By Joe Casey
Our head of HR once told an old story that’s always stuck with me. The story was about a traveler in ancient Rome who was walking up a steep hill where he encountered a group of workers scurrying about.
It was a very busy scene and he decided to inquire about what exactly they were doing. The first worker he asked seemed visibly annoyed about being interrupted and barked “I am cutting stones.” It wasn’t clearly audible, but the traveler thought he heard the worker grumble “Idiot.” The worker clearly wanted to return to his tasks as soon as possible, so the traveler continued up the hill.
Soon he came across a second worker, who was doing the same tasks. He was also busy, but he appeared a bit friendlier. The traveler asked him the same question. The worker paused, just for a moment, and explained “I am a stonecutter. I traveled many miles here for this work and as soon as I receive my pay next month, I will return home.” The worker then turned his attention back to his work. The traveler thanked him and continued up the hill.
Toward the top of the hill, he saw a third worker. He was engaged in exactly the same tasks as the other two workers had been. The traveler asked him the same question about what he was doing. The third worker put down his tools, walked over to shake the traveler’s hand, looked him in the eye, smiled broadly and answered “I am building a cathedral.” He explained “I’ve traveled very far to be part of this team and I miss my family. But I know how important this cathedral will be and how many people will come and worship here. The Bishop shared with us his vision for this place and how many people would benefit for many, many years. Their future depends on the very work we’re doing now.”
Having a clear sense of purpose can completely shift how someone views their work. Is it simply a task, a job or is it possibly something more meaningful, even a calling? What’s different about the third worker is his understanding of the vision and the impact that their collective work will have on others. It puts the same exact tasks in a broader context and there’s a difference in how he describes the work.
Lately, I’m noticing the same phenomenon with retirement. Much of what I read about planning for retirement, especially early retirement, feels a lot like the first and second workers. There are the key steps to take and tasks to hit. All are good and very important. There’s a big emphasis on the date. It’s reminiscent of Escape from Alcatraz. You can picture the prisoners scratching the number of days on the walls of their cells. There’s more emphasis on what they are retiring from than what they are retiring to. I sense that’s something is missing.
I notice similar things among those who are in retirement. On vacation this week, I hear many people describe themselves as “I’m retired.” When asked a little more about it, their answers focus on activities – on what they do. “A little of this and a little of that” is a common refrain. Travel and Golf are others. Other retirees, like the second worker, describe themselves based on their personal or professional roles. “I’m a grandfather. I’m a volunteer. I’m a writer. I’m a teacher part-time. I’m a crime boss in the Mafia” (I should mention, that like the US President, I’m vacationing in New Jersey).
But I notice something different about a third group. It’s the smallest, but they describe things that they are engaged in that seem to have deeper meaning to them. What I notice in those people is they talk less about themselves and more about others. Less about themselves and more about how what they are engaged in helps others. It’s anecdotal, but I’d say this last group seems happier. They remind me of the third worker.
Each retirement is unique. How about you? How are you thinking about your retirement? Are you thinking of it as something you’ll do, a specific role or something that has a meaningful purpose to you and an impact on others?