Who am I now? Building a new life in retirement
Stop and reevaluate – you can do more than sit around and reminisce
By John G. Weaver
I have crossed a line. This line separates an active career from a life of not getting up at any specific time, having my coffee wherever I want it, taking lunch when and where I want to, and busying myself with projects I choose, rather than those others have prioritized for me. I have crossed into retirement.
My journey to retirement came in stages, really, after I left my career position as the warden of a large detention facility in Southern California. At that point, I had invested nearly 40 years of my adult life into the field of corrections. But soon after my last day in prison, I needed something to do. I dabbled for a while as a pitmaster for a barbecue joint and then as a bartender at a popular tavern chain. It was fun to learn new things of interest, but I felt like I needed to do something with more purpose, so I took a job as director of quality and program improvement for an agency that served hard-to-place foster children. I figured the experience I gained in 40 years of managing people and prisons would be useful in serving kids at risk of going to prison. This job ended four years later when the agency eliminated my position during the COVID-19 pandemic. Being fired at this point in my life made the retirement message clear: It was time to bow out of the traditional workforce. The universe has its way of speaking to us.
I didn’t have a “life strategy” when I started my career as a deputy sheriff during my sophomore year in college. My major was criminal justice, and that was as close as I came to identifying and implementing a plan for my future. The rest seemed to just fall into place. I worked in all kinds of prisons and secure treatment facilities. I worked in prisons for juveniles and adults, for males and females, high-security prisons, detention centers and secure treatment facilities for those overwhelmed by the hopelessness of substance abuse. I worked in prisons all over the country for the U.S. Departments of Justice and Homeland Security and state prisons in Montana and New York. I worked in the federal prison system administrative offices in Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia. I loved my work, and I loved the mission I felt I served in keeping my communities safe.
I worked with people who shared a common cause, and we worked as a team. We did whatever it took to make good things happen. Sometimes that meant working 18 or 24 hours straight. Sometimes that meant working six weeks in a row without a day off. We did these things because we believed in the mission – something bigger than ourselves. Sure, I had my moments. It wasn’t always fun, and there were some folks I worked with I just plain didn’t like. But the mission was bigger than me and my need for comfort.
Time for a new strategy
Now, as a one-person team, I am discovering my identity was attached to what I did, not the person I was. In many ways my job was all-consuming. I received calls at all hours of the day and night from staff that kept me abreast of incidents in the prison. I once looked forward to the day I wouldn’t be awakened at 2 a.m. by a call informing me of a stabbing, suicide attempt, or other incident. Now that this day has come, I miss those calls. There is something about being in a position of leadership that makes even the most inconvenient moments rewarding.
Small talk in almost all social situations includes the question, “What do you do for a living?” I very much enjoyed responding to that question with, “I’ve been in prison for the last 40 years.” The expression on people’s faces as they fumbled for what to say next was priceless. I would almost always let them off the hook by explaining I was a career corrections professional and my job was prison work. Still, they weren’t sure how to talk to me – like I’d just informed them I had some kind of rare disease and wasn’t sure if it was contagious. This has all changed now. I’m no longer in prison. So, who am I?
I have found this period of confusion is not uncommon among the clients I work with in my coaching practice. It seems we dream of the wonderful things we will do once we retire; however, we often underestimate the emotional issues we will face as we transition out of our former identities. The moment we walk out the door of our office or the shop or the excavator for the last time, carrying the printer paper box containing the personal items we decorated our spaces with, life changes in a big way. Soon after we are no longer doing what we did every day for 40 years, the question of, “Who am I now?” hits us like a bucket of ice water dumped over our heads. “Who am I now?” is an important question we need to examine with a purposeful approach. It’s time for a new life strategy.
Retirement is an opportunity
My generation learned how to work from our parents and grandparents. My grandpa worked a full-time job while he worked on his own farm. He continued to work on his farm until a stroke forced his retirement. My mom completed a bachelor’s degree while working full-time after her kids made it through school. She went on to become the first woman manager for a major medical equipment manufacturer. Work was life for them. And so it was for me.
A change as abrupt as retirement is a major life transition with significant emotional implications. We may experience a loss of identity, loss of purpose, social isolation and a sudden feeling of separation from everything we once knew. The means we relied upon to keep us connected to others and to our life’s purpose are no longer there. The good news is there are steps we can take to ensure a healthy transition from our careers into a successful and productive life in retirement:
- First, we need to take a genuine look at the person we have become over our lifetimes.
- Second, we need to evaluate the natural skills we have successfully leveraged in our careers.
- Finally, we need to think about how we want to continue to make a meaningful contribution to humanity.
It’s important to remember that retirement does not need to mean we are being put out to pasture where we will pass time lamenting about the good ol’ days. Retirement provides a remarkable opportunity for us to design and live full and rich lives in a way we have ourselves designed and constructed. We can make a difference in the world, perhaps even more so now. We just need to do so with a new life strategy. We are called to do so because the world needs what we have to offer.
About the author
John G. Weaver and his wife, Sylvie, split their time between the United States and France. His passion is for travel and learning about cultures different from his own. Mostly John loves his new career as a certified life coach, where he helps people navigate major life transitions. Contact John via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.