Why Even Thinking About Retirement Can Be a Bad Idea

We often dream about all the things we'll do once we retire. What we don't think about is how much we'll hate it.

My friend Dave was bubbling with enthusiasm. His company had just been acquired, and he had hit the jack-pot. After years of hard work, he was worth many millions of dollars. To make things even better, he didn't have to stick around through the transition. At only 48, he now had the time, resources, and energy to do whatever he wanted. Dave's face lit up as he described his new future: trips to exotic places, golfing whenever and wherever he liked, unlimited time to enjoy his wife and family. Life was going to be wonderful.

Six months later, Dave was home alone and miserable. The kids were away at college. After the remodeling of their home, his wife had become bored. She poured herself into a new job and seemed to be gone a good deal of the time.

One day, a deliveryman came over to drop off a package. Dave's house was his last stop for the day, so Dave asked him in. Over a cup of coffee, the two engaged in what became a fascinating discussion. The courier surprised Dave with his keen insight into current global problems and his grasp of complex economic issues.

"What a neat conversation," Dave later thought. "In fact, that conversation was so much fun, it was the highlight of my week!"

It was a revelation. When my friend looked in the mirror that afternoon, he saw the face of a guy who had been watching reruns of Everybody Loves Raymond on TV. For fun, he was playing mediocre golf and listening to old men at the country club repeat the same old war stories about what they used to do. He asked himself, "Did I just say the highlight of my week was bullshitting with the delivery guy about the world's problems?"

Within two weeks, Dave had a new job. He realized that retirement, or even thinking and planning for retirement, isn't all that it may seem to be.

I have had the privilege of getting to know many of the top thinkers in my field. They could all retire if they wanted to. But most do not. People like Peter Drucker, former Girl Scouts leader Frances Hesselbein, and Warren Bennis are amazing. They just keep on making great contributions. They aren't working for money, prestige, or status. They are working because they love what they do, and they are making a positive difference in the world. Together with my friend Dave, they have taught me a great lesson: Our traditional notion of retirement is greatly overrated.

I was lucky enough to be with one of the most respected consultants in organizational change, Richard Beckhard, a couple of days before he died. Dick was a great coach and mentor, as well as an inspiration for many people in our field. When I last visited him, Dick knew that his life was almost over. His doctor respected him enough to let him know that he was not going to recover, and he needed to say his last farewells.

As I watched Dick answer a series of phone calls, I found him not only saying good-bye. He was continuing to help other people. I was amazed at the excitement and enthusiasm he was able to convey. He was working with people in the same caring and effective way he always had.

My first thought was, "Dick, why don't you just let it go and take care of yourself? You've done enough."

Fortunately, I kept my mouth shut. Dick was still smiling, still able to laugh, still filled with passion. He knew that he wasn't going to be around to collect the consulting fees for his final assignments. It didn't really matter. He was still doing a great job—even from his deathbed. In that instant, I made a decision. I decided that I wanted to be like Dick Beckhard when I grew up.

How many times have we all thought about how nice it would be to have enough money so that we would never have to work again? We think about all that we won't have to do: We won't have to get up early. We won't have to go to work. We won't have to meet deadlines. We won't have to be stressed. Unfortunately, it is hard to find much fulfillment in what we won't do. We can only find fulfillment and meaning in what we will do.

Dave discovered that quickly enough. Dick taught me that as well. You may well have too much intellectual curiosity and too much enthusiasm for life ever to retire. When and if that day comes, you might not be doing what you're doing now, but you will want to be doing something that matters.

Forget about retirement. Forget about planning for it. Just find something that you love to do.

Maybe you can be just like Dick Beckhard when you grow up.

Marshall Goldsmith (marshall@A4SL.com) is corporate America's preeminent executive coach and founding director of the Alliance for Strategic Leadership.

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