What ‘Nomadland’ teaches us about retirement

Nomadland, this year’s Oscar winner for Best Picture, reflects on one woman’s journey after leaving the life she has known for years. She needs to start a new chapter in her life and takes a leap of faith to do so. At one point, Fern, Frances McDormand’s character, quotes a passage from John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley in Search of America:

“I saw in their eyes something I was to see over and over in every part of the nation, a burning desire to go, to move, to get underway. Any place away from any here. They spoke quietly of how they wanted to go someday to move about free and unanchored, not towards something, but away from something. I saw this look and heard this yearning, everywhere. Every state I visited, nearly every American hungers to move.”

You can probably identify, particularly after spending a year in a COVID-induced bear cave. People everywhere are twitchy, not just Americans, to go, to move, to be anywhere but here. At least for a little while, it would be heaven to get in a van and just go.

When we think about retirement, it’s often with this daydream-like thinking. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to leave all the pressures of work behind? To no longer have to deal with the geopolitical baloney, be responsible, or lead your team? That is yearning.

However, consider an often-quoted survey statistic from the Exit Planning Institute:

“Three out of four business owners profoundly regret selling their company 12 months later.”

Part of the profound regret is due to wildly unrealistic perceptions over what the business is worth. However, an equal part of the unhappiness comes from the fact that they were moving away from something, not toward something. They had no idea who they were once they put down the champagne glass, and golf, spending more time with family, or, like Fern, living in a van, is something most of us can tolerate for only so long.

The regret cited in the survey is not exclusive to business owners. It is a risk we all face when it comes to significant life changes, such as retirement or the loss of a job we loved.

Like it or not, we are vested in our jobs. They consume our days. Work drives much of our intellectual and social stimulation and, for some, physical activity. What we do becomes synonymous with who we are — steeped in our own definition of ourselves.

I wrestle with this myself and explore this dynamic with clients. For example, for years, I was a partner in a CPA firm, which was a goal I set for myself early in my career. Now, I’m not a partner in a CPA firm. It’s easy to say, “So what? You are still you.” Yet self-doubt often comes rushing in. How will people who knew me only as that look at me now?

The truth is that it depends on who those people are and what your relationship is with them. For true friends and family, it won’t make a hill of beans of difference. Work friends and colleagues are a different cat because what bound you together was the shared stripes that you wore. When you change your stripes, they don’t. They need to continue on, to perform and succeed at the job, so they connect with folks who help them, which may not include you.

Short of selling all your stuff, moving into a van, and traveling the country, what can you do to prepare for a major change like this? I believe there are at least four ways you set the stage for profound happiness in change:

Your attitude: Change is hard. Where we are today, facing the change may or may not not make sense. This is what this is? Why this? Why now? Now what? Depending on circumstances, it may involve some grieving before we can move on.

Moving on is about learning to fully live your new reality with energy that honors the past, builds on it, and is grateful for it. Steve Jobs talked about how we can’t connect the dots looking forward, only looking backward. What you do with today’s dot is up to you.

Your curiosity: When we tap into our natural curiosity, it can become magical. It transforms us and energizes us. Take, for example, my 80-something-year-old friend who just became certified in something related to social media. We’re never too old to learn something new or explore. We simply need to follow curiosity’s lead.

Your network: A while back, I read a book, Transitioning from the Top by Stephanie Brun de Pontet. In it, she chronicles how many brand-name company CEOs got ready for retirement and the sale of their company by tapping into their network years before they planned to actually leave the workforce.

These men and women used their curiosity to identify those things they would like to be involved with, such as being on the board of a nonprofit or working a flexible, part-time role somewhere. Once identified, they leveraged their relationships to tap into those organizations and become active in them at least two to three years before their big move. By the time retirement came, new relationships and roles had been formed and credibility had been established, making it easier to slipstream into new activities.

Your honesty — with yourself and others: With so much tied up in our work identities, redefining ourselves in retirement demands self-reflection, compromise, and communication with those who love you and you love back.

For example, I’m known for being an “Energizer Bunny” who keeps going and going and going. Full retirement is not a likely path for me for a very long time. Sure, I may curtail myself from the days of 60-plus-hour workweeks, but sitting on my hands reading books, going on hikes, and other stuff will make my head explode. I don’t “do nothing” well. Yet, we want to travel. Balancing these two seemingly divergent interests demands discussion and compromise (mostly for me in being able to let go and go with the flow).

Another example came in the form of a conversation last week where the concerned spouse of a business owner shared that the owner never wants to retire. Was that common? Indeed, it is, and it’s OK. I encourage clients to embrace the Energizer Bunny as well, as long as they commit to not leaving a dog pile in their wake.

Fern, in Nomadland, wasn’t necessarily ready for the changes that came her way, but she came to terms with all four of these elements. How about you? Where are you at in your nomadic journey? Take steps today to tap into your inner nomad and join me outside the bear cave.

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