Most people are scared to think about a phase of life that could represent a big change. It’s possible to confront and overcome that fear. Here’s how.
On the page headed “Planning for retirement” I imagine the typical reader thinking: “It’s so complicated! … I wouldn’t even know where to start.” A friend wrote to me saying he expects that more people would describe it as “so scary.” He added: “I wonder if ‘it’s so complicated’ is really cover for ‘I’m scared’ and if framing it as the latter helps connect with readers at a more intimate level early on.”
I think he’s right. And so he got me thinking. How would I address a reader who’s scared? Maybe something along these lines …
It’s a natural feeling to be scared. It’s not anything to be ashamed of.
Dr Daniel Crosby, a clinical psychologist who is far better qualified than me to opine on this, says that retirement can bring out our worst feelings: thinking about death, having to rely on investment returns rather than the regular pay slip, and yes, ignorance on a most important subject. What people crave, he adds, are characteristics like simplicity, safety, certainty. They’re all gone, after retirement. Scared? Who wouldn’t be?
It’s also natural to feel sad. Dr Harry Levinson, psychologist, reminds us: “All change is loss, and all loss must be mourned.” The change from work to retirement is a profound change (which is why many would rather do it in steps rather than a one-shot jump off a cliff), and mourning the loss of the previous lifestyle for its familiarity and stimulus and companionship is not just normal but recommended and helpful.
So take your time and realize there’s bound to be a transition, and there ought to be a transition.
As you think about the next stage in your life, let me explicitly address some of your fears. Forgive me: in writing this I don’t mean to put words into your mouth, but I need to capture some of those fears.
I’m afraid of the unknown. Yes, the future is unknown. It’s unknowable, almost by definition. What do we know about retirement? Often, very little. Well, we know how it ends: in death. And that can trigger negative thoughts. Remember when we were young? If something scared us, we imagined monsters, which then made it all even more scary, because now the unknown felt powerful and sinister. Of course, it never turned out to be that bad! Thinking about retirement can be like that: “I’ll have nothing to do, I’ll be a nobody, I’ll fade away.” No, it won’t be like that. So let me encourage you to be young again, in another way.
When we’re young and think about the future, we fill it with our dreams. Well, we’re never too old to dream. This stage should be (as Dr Laura Carstensen of Stanford University calls it) the “autumn crescendo” of our lives, the time when dreams are fulfilled. And the time for fulfillment may be much longer than you think. Check Post # 12 to give yourself an idea of how long. I encourage you to dream again.
I’m afraid of change. Yes, there’ll be a change. That’s inevitable. That’s why not thinking about it is the worst way to deal with it, because then things happen to you, rather than happening because you want them to.
Think about what you’d like to do, what you’d enjoy doing. Check out the people in Post #10 … Hey, our brains are hard-wired for us to feel happiest at this time of life, whether we’re working or retired or something in between. Take advantage of that fact and help the happiness along. There are websites on the internet and other tools that help take you from random stray thoughts to planning a new life, and to an action plan to make it happen.
But it’ll never happen the way you plan, right? Yes, right, as far as some aspects are concerned. That doesn’t actually matter. Making the plan is what’s important, because then, when things don’t turn out exactly the way you hoped, you’ll have done enough thinking to be able to adapt the plan. Military people know that no battle plan ever survives its first contact with the enemy. Don’t expect your dreams to be totally fulfilled. That’s normal, not a failure.
Don’t think of things as “right” or “wrong.” “Right” suggests there’s only one possible answer, and everything else is “wrong.” Instead, think of things as “good” or “better” rather than “right.” That change in mindset helps generate joy when things go better, rather than regret that they’re not perfect.
I think of giving up full-time work as mentally moving to a new land. Like going to school for the first time, or to university, or entering a new relationship, or starting a job. You’ve done it before. It’s scary. It’s also an opportunity to reinvent yourself. And in this new land, you already know the language and the culture, family and friends are still there (even if you lose contact with some workmates) – even pets are still there. It’s not like a physical move.
And, as Dr Levinson said, it’s OK to grieve. For most, it takes time to transition to a new life. I’m not making this up: it happened to me. Even though I tried as much as I could to make it at least a partial continuation of my old lifestyle, it turned out that when I finally had the courage to move – physically to a different city – it took three years before I felt that the new one was really home, and I stopped yearning for the old place. I had to build a whole new social life. Only when that expanded to fill my time, and felt comfortable, was I able to revisit the old place happily and enjoy it, and then happily return “home.”
I’m scared that I know nothing about this big, complicated subject. And I’m scared to show how ignorant I am. Yes, those are natural feelings. I hope I can persuade you that they’re unnecessary. First, if you’re scared of your ignorance, you’re in the vast majority, so revealing it says nothing negative about you. Join the crowd! Second, check Post #2 and I hope it’ll make you realize that in your mind you’re setting the bar too high. You don’t need to be an expert. You only need to know enough to become an informed consumer of expertise. And that’s what you’ll be, if you follow this website. That’s my goal for you.
You’ve forgotten about the fear of losing the certainty of the regular paycheck and relying on investment returns, which are uncertain and something else I know nothing about. Oh, sorry about that. That’s actually an easy one. In fact there are two different ways to deal with it. Both involve generating an income steam from your assets. In one case the steam is as regular and as guaranteed as a paycheck. In the other case (and you can choose which case you want) it can be made just as regular, but the amount is less certain, in the hope that it’ll eventually turn out to be bigger. Your choice. I’ll show you how all that stuff works in future blog posts.
Most people find – eventually – that the best way to deal with fear is to face it. Once you face the fear, it stops growing. Typically you find it’s manageable. And then it’s a relief to stop running away from it. And new vistas open up as you proceed.
There’s an old saying: a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
I hope I’ve encouraged you to take that first step.
Someone challenged me to create a 30-second “elevator pitch” about this website. This is it:
Most people are too scared by retirement to do anything about it until it’s too late. But I show them that they don’t need to be experts, to take control — and then enjoy freedom, time and happiness in the best phase of their life.
Being scared is natural. Once you understand why, and what you can do about it, the fear typically goes away. Just take the first step.
I have written about retirement planning before and some of that material also relates to topics or issues that are being discussed here. Where relevant I draw on material from three sources: The Retirement Plan Solution (co-authored with Bob Collie and Matt Smith, published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2009), my foreword to Someday Rich (by Timothy Noonan and Matt Smith, also published by Wiley, 2012), and my occasional column The Art of Investment in the FT Money supplement of The Financial Times, published in the UK. I am grateful to the other authors and to The Financial Times for permission to use the material here.