How to take the leap out of retirement limbo

Joshua Tree Old Climber

What lies in the unknown beyond your full-time career? How will you get there?  Do these questions keep you up at night?

When we retire, we close the door on our old life and head towards the new. But we haven’t arrived there yet. This gap between the life we know and the one we haven’t met is scary.  It’s the gap between who we are now and who we we are becoming.  While it is tempting to linger in the limbo between letting go of our current work identity and grabbing hold of the new, we must make that leap.  If we can’t dig down deep to redefine ourselves, we end up stagnant, rigid, dependent, and unhappy.  It’s death by a thousand missed opportunities.

I almost died on that damn rock.

I was raised near Joshua Tree National Park, and when I was back there recently, childhood experiences just bubbled up. Thinking of this blog post, I remembered a time that I was truly, terrifyingly stuck.

Joshua Tree Boulder

I can remember the moment so clearly, my arms stretched out, chest pressed hard against a wall of granite, my body half-way up an enormous boulder. I could feel the sun beating down on my head, and hear the blood rushing in my ears. I was terrified.

It was 1965. I was ten, and I had no idea what my next move would be.

How did I end up here?  I had been following the line of the rock, inching higher and higher, when the line suddenly stopped.

I looked down. My parents were far below, sitting at the concrete picnic table by the ice chest, oblivious to the fact that I was about to die.

I pushed my Keds deeper into the crack in the rock and stretched out my fingers, looking for a hand or toe hold to ease me out of my predicament. I struggled not to panic. My hands were so tired. I knew that the sun would set soon, and then the coyotes would come. They would eat me. I was stuck and I would die a terrible death, on that rock, or in a desperate fall to the ground below. I gasped, trying to hold down my panic.  I couldn’t think; I couldn’t see; I couldn’t breathe.

By the time our full-time career comes to an end, we have climbed many a boulder. Over the years we’ve set our sights higher and higher, picking up a skill here, a title there. And then, just when we’ve reached our peak, our career path stops.  It just ends.

The common myth is that our ambition stops with our last paycheck. The myth is that we should be happy to let go of our work burden and jump off that big ‘ol career rock with glee.

The question is, jump to what? Certain death?  That’s what retirement can feel like.  It can feel like the death of relevance, of influence, of power. So it’s perfectly natural not to welcome it with open arms, and in fact, to cling on as tight as we possibly can.

Joshua Tree Rock

I leaned my head against the rock and closed my eyes, willing myself not to panic. “If I got myself up here,” I told myself. “There must be a way to get myself down.”

I breathed. I opened my eyes. I saw the sun moving towards the western horizon. I saw how beautiful this place was. I looked at the rock again. I could see that if I moved my left foot down the ledge a couple inches, there was a handhold I could grab onto above.  The ledge widened a just bit from there on down. I thought I could make it. 

But first I would have to let go.

The fact is, our career doesn’t end when we leave full-time employment. Our new career is waiting for us, and it is called “unRetirement.” It’s a career that comes with its own job description, work schedule, and bonuses.  It’s a career that we define for ourselves.  We move from defining ourselves as “What I am” to “Who I am.”

If we’ve defined ourselves as an expert rock climber, leading expeditions up Half Dome, it can be difficult to imagine who we are without our job. But it’s essential work.

We have to trust in the next step, and let go.

But I didn’t die.

I let go. For a moment I teetered, but by sticking my butt out and frantically clawing at the rough granite I managed to grab that hand hold.  I slowly inched my way down the rock, step-by-step. And then I high-tailed it over to that picnic table.

You can make this transition. You can discover the journey that you are meant to take, the adventures you long to have. I’ve done it. 10,000 baby boomers a day are doing it. Nowadays people don’t scramble alone up 100 -boulders in nothing but a pair of tennis shoes.  We acquire new skills, make a plan, map a route, and get our team together. And then go. Go climb that rock.

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