Life After Full-time Work Blog

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#214 Roger Federer’s Wisdom About Life

He sets out three important principles


We’ve all heard of Roger Federer. I’ve been lucky enough to see him in action, at his peak. He is among a handful of tennis players who are valid contenders for the unofficial title of Greatest Of All Time (or GOAT, as it’s called colloquially).

In June he was at Dartmouth College, one of the Ivy League universities, for two reasons.

The first reason was to receive an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters for his philanthropic work. As he said proudly, “I just came here to give a speech, but I get to go home as Dr Roger.” And that was the second reason: to give the 2024 Commencement Address to graduating students. His speech was a gem, setting out three lessons he has learned from life. He’s not just a tennis legend, he’s also a wise man. And his wisdom is the subject of this blog post.

He’s retired now, of course. But, as he put it: “I never went to college … but I did graduate recently. I graduated tennis. I know the word is ‘retire.’ ‘Roger Federer retires from tennis.’ Retired … the word is awful. You wouldn’t say you retired from college, right? Sounds terrible. Like you, I’ve finished one big thing and I’m moving on to the next.”

Well said, Roger! Graduation means dividing a scale into proportionate pieces with a mark. So you graduate, you move on, from one phase of life to the next. If you’ve read these blog posts with any regularity, you’ll know that I hate the word and concept of retirement, and I refer to graduating from full-time work. So I was particularly pleased to see Roger do the same thing.

I didn’t come up with the concept, the word, myself. I got the word “graduation” from my boss, really my mentor, George Russell, who used it when he cut back. I teased him mercilessly about it at the time; but when my turn came, I realized his wisdom, and I called him to ask if I could also use the word graduation for my event, and he laughed and said “Of course!” This was 10 – 15 years ago. And since then I hear George’s word used with increasing frequency, most recently, of course, by Federer.

Well done, Roger. If this was a game of tennis, you’d be up fifteen-love at this point. And we haven’t even got to your three life lessons – or as you called them, tennis lessons.

Here’s the first: “Effortless” … is a myth.

Though his game seemed effortless, his excellence came from years of consistent hard work. His wakeup call came early in his career, when an opponent said Roger would be the favorite for the first two hours, after which he (the opponent) would be the favorite – meaning that Roger hadn’t the physical and mental stamina to keep it up. Roger was grateful for being called out – and his future results showed the huge amount of training he put in.

This reminded me of Thomas Edison’s saying that genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. In tennis talent is the equivalent of that 1% inspiration – but even Federer’s talent wouldn’t have been enough without his determination to outwork his opponents. As he said: “Yes, talent matters. I’m not going to stand here and tell you it doesn’t … Most of the time, it’s not about having a gift. It’s about having grit.”

A valuable lesson for us all.

Here’s the second: “It’s only a point.”

By which he means that you shouldn’t obsess over a failure to win a point, to achieve something important to you. You accept it and move on to the next point.

As he explains it: “When you’re playing a point, it is the most important thing in the world. But when it’s behind you, it’s behind you … This mindset is really crucial, because it frees you to fully commit to the next point … and the next one after that … with intensity, clarity and focus.”

He translates this into a life lesson: “The truth is, whatever game you play in life… sometimes you’re going to lose. A point, a match, a season, a job… it’s a roller coaster, with many ups and downs. And it’s natural, when you’re down, to doubt yourself. To feel sorry for yourself. And by the way, your opponents have self-doubt, too. Don’t ever forget that.

“But negative energy is wasted energy. You want to become a master at overcoming hard moments. That to me is the sign of a champion. The best in the world are not the best because they win every point… It’s because they know they’ll lose… again and again… and have learned how to deal with it.”


He also said something that got to the statistician in me, so I investigated it a bit further. I looked at some precise measures in his career. (In singles) he won 20 Grand Slam titles, among 103 overall titles. Wow! He played 1,526 singles matches, of which he won 1,251 – more than 80%. Do you know what proportion of points he won, in those 1,526 matches?

Every point, of course, is both won and lost. If you add up all the wins and losses of points over any time period by all the players involved, by definition the points won would equal the points lost. Yes, you can win a match with fewer points won than the other player, by squeaking out narrow wins in games you win and giving up comprehensive losses in games you lose – but that’s rare. Usually the player who wins the match has won more than 50% of the points. But how much more? I don’t know – I couldn’t find that stat (not a surprise). But Roger cited his own stat, which astonished me. Knowing that he won more than 80% of his matches, I could hardly believe that the proportion of points that he won, over the years, added up to (I know you’ve been looking ahead for a number, so I’m not going to let you cheat, I’m going to spell it out) fifty-four percent.

Such a narrow margin over 50%! But, as he put it, “Even top-ranked tennis players win barely more than half of the points they play.” No wonder losing a point, to him, meant that he had to put it behind him and move on to the next point. Few of us, in life, become so accustomed to failure. Perhaps, if we did, we could learn not to dwell on our failures.

His third lesson: “Life is bigger than the court.”

By which he means that there’s more to life than … any one thing, no matter how important it is to you. “Even when I was just starting out, I knew that tennis could show me the world … but tennis could never be the world.” And he went on to explain that, as he traveled around the world, he realized pretty early that he wanted to serve other people in other countries, particularly in disadvantaged countries. “Motivated by my South African mother, I started a foundation to empower children through education.” He was so carried away by this notion that he started the foundation not after he graduated from tennis, but at the age of 22, twenty years ago. Wonderful, and generous.

To Roger, there’s more to life than tennis. To me, with my financial background, the lesson (one that I’ve spoken and written about many times) is that there’s more to life than money – indeed, more than any one aspect. This echoes something I picked up from Dr Ed Jacobson, who came up with the name: our “life’s abundance portfolio.” I don’t remember the words he used to categorize the many kinds of wealth we experience in our lives, but the concept sticks in my mind when I remember these words in pairs: family and friends; work and play; mental (including spiritual) and physical health; and money. I think of them as the seven asset classes in our life’s abundance portfolio. And even if we don’t end up accumulating much money, we still have wealth in other areas of life.


Those are Roger’s three life lessons.

Roger, you’re an inspiration. Continuing the analogy of your speech as a game, your three lessons take you from that initial fifteen-love to thirty-love, then forty-love, then game. And you didn’t lose a single point!



Roger Federer condensed his life’s wisdom, expressed in a brilliant Commencement speech, into three lessons. Hard work, more than talent, is the foundation of excellence. Failure is inevitable; learn from it, and move on. There’s more to life than any one aspect of it.

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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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