Many years ago, my sister and I were talking about our lives, and I remember telling her that one thing I wanted to do when I retired, because I didn't have time for it before then, was some personal volunteering. I had in mind something regular and face-to-face, like working in a soup kitchen.
Not long after that, in an unrelated conversation with my wife Linda, there was a discussion of where autism comes from. Our son Randy, who is moderately well known around town as an exuberantly friendly (if sometimes puzzling) personality, is autistic, and we had noticed among other families with autistic children that milder forms of autistic traits are often observable in parents and grandparents, and frequently in other relatives as well. Linda and I were applying this to our own families, and having fun comparing the eccentricities of different family members.
This was a breakthrough for me in understanding myself. Half of Randy's genes come from me, and once I tuned into that (finally), I could see it clearly. The thing about autism that is not widely recognized, even within the community of people who really care about autism, is that in milder forms, some autistic traits can be highly beneficial in some ways, though problematic in others.
The benefit, at least in my case, is an ability to concentrate, to tune out distractions, to literally not hear or be aware of what's going on around me, when I am really focusing on something. (In practical terms, this translates into a high aptitude for taking standardized tests, a valuable gift when I was a student.) But the other side of this coin is less than normal comfort with groups of people, especially groups of strangers. Of course, most people are at least somewhat uncomfortable with strangers, but with me it's distinctly worse.
And the last place I can operate comfortably and effectively is a soup kitchen.
Having realized that (which took half a lifetime), I now realize that my notions about retirement need to be revised. I'm not who I thought I was, so even though I still want to serve my community, I need to find other ways of doing it.
What has struck me most as I've aged through adulthood is how, every once in a while -- only once or twice per decade -- I have gotten an important new insight into my own personality (or, sometimes, lack thereof). People, all of us, are complicated. We are each a unique mishmash of genetic, environmental, parental, and other social influences, further shaped by the constant flow of new experiences, thoughts, and emotions. With so much shaping us, no wonder it is a life work to tease out from all this who we really are and how we really work. And no wonder that, no matter how long we live, we only partly succeed at the task. I suspect that if I were to live for 200 years, I would continue to acquire surprising new insights about myself, and so would anyone else. Meanwhile, we all remain only partly aware of who we really are.
Given that, how can we best conduct our retirement, keeping in mind that what we do, what we set for goals, how we interact with others, how we approach the inevitabilities of aging and dying -- depends more on who we really are than on how much money we have in a 401(k) plan or even on our health?
The ancient Greeks, as so often proves to be the case, had the right answer. The inscription over the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, where seekers would come for answers to their life problems, was "γνῶθι σεαυτόν" -- "Know Thyself". As a first step in the process, it immediately puts you on the wrong foot, of course, because it is so truly impossible to achieve. It's as if your Guide to Retirement started out with the instruction, "Find a magic wand." But at least knowing oneself is achievable in part.
And we can always learn to know ourselves better than we do. Almost all of my own best insights have come from listening to, and actually taking seriously, what other people tell me (or by noticing and thinking about their unspoken reactions). Most people tend to filter out the unpleasant -- by reacting with anger, or embarrassment, or in some other way that enables us to process an insult without thinking honestly about its validity. Some of us (not me so much, but other people I know) focus too much on criticism, and fail to take to heart the praise that they get. Either reaction shortchanges us. We need to take it all in, and take it all seriously, if we're really going to approach Knowing Ourselves -- and figuring out who we are in retirement.
Aging is supposed to bring wisdom, and taking the time and effort to understand ourselves more fully and honestly is the right place to start.
All of which is coming not from anyone who has reached the end of that path, of course, just someone still on it...
Chuck Yanikoski is a part-time retirement adviser who lives and works in Harvard. For more about him, or to contact him directly, visit www.ChuckYRetirement.com.