Sidestepping Six Pockets of Peril in Retirement

By David D. Corbett

After all those years of dealing with crowded corridors, long-running night meetings and school board critiques of your performance, you probably couldn’t wait for the day. Now you’ve done it, and you feel unhinged. Your calendar is empty. Your spouse asks you to do anything that involves leaving the house. And you feel guilty you’re not contributing.

Welcome to retirement. Even those who consult or work part-time after retiring from a superintendency face psychological and logistical challenges. Those who don’t anticipate these landmines may learn about them when they go off. But you can prepare. You can make changes to sidestep them.

Here are six pockets of turbulence I’ve heard as I’ve helped professionals create fulfilling post-career lives.

  • No. 1: Where does the time go?

After retiring, people often claim they’ve never been so busy. Perhaps that’s true, but there’s a difference between “busy” and doing what truly satisfies or engages us. One former university dean asked me, “How did I get caught up in so many commitments that don’t really excite me?”

You may want to do an array of good and worthwhile things, but you have to strike a balance between those activities and the flexibility that lets you remain in control of your time. Be prepared to reject demands on your time that don’t fit your short- or long-term goals.

  • No. 2: “I used to be superintendent of ... “

We tend to let careers define who we are. But there may be a price to pay when the career is pulled away. A retired executive said it took her a year to get over her cocktail-party embarrassment at not being able to define herself by her title.

In reality, we don’t lose our identity when we leave a job. We lose that identity, one of our identities. But our inner identity is wider and deeper. Try considering your identity a work in progress, even at 50, 60 or 70. Re-examine questions you thought were settled: Who am I? Do I matter? What can I do? New answers yield new purposes when the old underpinnings are pulled away.

  • No. 3: Loss of social capital.

Retirement erodes a key group of relationships in your life. Not taking time for proper closure with colleagues or forging new bonds to replace lost social capital can leave you feeling isolated or alone. That emotional state can prevent you from moving forward in your life.

Build your new networks before you leave. Find new circles. Turn to family and old friends for support — and to new friends and colleagues as well.

  • No. 4: Loss of practical platforms.

This one is hard for executives, such as superintendents, who had secretaries, assist-ants and high-tech office tools to keep them on track. They may lack the logistical support needed to move through the day. “I have no one to delegate to,” one man said. “It drives me crazy when I have to replace the cartridge in my printer or book my own fights.”

In retirement, you are self-employed. So you have to develop these skills. Think big thoughts and follow dreams, but also learn to change the toner cartridge!

  • No. 5: Fractured households.

Careers can keep spouses apart for much of the week over a period of decades. But having that divider vanish in retirement doesn’t mean they should spend every minute together. Tensions can rise when both spouses are suddenly home all the time. Discuss this beforehand and renegotiate the home space. Figure out how much time you need alone. Decide which activities will be done jointly and which individually.

Another kind of tension can occur when one spouse is ready to close down a career and the other is not. Minimize these strains by being direct with your partner and open about your feelings. And recognize the need to amend your preconceived plans.

  • No. 6: Guilt.

A man who was the top finance officer at an Ivy League university told me he had wanted to see a certain movie for many years. When he retired and the opportunity finally came, however, he wouldn’t let himself watch it. Why? Because it was on television during a weekday afternoon when he felt he should be at work!

That kind of guilt may be linked to a socially conditioned premise that an educated, accomplished adult who is not “productive” is being lazy or irresponsible. Failing to make money or chalk up achievements nags at the conscience. Remember, it’s all relative. Lots of terrible people in history have been results-oriented types. And many who earned little for their services, such as poets, mystics and saints, left the world better than they found it.

To avoid falling into this trap, re-examine your assumptions about the meaning of work and pay attention to your own gifts, needs and goals. It may position you to help others, which is truly productive. And let yourself enjoy whatever you do.

In my experience, the post-career phase of life is the hardest for those who did not prepare or plan for it. Too many people continue to think that rest and recreation will be enough and that retirement will “take care of itself.” They are at risk of being bored and without a purpose. Find a passion. Live that passion. It could add years to your life.

David Corbett is the founder of New Directions, 66 Long Wharf, Boston, MA 02110. E-mail: He is author of Portfolio Life: The New Path to Work, Purpose, and Passion After 50 (Jossey-Bass).