What I Learned from My Mini-Retirement at Age 34 (Mostly, that Retirement is Overrated)

I.

From April 2012 to April 2013, my aggregate gross income was zero.

I read a lot. I ran a lot. I wrote some. Taught myself a little Python and LISP. Played around with a few startup ideas. But I had no overarching or under-arching purpose to what I was doing.

My prior job was working at a high-paying law firm. And since I am frugal and a decent investor, I had some money left over.

The only reason I went to law school was because I tested well and because I was tired of being broke. The only reason I worked at the high-paying law firm was because it was a high-paying law firm.

So there I was, 34 years old, with a decent amount of money and nothing to do.

And do you know what the experience taught me? That I needed some sort of professional focus in my life. And that doing nothing, or doing a bunch of random things without much direction, had started to erode at my sense of purpose. It made me feel as if I were on an island of irrelevance.

And whereas before I had thought that early retirement was the ultimate dream, I soon realized that retirement – at any age – probably wasn’t for me. And the more I thought about and read about retirement, the more I realized that retirement probably isn’t ideal for a majority of professionals today.

II.

The standard practice for most of us is to work hard during our prime years and then retire in our golden years.

And there is some historical rationale to this. In 1790, 90% of the labor force in the United States worked in agriculture. And working on a farm is demanding, hard work. For most, working on a farm as a 70 or 80 year old is impractical or impossible. But now, less than 3% of the labor force works in agriculture. And the total number of jobs today in the United States that require even “moderate physical activity” is less than 20%.

For 80% of the population, there is no physical reason to compress your working years before the age 65.

III.

According to Pew Research, retirees are no more likely to be happy than workers. So, then, why retire? Apart from the global financial industry, currently estimated in the $11 trillion range, which certainly encourages us to think about retirement, there are other reasons.

To name a few:

  • Not working in our golden years sounds nice. No more bosses, no more stress, no more inconvenience of coming into the office every day. Given the choice between work and no work, most people think they’d prefer no work.
  • It seems trivial to spend the last years of our life focusing on anything other than spending time with loved ones and appreciating the best things life has to offer.
  • Many suffer from declining health as we get older. Whether it’s arthritis, incontinence, dementia, or any other ailment traditionally associated with old age, there are plenty of physical reasons why it might be hard to go to into an office, even if the labor done at work isn’t physical.
  • Also, society might not want older workers to keep working. Mandatory retirement is illegal in most circumstances in the United States, but we’ve created a host of social incentives, from 401(k)’s to social security, to encourage most workers to leave the workplace before age 70. Maybe this is for the benefit of retirees; maybe it’s for the benefit of the younger folks.

IV.

In spite of all the incentives to retire, not everyone seems to want to go.

Counterintuitive as it may seem, retirement, and the desire to retire, is actually less common among who can most afford to retire.

According to a recent piece by NBC:

A new survey shows that America’s highest earners don’t plan on retiring until they are at least 70 years old. Lower-income groups—and even those considered “affluent”—plan to retire much younger, according to the study from Spectrem Group, a wealth research firm.

When asked, “At what age do you expect to retire?” nearly one-third of those with annual earnings of $750,000 or more answered “over 70.” Fifteen percent of them say they never plan to retire.

On the other hand, only 6 percent of those making under $100,000 a year plan to retire after 70, and the same percentage say they never plan to retire. Most plan to retire by 65.

The Spectrem survey is backed up by other, previous studies. A 2010 study from Barclay’s Wealth found that 54 percent of millionaires say they want to continue working in retirement. Globally, 60 percent of those with a net worth of $15 million or more plan to stay involved with work “no matter what their age.

Warren Buffett is still the CEO of a company with a $357 billion market cap at age 85. Charlie Munger is still vice chair, at age 92! No one needs to work less than they do. But they still go tap dancing to work every day.

Similarly, the average age of retirement for Supreme Court justices in the United States is now 78.3, and many work until they die.

Maybe it’s because elite performers tend to be workaholics. But maybe something else is going on.

V.

I recently read this post by Kevin Simler called a Nihilist’s Guide to Meaning. In it, he describes meaning as a product of one’s influence and connection to other people and institutions. According to Simler (I’m oversimplifying), the extent that we are involved in groups and institutions where our actions have an impact on other people is the extent to which we find meaning in our lives. It’s the connections to others that gives us meaning.

When we retire, we remove ourselves from the place where we are most likely to make an impact, work. What’s more, senior citizens tend to be further removed from other institutions that impact people, such as schools. A few institutions like churches welcome contributions from senior citizens, but most social institutions don’t have a place for the elderly. And so as people age, they often stop doing the things that previously gave meaning to their lives. That’s a recipe for obsolesce, depression, and decrepitude.

Warren Buffett can change thousands of lives with a check, a comment, or a stock order. He can make or break a company’s future or provide any charity of his choice the gift of perpetual solvency. His choices make a meaningful impact on others, and so he’s not inclined to delegate those choices, no matter how old he gets.

And so, too, with the rest of the Forbes list. Almost none of them is retired in any real sense – though they all possess wealth that could never be spent no matter how exorbitant their spending habits. Still, they nearly all shirk from a life of pure leisure, removed from work. From Sheldon Adelson, age 82, to Mark Zuckerberg, age 32, they’re still at it.

So, too, is the case for Supreme Court justices. They’re not eager to relinquish their hard-earned influence. Many liberal jurists begged Ruth Bader Ginsburg to retire while Obama still had the ability to appoint her successor. She didn’t. And at 83, if she were to die or fall ill while a Republican were in office, it would have grave consequences for the progressive causes she has advocated for her entire life. But you have to respect her determination to stick with it, and she’s still as important and influential as ever.

The point is, those who make an impact with work rarely wish to leave, no matter how old they get.

VI.

I work with startups. And I often run into people who say they’re looking to accumulate wealth and retire early. It’s something I hear once or twice a week.

To me, that’s a huge red flag.

I often ask those entrepreneurs, if you make all that money, what will you do then?

Some say they’ll move to a beach in Central America or to Spain or to Paris.

But then what? Will you really just drink watery Central American beer and go scuba diving for the rest of your life?

Sometimes they’ll tell me about some project they’d work on.

I tell them that’s probably what they should be working on now. (Because if you’re going to succeed at a startup, you better have the enthusiasm to keep working on it regardless of how long it takes and how much money you make short term).

Jobs didn’t retire. Buffett didn’t retire. Zuckerberg won’t retire. And if you have the drive and energy that’s required to create a successful startup, I’m guessing it’s unlikely that you’ll ever retire, either.

VII.

I have a theory about how to get the most out of your professional life. And it’s adopted from a hobby I’ve been doing since I was 12: long-distance running.

Most training strategies in running follow a simple formula. Stress the body near its limits, rest, repeat. The types of stress vary, but the concept is nearly universal. Push the body to the extremes of what it can handle, and then let the body recover fully.

If you don’t stress the body enough, you’ll never improve your fitness level. You’ll never come near your full potential. Stress it to the extreme without rest, and you’ll suffer sickness, injury, or burnout – and you’ll never come near your full potential.

The goal is a goldilocks mixture of stress and rest, alternating between the two.

Some call this type of stress “eustress,” which is a term for the type of stress that is good for the body and mind. There is an optimal level of stress where a person is challenged to get the most out of his or her abilities. The exact formula for the perfect amount of stress varies from person to person and moment to moment. But without exception, every training regiment I have ever seen incorporates the concepts of stress and rest in some form.

VIII.

The standard professional arc for most working Americans doesn’t jibe with the eustress model. From birth to when we enter the working world, the focus is on education and self discovery. Then, from that point to retirement, most professionals work 48-50 weeks a year – and then come to a near-complete halt.

That’s way too much stress in the middle, with not enough rest and recovery, and way too much rest and recovery at the end with nowhere near enough stress.

The ideal mixture is person- and circumstance-specific, but the ideal mixture for all of us should include work stress and work recovery throughout all stages of our lives.

Complete rest leads to atrophy and decay. The over-75 demographic watches more TV than any other age group. That doesn’t sound like sucking the marrow out of life to me. Retirees need eustress as much as any other age group – perhaps more, because of the inevitable process of physical and mental decay that happens to each of us as we age. And the conventional cycle of intense working years followed by a complete cessation of professional activity discourages us for obtaining the healthy stresses we need in our final years.

IX.

And of course, there is the fact that nearly 20% of Americans die before they reach age 65. Not delaying gratification can be a character flaw, but the decision to delay it too much is fraught with peril as well.

X.

So rather than thinking about retirement, I think about my professional life in daily, weekly, quarterly, annual, and other periodic recovery cycles. If I go on a 30-mile mountain run, I need more than one or two rest days to recover. And if I bang out an intense project or a big deal where I’m working much more than normal, I try to take time to incorporate a longer vacation. If I’m burned out, like I was when I left my big-firm law job, I take a sabbatical. But I have no plan to retire. I’ll work and rest throughout my entire life, but as long as I have my faculties about me, I’ll have a project waiting for me at the end of every rest cycle.

From everything I have experienced, that seems to be the only way to get better. And from everything I have learned, that’s the only way to live.