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A Happy Retirement: A High Bar for High Achievers

I had lost my ambition and with it my identity. Without CEO status, who was I? If I was not leading a company, what was my purpose? How would I find contentment without that all-encompassing fixation on achievement?”

The first morning of my retirement, I woke up without an alarm, sipped my coffee, read the newspaper, and panicked: Now what? 

In a feeble attempt to create structure, I converted my middle son’s bedroom into a home office and spent the following days browsing the Internet for new business ideas. One overcast afternoon, in the midst of my mania, the Wi-Fi crashed. I unplugged the router, waited a few minutes, and plugged it back in. Nothing. Alarmed, I thought, without an information technology (IT) department or assistant how will I manage? And even worse—manage what?

During those first few months, I launched dozens of new businesses—in my head. I registered the name of my idea du jour, fantasized the rollout, and mulled over logistics and other details. 

The idea of bringing a new venture to market gave me a rush; contemplating the actual implementation and execution killed the buzz.  

I finally conceded that my drive had waned, and my tolerance for risk had tanked. I had lost my ambition and with it my identity. Without CEO status, who was I? If I was not leading a company, what was my purpose? How would I find contentment without that all-encompassing fixation on achievement?  

Eventually, I learned that I did not need to replace my old career with a new one. Rather, I had to expand the other areas of my life so that they overflowed into the space that was once dominated by work. In doing so, I unearthed a new, different kind of happy.

If one is a newly retired overachiever, my approach, I believe, can work for him. The first step is to look at one’s past.

Looking Back to Go Forward

Like most high achievers, I reveled in the challenge, frenzy, and financial payoffs of my career. I was addicted to the prestige and status; I thrived on the accolades and validation. 

To move on, I had to see that I was searching for new ways to fill old voids. As an overweight child growing up in image-conscious Miami, Florida, I had sought to win my parents’ approval by using my brains rather than beauty. I could never become a cheerleader or Homecoming Queen, so instead I became a child entrepreneur and later climbed to the top ranks of business. 

Now, in retirement, I was still trying to substantiate my worth. The key was understanding that my value was no longer predicated on achievement. I had done enough. I was good enough. There was nothing more to prove.

What motivated a person in his career? Was it more than money? Was he trying to fulfill other needs? It may be time to reassess and release old messages and motivations.

Expanding the Other Areas of Life

During my career, I was hyper-focused on business goals such as growth and profitability. It was time to remove the blinders and take in all that I had overlooked. 

I mentally divided my life into seven sections: career, relationships, learning, community, spirituality, leisure, and health. The career section had taken up the most sizable chunk of my days. Now, it was time to expand and enrich the other components. 

As such, I encourage others to look at other areas of their lives, beginning with relationships. A recent retiree now has the opportunity to deepen connections with friends and family. He no longer has to rush through business lunches and can now savor real conversations. He can visit an adult child at work; reach out to acquaintances that he finds interesting and invite them over for dinner; roam the aisles of a craft fair with his partner; reconnect with a childhood friend. 

Learning is an area ripe for exploration. Has one always wanted to learn French or spend a month in Paris? Perhaps one is intrigued by opera and wants to take a class to learn more about it or see a performance at the Metropolitan Opera. Perhaps one has always wanted to read the classics, so join a group of like-minded bibliophiles. This is one’s time to peruse and pursue what sparks one’s interest.

A recent retiree can contribute to his community. In the past, he might have donated to various causes. How about adding hands-on involvement? Explore opportunities to join a board, build houses for the homeless, or tutor a young student. Visit a variety of organizations to ascertain where one can add value and find satisfaction.

Get in touch with one’s spirituality. Become involved with a church or synagogue. Visit holy sites and lands, go on walks in the woods, or meditate. Whether one believes in a higher being or the power of nature, there are innumerable ways to cultivate a sense of awe and wonder. 

For high achievers, the pursuit of leisure is often off limits. While we were immersed in the bellies of our careers and tending to families, there was little space for “unproductive” activities or hobbies. Now, it is time to dream about, identify, and pursue all that one missed or put off. From paddle boarding to paddleball, there are many choices. One might take up gardening, cooking, or coin collecting. One can spend an afternoon reading or watching a movie, which were once considered forbidden daytime activities.

At this stage of our lives, health is a top priority. Now is the time to explore healthier recipes and food choices. Try Pilates or yoga, join a gym, watch a fitness video, or hire a personal trainer. Lack of time is no longer an excuse for lack of activity. 

For those of us driven by ambition, who had viewed productivity as a sacred value, the void after retirement may be deep. However, if one can capture the energy that propelled him to the top and redirect it laterally to his relationships, learning, community, spirituality, leisure, and health, anyone can discover a new, different kind of happy—one that is based on who one is and not what one does.

Laura Black is a retired attorney and award-winning businesswoman turned author and speaker. Her latest book, the memoir Climbing Down the Ladder: A Journey to a Different Kind of Happy, was released with Cazco Press in January. 

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