The word “retirement” is coming up more frequently in conversations with friends. Given our stage in life it makes sense, but I’m certain that if I weren’t part of these conversations, it would not be on my mind. It feels neither imminent nor desirable. Mainly because, with a newly empty nest, I feel in many ways like I’m just getting started.
I looked up some dictionary definitions of retirement that left me less than inspired. (Editorial comments are mine.)
- To withdraw, go away, or apart, to a place of privacy, shelter, seclusion (Uh . . . you mean back to 2020?)
- To go to bed (Okay, if it’s time to sleep but . . . .)
- To withdraw from office, business, or active life (Withdraw from active life? In favor of what . . . passive life?)
- To fall back or retreat in an orderly fashion (It might be orderly, but it’s still falling back.)
- To withdraw or remove oneself (Again, 2020 PTSD.)
Sarcasm aside, I do know that, for many people, retirement means no longer having to grind away at a thankless job where they’ve put up with people they don’t like, worked for bosses who were meh, and sacrificed the better part of their days in a car, at a desk, and/or in a factory. Many traditional ways of working have driven many people to want out. The Great Resignation is in full swing. It certainly makes sense if the job is soul-killing, but even true if it just feels like a pair of shoes that sort of fit but gives you blisters. And if the funds or pension or portfolio are there to make the exit, heck, why not?
But what if the funds/pension/portfolio aren’t there yet? Or what if you’re simply not ready to withdraw from active life/go to bed/remove yourself? If you’re in this situation and love your work, you’re golden. If you’re in this situation and don’t love your work, what to do?
A lightbulb moment I had a couple of years ago was when I separated the word “work” from the word “toil.” Little elaboration is needed to see the vast difference between the two.
Toil: “To engage in hard and continuous work; labor arduously; to move or travel with difficulty, weariness, or pain.”
Work: “Exertion or effort directed to produce or accomplish something; productive or operative activity. To be employed, especially as a means of earning one’s livelihood.”
What a difference there is between those two words. The terms that come with the word work are neutral, factual, even positive: effort, accomplish, activity. Whereas toil is hard and continuous, arduous, difficult, wearying, or painful.
So if you’re not inclined, or unable, to enter the retirement conversation right now, which would you rather spend your time doing: Working or toiling?
In The Untethered Soul at Work, Michael Singer tells us that “work is a place we go to serve; to contribute to the unfolding of the universe.” At its simplest, work is what is right in front of us. What if we could see work not as a series of tests that we try not to fail, or that we grit our teeth to endure, but as an ongoing opportunity to express creativity, clarity, and competence? Because if we see work only as a series of tests that we work to not fail, we’ll constantly be triggered by fear—because failure means anything on the continuum of rejection to starvation.
One way to move from a view of toil to a view of work is to see it all as a puzzle that needs to be solved. In other words, lighten it up. Singer adds that our job is to harmonize with the moment in front of us, and that the only thing causing stress is our resistance—not dancing with the energy that is coming at us. The task or need is in itself neutral: The proposal needs to be written. The meeting needs to be facilitated. The budget needs to be created. The thoughts we have about the tasks are often not neutral: Proposals are a waste of time. My life is a string of meetings. We’re always pinched for cash. Those thoughts are the difference between seeing work as an opportunity for creativity or contribution, or as another task to endure until the 401k matures.
If you find yourself framing your work more as toil, try the following:
For the next week, every time you refer to your work, either out loud or in your head, swap the word “work” for the word “play.” Resist the urge to dismiss this as ridiculous. Your martyr self needs a time-out. See what happens when your work thoughts are reframed as play thoughts, along the lines of, “Bye honey, I’m off to play,” or, “I played a solid 10-hour day today,” or, “I’m off to bed, I have a big play day tomorrow.”
Remember the “why”
Who is the ultimate beneficiary of your work? Students? Citizens? Cancer patients? People who wear shoes? Drive cars? Use software? Remember the “why” and reframe your work as an act of service rather than a means to an end. “What’s in it for me” thinking is the short bus ride to work hell, while “What’s in it for them” thinking opens the doors of generosity, curiosity, creativity, and purpose.
It sounds simplistic. But looking back at the definitions of toil, it’s pretty hard to labor arduously or move with difficulty, weariness or pain if you’re relaxing. Relax into the task at hand. In this singular moment, you don’t have to do the whole list or save the whole world. You just have to do what’s on your plate in this moment. And when that’s done, do the next thing on your plate. And relax into each task as you do it without judgment or resistance.
So where are you? Heading toward retirement with a skip in your heels? Toiling and grinding and looking for a way out? Or working and embracing what is coming your way?
Kristin Brownstone is a certified professional coach.