You are now just barely who you said you were! I know that is a provocative way to get your attention, but sit back and let me tell you a story that I hope will substantiate that admittedly provocative punch line.
The Corporate Biography
Let me start with this: Biographies of people still in the full-time workforce are invariably organized in a certain, standard way. Just go to any corporate website, double click on the “Our Team” icon in the “Menu” bar, and you will see. First, they list the person’s name, academic degrees, and certificate credentials. Then they list in reverse chronological order the person’s work history – names of companies, positions held, brief descriptions of their corporate responsibilities, and glowing references to their unique accomplishments in those positions. Go ahead, check it out, double click on “Our Team” or the “Meet Our Staff” icon in upper right-hand corner on any corporate website, and you will see what I am saying here.
Interestingly enough, though, it is only at the end of the biography, almost as a casual, chatty afterthought, a space filler, that the biography mentions that the person has a spouse and two grown children, chaired the finance committee of a church, is a volunteer English-as-a-second-language tutor with Literacy Volunteers, has spent tax seasons volunteering with the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program, is a SCORE volunteer helping existing and start-up businesses, and enjoys golf, ocean fishing, and running “competitively” in 5k races on the local boardwalk.
The message here is this: When you finally leave the full-time workforce after 40 or so years of working for a handful of companies, in a handful of industries, in a handful of jobs, in a handful of states, the only paragraph in your biography that is relevant anymore is that casual, chatty afterthought, that space filler, that last paragraph in your corporate biography that your company decided to include about you on their website only to emphasize your human side, that last paragraph that most readers, and you, usually just gloss over.
Take a deep breath. My contention here is that it is that last paragraph that defines you now that you have left the full-time workforce. Notice that I am carefully using the phrase “left the full-time workforce” and carefully avoiding using the term “retirement.” I think the word “retirement” is meaningless, deceiving, and harmful in the 21st century.
Back to my point, though. Defining yourself to others, and to yourself, at this stage of your life is completely new and is enormously more difficult and complicated, since you are barely who you used to say you were. When asked about yourself on the golf course, or at a party, you can’t simply spill out your corporate title or position any more. That was always so easy, and so clearly defining.
When you now close your eyes and picture yourself, you can no longer envision yourself as VP-Corporate Treasurer, or whatever your last corporate title happened to be. That was so easy, so descriptive, and so comforting to say. Now you are a “story,” a myriad of things, and not a succinct title.
This realization has many ramifications – for your self-identity and, indeed, for your ongoing mental health.
So, where am I going with this? How you define yourself now and how easily you come to terms with that new definition will impact how you go about your new life, will impact how successfully you interface with your loved ones, and will impact how you go about the “human” side of you – a side that was always there, but a side that was always heavily masked by the first four paragraphs of your biography.
Embracing Your Re-Defined Self
How readily you embrace the new definition of you – as a volunteer, a golfer, a runner, a parent, a spouse, a sibling, or a grandparent – will profoundly impact your happiness and, just as importantly, the happiness of those around you.
I write this story very autobiographically. I left the full-time workforce a year or two ago, after almost 40 years of working 60-hour weeks year after year, of high stress corporate finance positions, of traveling and living apart from my family in hotels and temporary housing for about 8 years of those almost 40 years.
To “switch off” has been difficult. To re-define my essence continues to be difficult, but I am making enormous progress each day toward those goals. I now don’t see as a waste of time such things as listening to thriller novels on Audible or taking a 30-minute afternoon nap. I now savor the thrill of volunteering to help entrepreneurs with their business challenges, through the national SCORE organization. I am even convinced that I am helping them, believing that the 40 years of full-time work was simply to prepare myself to now help budding businesses.
If I have any advice, it is this:
After leaving the full-time workforce, in many ways you will be barely who you used to say you were, but you will not be diminished or discouraged if you go back to that last paragraph in your corporate biography and realize that that, too, is you, that it was always a part of you, that it was masked by full-time work, and that now it can be allowed to come to the surface and help you define yourself again, but much differently from before. Granted, it is more complicated and nuanced than just spurting out your last corporate title, but it is no less real, or important, or relevant.
I don’t want to downplay the challenge of the transition, but the raw materials in your life are there, as those raw materials were always there recessively in my life. I work at re-defining myself every day, tapping into my recessive side to allow it to flourish – to flourish so it is as vibrant, worthwhile, and fulfilling as the definitions I had for my life while still in the full-time workforce.
Re-defining myself is a daily project. I make progress most days. I’m betting that you can, too.