Life After Full-time Work Blog

Learn about preparing for life after full-time work through posts from Don's upcoming book.

#13: Teachable Moments And Wake-Up Calls

Life is so busy, there never seems to be enough time or even a good time to think about this stuff.  And then suddenly something happens and triggers a connection. Let’s examine teachable moments — and their scarier companions, wake-up calls.


We’re not always ready to learn. There may be opportunities galore, but unless something aligns our minds with learning, we pass them by. We need a teachable moment. What’s that? It’s an opportunity (typically unplanned) when learning about something becomes much easier. It arises when something happens to us, and we think: “Gosh, wouldn’t it be nice if I knew about [whatever]. You know, it’s worth taking the time to find out.”

I’m sure you can imagine some examples of teachable moments. They tend to arise, for example, with changes in our employment: when we’re hired, or when we’re promoted or laid off. They tend to arise in a marriage or a relationship, both at the start and at the end. Becoming a parent often creates a teachable moment. The beginning and end of an educational program; the beginning and end of a home purchase or a mortgage, or a move; a death in the family. All of these can be sufficiently change-making events in our lives that they trigger thoughts about planning. And then our minds are more open to learning.

Teachable moments can occur in positive or negative forms. The negative variants are called wake-up calls. They might be events that happen to someone else, and we think, “I’m glad that didn’t happen to me,” or perhaps they happen to us but not in as severe a form as is possible – a sort of narrow miss. Sometimes we think of being tapped on the shoulder by a power above, as a warning to us. Again, at times like these we tend to become more willing to reassess our lives and re-plan, and again we’re open to learning.

I don’t know if a teachable moment prompted you to look at my website. (If so, I hope it was a teachable moment rather than a wake-up call.) And I don’t know what will prompt you to look at particular blog posts. Obviously I hope an email to you acts as a prompt. But one perpetual question in connection with long-term planning, such as for life after full-time work, is to wonder how we can create more teachable moments. Can we make annual or quarterly reporting statements so exciting that they prompt you to take action, or at least to reassess your position? Are there road shows that attract your interest? Does tax-filing time cause you to resolve to plan better for next year? How about the turn of the year: does that prompt new year’s resolutions? How about the turn of a decade? Or (as is invariably the case with me) when approaching another round number in your age — somehow that has always prompted a reassessment of my life.

Since we know that wake-up calls are also teachable moments, you’ll notice that some TV commercials attempt to scare you into taking action, typically to buy some product or service that purports to solve the problem that the wake-up call has alerted you to. Equally, though, it should be possible to make education so interesting that it generates a desire to reassess or to take action. But that’s very tough to do.



Life provides natural teachable moments. If those are what prompted you to read this, that’s good. If your own curiosity prompts you to go further, and treat the blog posts themselves as a series of teachable moments, so much the better.

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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.

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