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On Designing a Meaningful Retirement
I’m writing this on Amtrak’s Acela train on the Northeast Corridor. I’m returning home from a two-day trip to New York City for productive and inspiring meetings of the Cornell Law School Alumni Association Executive Board of Directors, and the law school’s New York Alumni Annual Luncheon (even though I’m not a New York alumnus). As a welcome bonus, I was able to have dinner with my New-York-dwelling son.
As you may recall from previous posts, I’m at a crossroads in my life, recently retired from law firm practice yet still engaged in volunteer organizations. That transition requires a change of mindset. In a law firm, each lawyer has responsibilities to their colleagues and their clients. Their time is not their own, as dramatically made clear by the need to record their hours both for client billing and internal tracking purposes (the bane of every private practitioner’s existence). By now a necessary evil, the billable hour has haunted law firm practice for decades, but most lawyers have learned, necessarily if unhappily, to live with it. Indeed, recording each task performed in fractions of an hour is the private lawyer’s most habitual practice. It’s also a skin that, after 42 years, I have been delighted to shed. Yet it is so ingrained in me that even after I left my firm I caught myself calculating the time I spent on a conference call, forgetting that my timekeeping days were, at least for the time being, over. (More about that, perhaps, in a future post.)
For lawyers and most others, retirement offers several freedoms -- the freedom from being expected to solve other people’s problems and be fully responsive to their needs; the freedom from having to adhere to an organization’s policies; and, less desirably, the freedom from bringing home a regular paycheck. It also opens the door to new possibilities, especially the possibility of devoting all of one’s time to following one’s own interests and pursuing one’s own needs. In effect, you now become your own client deserving of your own attention. (Of course, I’ve oversimplified. Retirement doesn’t end one’s commitments to family, friends, or other constituents, nor should it, but those tend to be obligations of love as much as duty.)
At a high level, the choices for retirement are pretty simple – it can be restful, active, or a combination of both. The best retirement, it seems to me, would blend rest, fun, and time with family, on the one hand, with continued professional or other engagement through such activities as teaching, volunteering, or creative pursuits (for example, writing a Substack newsletter or hosting a podcast). The beauty of retirement is that the retiree gets to choose their own path, and should be free from criticism for whatever path they choose (so long, of course, as the path is not unethical, immoral, offensive, harmful, or illegal).
I’m still making those choices now, and have received advice from many a well-wisher. Some advise me to rest, some tell me to remain active in my profession, and some say I should volunteer outside of my profession. One of my Cornell friends, slightly older than me, is still practicing law with no interest in retiring. He told me the other day of studies showing that abrupt retirements without continued professional engagement result in the retirees’ steep cognitive declines, a good reason to keep one’s hand on the plow. I haven’t seen the studies, but based on what I’ve observed in some retirees I’ve known, his statement rings true.
I suppose another decision one must make is whether to go big or go small. On that, I’m torn, though for the moment going big (or at least medium) seems most likely for me. By going big, I mean remaining engaged with nonprofit organizations, including at the board level, like my engagement with Cornell (which last year included teaching law students), my involvement with the American Bar Association, and my long-held board position with my undergraduate college (set to end this academic year). By small, I mean volunteer work that brings one into contact with individuals with any of a variety of needs, and with other volunteers who work with them. Teaching is one activity that can encompass that form of engagement and can be very rewarding. Whatever form the service takes, those small interactions can have a disproportionately large, positive impact on our own and others’ lives.
Big engagements aren’t for everyone. Many people find one-on-one, personal interactions and relationships more fulfilling. In that regard, I’ve always admired the character “Sully” in Richard Russo’s 1993 novel, “Nobody’s Fool” (not to be confused with the more recent film of the same name). Russo’s book was made into a film in the 1990s. It stars Paul Newman, and includes supporting roles from such luminaries as Jessica Tandy, Bruce Willis, Melanie Griffith, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman. If you have the patience for a slow-moving film in which the main action is character development, I highly recommend it.
Newman plays Sully, a down-on-his-luck, partially lame divorcee in his 60s or so, who gets by taking odd jobs, including small-scale demolition work he receives from Willis’ character, a successful and unscrupulous small business owner. Though Sully sometimes seems to be a lost, frequently grumbling soul, he in fact exudes a quiet wisdom and strength of character that attracts others to him. He is, in a vastly understated way, both smart and likeable. And even though his journey seems to take him from one minor calamity to another, his small, subtle, and wise acts of kindness bring healing to the people he attracts. You might at first think Sully a fool, but by the end of the story you realize Russo got the title exactly right.
I find that kind of person highly admirable. Not the “fool” part, but the giving part. Our daily, small, interactions with the people around us can in fact be all we need to live meaningful lives, maybe even the most meaningful lives. That’s true not only for retirees, but for everyone. The kind word, the friendly smile, the patient listening, the helping hand – all these little but uplifting gifts can mean the world to those who receive them. I’ve often found that the people I’ve helped in some small, simple ways remember those kind acts years later, even when I don’t. And I, in turn, remember the small but significant ways so many others have helped me over the years.
So, that’s my crossroads – trying to find the right balance between rest and continued engagement (including professional engagement), and between going big and going small. For now, I think I’m on the right track, trying to walk that middle road, but it’s very early in this new chapter of my life and I’m sure I have much to learn and will have many adjustments to make. The main thing is I don’t plan to sit around all day watching television, but I do intend to make deliberate decisions between those things that are and are not worthy of my time. And I hope to hear from those of you who have experienced, or at least thought about, these matters so I can learn from you and we all can learn from each other.
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