How To Retire Without Losing Your Identity

By: Lynn Hauka | December 24, 2018

Raise your hand if you’ve said something like this:

“When I retire, I’m gonna do whatever I want! Take a cruise to the Bahamas! Or all around the Baltic! No, around the world! It’ll take all year! Yeah!”


“I can’t wait to ditch this ball and chain known as my J-O-B.”

Maybe your favorite phrase is “When I retire” and you say it All. The. Time. Until even your dog is sick of hearing it.

Retirement can’t come soon enough, right?

But Retirement Snuck Up On Me!

Even though you fantasized about retirement for years, you woke up one day and realized the time suddenly got damn close.

And it hits you: you’re no longer going to be a supervisor, lawyer, or bank teller. The role you built your identity on for decades.

If you’re not that, who are you?

Retirement is like yanking your own rug out from under yourself.

If I’m Not Me, The Worker Bee, Who Am I?

A few years ago I got a taste of retirement when in my late 50’s I left my corporate job and became a freelancer. I felt self-conscious to be at the grocery store in the middle of a weekday. As though I ought to wear a sign saying “Honestly, I work for a living”. When someone would ask me if I was retired I’d snap “No!”. Like hey, I’m not some useless retiree. I still contribute.

Now, I can laugh about realizing how much of my identity was wrapped up in being a corporate manager. But back then, when a friend said, “Work is what you do, it’s not who you are,” I wanted to strangle her. YES IT IS. When your work is meaningful and satisfying it’s a significant part of who you are. Let’s not downplay the enormous shift retirement represents.

Recapture The Delightful Anticipation Of Your Childhood

Remember that delicious feeling of life stretching out before you when you were a kid? The unknowns were exhilarating, not frightening; you imagined different ways your life could go, trying on this idea and that like hats at a department store. And you were forging your own identity as a wholly rounded person not simply Future Worker.

As you near retirement, you can recapture the same feeling of joy and excitement about what life has next for you, and reforge your identity — with the added benefit of the life wisdom you’ve gained.

Play The Preparation Game

Years ago a retiring friend crafted numerous plans for projects to fill her time because she feared otherwise she’d be lazy. After years of workplace structure, it’s tempting to put a similar framework into place for retirement. But while structure can be soothing, reducing your life to a series of tasks on a timeline makes your life about as juicy as the Sahara Desert.

Preparation is a mental and emotional game. So let’s play!

Here’s how:

  • Acknowledge you’ll experience a major change of identity. But you’re still you. Think of it as molting; you’re simply shedding the worker skin to make way for new growth of you, the retiree.
  • Take some quiet time to reflect on the most meaningful times of your life. What were they? How did they feel? What made them stand out?
  • Imagine carrying those times into your retirement. Take a few minutes to write or draw ideas for how you can create satisfaction and purpose once you retire.
  • Have fun exploring different scenarios; the sky’s the limit in this game. One question to ask yourself is: If I could wave a magic wand and have my life be any way I want it, what would that look like?
  • If you get stuck or feel frustrated, take a break. You can always come back to this game later when you feel refreshed.

Find Your “Why” As A Retiree

Leadership guru Simon Sinek encourages us to find our “why” in our work. As he says:

“Imagine a world in which the vast majority of us wake up inspired, feel safe at work and return home fulfilled at the end of the day.”

And I say the same goes for retirement.

The reason most people drift to and through retirement isn’t a lack of awareness, or smarts, or information. They don’t believe they matter if they’re not working so they don’t put much effort into finding their purpose and redefining themselves after they stop working.

But you’re going to be different, right?

You’re going to prepare, draw on your life wisdom, and let yourself be surprised and delighted by what you envision.

You bet your ass!

Yes, be on purpose while you work.

And when you retire, find your next purpose and revel in the new you.

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