We could only daydream about our future, retired life and how different it will be from our current one for so long before we had to accept: Life won’t just be different. We will be different, too.
The fundamentals of us as individuals will still be true, of course, but when we step off that work precipice into the great unknown, we’ll be confronting all of these versions of ourselves whom we’ve never met before:
The us who are completely well rested.
The us whose shoulders have receded from our ears in the absence of work stress.
The us who have time to be attentive partners to each other.
The us who have figured out what the heck we want to do when we grow up.
It’s both a disconcerting and intriguing thought: that there’s so much about ourselves as individuals and as a couple that we still have yet to learn.
And our big question is: How well do we even know those people?
We Know Ourselves… Under Certain Conditions
As you already know if you’ve read this blog before, I am pretty into introspection, and I have a decent handle on most of my tendencies and habits at this point, 37 years in. (I know my crazy.) But, 33 of those years have been spent in work mode, either in school or in my career. There were some summer vacations back there in the most distant memories, but those magical interludes were inhabited by kid me, not adult me. And they came with an expiration date that felt like an early and extended form of the Sunday blues. I remember thinking in June one year in elementary school, “I’m sad, because summer break will be over in two months.”
It’s safe to say that I have spent the overwhelming majority of my life working, dreading work or being sad that it’s almost time to work again. I’m thankful to have a career that has brought me enormous satisfaction, working for a company that I respect and admire, but it still strikes me that these thoughts aren’t healthy.
It’s well known to animal advocates that dogs kept in a shelter awaiting adoption behave differently than they do in a normal home environment. They experience more stress. They are more likely to behave aggressively and fearfully, and to bark more than they usually would. This phenomenon probably prevents many awesome dogs from being adopted, because they aren’t showing off their best selves in the shelter environment. We’ve experienced this ourselves with our two dogs, both of whom changed for the better after settling in at home — one to the point of acting like a completely different dog.
I think I know myself pretty well, but what if I only know myself in shelter conditions — stressed, tired, too much stimulation from work demands — and there’s a completely different me in there, just waiting to settle in at home?
Lots of Guesses
Our entire early retirement vision is based on the premise that we want to spend as much of our lives — especially the younger, most able-bodied years — pursuing our outdoor passions. But the truth is: we’ve never spent most of or all of our time outdoors before, except for in short bursts, and even then those bursts felt like a massive contrast to our “real life” of work work work. So this idea that it’s what we want to do for the long term? It’s a guess. An educated guess, sure, but still a guess.
Also guesses: That we want to spend long periods traveling the world. And long periods traveling around North and South America in an RV. That we want to ski 100 days a season a few times, and chase an endless winter.
We’ve never actually done any of those things. And we’ve certainly never done those things or any things when there was no yin and yang, no contrast to work, no thing we were rebelling against. We could find that we only need to ski 40 days in a season, or leave the country for a month or less at a time. The thought has occurred to us: What if this is like picking a major in college, when we don’t actually know what it’s like to work in that field?
Because it’s impossible to know until we’re there. Until we’re actually those people — future us, not today us.
This question is a big part of why we haven’t made any concrete plans for our early retirement. It’s why we haven’t booked a round-the-world trip or bought an RV. We could, but we want to keep things a bit looser, to allow space for our not-under-work-duress selves to emerge.
And it’s probably why we stumble a little when people ask us what we’re going to do once we’re retired. “Travel,” we say, “and outdoorsy stuff. And writing.” But we stop there, because we don’t know what these other versions of ourselves whom we have yet to meet will actually feel inclined to do. It’s as though we’re parents preparing to welcome children into the world — children who are us, who will emerge as fully formed adults — and we don’t want to taint their new experience with our preconceived notions of what they should want for themselves. (<– officially one of the weirdest things I have ever admitted or written)
The Question That Matters Most
If, in the end, we decide to do different things in retirement, it’s not ultimately that big a deal. Maybe we’ll have to take “adventure” out of the blog header. The world will keep spinning. (Not that I’m anticipating any of that happening, but it’s not ridiculous to think the thought.) It’s another question, though, that truly matters.
Divorce rates shoot up at the time of retirement, and while it’s easy to dismiss that trend as generational or not applicable to early retirees, the truth is that there are too few of us doing this to know for sure. With baby boomers, it’s possible that after retirement they realize that they don’t have anything in common, having spent 40 years doing different things most days. We hope for early retirees everywhere that this is less of an issue when you’ve only been in your career for 15-25 years. But there’s still a fundamental shift in dynamics that could feel rather seismic, regardless of how long a career was involved.
While I’m hoping that well-rested-and-less-stressed me will be a better human in general, the thing I think about most is that I can’t wait to have more time and space to be a better partner to Mr. ONL. I know he thinks about the same thing. Though he feels as grateful for his career and employer as I do, we both know that the nature of our work has forced us to live far too much of our 11 years together inside our own heads, not engaging with each other. It feels like a hugely positive sign that we both can’t wait to get fully present together more of the time, not just in short bursts.
But it’s not crazy to question whether some relationship fine tuning might end up being in order. We’ve only ever known the working versions of each other — and mostly only known the working versions of ourselves — so we should expect to get to know each other in new ways.
There could be whole layers of awesomeness in there, just waiting to be discovered. There could be weird quirks that have been buried under the work stress and panic monster intrusions. There could be new ways we’re able to relate to each other, and new ways we’ll butt heads (like if money becomes a source of tension in the future).
So long as we anticipate the need to adjust, we feel good about handling our evolution together, as a team. The mistake would be assuming that everything will stay the same, or worse, that any change represents growing apart. We have changed a lot in our 11 years together, so we know we’re going to keep changing, perhaps with a big growth spurt coming up sometime next year.
What do you wonder about for future you? Or for those who’ve already retired, what have you found to be most different now that you’ve exited your career? Any big surprises? For married folks, how are you thinking about evolving together in your relationship after you make a big change? Let’s discuss it all in the comments!
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