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What is your identity wrapped up in?

I was speaking to a client who recently retired as a senior executive in a well-known global telecommunication company. We have become friends over the years of working together and he was sharing with me his initial experience of retired life, and what he had learned so far about how to have a successful retirement.

One of the things he pointed to was that in order to have a successful retirement, we need to be able to disassociate ourselves from our past professional title, status and position. While this is certainly true for executives, I believe it is relevant for everyone.

After our conversation, I was thinking to myself that doing this might be easier said than done.

First Story: At the age of eighteen, I was drafted for my army service. I spent the first four months in intense basic training. In our platoon, there was a clear hierarchy and pecking order. The Sargent was feared, the Second Lieutenant, our direct officer, was admired and the Captain, head of our company, was revered.

After almost five years of service, I retired from the military service as a captain and continued on to my professional life. Four years later, I was a successful consultant in an international training company.

One day as I was entering an office building on my way to a client engagement, I bumped into my ex-Captain from my basic training.

My heart skipped a beat. Even though I was a successful twenty-seven-year-old married consultant, in an instant, I was transferred in time. And for an instant, I was transformed into an eighteen-year-old apprehensive private in awe of his God-like Captain figure.

Thank God I snapped out of it in time to be able to reminisce with the man who was standing before me as a full grown adult.

Second Story: I was employed by an international training and consulting company for fifteen years. It was my first job in life and just like in the army, I rose through the ranks very rapidly, progressing from a junior position and title to a senior executive position and title. At the height of my employment, I felt at the top of the world. I was highly regarded by the CEO and all the senior executives of the company and I was often invited to participate in company-wide events.

But, one day I decided to move on. It was a tough decision as my entire identity was associated with this enterprise. I lived the first fifteen years of my professional life in that company. I became who I was in that company.

I left the company and found myself in an identity crisis. I was questioning: “Am I really successful and great or was it just inside that company?

Thankfully, the story has a great continuation. Fast-forward seventeen years; I have become a successful business owner consultant.

Our identity often does seem to be wrapped up in our professional and social title and status, as well as what comes with it.

In today’s world being a “celebrity” or “VIP” means something. People generally seem to be much more in need of external validation. Title and status make us feel more important. It increases our self-worth.

I travel a lot so every year I want to reach the highest frequent flyer status, as well as the highest status in certain hotel chains that I like. Yes, it’s because of the added perks and convenience, as well as the special attention I get when I fly and/or walk into a hotel. However, if I have, to be honest, it also strokes my ego and makes me feel more special. It is part of what shapes my identity.

In conversations with colleagues and executives the question of “how many miles have you flown this year?” or “what status are you in this hotel or airline?” comes up a lot.

Even though some people say “title and status don’t matter,” In most corporate environments, formal and informal title and status are very relevant. People tend to bring the topic up when they feel insecure or when they feel others are not giving them the respect their title and status entitles them. But, the self-consciousness around title and status seems to always be on alert.

I mention the military and corporate America environment because these are two sizable environments that have a great deal of impact on people’s identity.

I have had the opportunity to coach high-ranking officers in their transition from long military careers to civilian life. In many cases, this was a challenging transition from an identity standpoint.

So, when my retired client and friend shared his insight with me, it made me think about my own identity and how easy or hard it will be for me to disassociate myself from my past professional title, status and position when the time comes.

I guess that is why we often have to remind and encourage each other that “There is life after whatever we are doing today.”

Does retirement still make sense?

I recently read an intriguing statistic about retirement: “people who retire at 55 are 60% more likely to pass away within 10 years of retiring than people who retire at 65.”

Intuitively, this makes sense. Many people work hard for years, looking forward to a distant future when they will retire and finally begin to live their real lives. And yet, when they get there, they are ill-equipped for this sudden, dramatic change in their daily routine. When confronted with all the time in the world to play golf, they feel as if they have fallen off a cliff.

All the sacrifices people make throughout their working lives do not seem to guarantee happiness and prosperity – often because a person’s identity has been so closely wrapped up with what they do, rather than who they are. When they reach the “promised land” of retirement, it doesn’t take long before they start reminiscing about “the good old days.”

This is a real shame. When do we take the time to savor, to enjoy, and to be passionate about what we are doing? If anything needs to retire, it’s the legacy mindset that drives this behavior! Look around: when people love what they do, the idea of stopping solely because they have reached some arbitrary age is not only unwise, it is unhealthy.

Retirement stems from a time when work was by definition physical and hard. The body reached a point where it was no longer capable of continuing – and there was an imperative to make way for younger people. But work in knowledge economies is increasingly based on what people know, and what they can produce using their imagination, heart, and commitment.

Times have changed: age doesn’t matter for most knowledge activities. In fact, the experience, wisdom, and networks that come with age are considerable assets. As a result a person’s ability to continue doing something that excites and motivates them is virtually unlimited, even for those who have not been accustomed to this type of thinking. And, the fact that people are living longer is only making this point of view more relevant.

Think about it: if you are doing what you love, if you love what you’re doing, you never need to retire. Instead of looking forward to retirement as a time to “get off the train,” you could look to it as time to change gears and explore new exciting directions. Instead of running away from something you could run toward something.

How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you were? No matter where you are, or who you are, you have the ability to think differently. It takes courage but it’s our birthright and an innate ability. Instead of retiring from something, you could choose to create something new that excites you. A wise friend once told me that in order to stay young longer, you have to be up to something and stay engaged with people. The traditional idea of retirement seems to contradict that.

Consider what your future would look like without the word “retirement” in it at all. This would be a very different relationship to aging.