Immediately after retirement, there’s a beautiful honeymoon phase where you get to relax, rejuvenate, and tend to lots of deferred maintenance. We helicoptered up Mount Everest, hiked to the Tiger’s Nest, toured Tibet, and bounced around Bangkok in rainbow river taxis.
We also slept (a lot) without setting an alarm clock, downsized from a big house in the suburbs to a small condo in the city, and I started playing golf.
The honeymoon is definitely a delicious stage of retirement. And we did our best to savor every minute of it!
All Honeymoons Come To An End
But just like marriage, all honeymoons come to an end. For some people, the honeymoon phase of retirement lasts a few months. While for others it can stretch out to a few years. But at some point, the excitement of freedom wears off and there’s a desire to settle into whatever will become your “new normal”.
In an ideal world, you’ll follow the advice of experts and do plenty of non-financial pre-retirement planning while working towards financial independence and retiring early (aka FIRE). So that when the honeymoon comes to an end, you’ll be ready to transition into whatever it is you’ve planned next.
But in reality, many people don’t listen to expert advice, don’t think about what will happen after they retire, imagine everything will be awesome, or assume they can figure it all out once they have time (i.e., after they retire).
My husband was in the best-practice category. He started planning and preparing for his post-FIRE life several years before retiring. He took classes, expanded his networks, and cultivated new friends and mentors. Because his identity shift was well underway pre-FIRE, his transition was relatively seamless.
I however, was in the figure-it-out-when-I-get-there group. I was so focused on growing my business that I couldn’t begin to imagine what would happen when I retired. As crazy as it sounds, we spent 18 years working towards FIRE, but it was only after the honeymoon ended that I started asking myself: now what?
Don’t Get Stuck In “Now What?”
Thankfully, I’ve had the “now what?” feeling before so it felt familiar. I can recall several moments in my life where I worked for years towards a big goal, experienced temporary euphoria when reaching it, and then quickly descended into confusion about how to transition into the next stage. In fact, I have a lifelong pattern of focusing so intensely on reaching a goal that I don’t think about what comes next. It happened when I got a PhD, when I became a professor, when I won tenure, and when my business became successful.
For me, there are three factors that make these transitional moments particularly awkward:
- it’s unclear how to answer the “what now?” question
- it’s also painfully clear that what worked in a previous stage of life is not going to produce success in the new stage, and
- there is abundant advice about what you should do, but nobody explains how to do it.
When the honeymoon ended, I didn’t want to get stuck in the “what now? moment, but the skills, habits and ways of being that made me successful as a start-up founder were not helping me transition into retirement. It was quite the opposite: they were hindering that movement. To get unstuck, I wanted clarity on the challenges ahead, a community of support, and a clear process to transition into my next chapter of life.
The Early Retirement Challenge
Without question, the greatest challenge of early retirement is managing freedom.
That may sound odd! But consider this: all the hours that were once devoted to mentally preparing for work, grooming for work, commuting to (and from) work, actually working, worrying about work, and answering emails after work are suddenly available for anything. Work is a powerful organizing structure for many people’s lives. But when you retire, that structure disappears. Along with it go the relationships that are tied to the workplace, your work-related identity, and whatever sense of self-worth that you have that is derived from your job, title, and/or organization.
Once I retired, I became 100% responsible for:
- creating a structure for my daily life,
- sustaining existing relationships and developing new ones,
- finding opportunities to grow intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually
- clarifying my purpose and translating it into meaningful projects
- exploring what “leisure” is and how to engage in it without guilt or shame
- rebuilding my identity
- developing a credible answer to the question: what do you do?
- cultivating community so I feel a sense of belonging
- unplugging from the achievement machine and redefining “success”
To state the obvious, none of this intense and self-reflective labor was going to just happen. I needed a step-by-step transition process and some accountability mechanism to make sure I did the work. Without a process in place, it’s too easy to fall into the retirement trap: doing nothing, becoming miserable, and self-isolating.
Traditional Retirement vs. FIRE Transition
Once my honeymoon was over, I went out in search of a supportive community. I looked for retirement groups, programs, workshops, retreats and courses. In all fairness, there are many excellent options for traditional-age retirees. But their transition processes mainly focused on: 1) financial management and 2) physical aging and health concerns.
While these are important and common concerns, I found them to be less applicable to those of us who have reached retirement via FIRE. If you’ve been through that process, you’ve already thought deeply about your personal finances for a long time. And if you’re retiring 20’s, 30’s or 40’s, you’re unlikely to have the same health concerns as those over 65. While I explored some traditional retirement groups, for me they were a swing and a miss!
This led me to focus on FIRE-specific resources. I found an abundance of books, blogs and podcasts on financial strategies that lead to FIRE, but there is very little written about how to transition when you get there. While an imperfect illustration, the Rockstar Finance Directory lists 366 active blogs on “early retirement”, but only 36 are written by people who describe themselves as already retired.
I’m a big fan of blogs written by those who have retired early and document their post-FIRE adventures. While I find them deeply inspiring, I do not experience them as clarifying. In other words, I enjoy reading about their lives, but I don’t know what process they used to transition into that life. And as much as I appreciate their occasional advice, it tends to be of the generic variety: “shift your identity”, “find your purpose”, or “restructure your life”. These sound like important things to do, but how exactly does one go about doing them?
A FIRE-Specific Transition Process
While it was frustrating to not find what I was seeking, I reminded myself that I’ve designed intentional processes for other transitions. My company’s bread and butter was helping new professors transition from graduate student to professor. So I decided to design my own process to “shift my identity”, “find my purpose”, and “restructure my life”.
Over the next nine weeks, I’ll share that step-by-step process here on the blog just in case there’s anyone else out there looking for a process and community.
If you’re thinking about early retirement, soon-to-be FIRE’d, recently retired, starting a non-work based chapter of your life, or just curious about intentional life design, feel free to follow along. I’ll post every Thursday and if you want to receive notification of new posts, feel free to sign up for our mailing list.
Each week, I’ll not only describe the steps but suggest a few concrete activities, exercises and experiments that are designed to inspire self-exploration. They won’t be laborious or time consuming, but doing them little-by-little will create a cumulative shift in your life.
This week, I challenge you to:
- Purchase a journal or notebook that you can dedicate exclusively to this process. I’m going to encourage you to get off your computer and write (by hand) each week. It stimulates a different part of your brain and diminishes the possibility of distraction.
- If you’re already retired and feeling stuck, start noticing and writing down: what’s working?, what’s not working?, and/or what’s missing in your life right now? Don’t think about it in your head, write it down.
- Make a list of 25 things you love to do. Get as specific as you can.
I’m excited to share this transition process for two simple reasons: 1) it was incredibly helpful in moving me through the end-of-honeymoon “now what?” moment and 2) I couldn’t find what I needed when I needed it.
I hope this will help those of you who have the extraordinary privilege of grappling with time freedom.
p.s. If you want read more of the series use the links below: