Critical Stuff: The biggest barrier to a fulfilling life is generally you.
In This Chapter: Why SNL sucks. Get off the couch. Tell your new story. Live your new story.
Before we dive into financial aspects, let’s talk a little about the kind of life you want to have. It’s never too late to build the life you want. A big part of planning for retirement is making sure that what you’re doing today counts, because none of us get to say what tomorrow brings. Retirement is the perfect time to assess how your story has been playing out, and do what you can to make it more satisfying. And then start right away, because while we control what we do today, and we can make efforts to plan for the future, you can’t mistake that plan for anything resembling certainty.
Picture what you did last week. Can you remember much? How about looking back five years. Unless you took notes, the only things that come to you are the exceptional things, and a few mundane things that somehow pop up. Does that matter? For a lot of people the answer is yes, even if they aren’t sure why. The notion of life slipping by as a series of indistinguishable incidents just isn’t appealing. Maybe it’s time to rewrite your life story.
Please understand that your life, and your life story are two different things. Your life is the everyday stuff you have to or want to do. Your story is the incidents and events that you’ll remember. Good, bad, scary, happy, sad–all the extremes. Buying your first motorcycle is probably part of your story. Buying yet another grocery getter is part of your life. The only way you’ll remember a night spent in front of the television is if it’s the only night you ever spend that way. There’s a reason you fall asleep watching late night TV–it’s ordinary, no matter how funny the host is, and it requires nothing of you. It presents no risk, requires no hardship or effort. You won’t fall asleep while a grizzly bear tears your cooler apart to get at the salmon you caught that day.
A little digression: Remember the first time you heard Dom Pardo say “Live, from New York, it’s Saturday Night” and the show was so amazingly funny you fell out of your chair. Now you probably think the writing is stale, the acting is poor and the comedy lame. But if you watched an old SNL video you’d be stunned at how uneven the quality was. A little brilliance surrounded by lots of flops. It was fun because it was new to your experience, but now it isn’t. Passive entertainments like television are inherently boring because they require nothing of you. They have to become increasingly strident to keep you engaged. That’s one reason why news has devolved from journalism to sensationalism, and instead of scripted TV we have voyeuristic “reality” shows that do best when everyone in them is psychotic.
And that, gentle reader, is why you may need to rewrite your story, because a passive story is a boring story and a boring story is a bad story.
The Wall Street Journal ran an article recently about the biggest suprises in retirement. The gist of the article is that your retired life is going to be a lot more different than you expect. Any thinking person understands retirement will entail changes in finance, the people you socialize with, activities, your routines, and the kind of tasks you perform. But few people understand the kind of risks inherent in retirement, or that taking risks, and relishing them, is one of the keys to a successful retirement. Risk is part of a balanced duo: Risk/Reward. Sometimes good or bad things happen without taking a risk, but that’s outside your control. Pushing the boundaries of the life you lived when you worked might make you uncomfortable, but it’s the path to reward.
You might be happy with your life as you live it, but the story could probably use some work. All the suggestions below are about doing things that are more indelible because they are out of the course of your normal life. Before you dive in, understand that good stories demand certain things. If you’re comfortable on the couch and enjoying your life of mundane happenings, then take a little care. Stories demand conflict, suffering, new risks, lots of effort, uncomfortable situations, and perhaps triumph (or not). It’s your story, your choice. Here’s some ways to spice it up:
Small ways just mean small risks. They might take a fair amount of effort and they can have big effects.
The Bucket List
This is a tried and true approach that’s particularly effective for people who like notebooks: If walking into a stationary store leads you directly to the blank book section and has you thumbing through the moleskines looking for some new format that will justify adding it to your junk drawer full of notebooks with five pages used, then this is for you. Dig out a cool one that will fit in a pocket and take some abuse. Better yet, take a trip to the stationary store, this is justification for a new notebook!
Here’s the format for building a list–first five or so pages up front are reserved for the list, one item per line. When you add an item to the list, go to the next blank page in the notebook and title it with the list item. When you check an item off the list you go to that page and add the details: Date, impressions, etc.. The empty holes in the notebook burn at you much better than an unchecked list item will.
Bucket lists grow without limit as you start using them, but you might need some help getting started. Here’s a few you might consider. Visit China, learn to surf, drive a race car, have dinner at the French Laundry, start an online business, take a random class, do a marathon.
Random Acts of Weirdness
Much less formal, but equally effective is the random act approach. To get this rolling, pick a day of the week when you have some time. Perhaps Sunday. Now you need something random to do. And once you find something, you have to commit to doing it. Lots of approaches are feasible, one is to pick up whatever local free newspaper has event listings. Pick a number from one to ten, scan to that listing and commit to doing it. Don’t rule something out because it’s outrageously not you. that’s where you find the true adventures. You’re a manly man and you really don’t want to go to a rehearsal of the Gay Men’s Chorus. Tough. Go.
Another, less challenging way is to generally scan for interesting things in the paper or on the web and commit to doing the first thing that sparks some interest.
You’ll see one word pop up several times in this article: Commit. Procrastination is the enemy of adventure. Dozens of things will pop up to help you avoid going to that lecture on orchid cultivation. Commit. Go. The way I stop myself from procrastinating is to mentally say “how will this be different later.” If you don’t do it now, why will later be better? Procrastination is just laziness and avoidance. Commit.
Road Less Traveled
Get on google maps and print out a map of your neighborhood. Take a marker and mark all the roads you know you’ve been on. Chances are that within a five mile radius there are lots of streets you’ve never seen. Get on your bicycle, fire up the motorcycle or lace up your walking shoes and go explore them. No cars unless you own something sporty and there looks to be some nice twisties, or you feel like a cruise.
Change your Modus Operandi
There’s probably some basic characteristic in the way you approach a common thing that defines you to some degree. For example, I’m shy and a bit reserved. I don’t like to talk all that much, and when I do I have an aversion to telling stories (though I catch myself doing it often). That would probably surprise a lot of people, I seem like an extrovert, but that’s a learned behavior, people who know me best know that’s true. So recently I decided to change an aspect. When I meet a character, I engage with them and coax them into telling me about themselves. I’ve met some astonishing people recently. One was an old guy who was muttering to himself and being actively avoided by folks while he waited for a prescription. He had green sneakers, yellow socks, pants and shirt made from matching aloha print fabric, and a panama hat. I started talking with him and discovered he’s 92 years old, speaks four languages–five if you include pidgin. He told me about his wood carvings and furniture making, his careers, his kids. Fabulous, memorable and fascinating, and all I invested was fifteen minutes.
Become Great At Something
A friend of mine did this as a lifestyle, though his approach had an odd twist. When he undertook some hobby or discipline he would apply huge effort to it until he mastered it. For example, when he decided to play the banjo he spent six hours a day learning and practicing–for several years. He got good enough to play with bands, and even do some studio work. At the same time he started making banjos. He improved his technique and style until his banjos were works of art, and people were willing to spend substantial amounts of money for them. He got as good as he wanted to be, and then he quit and started something new. That’s the twist I didn’t get. He walked away from all his effort.
The Become Great part has clear benefit. Anyone can decide to learn something new. but it won’t make for a great life story. Lots of people play guitar a little, or surf a little, race cars or fly airplanes. But the people who become GREAT at something add tremendously to their story. What does it take? Mostly it takes a plan, effort and discipline. Talent helps, but you can become great without talent. Seeing that through all by itself will make your story far better. Choose the right thing and it can change your life in many ways.
Big Ways These are changes that have larger consequences and bigger risks. Remember always that risk is the partner of reward. More simply put, no balls, no blue chips. Doesn’t always work, but that’s why they call it risk.
Get A Job For Fun
First of all, my apologies if you’re struggling to make ends meet in the current economy. I know a living wage is a very serious issue for lots of people. If you’re one of them, read on, you might find something helpful. I’m not making light of the issue of employment, there’s lots of ways to tackle every issue and I’m talking about some you might find useful.
Whether you’re already employed, retired, or between jobs, adding a job for fun can be a wonderful thing for adding spice. Especially if you really don’t need to do it. For example, I’d kind of like to be a bartender. I’m tempted to look for a way to do that. I know that with the kind of drive I have I could get bartending job, I just don’t think I want to commit the time to something I’d be playing at, and I’m not happy with the idea of taking a working wage job away from other people just for fun. I’ve also looked at the renewable energy field and think it might be interested doing those kind of projects. Meet new people, learn new things, aim at some big projects perhaps. I don’t necessarily need to work, but I know there’s a big difference in intensity level between committing to do something and just playing around. And for me that defines JOB. A commitment.
A job for fun is one that you can imagine yourself really enjoying doing, but you don’t have current skills for. The path is straightforward. Assess the opportunities and time frame, get the requisite skills and certifications, find a job. Most people won’t undertake the level of effort required to get a job. No insult intended, but there’s simply a gap between the effort that people expect, and what might be necessary. The most effective way to find a path to your objective is to leverage something you already know how to do. For example, if I get serious about being a bartender, my first step will be to write a book about bartending. I’ll do the research, learn to make all kinds of drinks–current and obsolete. I’ll target the best and most interesting bars in town, interview bartenders and bar owners. Learn about the economics and the challenges of the business. Write about the conversations that bartenders have with their customers. How they handle problems, how they make customers happy or satisfied they came into the bar. I’d reflect what I learn back to the owners and incorporate their ideas. Probably I’d help the owners examine and optimize their marketing as an experiment and maybe build a website for them or fix up the ones they have.
I know, that’s crazy. It’s a huge amount of effort. But then I’ll ask for a bartending job. Think I’d get one? Think I’d be great at it after all that? How much better will my chances be than someone who fills out an application and hopes for a call. Obviously that’s not the only way to get a job like that, but it’s an idea of the kind of effort someone could make in support of getting the job they want.
It takes what it takes.
Of course you can also apply a similar effort to improve a job you already have. Burned into my memory is a conversation I had with my very bright niece who had a summer job working in marketing (her course of study in college) for a sports product company. “They told me I’d be helping with marketing, but all I do is a little filing. I spend my day reading news on the internet and playing solitaire on the computer”. I was so blown away I couldn’t say anything. I know it’s not just me that sees why this is such a waste. No bad reflection on my niece, few people are taught that what it takes to love a job is to invest everything you have to give into it. It’s not a reflection on her generation–we’ve had a few interns at the advertising agency I co-founded who somehow knew that and who run so far out in front of what we ask them to do that all we can do is marvel. They do everything we ask them to do, and then they do all the stuff they want to do and show it to us. Of course we’d hire them if they chose to end their college career and just go straight to work. They’re not waiting for someone to hand them an assignment–they are inventing the job they want. They’d be running the company in five years.
It’s wonderful to have a mentor that puts you on the path of a good story. It’s too bad my niece didn’t have one for her first job. But there’s a reason great mentors are celebrated–they are rare. It’s easy to do things in a passive way, to wait for a boss to give you a “marketing assignment”. But who says your boss knows anything valuable at all? Inventing the job you want is hard, and adds risk. That’s what makes it a good story. Easy = boring.
Instead, she could have done the filing she was asked to do, and then spent her “solitaire” time taking a comprehensive look at what the company was doing for marketing. Done a careful analysis of their capabilities, culture, mentality, their appetite for risk (no point in proposing solutions that scare the pants off your boss). Then put together a plan that would improve marketing results. Even if they ignored the suggestions completely and snickered at the naive effort she would have learned a great deal. The problem with wasting time at work is that it’s your time. It’s you who gets shortchanged. View the business as a pool of resources that you might be able to tap into, and your job as an opportunity to grow. Working hard and doing more is pure self-interest, any benefit to the company is incidental.
One of the best places to get a job for fun is in volunteering. But that doesn’t mean you need to stand in soup line, dishing out meals (unless that’s what you want). Apply your skills and drive to the things your target organization needs. Make it different, better, more successful. If you can do a job without pressure, without the need to satisfy anyone but yourself, then it’s really fun and fulfilling.
Be A Hero
You are the hero of your own story, but is it the best story you could create? Is there a better story, can you be a better hero? I’m tempted to leave this thought right here and let you build out what this means for yourself. But this might be the most important element of this article. I would never talk with someone directly about issues like this, it’s too judgmental and too much meddling. But here’s what I’ve seen. People get trapped in a bad story. The way their relationship works with their wife and kids, their boss, their friends, and themselves. Some folks try to change the outcome by changing themselves a little. But it’s like watching a movie where you know if the hero would just tell people what he’s up to that the outcome would be so much better. “Why won’t he tell them” you mentally scream at the screen. Sure enough, the hero’s actions are misunderstood, people do the wrong things, it all goes badly.
And then you go home and don’t bother to tell your wife and kids you love them “because they should know that”.
To be a better hero you need to tell a better story. The first step is to figure out what the story should be like and what you have to do and what you want to commit to. The next step is to tell people around you what they can expect from you, and start living the story. You can only change yourself. You can’t change your environment greatly or quickly. You can’t change other people. But you can improve the chances that changes you make and stay with get translated into a better story. It takes patience, and it takes a little communication. You can’t constantly talk about your new commitment because you’ll bore the socks off people, but for them to be influenced they need to know what you’re up to. Understand that it’s hard. Barriers pop up in the most unexpected places. Your commitment will be challenged. Sometimes you’ll move toward the better story, sometimes you’ll be pushed away. That’s how you know it’s a good story. Bad stories are effortless.
Letting other people know what you’re up to provides a feedback loop and can increase your commitment. When I decided to quit smoking I told all my friends and acquaintances. I made it clear that I thought smoking was disgusting and a stupid habit that trapped weak-minded people. I created a situation around myself that made it difficult for me to back out.
This is the bonus round. When I told my friend Cameron we were going to sell our beautiful home in Portland and move to a simple house in Hood River he said “that’s great, people should reinvent their life every so often”. I’ve always appreciated his wisdom, so it didn’t surprise me that he wasn’t shocked that I’d be ready to give up the dream home that took us years to build and a comfortable life in Portland to go play hard in Hood River.
The reason was simple, we had settled into a repetitious life that lacked the hills and valleys that make for an exciting story. We didn’t want more of anything, we wanted simplicity and the opportunity to try new and difficult things. We wanted to rewrite the story. So we changed everything, at a time when we probably should have been hunkering down. The value of the house we sold was probably as low as it ever will be. The story is worth more than the house and the money.
We only have one story. Make it as good as you can.