By JOHN F. WASIK
After a career of working, scrimping and saving, many retirees are well prepared financially to stop earning a living. But how do you find meaning, identity and purpose in the remaining years of your life?
John and Kathryn Gee, both 57, recently engaged in this existential query. They have worked hard at well-paying technology-related jobs, invested diligently and are planning to retire soon. Having relocated to San Antonio from Phoenix in 2010, they have already reached a sweet spot where they have a bountiful nest egg. Yet they worry that something is missing.
“We thought we’d be retired and would be fat, dumb and happy at 55,” Mr. Gee said. “We only talked about money. Then we started asking some simple questions.”
Embracing the guiding principles of life planning laid out by a financial planner, George Kinder, the Gees asked themselves what they would do if money wasn’t an issue and they only had one day to a few years left to live. The answers, which they are still contemplating, gave them a renewed focus on what was most important to them.
“What is it that can make me a better person?” Ms. Gee asked herself after a reexamination of their core values. “How can we give back? Family became more important.”
Mr. Kinder, who has been espousing and refining life-planning programs with his clients and in seminars for several decades, calls for a process that involves self, family and community.
“Who do I want to be?” is a question that Mr. Kinder says his clients should ask. “What have I missed? Who did I not get to be? What an incredible opportunity to have all of these things in front of you.”
As with financial preparation, life planning evolves in stages. Mr. Kinder says he walks clients through exploration of positive outcomes and goal setting “within a human setting of comfort and support.”
If the process unfolds in a positive way, Mr. Kinder says, the ideal state is one of the Hawaiian word “aloha.” The term does not simply mean hello or goodbye, he says, but in the truest sense stands for “the process of passing a blessing from one person to another.”
Mitch Anthony, author of “The New Retirementality” (Wiley, 2008), says your self-evaluation should start with the question, “What am I wired for?” which involves taking an “inventory of who you are.”
Mr. Anthony’s principles are geared around one’s aptitudes and having active pursuits that involve the mind, body and spirit.
Translating that into concrete actions can be challenging. Retired professionals may be able to continue to do what they were doing, but now as part-timers or consultants. Others may be able to apply their analytic, management or organizational skills in low-stress, time-flexible settings. Still others may want to strike out in entirely new directions.
“It’s never an easy answer,” Mr. Anthony says of self-discernment in retirement. “You need to take stock of things that resound with you — that stir you up.”
Through Mr. Anthony’s process of discovering engagement, it is possible to isolate the activities that you are already doing — or could be doing — that make you feel most alive, creative, happy and connected to others.
Finding a balance between the myriad components of our lives certainly takes some adjustment.
Mary Zimmerman, a financial and life planner in the Phoenix area who has worked with the Gees, said one of the most important goals she discussed with them was to “find your humanity and sanity.”
“There’s often so much anxiety in retirement,” Ms. Zimmerman says. “How do we allow ourselves to be at ease? How can we be comfortable?” These questions lead into an exploration of what makes us tick and how we can find our best selves.
By no means is this a seamless transition for most. The rough patches may come early and often. It’s hard to break the routine and inertia of a career. You may have to become a “lite” version of your career-focused self to bridge the gap.
Like many, Ms. Gee says that her self-esteem and identification were intimately linked to her work, a common problem with retirees seeking a new role. Some professionals find it unnervingly difficult not to be a banker, doctor, lawyer or engineer anymore.
“The myth of retirement is that you have to leave that all behind,” Mr. Anthony said. You don’t. Once you shatter the conventions of a do-nothing retirement, Mr. Anthony says, it’s like “breaking through the gravity barrier. You’re on the path to contentment.”
Admittedly, seeking what Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor who was a renowned neurologist and psychiatrist, called the “will to meaning” is one of the most challenging parts not just of retirement planning but of living your life to the fullest. You don’t have to do it alone, though. You can find a coach, mentor or life planner.
Consider a certified life coach, who, like a planner, works one-on-one to help you walk through a life plan Mr. Kinder’s organization, Kinder Institute, also has a search engine to find life planners throughout the world.
Rates for this service vary from as little as $200 to as much as $10,000 a month for high-end executive coaches. Some retirees may have a clear idea of how they want to define their lives while others may take months to discern a path.
Certified financial planners may also provide this assistance in the course of comprehensive hourly or flat-fee financial planning.
The universe of financial planners who have had specific life planning or life coaching training, though, is small. To date, about 2,000 planners have taken the Kinder Institute’s training and 350 have qualified for the registered life planner designation. That’s out of an industry of more than 74,000 professionals holding the certified financial planning certificate.
Even if you find the process emotionally nettlesome — most do — you can figure out life goals on your own and create your route for finding purpose and meaning. One way to start is by asking if there’s a need for your service within your family or community.
You may spend time with relatives who need you in a caregiving or educational role. Another approach is to cherry-pick some community activities that you feel most comfortable with and that provide social engagement as well. Others seek out social, environmental or political causes or a nonprofit activity that revolves around doing good, not just doing well.
Sometimes the quest for inner meaning may be right in front of you. For Mr. Gee, it was family that called to him. He wanted to help a niece and spend time with his mother, who is 86, infirm and living alone in his native England. She could not relocate to the United States.
Let’s be honest: Those pursuing the life-planning process tend to be financially secure already.
You can’t be nimble with life decisions if you are constantly worried that market volatility will blister your investments. That’s why it’s important to thoroughly vet your portfolio, estate plan and cash needs.
A certain level of comfort is almost a keystone for most people before embarking on an existential exploration.
Once you cross that barrier, though, almost anything is possible. “It’s not about being busy,” Mr. Anthony said. “It’s about being engaged.”