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Answering in Retirement: So, What Do You Do?

Answering in Retirement: So, What Do You Do?

By Joe Casey

We’ve all heard this question. It’s a simple one. This is not 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.

Are We What We Do?

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.

Don’t Get Wrapped Up In Titles and Perks

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!”

It Takes Time to Adjust

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 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:

1. Give yourself time to transition

  Be patient with yourself. Be curious about how you feel about where you’re headed.

2. Explain yourself beyond a job

 Think multi-dimensionally. Think about the things you’re getting involved or with interested in exploring. Include the other roles in your life.

3. Gauge your level of comfort

 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.

4. Own your new identity

Let go of what you used to do. Think of yourself in new terms and embrace what you’re doing.

This article originally appeared on Retirement Wisdom and was reprinted with permission.

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Joe Casey

Managing Partner at Retirement Wisdom
Joe Casey is an Executive and Retirement Coach who brings extensive experience navigating transitions from his coaching work with clients and his own life and career. After a 26-year career in Human Resources with Merrill Lynch, Joe shifted gears to become an executive coach. Joe holds Masters degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and Middlesex University and a BA from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Joe earned his coaching certification from Columbia University and is a Certified Retirement Coach through the Retirement Options group. Joe lives with his wife Pat, their four children and three dogs in New Jersey.