When I decided to leave the Financial Times after 20 years, an older friend asked: ‘So you’re retiring then?’ I was in my early 50s and the question shocked me. Retirement? Not likely. I was raring to go.
For me, this was the start of a new phase, although I wasn’t at all sure what would emerge. It was exciting, and a little daunting. I did know that I wanted to go on writing, ideally books, and to be more hands-on than journalism allowed in the areas that absorb me – leadership, inclusion, and the changing world of work.
I sought and received plenty of advice. And, having enjoyed more than a decade of portfolio life as an author, speaker, adviser, and, more recently, coach, I’m always happy to share tips for others embarking on a similar unretirement path.
I’d say the most important thing in ‘unretirement’ is to do what fulfils you, assuming you have enough money to live on. Don’t be constrained by what you have been up till now, or by other people’s assumptions. Dream big.
Follow your dreams
Stepping out of a long corporate career, you can find yourself pulled in many directions. This can be unsettling if you don’t have a plan, or at least some ideas about the mix you’re looking for. It’s best to start working on this before you leave, and, once you’re out, to allow yourself plenty of time for further investigation.
Hearing about my decision to go solo, a friend advised me to reflect on the threads running through my life. She’d had a long career in medicine, and in her 50s embarked on the other profession she had seriously contemplated in her 20s and trained as a contemporary ballet dancer. It was literally ‘a stretch’, but deeply fulfilling.
Corporate roles can be a straitjacket, constricting your sense of who you are and who you could still be. There are useful exercises to help you break out. One that I came across on a coaching programme, which seems to inspire people at any age, is called ‘100 Aspirations for Life’.
You find a quiet, comfortable space to sit, take some deep breaths, and relax. Then start writing on a blank sheet all the things you still dream of doing. Write whatever comes into your mind, even things that seem silly or impossible. You can do it quietly alone, or with a friend or loved one, talking and adding to your lists as you go.
Once you have 50 or more, look at what patterns have emerged. Travel? Mentoring? Good causes? Entrepreneurship? Keeping fit? Stand-up comedy? Whatever they are, keep these aspirations close as you consider whom you’d like to work with and what you most want to do.
Deal with your ego
A prominent journalist once shared a lesson she had learned the hard way. After leaving Fleet Street, she had been surprised that doors no longer opened easily to her. She had conflated herself with the high-profile brand she represented. I’ve always been grateful to her for that lesson.
When you start out on your own, you quickly discover that some people whom you thought were interested in you actually only cared about the entrée you provided to your company. It’s good to prepare for the inevitable blow to ego.
There are other reasons for doing so. You’ll bring sought-after skills and expertise to whatever you do, but it’s likely that your new colleagues and collaborators will have knowledge that they take for granted, and that you don’t have. You may feel like the new kid on the block.
Once the corporate infrastructure is stripped away, you may well find yourself being your own personal assistant, IT help desk and website designer (though these can be outsourced). That, too, is a great leveller.
Keep reinventing yourself
As our working lives lengthen, it’s even more important to learn how to apply our skills and expertise to new things. Depending on personal preference, you can dip a toe into the water to see how it feels, or take a calculated risk and jump right in.
Don’t worry if you sometimes feel as if you’re sinking. I recently heard Whitney Johnson, author of Disrupt Yourself, describing the S-curve of learning and mastery. She pointed out that our society is obsessed with forward movement. If you step down from a position of ‘mastery’ and start anew, there will be voices questioning whether you will ever regain your former glory.
I’d describe those as siren voices – best ignored. Very few people are able to maintain their status as ‘gurus’ over a prolonged period, and even they have to keep learning to stay ahead.
It’s not only necessary, but also life-enhancing, to stay curious and climb that learning curve again and again. Unretirement is not just one phase or step. I’m still intrigued by paths I haven’t travelled before. And my older friend has long since stopped asking me when I’m going to retire.