Analyze This

No, No, I’m Not Ready To Go

By Kerry J. Sulkowicz
Featured on Business Week
10.23.2006

I’m a small-business founder with fear of the “R” word: I dread retirement even though, at 63, I realize it is approaching. Some days I think I’ll survive the transition. Other days, I’m less certain. How can I retire at the right time, graciously, and with a feeling of satisfaction that allows me to anticipate a new stage of my life?  Marcia Joslyn Sill, Seattle

Your fear is understandable and not unwarranted. True, many Americans slog through years of mind-numbing work inside the hierarchies of large corporations, counting the days until retirement liberates them from servitude. But as a founder, you’re probably more like my chief executive clients, who have thrived on the excitement and relative freedom that work provides.

These CEOs take pride in “failing” retirement, involving themselves in boards and other businesses because work has been so intoxicating — and so familiar. For some people who love working, though, the terror of being without a job can lead to impulsive (and bad) decisions about how to fill the void, including making risky investments to make up for lost income, or rushing into love relationships to ease the loss of self-esteem.

For others, retirement can provide just what you wish: a satisfying new stage of life. But it’s not just a matter of finding the right time. You have to achieve the right state of mind.

What’s needed to ensure a satisfying retirement? Beyond a comfortable nest egg, the ability to be alone with oneself, a real desire to spend more time at home (and with one’s life partner, if you have one), and a realistically fulfilling set of activities to take on.

It seems that for you, retiring feels more like a loss than a gain right now. Have you asked yourself why you “have to” retire in a few years? Company retirement policy, failing health, diminished effectiveness, and a struggling business might be compelling reasons. Or are you merely being obedient to what society says you’re “supposed” to do at a certain age? If you retire to satisfy such a convention, you well may be setting yourself up for anger and regret later on.

RETIREMENT is a tough transition for a small-business owner or entrepreneur, whose self- esteem can depend on self-reliance and constant stimulation. As a founder, you probably also have questions about your legacy, about whether your business survives. And don’t underestimate the role of guilt in interfering with a gratifying retirement: I know people who feel they’re getting away with murder when they’re granted a lot of freedom. They find their open calendars disorienting rather than inviting. Ultimately, the “R” word reminds us of the “M” word, mortality. Since life doesn’t go on forever, working until the end, for some, feels like the next best thing.