to you. And you get to balance that work with deepening your relationships, investing in your continual growth and improving your spiritual, emotional and physical health.
In fact, one of the four components to a meaningful life is purpose! And that’s because purposeful work in retirement (whether it’s paid or voluntary, full time or part-time) is what will bring you joy, fulfillment, and a new identity. To that end, we’re exploring all of the possibilities you generated so that you can intentionally choose whichever one (or a several) of them you feel most excited about. Then you can start moving in that direction.
Retirement Role Models
This week requires you to make one simple but powerful step forward. It’s a game-changer, but only if you actually do it. Thinking about it won’t work. Analyzing and critiquing it as an exercise won’t work. Ruminating over all the reasons you can’t do it, won’t work. Instead, I invite you to follow the steps below and see what happens.
Step 1: Identify Your Retirement Role Models
Last week, you brainstormed at least 8 possible expressions of your purpose in the world. Now it’s time to identify people who are already doing the activities that you identified. For the purpose of this exercise, I’m referring to those people as your “retirement role models”.
Let’s keep this manageable (yes, I’m talking to you perfectionists). Role models are simply people who are:
- Alive (i.e., living, breathing, human beings, not historical figures, fictional characters, fantasy creatures or action heroes),
- Currently doing the activities you identified as possibilities in your purpose map,
- Accessible for a targeted conversation this week.
To be clear, role models are not the perfect version of what you hope to become. So don’t make the following two mistakes: 1) targeting the very best person in the world doing what you’re considering, and 2) wasting time at this point of the process with people who are surrounded by an army of professional gatekeepers.
All you want are a few people who can:
- talk to you about the daily reality of _____________ [fill in whatever activity or role is on your purpose map],
- describe how they got started doing __________,
- identify the greatest challenges involved in __________,
- articulate what they love about _______, and
- suggest other people you can chat with who __________.
The goal is to get a few people on the phone who can provide you with quick information that will help you narrow down the possibilities you identified for meaningful activity in early retirement.
I recommend that you add lines to your purpose map and fill in the names (and contact information) of role models for each activity. Strive for at least two people for each of the activities you identified.
There are many ways you can identify role models:
- Google ___________ [the specific activity or role on your purpose map]..
- Think about anyone you know within your own network doing ______.
- Ask people you know if they know anyone who does ________.
- Ask the role models you get on the phone who else they recommend you speak to about ____________.
- Crowd source names on social media about accessible people who do __________.
And there’s one final caveat: your role models do not have to be retired themselves! The only thing that matters is that they can provide you with real life data on the activities you identified as possibilities in your retirement.
For example, last week I shared my purpose map. I’m a “generous mentor who loves helping retirees create a meaningful life” and I generated 8 possible ways of expressing that purpose. Of my 8 possibilities, one was “retirement coaching”. So I reached out to 2 coaches as role models (neither of whom were retired). My goal was to learn about the reality of retirement coaching, to discern whether (or not) I would keep it on my list of possibilities or rule it out. For the record: I ruled it out after two conversations.
I also did role model interviews for my other possibilities: running retreats, blogging, keynote speaking, and starting a community. To be honest, I chose not contact role models about book writing (I’ve written 3), teaching a course (I’ve taught around 50) and starting a center (I founded and ran one for 7 years). I felt well acquainted with the reality of those possibilities so I focused on finding role models that could help me explore the ones that I knew little about.
Step 2: Contact Your Role Models
I know it can be scary to contact people you don’t know, but I wouldn’t ask you to do it if I didn’t know how valuable it is to get out of your head and into conversation.
You don’t have to contact all of your role models at one time. I recommend that you start by sending out 5 emails to 5 separate role models. In each email, strive for brevity (this is not the time to go full-on fangirl/fanboy with them). Clearly communicate:
- why you consider them a role model,
- why they (and only they) are uniquely situated to answer your specific questions, and
- request a 30-minute informational interview this week.
What’s likely to happen is that some people will respond quickly and be delighted to chat with you. Others will let you know they are too busy this week, but could talk to you in the future. Some will completely ignore your email request. And occasionally, someone will just say “no”. Each of those responses are fine and there’s no reason to get overly emotional about any of them because we’re just collecting data. Your job is to ask for a conversation and your role models gets to choose whether they speak with you (or not).
Step 3: Manage Your Resistance
One thing I’ve noticed in doing this exercise with various groups is that most people think this sounds like a good idea, but procrastinate sending the emails. I’ve done this exercise with groups of undergraduates and groups of tenured professors and both exhibited initial resistance to asking role models for an interview. That resistance most commonly takes the form of avoidance, denial, rationalizations, or anger. Specifically, the resistance typically sounds like the following:
- Who am I to contact ______________ [person doing what they dream of doing].
- I can’t contact ______________ until I write the perfect email.
- I spent soooooo much time researching the perfect role models online that I don’t feel like I have to actually talk to them.
- I can’t contact ______________ because they may reject or ignore me and that would be humiliating.
- What if ______________ agrees to talk to me, I would be scared to death to talk to him/her/them.
- This is a stupid exercise and I don’t feel like doing it!
- I’m smart enough to figure all of this out on my own, I don’t need to talk to people doing it.
- I’m going to do ____________ [activity] in a totally different way than any of the role models I’ve found, so there’s no point in talking to people who aren’t doing it exactly how I imagine doing it.
- People like me just don’t go around calling strangers. You don’t understand me.
- Everyone is way too busy to make time for role model interviews and I couldn’t possibly impose on _________ !
Do any of those sound familiar?
If so, guess what? You’re experiencing perfectly normal resistance!
I’ll even go a step further and say that the presence of resistance means you’re on to big things! That’s because resistance is a human defense mechanism that keeps us from doing anything that might be dangerous. And for some of us, imagining a future where we are free to live our purpose triggers a wide range of fears. We’re afraid that we might fail, we might get revealed as an impostor, we might have to speak truth to power, and/or we might succeed wildly (yikes! then what!).
If any of this type of resistance comes up for you, I encourage you notice it, get curious about it, and get into conversation with it. Personally, I experienced a lot of resistance doing this exercise. So I acknowledged it, thanked my resistance for trying to keep me safe, and then I hit send on my request emails. I typically sweat profusely when I’m moving through resistance, but once the emails are out, I change my shirt and am glad I sent them.
Step 4: Prepare For Your Role Model Interviews
Once you send your emails, go ahead and start drafting a list of questions you want to ask your role models. Everyone’s questions are different and all that matters is that you get the data you need to decide if the possibility you’re considering is something you might want to experiment with moving forward.
If you’re not sure where to start, here are some sample questions:
- What attracted you to __________?
- What exactly do you actually do on a daily basis?
- What do you enjoy most about __________?
- What are the greatest challenges to __________?
- How has __________ changed over the time you’ve been doing it?
- What would most surprise people thinking about __________?
- What’s one thing you wish you knew before you started __________?
- How would you describe somebody who would be successful doing __________?
- What’s the most important way to prepare for __________?
- Who else do you recommend I speak with about __________?
Whatever questions you want to ask, have them drafted and ready in case one of your role models wants to hop on the phone on short notice!
Having completed many role model interviews, let me assure you that most people love to talk about themselves and their journey! I tend to pick role models who are enthusiastic about what they were doing (whether it was voluntary or paid). And while I always kept a list of questions ready at the beginning of the conversation, listening closely to my role models stimulated new, unexpected, and exciting questions.
Step 5: Collect And Analyze Your Data
Once you begin having conversations, be sure you have some way to take notes during the call. It doesn’t matter whether you do so with paper and pen or on your computer. You just want to be actively taking notes so that you can start to notice what patterns emerge across role models who are all doing the same thing.
Recording your data is particularly important if you find yourself nervous or excited during the call. Anxious energy can make it particularly challenging to retain the wealth of information that your role models will share with you.
When you gather up the courage to talk to your role models, you will learn a lot about the possibilities you’re considering for your early retirement. Some activities will become more desirable. Others will get crossed out of your purpose map out because you’ll learn that the reality differs from what you imagined. And it may also be the case that you learn some important things about yourself in the process of having your role model conversations.
For example, I had brainstormed possibilities that involved different levels of service (individual, community, and organizational). I couldn’t help but notice that when I talked to role models working at the organizational level, my energy plummeted, my tummy hurt and I felt tired. But when I talked to role models who were engaged in direct service with individuals, I felt energized, the time flew by, and I left the conversation excited! Noticing how I felt during the conversations was another important form of data. Specfically, my body was signaling that starting a new organization (or even volunteering with an existing one) was not the right choice for me right now. And it helped me realize that I worked at the organizational level for so many years before retiring that what I was yearning to return to was working directly with individuals and writing.
I don’t know what you’ll discover in this process, but whatever you learn, you will be far further along than you were just thinking about these possibilities in your head!
Step 6: Rinse and Repeat
If you don’t hear back from your role models, it’s okay to follow up with them a few days later. You can also start sending new emails to additional role models. If you completed Step 1, you have a whole purpose map filled with names and contact information at the ready.
And as you progress through this exercise, you may find yourself:
- refining your questions,
- locating additional role models around one (or two) possibilities,
- letting some possibilities fall by the wayside, or
- generating new possibilities that you never would have imagined until you got into conversation with those who are in action.
I consider any of those outcomes positive movement forward.
There are no hard and fast rules on how many role models to interview or how long to spend on this exercise. I have a tendency to over-do and over-complicated things (because I was a professor earlier in my career). So I gave myself a 10-day time limit for my retirement role model interviews. I also encouraged myself to approach this exercise like a journalist working on a short deadline (instead of turning it into a dissertation project). When I’ve taught this process as a class, I give people two weeks (max) to complete their role model interviews and that’s plenty of time to get all the data you need to narrow down your possibilities.
The Weekly Challenge
This week, I challenge you to:
- Continue starting each day with journal writing and ending it with gratitude.
- Pull out your “purpose map”
- Identify the names of at least two role models for each of your possibilities. If you get stuck, ask for help in our Facebook Group.
- Send 5 emails to your retirement role models requesting a short conversation.
- Interview 5 role models, capture the data, and identify the patterns (in their responses and your own feelings about the conversations).
- Rinse and repeat until you’ve talked to enough role models to narrow down your possibilities.
- Do another one of the 25 things you love and notice how you feel while you’re doing it.
The great news is that if you actually do this work, you’ll move from the abstract to the concrete, you’ll narrow down your possibilities with the help of real-time data, and you’ll probably gain a few mentors in the process.
In the next installment, we’ll start designing experiments based on your paired-down list of possibilities.
I can’t wait to hear what you learn from your retirement role models!
p.s. – if you missed any of previous parts of the series, here are the links: