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Retirement allowed me to see that my life had value outside of work

This writer loved his work — and working. But he had to heed an inner voice that told him he was done.

By Paul Fraumeni

Remember that moment in the movie "Field of Dreams" when Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) is roaming his Iowa cornfield and he hears a voice call out to him? "If you build it, he will come." Ray dismisses the voice. Then he hears it again and again, until he realizes he has to do what the voice is telling him to do.

That same thing happened to me. It wasn’t in a cornfield, though. I heard the voice while sitting at my office desk in the winter of 2015. "You know you’ve had enough of this," the voice said to me. But I did the same thing as Ray: I waved it away each time I heard it.

Two years later, I was about to mark my 20th year as an editor and writer at a Toronto university and my 38th in journalism and communications. I had enjoyed a marvellous career. Still, I could feel a need for change tugging at me and finally chose to take heed. "OK!" I responded. "I’ve had enough." I decided to retire.

I was 60. My pension from my employer was available and friends around me were retiring, but for some reason, the idea of retirement was hard for me to accept. I realized I had come to define myself by my work. I had loved it—and working. As an editor, I got a huge kick out of working with my team to create a new issue of our magazine. As a writer, I loved the challenge of understanding a complex topic and then finding a way to write an interesting story.

But I've always thought we sacrifice too much of our lives for work. We see our jobs and careers as our legacies. I was Paul Fraumeni: reporter, editor, publisher. That made me feel necessary and relevant. Who would I be without those identifiers?  

To get my head into retirement, I used my professional expertise as a reporter and started researching as if I were going to write an article. I discovered there’s a way of being retired that isn’t about sitting around. I learned that we are living much longer. In the near future, living to 100 will be common. As a result, we now treat retirement not as a retreat, but as a different way of engaging with life.

There are other ways to live besides showing up to a job. This became clear to me when I met with a retired friend last April. Dave is in his mid-70s. He had been a teacher and school principal. He told me many working people find it hard to decide to retire. "You have one question to answer: who are you without work?" he said. So I let myself imagine.

I envisioned returning to writing, part-time, doing just enough to have a sense of purpose. I saw my wife, Franny, and I taking our annual vacation in Ogunquit, Maine and deciding, at the last minute, to stay an extra week. I saw myself pursuing the passions I never had time for–practicing my drums without a time limit, spending two hours reading a book. And I remembered how my once-hard-working parents (my mum was a nurse, my dad, a teacher) had loved their 25 years of retirement.

In a more dramatic moment, I thought of four friends who had died early. I was healthy and full of energy—I wanted to use that energy for something other than full-time work. So I let my boss know I’d had enough.

And here I am in my fourth week of retirement. It’s beginning to feel as if this is not just a vacation and that this looser life is something I deserve after 38 years. We all deserve it. Now—at 9:30 a.m.—I’m going to work on the drum part to Bruce Springsteen’s "Badlands." It’s a tough part. But now I have the time to nail it.

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