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Do What You Love

"Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again."

Nelson Mandela

A colleague of mine retired last week at the tender age of seventy with over forty years of service in the helping profession. I’m always a bit nostalgic and experience some emotions when a colleague retires because I know that the field is losing a lifetime of accumulated knowledge, skills, and abilities and it takes decades for a new professional to acquire that but at the same time I find myself a bit jealous to think that someone is stopping work to enjoy what I picture of life in retirement with more time to do things someone enjoys doing for a hobby or recreationally and not just occupationally.

I also read last week that people are living longer than ever before in recorded human history and it is not unreasonable to expect that many people born today may live to be a hundred years old. The corporate world is considering this and realizing that the notion of a twenty or thirty- or forty-year career may soon become more commonly a forty or fifty or even sixty-year career. Personally, I plan to work another twenty years and two months to retire on my 56th wedding anniversary when I am seventy-seven years-old.

Whenever I share that with people that I plan to work until I’m seventy-seven they say things like I’m crazy and they can’t imagine working that long in life. I remind them that in politics or celebrity life it’s not uncommon at all for people to work into their seventies or even eighties and nineties. We have a President right now who is 79 years-old and may consider running for a second four year-term and there are plenty of actors in Hollywood still going strong and making movies well into their later years. One of my favorite actors, Christopher Plummer, worked right up until he died when he was ninety-one years-old! So, for me to plan to retire at seventy-seven might have seemed lazy to old Chris.

Anyway, when my colleague retired last week, I got to thinking about all this and it reminded me of the life story of one of the great leaders I studied early on in my military career when I used to make it a habit to study the personal habits and life stories of accomplished leaders. One of those leaders I studied and later learned more about when I worked in South Africa for a few months was Nelson Mandela. His story included the fact that he never lost sight of his vision for an equal and free country even while imprisoned for twenty-seven years of his life and many of those years spent in hard labor breaking large boulders all day every day, sometimes while also in solitary confinement and denied food for days at a time.

I’ve saw photographs of Nelson Mandela during those years in hard labor on Robben Island where he sat all day every day breaking large boulders into small pebbles with just a mallet and chisel. He was also kept in solitary confinement all that time so for over twenty years he had nothing to do all day except to break boulders down into pebbles and then to know he would be going to sleep in solitary confinement to get up and do it all over again the next day and the next and the next. I can’t imagine what life must have been like to do that for over twenty years of the twenty-seven he served in prison.

What inspires me most about Nelson Mandela is that he never gave up or lost his vision to help free South Africa. He was seventy-five years-old when he was finally released and all the time he was kept in prison it was for political crimes only, essentially being locked up in solitary and forced into hard labor purely for his beliefs. But he kept his vision for the future and when he was finally released at age seventy-five is when he then went on to become the President of South Africa and to end Apartheid which had kept the country in racial oppression for so many decades before.

So Mandela’s career never really got started until he was seventy-five and he stayed active as a political and world leader until the final years of his life in his nineties. When I compare Mandela’s life timeline to my own plan, I really do question sometimes if I should stop working when I’m seventy-seven as I’m thinking or maybe I should keep going.

There is a growing body of psychological research which indicates that working beyond traditional retirement age can have tremendous positive health effects for both your physical and your mental health. The benefits of the mental stimulation and social engagement that work can provide are associated with staving off chronic diseases, reducing the risk of heart attack and stroke, and prolonging the onset of dementia.

Those studies also find though that working in jobs which include hard labor or jobs which provide no meaning or include high stress can be bad for people to continue working in. So it’s not just to keep working, it’s to keep working in something you find meaningful and enjoyable. It’s exactly why I always say I don’t “have to” do what I do, I “get to” do what I do. Because if I didn’t truly enjoy what I do, I am thankful to have the ability and option to quit doing it and to do something else and I really would go do something else if I ever stopped enjoying it.

We are fortunate to live in a time when the majority of work that people do is no longer the intense type of manual labor that people used to have to do to make a living. Most jobs these days are not the physically demanding ones that can be difficult for old bodies to keep doing day in and day out. How in the world Nelson Mandela kept breaking big rocks into little rocks with a mallet and chisel all those years in his sixties and seventies is mind boggling to me. Just moving all the boxes I had to when we moved from Pennsylvania to Delaware seemed like a killer to me and I’m only in my fifties!

So while continuing to work does have positive benefits, the type of work that people do is very also very important in determining whether it will have a positive or negative impact on their health. Jobs that involve hard labor, high stress, or no meaning can have detrimental effects on a person's health, and it's essential to find work that is both enjoyable and meaningful. Fortunately, many jobs these days are less physically demanding than in the past, which means that older adults can continue working in their chosen profession for longer without experiencing the same level of physical strain – like me!

It's also important to note that retirement doesn't necessarily mean stopping work altogether. My colleague who retired last week is planning to get involved in his local town government and to do some volunteer work with a conservation organization he’s always thought highly of. In that same way, many people choose to retire from their full-time job but continue to work part-time or engage in other types of work, such as volunteering or pursuing hobbies that involve some form of work.

Ultimately, the decision to continue working beyond retirement age is a personal one, and it's important to consider one's own health, financial situation, and personal goals when making this decision. So if you choose to continue working, find work that is both enjoyable and meaningful so it can have those many positive health benefits for you.

I’m a firm believer that your occupation is what you do, it’s not who you are. One day all of us will no longer be doing the work we are doing today. For the time that we do work though, it takes up enough of our daily hours that it’s really important to enjoy it as much as possible. Working for a toxic boss or as part of a toxic work environment can take years off of your life and really ruin the quality of your life. I realize not everyone can just quit a job to go work somewhere else that they would enjoy better, but if you find yourself dreading the job you do daily or getting the “Sunday Scaries” as some people describe that emotional low of knowing a new work week is starting the next day, then it might be time to consider options and adjust your long-term plan if you have one.

For me, I’m thankful I truly enjoy what I do, and I like knowing that there is purpose in helping people overcome challenges they are experiencing or to improve their emotional wellness. I really do “get to” do this and don’t do this because I “have to.” I hope that my mind and body hold out long enough that I can keep doing this until I’m seventy-seven and even though I joke that I may only have enough time left after that to do a crossword puzzle and have a cup of coffee before I die, I hope that I’m blessed with some years beyond that to do some volunteer work, learn about gardening and bird watching, and spend many days walking on the beach together with my wife.

What does your long-term vision look like?

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