A week ago, my morning email in-basket included a note from my friend, Ron. Are you available for lunch today? Innocuous for most people, not for Ron. Ron is not a man of few words … he is legendary around here for his long voice mails … so, I knew, something was wrong. I rearranged my afternoon plans with Muri and set a time to meet him at the local Chipotle for lunch. Ron is a managing partner of a small engineering company, one even smaller than mine. They had just lost a substantial job that they were counting on, which meant they might have to let people go. But that wasn’t what he wanted to talk about. I know I’m over-reacting, he told me over soft chicken tacos, but I was worrying about having to change jobs. Then it hit me – what if I have to retire? What will I do? So much of my self-worth is tied up in being the provider. Ron didn’t know it (until I told him) that he’d come to a moment that most of us reach when it’s time to stop working. We wonder: How will I stay Busy? How will I feel Useful?
Ron is about the same age that my brother-in-law, Norm, was when he retired in his fifties. Still working at the time, I used to kid that Norm wasn’t really retired … he just turned everyday tasks like shopping into projects complete with schedules and PERT charts. Now, that I’m semi-retired, I understand … I, too, have a Project Book that I use to keep track of progress on my goals. Years of discipline don’t evaporate over night. And being disciplined about the things that keep us Busy makes them feel more Useful. When my business began to decline a few years ago and I contemplated retirement, I wasn’t worried about staying Busy. I had more interests than most anyone I knew: running, reading, music (both playing and listening), art. In my fifties, I’d rediscovered the joys of writing and thought I might write a novel. In my sixties, I started a blog. I had staying Busy taken care of. But I hadn’t considered how to feel Useful.
Feeling Useful seems to drive some of us more than others. For achievers like my friend, Ron, and I, it is the unwelcome guest who sneaks up behind us at our retirement party and whispers in our ears, How will you take care of me? A career provided the easy evidence of usefulness: a paycheck and recognition. When painting and drawing and writing and blogging are hobbies, they are fulfilling but … hello … fulfilling doesn’t feel like Useful. I’m lucky in that periodically, a small job still appears at my door and I get to feel useful the old way. But that is a double-edged sword … it’s like a snort of the good stuff when most of the time, I’m sipping near-beer. But gradually, I’m reinventing what it means to feel Useful. Sometimes, it means service, like delivering Meals on Wheels or taking calls at the 12-Step office or sponsoring other men. Sometimes, it’s being creative … painting or writing and getting the gentle recognition that sometimes shows up in my comments section or as Likes. Over lunch, Ron saw a glimmer of the light. Now, I understand why you blog, he said. Other times, I take a spiritual approach, believing that God has given me a purpose in this world, even if I don’t know what it is at any particular moment. Then, when I begin to figure it out, life shifts again. This week, we won a very interesting job for a brand new customer. Yes, I’m excited but it means another ride on the usefulness merry-go-round.
In our society, retirement is often held up as a golden finish to a life well-lived. Commercials show happy older couples touring the world and salt-and-pepper gray men fly fishing in Montana. It is indeed worthwhile to discover the things you love to do while you have Younger Eyes so they can keep you busy in your later years. But it’s also worth some time to reinvent what it means to be Useful … Useful in a larger sense than making money and getting kudos. It will pay dividends later, I promise.