How to Define Ourselves in Retirement // Creating a New Vision of Self Worth

hope you all had a wonderful weekend! we took a little trip to a city where one of us used to live, and an interesting thing happened while we were planning for the trip: we were thinking about what we should do while there, and after eliminating all of the shopping- and spending-related activities, we realized that we couldn’t easily think of anything else to do there. what an eye-opening realization! to know that all of the past time there, even as a broke student, revolved around spending money. that sure explains why one of us graduated college with credit card debt! it made us reflect on how we have some places that, for a range of reasons, serve as spending triggers for us. definitely good food for thought, and perhaps a post for another day. back to our regularly scheduled programming…

today’s topic is one we wrestle with a lot, and which feels central to us as early retirement inches closer and closer:

how will we define ourselves once our careers no longer define us?

we’ve danced around the edges of the topic once before, but want to think about it more broadly today. and please share your thoughts in the comments — we’d love to know how others answer this same question!

even though we’ve long had a different vision for our lives than working past 60, we still get a lot out of our careers, beyond the monetary compensation, that helps shape our sense of self-worth:

  • sense of accomplishment
  • praise for good work
  • feeling smart
  • feeling valued
  • being part of a team
  • feeling connected to current events
  • being providers financially
  • feeling “important”

we put that last one in quotes, because it means different things in different instances. it doesn’t mean that we get vip treatment wherever we go, but we do feel that we play important business, leadership and mentoring roles within our companies, and are highly respected by our clients and in our fields.

that list of career stuff boils down to this: our work gives us the feeling that we’re making a contribution, and in return we feel valued for that.

putting aside all the stuff you already know (we don’t like working, don’t want to do it longer than we have to, can’t wait for early retirement) and that we all deal with at work (corporate bs, coworker drama, office politics), that feeling of making a contribution and being valued is significant. what will it be like when that feeling is gone? when we don’t feel important anymore?

we actually think the more important questions are: what will replace that feeling? and what will be our new vision of self worth?

one of the exciting and terrifying things about early retirement and our next life is it gives us the chance to decide for ourselves how we want to be defined, instead of letting that definition happen by default. we’ve all read the studies that show that mortality goes up after retirement — in essence, people don’t have a purpose anymore, and without a purpose they literally lose the will to live. we are determined never to let that happen to us, and that’s why we’re thinking about this now, not when we give notice at our jobs. or when we’re a few years into retirement and feeling aimless.

this is a different question for each of us, because we currently define ourselves differently, and have for most of our lives. for the mr., who is and always has been sporty, and is less defined by work, we’re envisioning an easier transition. our early retirement vision involves a lot of sporty, outdoorsy activities, so early retirement could actually be his path to self-actualization. he may struggle a little, though, with not feeling like a provider anymore. for the ms., however, who has always been defined more by her smarts, losing the “smart outlet” of work could be tough, even if the choice between work and freedom is an easy and obvious one. (we assume we’ll become permanent fixtures at trivia night at the local pub, instead of occasional participants like now, since pub quizzes are the only “smart contest” for adults, once you outgrow spelling bees and math competitions!) ;-)

so back to those questions — what will replace the self worth we get from work, and how will we define ourselves? the answer is: we don’t know yet. but we’re thinking about it! this is a big deal, and we haven’t seen this question discussed a whole lot on fire blogs. we also don’t think there’s any easy answer. sure, we hope to volunteer a lot, and make a big contribution in retirement. but does that rise to the level of defining our self worth? unclear. maybe providing value and making a contribution won’t be a part of our vision of self worth at all, as unimaginable as that seems right now. certainly we remain committed to leaving the world in better shape than we found it, so even if that will play out differently once we quit our jobs, that will still be a part of how we define ourselves. or maybe our self worth will be based entirely around freedom, autonomy and flexibility. maybe being able to do exactly what makes us happy will be entirely fulfilling, and that sense of fulfillment will define us. or maybe there will be something else we haven’t thought of yet that will be how we define ourselves.

we don’t have the answers yet, but we’re determined to be deliberate and thoughtful about how we define ourselves in early retirement and beyond, and not be defined by the absence of work. we feel incredibly energized to know that this decision belongs entirely to us, even if we don’t know what the “it” is yet.

of course we’re curious — how do you think your sense of self-worth will change in retirement? how do you define yourself now, and what part of that will go away when you’re no longer working? any ideas for how we should be thinking about our self worth and purpose? please share!

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22 replies »

  1. I’ve thought about this, and I’m not too worried. I am confident I’ll be able to use the kids and their activities for social networking, and we’re looking to relocate to a place with a decent outdoor scene. Beyond the kid scene, I plan on volunteering with the local Appalachian Trail maintenance group, or become a fixture at a local fly fishing shop. :)
    I do think I’ll lose some of the tech/software smart outlet side of me since I plan on using the computer to blog, surf the net and maybe run an online store. No more seismic attribute mapping, well correlations, or “exciting” things like that, so that part of my brain will atrophy to some degree, but I’m fine with that.
    I’m excited to have the time to get to be involved with the kids sports/music/what not, maybe head up a local Trout Unlimited chapter, or adopt a river near me to keep it clean, or delve into whatever passion I find in my new locale. I’m sure it will be something to do with the outdoors, just not sure what form it will take. Exciting!

    • It’s great you’ve made peace with letting the work part of your brain atrophy a little bit. :-) And it does seem like the kid part of things will help you guys have some definition and purpose in your lives. Great answer.

  2. What I’ve started doing when meeting new people is ask what they do OUTSIDE of work. People are taken back by this comment usually, since they are so used to defining themselves by their work. People ask what I do and I respond “workout, hang out with friends & family, travel, explore NYC” and then are like “uhhhh but what do you do for work?” :) I don’t define myself by more work anymore. I take pride in my work because I know it’s what’s going to get me to financial independence. But at the end of the day, what ever I’m passionate about in FI will define me, and that may change every couple of years too!

    • Love that you do this! What’s funny, and we didn’t mention this in the post, is that in the small town where we now live, no one really cares what anyone else does for work! It’s because people understand that we all define ourselves here by what outdoorsy things we pursue. But it definitely changes the dynamic, especially compared to the other big cities where we’ve lived. So keep it up!

  3. When I lost my job at the end of last year due to a company closure, I felt completely lost for a while. It was a depressing time for me because I allowed myself to feel exactly what you described in this post. All those long days devoted to my employer. Feeling valuable and appreciated. Feeling accomplished as I received one promotion after another. Then suddenly you are without a job and you realize you are now worth nothing. You are no longer marketable without a job and no one wants to hire you. I’ve had job offers, but companies no longer want to pay you a good salary. They know they can get someone for quarter the salary you were making. Your career is a way to provide an income for the things you need and desire in life. In other words, don’t let your career define you. It’s a tough transition, but always remember that there is a whole world out there and everyone eventually finds their path!

    • Thank you for this! Wow — what you went through sounds awful, but also wonderful that you gained such wise perspective from it all. We’re glad to be thinking about questions like this one NOW, instead of letting them blindside us later! We know we’ll figure it out. :-)

  4. This is definitely a very important question. While I don’t believe that my career necessarily defines me, it is giving me something to do during the day – even though I don’t particularly like what I’m doing. I believe that we let our careers define us not because of how integral that our careers are to our hearts and souls, but because of the sheer amount of time that careers take to successfully fulfill. People spend a LOT of time “doing” their careers.

    After retirement, I believe that our true selves can finally emerge and take hold of our lives. We are now able to truly think free and clear of the constraints of a “job” and can truly pursue our passions. Even if your true passion is computers, and you happen to work in IT, your IT pursuits certainly don’t need to end post retirement. Rebuild computers. Design web sites. Do the things that you truly enjoy without having to join meetings, designing Powerpoint presentations, answer to mindless bosses, etc.

    For me, it is increasingly revolving around multimedia – both photography AND video, and I’m playing around with some ideas for how I’m going to be tackling that passion once I have all the time in the world in which to do so. And full time RVing – which could begin in 2017 now – is going to help with that tremendously.

    In other words, I am hopeful that retirement will make it easier for us to define ourselves, not tougher. Of course, like you guys, we don’t truly know yet and we’d be lying if we said that we have everything figured out. It’s true that everything is just a plan at the moment.

    For us, retirement will consist of a lot of self reflection. Relaxation. Hiking. Photography and Film-making. Just…lots of fun, things that bring smiles to our faces each and every time that we spend time doing them.

    And I can only assume that the more we do these things after retirement, the happier we’ll be. But, there’s only one way to find out for sure!

    Excellent post, as always!

    • Love that you guys are now considering full time RVing — and an earlier FI date! It’s awfully tempting…

      You’re right that early retirement will give all of us the opportunity to answer this question organically, like the question we’ve written about before: what do we want to do when we grow up? the truth is, we don’t know that either, because our brains have been crammed so full of job and school for every useful minute of our lives. once those constraints are gone, the sky’s the limit!

    • Steve, what a great read.
      Its great to see someone thinking the same as myself. Literally, photography and videography combined with full time RVing! I plan to retire in May of 2020 at 52 years of age. Not a young retirement. However, younger than most that i know. My greatest concern on the full time RVing is my wife missing her occupation and the camaraderie of her long time friends at home.

      Best of luck to you Steve. I hope to read more of your en devours!

  5. This is a funny question for me, because my life has never been defined by “work.” Until I was 25, I just worked lots of odd jobs to pay the bills – often juggling two or three at once – and never thought much about them. It was like I checked out whenever I was on the clock, and then once I walked out the door – bam! Real life started again. Only at age 25 did I finally manage to procure a traditional full time job. By this point, I had already been exposed to the idea of early retirement for a couple of years, so I knew in my heart that taking this full time job was merely a means to an end. Even though I knew this, I still struggled a lot the first couple months because my job provides me literally no meaning or purpose. That doesn’t mean I don’t like what I do – I just don’t identify with it.

    Personally, I struggled a lot once I quit grad school. I had in my head that my purpose in life was to obtain a PhD and teach. It sounds lame, but with time I just got over it. I moved onto new things – took on new hobbies, continued educating myself outside the classroom, made new friends, etc. I guess that’s how I see early retirement. I’m sure not working will be an existential shock for a while, but with time I will assimilate and move on to new things.

    I have always defined myself by my passions and not by the work I do. I guess that makes me a prime candidate for ER. Then again, I’m much younger than most FIRE’s, so I know I’m very naive and still have a lot to learn.. Maybe one day I will find a fulfilling job. I just try not to hold my breath for it, and instead absorb myself in all the other “work” I do in my life outside of paid employment.

      • Thanks! 😉 Your perspective seems so different from ours, but super interesting. It seems like a trade off: either focus on career at an early age and maybe get ahead financially that way, but define yourself by your career, or you don’t define yourself by your career, but then maybe there’s a financial price to pay for that. Definitely seems like you will have a big leg up when it comes time to retire!

  6. I think with my growth mindset now, as long as I keep that momentum my sense of self-worth will continue to be strong without changing drastically in retirement. I find myself seeking out goals, sense of accomplishment, and team atmospheres outside of the workplace even before retirement (dance teams, participating in half-marathons, actively participating in the community, etc.). At the same time, I know that I have my weekly set community at work that I get to contribute to. I think you will find that your self-worth and purpose may grow stronger in retirement because you will be actively seeking these opportunities. Yet, instead of retrieving positive/constructive feedback, raises/promotions, and yearly reviews, you will be receiving continuous feedback from the communities you choose to join & contribute to with elements of stress taken out!

    • You seem to have a very grounded view, Alyssa. That’s great! Though we’ve already learned that community engagement is not stress free! ;-) We’re on some local boards, and boy do folks still like to wind themselves up!

  7. This is a biggie. It is smart that you are not underestimating this issue. I’m going through this now. Which is why I actually don’t like to use the word early/semi-retirement anymore. I have the financial capacity to not work, but after being away from the work force for two years, there are things I miss. I don’t miss the alarm clock, rigid schedules, sitting in a cubicle and all the office BS, but I do miss using the skills I built up in my career. Right now, I would give anything to have corporations allow more flexibility in work schedules. If I could find 10-20 flexible hours per week using my skills either as an employee or freelancer, I would be elated. But corporations want 40+ hours from dedicated employees and they seem to always want to dictate their schedules. This is what burns people out. I am getting a ton of time exercising outdoors and I have found many other lucrative and fulfilling things to pursue to keep me busy such as traveling, tutoring, volunteering and writing, but it really isn’t the same. I really don’t know how to describe it, but you already seem to understand what I am talking about. Like the Mrs, I’m pretty smart and want to use my skills. I’m actually thinking about taking a full time job, just to get in the door and then after I wow them for 6 months or a year, ask to go part time or freelance.

    There is a book by Ernie Zelinski called “How to Retire Happy, Wild and Free”. He talks about the need to find meaning during early retirement.

    • Wow, that’s so interesting to know. Thank you for sharing your perspective! In all likelihood, we’ll keep some connection to our current work through freelance or independent consulting, for this very reason, and for a little income too.

      We own that Ernie Z. book and, though he’s a little wacky, it’s helped us get ourselves in the proper mindset in preparation for early retirement — asking questions like this one!

  8. I had to be on disability for awhile. I mean full-on, SSA disability without thinking there was any hope of me ever finding sustainable employment.

    There’s nothing like that to get you questioning your self-worth.

    I struggled with this a lot, and therapy was involved too. But a lot of it just had to do with redefining myself outside the ability to earn a paycheck. It’s very, very tough. One thing that did help somewhat was Weber’s Protestant Work Ethic & the Spirit of Capitalism. Mainly, though, I was on my own.

    I had to figure out what I considered an acceptable way to spend a day, and what I could and couldn’t do. The latter, of course, wouldn’t apply to voluntary early retirees, but you probably get the picture.

    Basically, just know that there are A LOT of a hours in the day. I used to watch TV from 11-3 and prime time TV, read 3-4 books a week and still often be bored spitless. Granted, I was also unable to run a lot of errands for myself, nor did I have a hobby other than reading.

    I think you need to find something you can put your energy into that rewards you. I’m guessing this blog will definitely be a contender. But you also need to find peace with doing absolutely nothing. It’s harder than it sounds.

  9. We are at the more traditional retirement ages, but these are the biggest issues that I believe we will face, and for the same reasons that you face them. I am interested to follow you into the first several years of early retirement as you find your niche in post career life. We plan staggered retirement dates to allow each other to adjust, reintegrate ourselves into a marriage spent in one location and to sort out some of the last bit of our overarching financial planning.

    • That’s such an interesting approach! It never occurred to us to stagger our retirement dates, mainly because we both know however went second would be filled with resentment in the meantime, and we don’t want that in our marriage. But it’s a great point about having some time to adjust while things stay semi-normal, and while there’s some financial cushion.