Vic had talked about it for years. Decades, really. When, at last, he reached retirement, he would enjoy life. The thrashing waves of his busy career would become still. He and his wife would transition into the season of tranquility they had worked so hard to earn. Now, six months into retirement, Vic was heading back to work. This was the ultimate sucker punch. I could see the disappointment on his face.
Vic didn’t need the money. What he needed was something to give him a purpose. For so long, he’d prepared to retire from the demands of his job, but he didn’t give much thought to what he was retiring to. He still had his health. He had nothing but time and nothing to do. Six months of freedom only convinced him to go back to the very thing he had worked so hard to escape.
I’ve seen too many people reach retirement only to discover that they don’t know how to rest. They spend so much of their lives denying themselves rest and relaxation, not taking vacations, and pouring their lives into their work. They say to themselves that if they just keep their head down and work hard to that retirement date, then they will get their just rewards of all that free time. However, free time is only rewarding if you know what to do with it. If there is nothing to retire to, you end up with boredom and atrophy. So, how is this possible?
It starts with years neglecting relationships. I have often said that the meaning of life is found in relationships. But if we neglect the relationships that matter, retirement can be a very lonely experience. Years of skipped vacations leave family relationships strained. Friendships outside of work never take root if we don’t prioritize them. If the only semblance of community exists back at the office, then the retiree longs for those relationships and thinks about going back to work.
Secondly, we don’t take time to master things that bring us life. Studies have shown that it takes ten thousand hours of practice to master a skill. This is a big reason why people get stuck in that early stage of retirement and end up returning to work. It’s what they are good at. It’s what they’ve spent all of their time practicing. If we don’t take time to discover what we enjoy outside of work in our working years, we don’t put in the time to master it. I have heard many people say that when they retire, they will pick up a hobby or a cause to invest in because then they will have the time. In reality, they end up listless and frustrated because they don’t know what to do, and everything they try is so difficult to learn. They were so much better at their job. They think maybe they should just go back.
The truth is, there’s only one way to find out what refreshes us and what wears us out: Trial and error. Many of us don’t rest because we know how bad we are at it. If our vacations and our days off have always felt less than restorative, it makes sense that we avoid them. We don’t seem to get much out of them, and we just return to a pile of work. Therefore, we don’t take the time to try different things and eventually stumble upon what actually works.
Through trial and error, we can all find what replenishes us. One thing that I have found a lot of delight in is playing guitar. I’ve spent the last five years learning to play guitar with my son. I put in a little bit of time every day to disengage from work and engage in this instrument I love. As a result, I not only find rest, but I have a hobby that I enjoy in solitude, as well as with my son. Investing in this year after year is its own kind of saving for retirement.
I didn’t stop Vic from going back to work. He was fading, listless, and he was right: Sitting around doing nothing can drain the life out of anyone. While he was back at his job, I encouraged Vic to start discovering new things to enjoy. He tried all sorts of things until at last, he landed on making dollhouses for his grand daughters. Not a dollhouse. Dollhouses. He would show me the painstaking detail he put into each room. When I picture Vic unveiling his latest doll mansion to his granddaughters, I can only think of one word: Delight. He added to that a volunteer role at a local food bank, and eventually had had so much to do that he had to retire. Again. He had found what he was retiring to—and it was deeply rewarding.
What about you? Do you feel that resistance, that assumption that you have more important things to do than think about rest? Don’t trust that voice. Take the time to learn what makes you come alive. Experiment. As we approach vacation season, let’s be clear that rest matters and none of us—not even you—can afford to neglect it.
It’s funny how close the word reset is to the word rest. Next time, we’ll look at how rest reorders our priorities. Until then, practice some rest. If anyone asks, call it retirement planning.
James Lenhoff is the president of Wealthquest – a Cincinnati based financial planning and wealth management firm that offers a full range of financial services under one roof, for one simple fee.