By Joe Casey
We’ve all heard this question. It’s a simple one. This is not of one of life’s most challenging problems. But it can be an instructive part of your transition to retirement. It’s really about giving yourself time to adjust to – and to own – a new identity. For some it’s even an identity crisis of sorts.
We tend to answer that question effortlessly. ‘I’m an accountant.’ ‘I’m a carpenter.’ ‘I’m a teacher.’ Or ‘I work at Global Mega Corp.’ We describe ourselves by what we do for a living or where we do it. In our society, a lot of attention is placed on what we do. But, of course, we’re much more than our jobs.
Long, long ago and far, far away, in my 20’s, I went to grad school at night for six years (My daughter asked if I was in the slow class). Hands down, the best course I had was taught by an adjunct professor who had just retired as the CEO of a company in Philadelphia. One night, he shared an observation with us that I’ve always remembered. It seemed like it was a painful one for him to share. He advised us not to become wrapped up in titles, offices and perks that come with different jobs. He said that it’s easy to get your self-image too intertwined with them. He warned us to be careful because the jobs, titles, offices, and perks all go away. Don’t confuse your job with who you are. Sound advice from someone who sounded like he had learned it the hard way.
What’s interesting is how different this question feels when you’ve just retired or you’re in the middle of figuring out a transition to whatever is next. What used to be an effortless response, is now replaced by hesitation. ‘Well, I used to…”.
For some people, this question is a non-issue. ‘I’m retired. I play golf 7 days a week!”
For others, it can be a challenge at first. When I retired from my corporate career, I noticed the hesitation. Awkward. My identity was rooted in what I had done for the past 29 years. It took a while to try on and get used to what I was doing in my next chapter. As time went by, I became much more comfortable in my answer. As I look back on that period, now almost nine years ago, I can see that I needed to give myself time to grow into a new view of myself – and to own it.
Interestingly, my answer evolved into one that no longer solely defined myself by my job. ‘Well, I do a lot of different things. I do X, I do Y and I especially love doing Z. How about you?’
(As an aside, I have noticed that sometimes people really aren’t listening when they ask So What Do You Do? They’re often thinking of what to ask or say next. I once tested this, answering ‘I’m an undercover circus clown’, which was greeted by a ‘Oh, that’s nice.’ To which I responded, “Yes, but it’s a lot more difficult than people think.”).
Four suggestions to keep in mind:
Be patient with yourself. Be curious about how you feel about where you’re headed.
Think multi-dimensionally. Think about the things you’re getting involved or with interested in exploring. Include the other roles in your life.
Notice when you’re starting to feel more comfortable. Pay attention to what that may be telling you about where you are in your journey.
Let go of what you used to do. Think of yourself in new terms and embrace what you’re doing.
What have you experienced with the So, What Do You Do question?
Listen to our retirement transition podcast with interviews with authors, experts and retirees creating interesting lives in retirement.