Retirement is a crossroads unlike any other in life. It can be an end or a beginning. Decline or rebirth. Crisis or opportunity. Boring or exciting.
Whichever way it unfolds, often it begins as a shock. I had worked steadily from the age of 23. No breaks. Each job change led straight into a new job. If you work all or most of your adult life, retirement — stopping working, not just becoming a part-time employee — is a jarring halt to the very rhythm of your existence. Some people are confused or dispirited by it. They may feel adrift. Even for those who genuinely dislike their jobs — and that’s a whole lot of people — it has for many become a big piece of their identity. At parties, when you meet someone new, it’s usually not long before you’re asked or you ask: “what do you do?” Work is the organizing feature of the daily lives of most adult Americans. Even people who crave the idea of retirement may find that once the retirement honeymoon ends, they’re bored. All this time to fill, now what do I do? I know married couples who discover they dislike being together all day every day. A few discover they actually don’t even like one another.
As my retirement approached, I was concerned about being unable to match the thrill and adrenaline high of chasing news stories on deadline. I have always had lots of interests outside of work, so I was fairly confident that I would have lots of things to do. Still, I wasn’t sure where I would get anything like the juice of covering news.
In September 2018, I retired after having spent 40 years as a reporter, the last 32 years at ABC News. I decided to travel. I would go around the world, a dream I’d had ever since I saw the movie Around The World In 80 Days when I was maybe five; growing up, my family had one of those big, thick world atlases — try getting that on Kindle — and I would flip through the pages and stare at the maps of the terrain and borders of faraway lands. I would try to imagine what it was like there. What the people looked like, what they are, what language they spoke. What was the topography? I imagined all kinds of exotic people, rivers, beaches, mountains, deserts.
My 40-year journalism career would take me all over America and a good chunk of the world. But work travel is a very different experience than personal travel. Now freshly retired, I would choose where to go and what to do.
I went to Africa. I signed up with a great organization called Global Volunteers to travel to a tiny village in Tanzania called Ipalamwa. One of my assignments was installing hand washing devices outside the homes of villagers. My other assignment was to teach English to a group of about 20 teens. Despite having officially studied English for 6 years, their proficiency was very basic. In Tanzania, a former British colony plagued by poverty and high unemployment, English fluency can vastly improve your job prospects.
I enjoyed the manual labor involved in setting up the hand wash stations. All my life, I’d been an observer. For once, I was doing something. Something useful. But what I really loved was teaching. I poured myself into each 3 hour lesson. It was as physically exerting as digging holes for the poles in the red African earth. Afterward, I felt wonderfully exhausted.
I would continue on from Tanzania to circle the globe. In Uganda, I volunteered as an assistant to the animal keepers at a zoo, but otherwise I just traveled. It was teaching in Ipalamwa that stuck with me.
The next year, I went to Cambodia to work as a volunteer with high school seniors at Liger Academy, an innovative school in Phnom Penh. My task was to guide them in writing their college application essays. That can be tough enough in your native language. These seniors were writing in English, their second language in which they were less than fluent. It was immensely rewarding for me to discuss their essays, tease out what they wanted to say and help them craft it.
One girl I worked with showed me a draft of her essay. It was about how she would return to her remote village during vacations and teach local kids what she had learned at Liger.
"It's my ikigai," Samnang told me.
I was puzzled. It sounded like a Japanese word but I had never heard it before. The teenager patiently and enthusiastically explained to me that ikigai means your passion, the thing that helps others and gives you satisfaction from helping others. Beaming with pride, Samnang told me her ikigai was teaching children in her village.
Intrigued, I began researching ikigai further. Often I saw it described as “your reason for getting up in the morning.”
That fall, I volunteered again as an English teacher, this time in Nepal. I was assigned to teach young monks at a monastery. In Nepal, some poor families choose to send their children, as young as 5, to monasteries where they receive religious training, education, housing and meals for free.
Each day, I would take a crowded local bus to the end of the line and then hike a rough, rutted dirt road up to the monastery where I taught two classes each day. It was joy, all of it.
At lunch one day, I chatted with the head monk, a genial Tibetan with a soft voice and gentle manner. He asked about my life and what brought me there. I told him about my former career and how I was now traveling and volunteering.
He nodded his head as I spoke, listening intently. When I finished, he smiled broadly and said: “You used to be a journalist. Now you are a teacher.” It was like a benediction. I thought: Yes. That’s it. Now I am a teacher in the broadest sense of the word. I had discoverer my ikigai.
My goal in writing for Bulletin will be to share with readers what I have experienced, what I’ve seen, what I have learned, what I know, what I’m curious about. I intend to write about many other things — travel, sports, history, race relations, music, education and on and on — but a recurring theme will be retirement and the adjustment to aging. I will try to find and introduce you to people doing creative, exciting things in their post-career lives, people who can inspire those of us now at that stage of life and also serve as models for younger people who will one day be there.
The cool part about this stage of life is let yourself discover what you discover, as the singer-songwriter Paul Simon once said about his impending retirement.
The novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald said: “There are no second acts in American lives.” He was wrong. That’s why I am call my Bulletin page Second Acts. I hope you find it worthwhile.