It’s time for the final installment of the Life After FIRE series!
I like to end every series I write (and program I teach) by making the underlying process explicit. That way, you can use (and adapt) it when you’re going through other types of transitions. We’ve focused on the early retirement transition in this series, but there are many transitions we go through in our lifetime. And each transition requires us to:
- let go of our previous identity, behaviors, and beliefs,
- become the author of the next chapter of our lives, and
- gradually live into that new reality.
In this series, the process we walked through was intentionally designed to help you move from “what will I do once I retire?” to envisioning a full and meaningful life, and taking the first concrete steps towards living it. To bridge that gap, we’ve completed the following 5 steps:
STEP 1: Identify The Questions & Challenges
During any major life transition, it’s important to identify two things: 1) the most pressing questions we need to answer and 2) the most common challenges people face.
When transitioning into retirement, the primary question most professionals ask is: what will I do with all my time once I retire?
That’s a challenging question to answer because it’s difficult to imagine how we will fill 40-60 hours per week that are currently spent working. Whether you are retiring via FIRE, forced early retirement, or a long-planned traditional retirement, it can be terrifying to imagine what you’ll do with an ocean of free time.
Once we identify our most salient questions, it’s also important to discover the common challenges that people face while they are going through a similar transition. Whether it’s an empty nest, death of a family member, or conscious uncoupling, everyone going through that particular transition will face a similar set of challenges. Understanding what those challenges are normalizes them so you don’t feel like you’re the only one who is facing ___________ (insert common challenge).
When you’re newly retired, the greatest (non-financial) challenge is that you become 100% responsible for creating every aspect of your day-to-day life. Specifically:
- creating a structure for your daily life,
- sustaining existing relationships and developing new ones,
- finding opportunities to grow intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually
- clarifying your purpose and translating it into meaningful projects
- exploring active leisure
- reconstructing your identity
- developing a credible answer to the question: what do you do?
- cultivating community so you feel a sense of belonging, and
- unplugging from the achievement machined and fundamentally redefining “success”
By listing the typical challenges early retirees face, I hope a few things become clear. First and foremost, a successful retirement transition is serious and challenging work (a meaningful new life doesn’t “just happen”). It’s also the case that transitions take time (they don’t happen over night). And finally, transitioning into retirement requires some radical thinking because resolving these common challenges involves counter-cultural ideas (i.e., I am not my job).
Now depending on whether your retirement is early or at a traditional age, voluntary or involuntary, instantaneous or gradual, you may also have an additional set of challenges that are utterly unique to your particular situation. These are also important to acknowledge and add to your list at the outset.
Writing down all of your questions and challenges right from the start enables you to see what you’re up against and exactly what you’ll need to resolve. While it can be overwhelming, explicitly identifying them allows you to move forward from an informed and empowered standpoint.
STEP 2: Engage In Self-Reflection
Once you understand the questions and challenges facing you in a life transition, you can reflect on “the big questions”.
There are some questions that people revisit repeatedly throughout their lives because they cut across various types of life transitions. And while our answers to the big questions of our existence may evolve over our life span, they consistently provide the kind of direction we need during transitions.
Since this series focused on the early retirement transition, we tackled the following questions:
- What are my unspoken beliefs about “retirement” and where did they come from?
- Who am I?
- What are my gifts and talents?
- What do I love?
- What is my purpose?
Whenever we engage in self-reflection, we don’t just lay down and ponder big questions in the abstract. Instead, it’s best to have an intentional process that includes 1) specific reflective questions designed to elicit concrete answers and 2) models that translate our answers into actionable possibilities.
For example, we didn’t sit back and wonder: who am I? We generated internal data (by systematically analyzing the previous chapters of our lives), collected external data (by interviewing others about our gifts and talents), and accessed our intuition (through daily practice) to discern a succinct answer.
Then we plugged our answer to “who am I?” and “what do I love?” into a larger model. One that allowed us to brainstorm a wide range of possibilities for purpose-driven work we could do after we FIRE.
At the end of this step, we didn’t have a vague sense of “who am I?” and “what’s my purpose?” We had a concrete statement of who we are and what we love. That concise statement came from a triangulation of multiple sources of data (internal, external and universal). And it was a generative statement that produced at least 8 possible answers to the question: what will I do with all my time when I retire?
STEP 3: Find Role Models
Brainstorming possibilities is a fun activity. But anytime you want to move gracefully and efficiently through a life transition, you must get into conversation with real, live human beings who are already doing the things you are currently considering as possibilities and are already on the other side of a transition.
For example, when people transition into parenting, they talk with experienced parents about what to expect and how to prepare. They don’t typically contact people who don’t have children or who appear to be struggling with parenting. They contact people who seem to have figured it out and are thriving.
I could substitute other life transitions in place of this example (marriage, divorce, etc…), but the action is the same: stop imagining what something will be like and get into conversation with experienced people who have successfully navigated the same transition. And it doesn’t matter if you use the term “role model” or not. What matters is that you identify several people who are successfully _____________, initiate brief conversations, and get your questions answered.
I use the transition to parenting as an example because it seems “normal” for newly expectant parents to reach out to experienced parents. But oddly enough, most about-to-be-retired people never think to reach out to others. They sometimes feel embarrassed to do so, or don’t want to impose on other people’s time.
While nobody feels embarrassed to be a beginner when it comes to a new baby, by the time people near retirement, they are often used to being “experts” in their field. So being a beginner again can be unfamiliar and intimidating. But we don’t want this fear of beginning again to keep us from reaching out to retirement role models and getting the information we need to make a successful transition.
We worked around this fear by first, naming role models for each one of our post-retirement possibilities. Then we instigated informational interviews with them to focusing on several specific questions. That allowed us to get a realistic view of the positive and negative aspects of each of our post-retirement possibilities.
As much as we love to Google answers to our questions, do online research, and play with ideas in our minds, there is nothing that replaces conversation with people whose current reality is your desired reality. The information they provide is fresh. The advice they give is relevant. And the connections they offer to make are priceless.
STEP 4: Design Low-Risk Experiments
Once we gathered information from our role models, we chose a path forward based on the data we collected. Sometimes a post-retirement possibility sounds amazing, but when we learn about the daily reality, it is far less exciting. Other times, an option that was our least favorite possibility, jumps to the top based on what we learned from our role models.
There’s no single right way to choose a possibility to explore further. Sometimes you’ll choose 1 — and only 1 — possibility to test drive. Other times you may explore 2 or 3 possibilities. And sometimes a new possibility will emerge that is a previously unimagined combination of several options you brainstormed.
Once we chose which post-retirement possibilities to explore further, we designed early retirement experiments. Those allowed us to stick our toes in the water and experience the reality of a particular possibility. When it comes to retirement transitions, a toe feels far easier than jumping head first into a new life!
When we designed our early retirement experiments, we focused on:
- the most efficient way to try out a desired possibility and
- a low-risk, low-commitment, and minimally time-intensive test-drive that allow us to better understand the social, emotional and intellectual dimensions of any particular option
Let’s say your retirement dream is to own a bed and breakfast. An experiment could be taking a seminar or shadowing a current B&B host (before you go out and buy one). If you dream of starting a non-profit, an experiment is volunteering with an existing organization (before you set up your own 501c3). And if you want to become a screenwriter, an experiment is taking a workshop (before you pack up and move to Hollywood).
These are simple examples of early retirement experiments. Yours may vary in focus, time, or intensity. But so much information can be gained from doing them. And they limit the downside risk of making a life-altering decision that may be difficult and expensive to reverse.
STEP 5: Create A Full And Meaningful Life
Once we tried a few experiments, our confusion about “what we’ll do with all our time” transforms into excitement. For most people I’ve worked with, it’s important to have their primary question resolved before moving into overarching life design.
When it comes to the early retirement transition, people get fixated on how they will fill the time. But once they’ve discovered what purpose-driven work will replace their full-time employment, their anxious-energy dissipates. And that creates a space to consider what they desire across every area of their lives.
Visually, that looks like moving from the commonly held pre-retirement model of their life:
And shifting into a more holistic perspective:
You certainly don’t have to wait until you retire to start thinking about your life in a more holistic way. You can do that at any stage of your FIRE journey. All it takes is using this model for annual planning, 90-day plans, and weekly planning.
The key is knowing that a meaningful life is not one dimensional. It involves healthy relationships, purpose-driven work, personal growth, and investing in your health.
I’ve greatly enjoyed sharing this 9-part series on Life After FIRE. My goal was to share the process I used to figure out what to do with all of my time once I retired? I hope it has helped you to start answering that question for yourself.
p.s. – if you missed any of previous parts of the series, here are the links: