At my five- and 10-year college reunions, we talked about jobs…apartments…boyfriends/girlfriends…and weddings.

My 15- and 20-year reunions were all about the kids—first the baby pictures and later what colleges they were going to attend.

And now, at my 40-year college reunion this past June, suddenly the topic was retirement—either that they  had recently retired or were planning to retire soon. I know that I’m north of 60—so theoretically retirement age—yet I am in a whole mess of denial that we are all that old. My college buddies are stuck in my memory banks as those 22-year-old party-goers. But, after taking a deep breath and reminding myself that age is just a number, I had two questions for them…

“Are you sure you’re ready?”

“Do you know what you want to do after you retire?”

Why so cynical you ask? Because since the sale of Bottom Line 18 months ago, I have been in a massive series of life transitions (not retired!)…and, let me tell you, if you’re not sure or ready for who you want to be after you’re done with your primary career, life can get really confusing.

For those who have been planning for 40 years to spend their final chapter on the golf course or traveling the world, that’s awesome. The same goes for those who will be taking a more active role in community service or town politics…or working on any other dream they have had. But for those who forgot to actually create the dream, retirement can include a whole lot of tossing and turning in bed.

For assorted reasons, our family had actually discussed selling Bottom Line 20 years ago…but in the end, my father chose not to. Why? He said he didn’t like any of the prospective buyers, but I always thought that as the founder and CEO of Bottom Line, he had power, influence, connections and purpose. But if he became a guy who sold a company for a lot of money, he would just be another rich guy who used to be somebody.

For many of us, our identities have been closely (perhaps even fully?) tied to our careers. When suddenly you’re not in that role anymore, the question is, Who am I?

As much as people look forward to retirement, it’s actually ranked 10th out of 43 of life’s most stressful events by the American Institute of Stress. And, in fact, in their US Health and Retirement study, researchers at Harvard School of Public Health found that those who had retired were 40% more likely to have had a heart attack or stroke than those who were still working. Those in their first year after retirement were at especially high risk for cardiac events. Something must happen during that first year…hmmmm.

Of course, there are many factors that impact health after retirement, and I doubt that anyone has properly cross-tabbed them all. But I would argue that the emotional and psychological aspects are highly connected to the health issues that someone develops just when he/she is supposed to be looking forward to decades of R&R.

To have a “successful” final phase of life, experts recommend staying socially and physically active—play golf or bridge…be in a book club…do sudoku. But I think they’re neglecting the psychological aspect—the importance of being emotionally prepared to be a different person. Losing interactions with your network leaves a gap in your daily schedule (duh!) but also in feeling connected to humanity. When you are no longer being asked for advice, you may feel devalued. It may be nice to get up late and no longer sit in lengthy meetings—and sudoku may exercise your brain, but it isn’t very interesting to talk about at the dinner table.

While I knew what I wanted to do after the sale of the company, life threw me and my husband a number of curveballs that caused us to juggle our plans. Thankfully, they’ve all been good changes and we have always lived opportunistically, so we shifted things as we needed to. But these shifts and schedule changes stalled my personal progress and put me in a funny limbo for well over a year. Here are the lessons I’ve learned along the way…   

Create a vision. First and foremost, create a vision of how you want to spend your time. Do you want to continue to be a contributor to some industry, group or organization? Or are you certain that you’re ready for a 24/7 vacation? Or perhaps some kind of hybrid? Do you have a passion that you have always wanted to pursue but financial and other obligations got in the way? Now’s the time to rekindle that passion.

Ask yourself, What kind of identity do I need? Is it okay by you to just be one of the guys enjoying assorted social activities, be it book clubs, poker games, lunch outings and pickle ball tournaments? Or do you need a title? If you’ve spent 40 or more years with status in an office, having a leadership role somewhere may be important. It could be as a volunteer, but it still gives you an answer of substance when someone asks what you do.

Confirm your money requirements. Do you need to keep earning money…or are you fortunate enough to be able to volunteer your time? If you do need money, do you want to continue in an influential role in your industry or get a job that lets you leave work behind at 5:00? I have a friend who moved to an entirely new area of the country. She got a job with an ad-specialty company that makes personalized promotional items and logo-wear for many companies and service organizations in the area. Within months, she knew everyone in town—a nice side benefit to making some money.

Transition early. If you want to be involved with a new group, start the transition early. Earmark organizations of interest, and get involved before you retire. That way, you are not left feeling lost on that first Monday morning when the alarm doesn’t go off…and you will have already formed a new identity and network before you leave your old one behind.

Semi-retire. You also can ease into the next phase with semi-retirement, where you reduce your time in the office. This allows you to build up your new world while staying attached to the old one…and retaining that professional identity.  You could even remain “semi-retired” for many years.

I did a series of wonderful video interviews with retirement coach Nancy Collamer several years ago, including a discussion on semi-retirement. These go into more specifics for those who want what she calls a “second-act” career.

Don’t be afraid to change your mind. What if walking the dog and going to the gym each day is not as fulfilling as you’d hoped? There’s nothing that says that you can’t return to work.

I have now spent a year-and-a-half “in transition”…closing the business, moving and downsizing assorted family members, including myself. I’ve never considered myself retired, but simply in this transition phase and addressing the needs of my family and business.

For me, the need to stay active and engaged is so deep that I was surprised at how deeply hurt I was when a dear friend was frustrated that I wasn’t available to help her with something on her schedule. I offered an alternate date, and she literally challenged me with, “Why can’t you do it on [my date]? You’re retired anyway.” #@!&!!!  Her accusation of my being retired and 100% available made me feel disrespected and reinforced my need for an identity in the outside world.

For many, being retired and purely in vacation mode—enjoying the fruits of many years of hard labor—is a trophy to be treasured. But for others, like me, it’s simply not the case. You have the ability to craft this stage to your desires. Know who you are and what your needs are before you take the plunge.

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