Saturday, October 14, 2017

What Really Matters

There was a time, not so long ago, that I thought I was doing pretty important stuff. Every day, Monday to Friday, I went to my office at 8:30 am and worked very hard. I went to meetings, figured out budgets, prepared agendas, mentored staff, and developed programs. Emails about important issues dropped into my email box all day long, some requiring immediate decisions and action, and others were from colleagues outlining their concerns about initiatives, or sending project updates, or communicating about personnel situations.

I worked so hard that I didn’t have time for lunch. I ate at my desk while reading through an eighty-five page agenda with attachments for the 1:00 pm meeting. I worked so hard that when most of the staff left for the day at 4:30, I would sigh with relief that the texts and phone calls had stopped coming in, and finally sit down to respond to the day’s worth of e-mails, or read a draft proposal, or write a report, or put together an agenda for a meeting of one of the many committees I chaired.

I worked so hard that I didn’t have time for supper. I would eat a snack at my desk and keep on working, finally heading home around 7:30 or 8:00 pm. On my nights to cook, we didn’t sit down to dinner until 8:30 or 9:00. As I hadn’t had time to exercise during the day, aside from rushing between buildings for meetings, I tried to go for a walk each night after dinner. But often I was just too tired. I missed my friends and family, all living so far away, so sometimes in the evening I would phone them, or they would phone me.

It was such important work. I had to give all my time to it. But, even working so hard, and even with a wonderful team who worked just as hard as me, I could never keep up with everything.

The weekends were for catching up on life. There were chores to do, exercise (because I hadn’t had time during the week), excursions with Rob, and gardening. And of course, sometimes there were work events on the weekends too. Even when I wasn’t at work, thoughts and emotions about work issues tended to predominate.

The work was so important.

Except it wasn’t. Now that I have retired, I look back at the life I was living, and I realize that it was crazy. As I wrote the description above, I just kept thinking, “Really???? Did I really believe that working such long hours was my only option, or that it was a good choice?” The new me wishes I could go back in time and shake some sense into the old me.

Stepping out of the workplace into my new retired life has been an experience of major perspectival shift. Not only do my old points of view seem foreign to me and somewhat bizarre, but I am seeing the other nonwork pieces of my life in a new way. No longer bits in the margins of my all-consuming worklife, it turns out that those parts of life are, in fact, what really matters.

I knew that I loved being a grandma. Visiting from afar every three months supplemented by occasional FaceTime was not enough. I could not do spontaneous things with the kids, like I can now that I have retired and moved closer to family members. For example Rob and I recently visited a Naval Base open house with my daughter’s family, as pictured below. My two little grandsons were very impressed with the helicopter, navy ships, and zodiacs at the base.

Captain of the Navy Vessel

Being physically closer to my grandkids, I can sometimes do grandma duty, giving their parents a chance to get away to do something together. Even though our move did not bring us physically closer to our other set of grandkids, we now have more time to travel to their community for visits, or to welcome visitors to our place.

One of the big surprises is how much I love being closer to my adult kids. Now it is possible to go to weekly yoga classes with one daughter, schedule a weekend in Vancouver to attend another daughter’s art show, and go for a hike on the local trails with my son. Yes, we did get together in the past too, but it always involved an airplane flight, and I was always in a state of exhaustion from work. It put a damper on spontaneity.

Fun with Auntie

I have realized that, just as when they were younger, having time to spend with my kids is one of the things that really matters. It doesn’t always have to be a special event. It can be having a cup of tea together, playing together with the grandkids, or walking on the beach. Of course, now that my adult kids are in the stage of life where they are very busy with little time off, my greater time flexibility as a retiree is helpful for making those moments possible.

Digging into Chocolate Cheesecake

My family and friends are at the top of the list of what really matters. This realization does not negate the value of my work contributions over the past decades. In the future I will continue to pursue intellectual, creative, and physical/health interests and activities. In the present moment, I am grateful that I have transitioned to this new and satisfying stage of life.

19 comments:

  1. This is a beautiful post, Jude, thoughtful and well written. You've expressed so clearly the challenge, perhaps impossibility, of looking at an all-consuming work life when you're in the midst of it. I try to counsel hard-working friends to retire (if they're of age) or to at least to take a breath and step back for a week so they can see what's happening to them-- of course, it rarely (never!) works. They can't imagine life any other way.

    Once retired, as you have found, the non-work parts of life come to the fore and they are delicious indeed; almost as good as the chocolate cheesecake in your photo! I'm so glad your transition to retirement has been so much smoother than you anticipated.

    As for wanting to shake some sense into your younger self, I sure understand that. At those times, I look to a framed quote I have by my desk. It's a Native saying you might have heard of -- "Don't let yesterday use up too much of today." It sounds as if you're firmly planted in today most of the time. Good for you, Jude!

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    1. Karen, I knew you would understand this experience of how work can be so immersive that it seems as if it is the only possible way to be. Really, it was only a short time ago that I was living that life, and yet as I wrote the description of my daily worklife, it was like I was writing about someone else —a someone who was hell bent on self destruction.

      People close to me tried to gently suggest that there was something twisted about my workaholic life, and although I could hear what they were saying at an intellectual level, I couldn’t see that there was any way out of it. Work had its claws into me deeply. Everyone around me in the workplace was similarly obsessed with the culture of overwork (not only in my most recent workplace, but many of the places I have worked), so it seemed normal at the time.

      I am glad to have had the chance to contribute in valuable ways through my work. But, if there is one thing that I could go back in time and change, it would be to have been a better role model for living in an balanced, life-affirming way, rather than modelling excessive overwork as the way forward.

      The chocolate cheesecake was made by my son in law. He makes awesome cheesecake!

      Jude

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  2. Love this post! I am so happy for you Jude that you are at that place in life where your perspective allows you to experience what is really important in life.

    I'm guessing this is a common experience for retirees. I know that I too, did not fully appreciate all that life had to offer. The drive to excel in the workplace was always there.

    Thanks so much for sharing your perspective. So happy for you!

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    1. Carole, your comment that this probably is a common experience for many retirees struck a note. When I was immersed in my “important” work, I was often feeling resentful that I did not have enough time to spend with friends and family, or to paint or write or garden or ski. Yet, I felt isolated in this, as if I was not a good team player because I refused to work on the weekends, and opted out of many evening events.

      “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” This was the mantra, and I did not want to appear inadequate for the task. I think I also did not want to let go of work because it seemed to have become my real purpose in life. It has been such a surprise to discover that rather than work being my life, it actually was an obstruction to enjoying the best parts of life. It is also a surprise to read your comments and those of other bloggers to discover that my experience is shared by many.

      Jude

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  3. "The work was so important. Except it wasn’t." This jumped right out at me when I read it. I am feeling exactly the same way. Sure the work I did each day was important but leaving it to go home to my family should have been just as important. I often made the choice of my family over work, but there was always a guilt there too that I should be working more or harder. Silly! So happy that you are enjoying retirement and your family and friends. Our house sale closed on Friday. The builders start work this week. I'm looking forward to a little quiet time in a few months!

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    1. Guilt! That’s it exactly. No matter how hard I worked and how much time I gave to it, it was never enough. Why did I tend to think that there was something wrong with me, rather than identifying the problem as being a sick work culture.

      On top of the pressure to overachieve in the workplace, there was the matching guilt of not being there as much as I would have liked for my family and friends, because deep down, I knew that was really important, more important than work.

      And the biggest betrayal was of myself, working myself into a state of I’ll health.

      Jude

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    2. ill health.

      So happy to hear that your house sale closed this week.

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  4. Hi, Jude - I needed to read your opening paragraphs twice...I thought that you were describing my work life! If you take out the walks after dinner and the evening family/friend phone calls - what you wrote perfectly describes my working life. I believe that our work was important and that we should feel good about that. I am also grateful that we both have been able to retire early and catch up on many things previously missed. The biggest challenge will be to ensure that we don't re-enter the road of letting one thing dominate our lives. I'm now fully on guard of this (as I am sure you are)! Great post!

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    1. Ah, Donna, as I mentioned above, I felt as though I was “choosing” to work as hard as I did, but if I ever tried to back off a little, there quickly were reminders from others in the workplace that there were timelines and expectations, and that I needed to put work first. So it was a choice that wasn’t really a choice.

      Like you, I wanted to feel confident that I was doing my very best in my role to support and lead others. I cared about doing a really good job, and I am happy that I was able to contribute in some lasting ways. But, as you point out, the A-Type approach to life could easily sneak into retirement endeavours. I will guard against it!

      Jude

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  5. Yes, I related to the first paragraph too, and the feeling that 5pm, when most people had gone home, was when I could complete the things I had meant to do all day but had only half-started because of trouble-shooting. I don’t mean that in a bad way, it wasn’t a troublesome workplace, but I can’t think of another word for advising people / taking urgent decisions when the buck stopped at me etc. It was a big part of my job and I don’t regret it, but I’m so much happier now that I can dictate my own pace of life. It sounds as though you are too - best wishes!

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    1. Anabel, trouble-shooting is a good way to describe it. Even when the phone wasn’t ringing, I had trouble settling my mind to work that required sustained thought and careful written composition until the end of the afternoon when I knew I was less likely to be interrupted. I wonder if most men in leadership positions feel the same degree of pressure to support their staff and respond quickly to issues? Maybe we women leaders are more prone to wanting to listen/please/do the emotional work. Although when I think of my male colleagues at the time, they seemed responsive and just as swamped as I was.

      Yes, I love the space of time that has opened up in retirement. So far, I am being careful to not fill it up with regular meetings, obligations, or classes.

      Jude

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  6. There were 2 quotes beside my desk:
    1. At every moment you have the right to choose.
    2. Every thing that counts cannot be counted.
    I love the breathing room in retirement, no more rushing and scheduling around the work day.

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    1. Mona, those are terrific quotes! I would have liked to have had those beside my desk. Breathing room is a great way to describe it. The days seem longer now than they used to.

      Jude

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    2. Another quote has come to mind, one on a card I received at retirement - Retirement is when you stop living at work and begin working at living.

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    3. Another good one. I certainly was living at work — if you can call that living.

      Jude

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  7. Love, love this! I remember thinking I was so darned important at work. If I didn't do it (the way I wanted it done), who would? I once heard a description of someone - who thought they were irreplaceable - leaving work as taking their finger out of a pail of water... the water rushes in, leaving no trace. Your description of your work day reminded me of mine... I am so glad that it's now over and my time is spent doing the truly important things.

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  8. Janis, the pail of water analogy is fabulous! Early in my career, I experienced a personal emergency that took me out of the work setting for a year, so I discovered early on that I was easily replaced. The institution did not crash to the ground without my presence!

    So when I decided to leave my recent admin position and then retire, I did not fret about being personally irreplaceable. But I did worry a lot about the projects and the people, and the impact my leaving would have, as I knew that it would take many months to fill my position. (In fact, it took a year.) It bothered me because I knew that members of my team were already over-extended, and that they would end up having to take on some of my responsibilities on an interim basis.

    It did hurt my pride when I stepped down to find out that it was my role, not me personally, that was most important to my close colleagues and team members. I wrote a post about it about 18 months ago entitled “Becoming Irrelevant.”

    It does seem to be a bit of an uneven exchange to give your entire life over to work, only to find out when you leave that you are just a widget. The lesson here (which I learned too late) is: don’t give your whole life to work.

    Jude

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  9. Hi Jude! I love posts like this because it reminds every one of us that it is so easy to get sucked into the "doing" of things --especially thing we think we should be doing according to our culture--that we often miss what really matters. And while you sort of woke up when you retired, it can happen to us at any age or stage of life. That's why I use the word "rightsizing" to help me remember that it applies to work, where I live, time, health, relationships and just about everything--and when I am rightsized I am focused on what really matters to me. Thanks for this excellent reminder! ~Kathy

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    1. Kathy, in the past I have used the word “balance” to express this concept. However, when I stop to reflect, I realize that balance really isn’t a very good analogy. It implies weighing two things against each other (e.g., work and home life) but life is complex, not easily reduced to binaries. Also balance implies some degree of precariousness, as in walking a tightrope. I would rather think of life as an experience of multiple options and joy in abundance. I love reading about your philosophy of rightsizing, and how you apply it to all aspects of your life.

      Jude

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