Life After Full-time Work Blog

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

#212 A Letter To A New Graduate

To someone who has just graduated from school: You’re starting your own life


With the graduation season upon us, I thought it might be fun to craft a note to a new graduate. It might look something like this. Let me know what you think I’ve missed out or just plain got wrong.

Also: At the end of this post I talk about the Excellence and Innovation Awards made by the World Pension Summit. Please take a look.


A note from your loving parents!

This is exciting, isn’t it? And if you’re like everybody else who has stood on the threshold of life, it’s a bit scary, too. That’s absolutely normal. It’s only scary because you haven’t experienced it. There’s nothing actually scary out there, it’s just the unknown. But there really is excitement!

I can’t lead you through it in advance and hope to make it clear to you, any more than you could tell your eight-year-old cousins what they can expect as they grow up. You can’t anticipate what you haven’t experienced. Your cousins would have no idea what you’re talking about. It’s just too different from what they’re used to. So I won’t try to tell you about your future. I’ll just say that the excitement is justified.

You’ll have desires and passions, and you’ll explore them. Go ahead – that’s good! Some will turn out well, some won’t. Some that turn out well will make you very happy – and surprisingly, other things that turn out well will be disappointing. That’s nothing to do with you – that’s the way life is, for everyone.

In addition to your desires and passions, I hope you’ll follow your curiosity. You’ll learn all kinds of things, and when a pleasure is unexpected that’s the best kind of all!


Whatever situations you find yourself in, I suspect there’s never a “right” thing to do (the way we all talk about it), in the sense that there’s only this one way and every other approach is just plain wrong. Life is rarely black and white like that. Most of the time, there are many sensible ways to proceed, and many foolish ones. Don’t waste time struggling to discover what’s the “right” way. Just do something sensible, and see how it turns out. That’s really the best any of us can do. Most of the time it turns out well. And when it doesn’t – well, that sort of outcome is inevitable sometimes in life, so just use it as a learning experience.

What exactly is “something sensible”? It always depends on the circumstances, of course. The best guidance I can give you relates to how it makes you feel: you should be able to feel at peace with the uncertainty within and around you. A friend once told me he recalled a bit of training in his voice lessons many years ago: don’t expel all the air in your lungs while singing; keep some in reserve so that you can calmly begin the next breath and not break the melodic line. That’s how to address life’s challenges: whatever you do, keep something in reserve.

Do the best you can. Don’t give up easily. I won’t say “Never give up” because that can be pig-headed. But some degree of persistence and determination usually pays off. And, as I said before, learn from what goes wrong.

So yes, hold on to your dreams, even though you’ll have some disappointments along the way.

Don’t be afraid to take a chance on something. It’s always possible the outcome may be disappointing, but the regret you’ll feel for not taking a chance could far outweigh that disappointment. Take a chance, and you’ll never be left wondering what might have happened.

Of course, I don’t mean your life should be based on taking chances. Think of taking a chance like buying a lottery ticket. Do it occasionally. Now you’re open to a potential reward. But if all you do is the equivalent of buying lottery tickets, you’re placing your life in the hands of chance, and giving up any semblance of control. You’re just showing up, and hoping. Far better that you show up with intention, with focus, with expectancy for something new, the inner desire to grow, so that you own the moment, even when you don’t know what’s going to happen. That’ll make life a fun adventure, rather than a drudgery of regret.

You’re a sociable creature. As indeed are all human beings. Keep it up! You have family, you have friends. It’s important to feel that you’re part of a community, indeed more than one community. The Covid-19 pandemic has shown us how important human contact is. It’s fine to spend time just enjoying the company of others and doing things with them. Have a life! It’s not just an afterthought.


I’m going to give you two unusual pieces of advice.

The first is: sleep! Your health will be important through your whole life, and you’ll lay the foundations now. Sleep and exercise are the two important components that you have control over. Frankly, unless you spend all your time looking at your screen (yes, I see you smile!), you’ll probably get all the exercise you need in these next years just living your life. But I’ll bet that getting enough sleep will be an obstacle to all your exploration of life. And yet sleep is the single most important ingredient in health.

Hey, you’re young, and it’s inevitable that you’ll deprive yourself of sleep, from time to time. That goes with the territory. We’ve all been guilty of that. I’m just saying: sleep is more important than you can imagine.


My second and final piece of advice concerns money. And why you should save some, right from the start, difficult as it’s bound to be for you (as it has been, always, for everyone). But remember, the pandemic has shown us that we can live on far less than we had become used to.

You know we’ll be here for you, if you need us, if anything goes very wrong. That’s not what I’m talking about.

I’m talking about everyday needs. I think it makes good sense for you to have an emergency fund. (I’ve heard it called the “Life Happens” fund, a much more evocative name.) Maybe $1,000. You can dip into it for unforeseen needs, which always come along because, yes, life happens. And then build it up again to that $1,000 mark. This is unusual, because (amazingly) very few people have that sort of backup. And it’s their single biggest financial fear, that they’ll need a few hundred dollars unexpectedly and their whole life gets thrown into disarray and panic.

As I’ve told you before: if need be, we’ll be here for you. But knowing you, you’ll be embarrassed to ask us for help. And we’ll be even more proud of you if you’re capable of coping with emergencies on your own.

Once you’ve built up your emergency fund, keep saving. Put it on autopilot, so you don’t have to think about it. The more things you have to consciously think about, the more tired you’ll become; and saving is one that fits the autopilot mode perfectly.

Why save that money? For the future you, for your freedom. Wait: aren’t you free today? Sure, but your freedom today is constrained by having to earn a living. That’s OK, we’ve all been there, usually for far longer than we wanted. But wouldn’t it be nice if you didn’t have to spend most of your time that way? Wouldn’t it be nice if you had enough money to pay yourself every week, every month, and so you’d have the money and the time and the freedom to do only what appeals to you? That’s what you’re saving for! If you hear the horrible word and horrible concept of retirement, translate it into freedom – because it’s your own freedom that’s the objective.

Let us know when you have your Life Happens fund and can start on your freedom fund. Then we can talk about what freedom can mean for you and also about investing the fund, which we know a little bit about.


Oh, there’s one other piece of wisdom, one received from a friend. The way he expressed it was: you’ll live longer than you think, and not nearly as long as you think. What he meant by the first part was that our lifespans keep lengthening. But that’s not terribly relevant for you right now. The second part is relevant. Our friend meant that, if there’s something important to do, start it now. We waste a lot of time on unimportant things. Start on the important ones. You don’t have to do everything right now. As the saying goes, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Identify the few journeys that are really important, and make sure you take their first steps now. Don’t let being in a hurry compromise them. Less important things can take their place later in your priority list.

That’s about it. We’re proud of you. And we’re proud of the values you’re already showing. We had no idea our dinner-table conversations were part of the food you consumed!

Good luck, God bless!


Now, that bit I promised about the World Pension Summit’s Awards.

I’m a big fan of everything done by the World Pension Summit, which is why I’ve been on their Advisory Board for more than a decade, and continue to serve in these happy days long after my full-time work is over. I’m also one of many judges for their annual Excellence and Innovation Awards, which are handed out at their meeting in The Hague in early November (this year, November 7). The quality of the entries is amazing – it’s nice to know that so much good stuff keeps happening. The awards are for pension funds/plan sponsors, and the three categories are: Investment Strategies; Plan Design; and Participant Communication (often involving technology). If you work for, or know of, a pension fund/plan sponsor with cutting-edge ideas or projects in these areas, do click on this link and submit an entry. Officially entries close on June 28, but I’m pretty sure that date will be extended to mid-July.



If you’ve just finished school and are starting out on life … Follow your curiosity. Do sensible things, and when they go wrong, learn from your mistakes and hold on to your dreams. Enjoy the company of others. Sleep is important (not that you’ll care!). And, though it’ll be tough, save money for your future, so that one day you’ll be able to pay yourself and be free.


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.

2 Responses to “#212 A Letter To A New Graduate”

  1. Paul Owens says:

    Don: such an inspiring and practical letter! So good to see something “happy” in print. Keep it up.
    Paul Owens

  2. Don Ezra says:

    Thanks, Paul. Glad to be told it might be useful!

Leave your question or comment