A few weeks ago, I was asked to write a short piece about early retirement. Since I announced my retirement from Legacy Health System, Portland, Ore., six months ago and my last official day was Oct. 1, I gather someone at Modern Healthcare must have thought I had some useful insights.
At first, I declined. I had nothing profound to reveal. After all, retiring (on your own terms, of course) is such a private and personal decision.
However, I gave the request some further thought. I still don't believe I can offer guidance to anyone contemplating their own retirement, but I can give you a glimpse of what to expect during the time between your announcement and your last day.
I was surprised at the consistency of the two questions that I was asked by every friend, well-wisher and reporter. "Why are you retiring so early?" and "But what are you going to do?" coupled with the follow-up question, "Aren't you going to work?"
The first question about retiring early seems to suggest that there is an acceptable or "right" time for retirement. Did I miss the just-in-time retirement memo? What is the right time for retiring? Is it dictated by age? Sixty-five years old or dead, whichever comes first? I have met some chief executive officers who seem to have died in the job, however, they still haven't retired. They must not be 65 yet.
All I know is that I'd rather retire too early than too late. Some important person--perhaps Churchill, Gandhi or maybe it was Ringo Starr--summed it all up when he said, "The most important decision a drummer will ever make is when to pass on the sticks."
The second most-asked question has been "But what are you going to do?" This question, surprisingly, has more often than not triggered the confusing follow-up question, "Aren't you going to work?" This one makes my head spin as I try to gently explain that if I wanted to continue to formally work, I would be staying in my current job with the people I love and the infinite challenges yet to be met. The people asking this question do so with a certain incredulous tone of voice. Maybe this is a projection of our societal values and personal fears. If you ain't working, you ain't contributing.
The second question does strike deep at the heart of the decision for most of us though. As the last day draws near, lying awake at 2 a.m., I think we all ask ourselves the question, "What am I going to do?" I have had a fantastic 35-year career--teaching, coaching, public health, HMO management and spending the last 16 years in hospital system administration. I have had valuable, passionate causes to tackle and have met wonderful people as teammates and friends. I have been incredibly lucky and fortunate.
However, much of my professional life has been prescribed, scheduled and prepared. I want to buy back all of my time and choices, but can I handle that freedom? Can I solo, initiate and improvise? I admit to having had more than one nightmare. In it, I am crossing off the last item on my "23 Things To Do When I Retire List," and it is only 3 p.m. on my first day. I didn't even make it to cocktail hour!
In the morning, the cold sweat has dried, the insecurity demons are sleeping and the excitement of possibilities energizes me. I have recently been re-inspired by some who have traveled different paths and who have successfully created positive changes in their communities and countries. Social entrepreneurs--Muhammad Yunus, Nick Moon, Mimi Silbert, Tony Hopson, Albina Ruiz and many more--have changed countless lives and broken cycles of poverty, sickness and illiteracy by thinking and acting outside the box. They have facilitated independence, self-sufficiency, personal pride, dignity and hope. Inspired by these people, the answers to that question offer options limited only by my vision, imagination, initiative and time.
P.S. Wow--I just reread the above and it sounds pretty exciting. But, being a pragmatic and flexible Italian, should the demons reawaken and the above basically be a load of crap, please take notice if a "job wanted" ad shows up in the next issue of Modern Healthcare and contact me if you know of any board seats, full- or part-time jobs, yard work, baby-sitting, pool-cleaning gigs, etc. Hey--a new to-do list!
Robert Pallari is the former chief executive officer of Legacy Health System, Portland, Ore.
* Know your answers to the inevitable questions: Why? What now?
* Concentrate on what you?e gaining, rather than what you?e losing.
* Dream new dreams.