By Fred Sievert
We all understand and appreciate the need for sound financial planning during the years preceding retirement. Who among us hasn’t gone online to calculate our retirement “nest-egg” needs and then panicked because accumulating that much wealth seemed inconceivable; especially if we started the process at age 55 or later?
While it’s critically important to solicit financial planning advice from professionals and then to demonstrate strong personal discipline in executing the plan, there is another aspect to your retirement plans that are equally important. My own retirement has proven to be a magnificent experience of feeling happier, healthier and younger than I’ve felt in decades. How did I plan for that and how can you plan too?
While being prepared financially for a secure retirement certainly contributes enormously to our happiness, I have found it even more important to attend to all of the other nonfinancial aspects of post-career lifestyle and plans.
Caught up in the rigors of pursuing a career, many of us dream of a time in retirement when we can relax, pursue leisurely activities, travel more often, and hence we believe, enjoy life more fully. I remember when I was climbing the corporate ladder at New York Life and working 14 or more hours per day (with little reprieve on Saturday or Sunday). A half-hour with family was rare but wonderful and even running errands for an hour or two on a Saturday morning was a welcomed escape from the toil and intensity of the job. How wonderful it was to fantasize about the days when I would finally get some well-deserved rest and relief from that hectic pace.
However, like many people, since embarking on the very real retirement voyage, I have discovered that the formula for success and happiness has little to do with how much we relax, rest and enjoy leisurely activities. A happy retirement comes from continuing to live a life of consequence and impact. In fact, if you’re like me, when the time comes, you will quickly stop describing yourself as “retired” and instead talk about how engaged and energized you are in the pursuit of your most important lifelong passions. The adjective “retired” is a real misnomer for me and for thousands like me.
Whether you’re in your 60s, 50s or even 40s, let me offer some advice on how to begin to explore and plan for your nonfinancial activities in your retirement years. The earlier you do this the better since the planning you do now can position you for greater fulfillment later.
Perhaps the easiest way to start the nonfinancial planning process is to ask, and honestly answer the following three questions:
- What has made you happiest and provided the greatest gratification in your pre-retirement years? In short, what are your greatest passions?
- What are your unique gifts and skills that can be best utilized to generate the most satisfaction following your career?
- What can you do now to position yourself for the greatest impact on your world when you decide to scale back or retire from your current vocation?
The answers to questions like these are unique to every individual and will force you to wrestle with elusive concepts like “success,” “satisfaction” and “happiness.” Nonetheless, I think you’ll find it thought-provoking and enjoyable to go through the exercise of contemplation and answering.
Perhaps it will be useful for you to read about my own discoveries as I navigated through this important planning effort. My financial planning began long before retirement but my nonfinancial lifestyle planning began in earnest just three years before my official transition out of my career and into the next phase of my life. Over that three-year period, I benefited from the advice of a financial advisor, a personal coach, and a spiritual coach. Although utilizing such advisors and coaches can be enormously helpful and I would highly recommend it, I don’t see it as an essential element of the process.
Answering the Passion Question
Most of us are happiest when we are pursuing our passions. So step one for me was to clearly identify those activities and pursuits that left me with the greatest sense of accomplishment, self-worth, and therefore, happiness. “What makes me tick?” I asked myself. I considered many possibilities, but the answer became clear when I thought about my participation in my church and other volunteer activities, my service on nonprofit boards and my coaching, teaching and mentoring young executives and employees. What makes me most happy is positively touching and impacting the lives of other human beings. So as I thoughtfully contemplated doing this in my future, I began to see retirement as a new beginning, a period of significance and impact rather than settling into a slower paced life of leisure. Think about those activities that give you the greatest joy and sense of fulfillment and then attempt to articulate your passions in a sentence or two.
Answering the Gifts and Skills Question
It’s almost a certainty that there will be a high correlation between what you do well and what makes you happy. However, expand your thought process by reflecting on all kinds of moments in your life — beyond your work activities — when you have felt truly happy and fulfilled. What made time stand still? What were you doing just before that tremendous sense of accomplishment and wellbeing? When you remember, then ask yourself what you personally contributed to that experience and what value you added in the process.
For me, my ability to impact people’s lives and to add value in interpersonal interactions during my career and in my volunteer activities most often utilized my financial acumen, my storytelling and writing skills as well as my teaching and mentoring abilities; and these abilities were always buttressed by my strong personal faith.
My passion was in positively impacting people’s lives and the gifts and skills I utilized to do so became pretty evident as I went through this thought process. So I realized that I should continue to pursue my passions post-retirement by effectively deploying my financial acumen, my teaching and mentoring skills and my storytelling and writing abilities, while doing so within the context and value system of my faith.
Answering the Preparation Question
Having identified your passions and your unique gifts and skills, you need to consider how you will prepare for the next phase of your life and, in so doing, maximize your effectiveness and your ultimate happiness.
Using my own example, my preparation involved several steps I initiated well before officially retiring — steps that not only set the stage for longer-term impact and fulfillment but also led to future endeavors well beyond my pre-retirement imagination.
Feeling strongly that I needed to enhance my spiritual education and development, I began to research and then apply for a post-graduate degree program in religion. Because I’d completed this work in advance, immediately upon retirement I commenced a program at Yale Divinity School that I found remarkably enjoyable and fulfilling.
Before retirement, I also began to construct a business school course on executive management and leadership in which I felt I could impact students’ lives utilizing my teaching and writing skills. As a part of that process, I wrote 16 real-life case studies derived from my career experiences. Since retirement, I have been teaching this course and others as an adjunct professor at two business schools.
In line with my identified passions and skills, I also researched both the nonprofit and for-profit organizations in which I felt I could add value utilizing my business and financial acumen and I now serve on five nonprofit and two for-profit boards where I have been able to do exactly that.
Most recently I have set up a website, Godrevealed.com, where I have posted stories of my personal encounters with God over the course of my life. The website has attracted nearly 100,000 visitors in less than a year and has proven to be an effective vehicle for expressing my faith and utilizing my storytelling skills.
It’s both exhilarating and rewarding to know that my gifts and skills have found an avenue for such meaningful expression. The peace of mind that has come from following my passions and impacting the lives of other people has literally left me far happier than I have been in many years.
And one final thought: don’t forget to remain physically active and take care of yourself. I believe that the combination of meaningful post-retirement engagement coupled with a physical exercise routine, proper sleep, and good eating habits has contributed to a dramatic improvement in all of my vital signs. One of the truly amazing outcomes in this phase of my life has been a sense of youthfulness many years younger than my chronological age.
If you’ll follow your own passions in a way that effectively deploys your own unique gifts and skills, I’m certain that you too will feel happier, healthier and younger in retirement.
Fred Sievert retired as President of New York Life Insurance Co., a Fortune 100 Company, at the height of his career to attend Yale Divinity School. He is the author of the books: God Revealed: Revisit Your Past to Enrich your Future (Morgan James, 2014) and Grace Revealed: Finding God’s Strength in Any Crisis (Broadstreet Publishing, 2018).