The cost of a thing is the amount of what I call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately and in the long run.
— Henry David Thoreau
It’s a bit more than a year ago that I submitted a letter to the Board of Directors indicating that I would retire in June of 2010. But what I remember most vividly is the evening in 2008, more than two years ago, when I made the decision to retire. It was a dark winter’s evening after I had returned to the office from several external meetings only to face over 100 work emails to answer, a full in-tray, and a couple of reports — not untypical. As usual, I looked through the stack of work, began with the urgent issues, and worked away. I was alone in the office.
As I took a break from writing a report, I felt an unsettling heaviness deep inside. I realized that my life energy was being dissipated in meetings and at my desk. I began to think about the amount of time i.e.life energy that was likely available to me as a 60+ year old woman. I thought about the few hours of sunshine that I had completely missed earlier that day — and on so many other days.
With some sadness, I realized that I would never re-capture time that I was spending at the job I loved. While my career held many rewards for me — personal, professional, and financial — it was not my whole life. I realized that I had many dreams that involved having more personal time at my disposal and that, in the demanding executive role I held, I would never have the luxury of enough strength and vitality to meet both my career and personal goals.
How long would I continue to make this trade-off — my personal dreams vs my professional life? Once I was aware that my life energy was like electricity — generated, but wasted if not used for creative purposes– I knew that I needed to make a plan to regain personal time. That evening I made the decision to retire.
Ambivalence and Bargaining
Initially I spoke with nobody but my husband about this. Being a counsellor himself, he listened and kept telling me that I had to make a decision that would suit my life plan. He also reminded me how of how hard I had worked to achieve various positions and roles. He cautioned me to be sure that I was ready to make this important life change. I talked with a couple of close friends seeking their perspectives — and their reassurance about this decision. And I talked with our financial advisor about having enough resources to maintain my lifestyle.
And I bargained with myself. I evaluated whether there were viable options to have both the desired personal time and the time to keep abreast of a heavy, unpredictable workload. From my professional training as a therapist, I knew that people like to kill the messenger when they do not want to see something that is obvious. In this case, I was the messenger. I went through a period of time where I was ambivalent, angry, sad, and euphoric — sometimes all on the same day.
But I kept coming to the same conclusion — the amount of life energy that was required to perform my job was more than I was prepared to continue giving. I had the capacity to perform — but I no longer had the same drive for sustained career achievement. It was time to change course. I was no longer prepared to pay the ‘life’ cost.
Your life equation
Figuring out your life equation is the tough part of making the decision to keep working. Your life equation is a personal evaluation that involves balancing the strength and vitality you require to keep working against the personal life choices that you are giving up to maintain your capacity to perform your work well.
Each person reading this post will be at a different stage of life and work. For some, the career is just peaking and the rewards of hard work are sweet. Others are still building a career after years of study. Perhaps you have just landed the job of your dreams. If you evaluate your life in that wonderful position, enjoy every day — but keep a close watch on whether the life equation keeps balancing.
If you evaluate your life equation as out of balance — as I did — it may be time to look for options. There are always times when work is temporarily difficult but you must stay with it for various reasons — the monthly mortgage payment or the university tuition for a child or the cost of caring for an aging parent. Hopefully your work is not daily drudgery that entirely drains your life energy without any replenishment. Be aware of the imbalance even if the options for change are limited. Keep calculating the balance while trying to make small positive changes for yourself.
Our life spans are finite. Let’s make the best possible choices for lifetimes of rich experiences that nurture and protect the ‘life’ within each of us.
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