DEAR CAROLYN: I retired over a year ago from a fairly high-powered job that gave me worldwide recognition in my field. The decision to retire (in my mid-70s) was a very difficult one because I was not sure I could fill my time with engrossing activities. I’m still trying — with a combination of volunteering, mentoring and a few consulting gigs — but haven’t settled in comfortably, and I find the situation emotionally difficult.
Everywhere I go, whether meeting with old colleagues or strangers, I get the same question: “So what are you doing in your retirement?” I wish I could answer honestly: “I haven’t settled in yet, and I’m scared.” But of course I can’t say that.
The questions are all well-meant, but I’m afraid the questioners expect me to say, “Oh, I’ve become chairman of Such-and-Such,” or, “I’m founding a company.” After a year, the repeated questions are weighing on me. Should I just answer, “Eating bonbons and getting fat”?
DEAR SEARCHER: Sure.
If that’s what you want to say. Or do.
You can also tell them, “I haven’t settled in yet, and I’m scared.” You say you “can’t,” but of course you can. You can be as vulnerable as you’re ready to be.
What people “expect” you to say is not only not your problem — since when are we mere vehicles for saying what people want to hear? — it’s also, very likely, an expectation that exists only in your mind. Or, perhaps more accurately, in your fears.
You liked the way you defined yourself and now that definition, to your mind at least, no longer fits.
Since this is really about you, here’s the main question you need to answer before you’re ready to answer everyone else’s: What do you want from these exchanges?
If you want people to leave you alone, or if your social sensors tell you someone is just asking to be polite, then you’ve got the right idea with being quippy. Smile, laugh at yourself, reveal nothing.
Or bore them with factoids. “Volunteering, mentoring, consulting … ”
I hope, though, at least with some of the more thoughtful, curious or compassionate people you know, you won’t hide yourself behind humor or yawns.
If you want connection, ideas, support, “engrossing” conversation, then you’ll need to share your ambivalence. It isn’t a sign of weakness; it takes serious guts to admit you don’t have it all figured out, especially having been celebrated for your figuring-it-all-out chops. Yours is a brave truth.
And, an interesting one. It’s way more interesting than your suggested deflections or even than leading a company, and what it elicits from others might prove interesting to you as well. Maybe even useful: Imagine what bright people who know you well and (I’ll assume) share your membership in the achievement ranks might come up with if you dig around in this topic together, without preconceptions or fear.
Anyone petty enough to mock or exploit your vulnerability is not worth the time or bluster necessary to impress them.
You seem to have launched your retirement with the vague idea of starting a Career Lite, which is fine on its face. But it’s not working for you. That’s also fine — as long as you respect your emotional findings. Easing your resistance might be how inspiration finds its way in.
Email Carolyn at firstname.lastname@example.org or chat with her online at 10 a.m. each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.