Once upon a time, in a land of majestic mountains and sprawling prairies, I embarked on an annual pilgrimage to Big Sur with a band of age-old companions.
[Inspired by a teacher, Sahil Bloom]
There, among the tranquility of nature, a friend and I engaged in an enlightening dialogue about retirement.
This friend, a man of vast wealth and success, yearned for the freedom and time he thought were absent from his life.
His grand scheme: to labor intensely for the next decade or so, accumulate an enormous fortune, retire, and then immerse himself in the joys of life with his children, who would be teenagers by then, and various hobbies.
This plan isn’t uncommon; it’s like a traveler’s dream of a faraway promised land, where they’ll find their bliss, overflowing with free time, health, wealth, love, and liberty.
But there’s a catch.
What if this utopia is nothing more than a desert mirage?
What if, as we journey across life’s deserts, this mirage recedes further into the horizon the closer we get?
What if we finally reach this supposed utopia and discover it’s nowhere near as perfect as we imagined?
Today, let’s engage in a fireside chat about the dangers of postponing our happiness, the retirement snare, and the joy of a well-crafted life.
Imagine you’re flipping through the pages of the Wall Street Journal and coming across a fascinating infographic on how retirees spend their time.
The image painted isn’t quite the idyllic scene most of us envisage. Most retirees are found to spend their days sleeping, relaxing, and watching television, with only minimal time dedicated to reading, socializing, or exercising.
Why this dissonance? The idyllic scene we paint is a projection of our current selves onto our future. Still, when that future arrives, we might be completely different people with different desires, capacities, and connections.
Often, we find ourselves trapped in a “when, then” loop of thinking: “When I get [X], then I’ll be happy.” This way of thinking doesn’t belittle the value of delayed gratification. Instead, it challenges the notions of postponing all happiness for the future and relying on external achievements for lasting joy.
I recall when I reached a million followers on Twitter.
The jubilation was momentary, a brief burst of satisfaction that quickly evaporated.
The resulting disappointment would have been profound if my happiness had hinged on reaching this milestone. This illustrates the danger of tethering our happiness to external achievements.
This is a trap, and retirement often appears as the ultimate version of this trap. We imagine a utopia of contentment awaiting us in retirement, but the reality could be starkly different.
So, how do we escape this trap?
I propose a shift in perspective.
Traditional retirement sets a stage of “before and after”—years of hard work and drudgery in the “before,” followed by blissful rest and recreation in the “after.”
But I argue this foundation is flawed.
Instead, we should see life as a beautiful, constantly flowing, ever-changing river.
Our goal should be to create a fulfilling life from which we never need to retire. A life where work and joy coexist and time is dedicated to relationships, hobbies, and pursuits that ignite our happiness.
This, however, is a challenging task. It requires conscious design and continuous effort.
In the traditional arc, we see:
Aged 20: Start work
Aged 20-65: Work 40-60 hours per week
Aged 65+: Retire and enjoy life
The designed life arc might be:
The 20s: Begin work, establish a firm base
The 30s: Identify and focus on high-value opportunities
The 40s: Delegate and streamline to gain freedom
The 50s: Find the most meaningful work
60s+: Focus on the most meaningful work
The idea here is gentle, constant growth leading to greater freedom and fulfillment over time.
It doesn’t call for deferring happiness but instead encourages finding it in continuous development and improvement.
There’s no “falling behind” in this journey.
Regardless of where you are now, young or old, all you need is to take that one step towards improvement, make that wise decision, and keep moving.
A dear friend once shared a thought-provoking anecdote. After returning from a vacation, as the flight attendants announced their “return to reality,” he realized he was thrilled to return to his everyday life. Because when you’ve designed your reality to be as fulfilling as any vacation, “reality can be pretty great.”
In this grand narrative of life, let’s write chapters filled with joy, growth, and fulfillment and not wait for an uncertain “happily ever after.” After all, the joy is in the journey, not just the destination.