I retire from Cornell tomorrow, two days after I turned 59. My Mom and Dad both retired from their union jobs within days of their birthdays, and I never remember them saying much about their jobs after they retired. Someone else took my Dad’s place on the production line, and someone else took my Mom’s place filing papers.
But academia is different. It’s one profession you never really have to retire from. A lot of us have a lot to say, and we’re passionate about saying it even when we’re officially through with our job. Many academics imagine themselves retiring in their early 70s, and then transitioning to half-time until they pad-lock our office door shut to keep us out.
Even retirement parties are somewhat pro forma. If you feel you have a calling, you don’t feel any different the day after retirement except you're just no longer being paid. I just had my retirement party last month, and it seemed like a birthday party, except that people gave speeches and gave me a nice, cherry wood Cornell captain’s chair with a metal plaque on the back of it.
In 30 years of academia, I only once went to a retirement party that didn’t seem like a birthday party, and it had a striking effect on me. It was about 15 years ago and I was asked to be one of two faculty speakers at the annual Spring meeting of the university’s Business Advisory Committee.
What excited me the most was the other faculty speaker. He was one of the most notable economists at the University. He had won a boatload of awards and occupied a rare niche at the intersection of economics, real estate, finance, and law. He was widely published, widely influential, and people—even his economist colleagues—often spoke of him in awe. This year was his retirement year, and his speech would perhaps be his Last Waltz in front of a group like this. We got to know each other throughout the day and at the closing reception.
On the rainy long ride home, we sat next to each other in the back of the chartered bus. I asked him which of his many accomplishments he most proud of, and which had the most impact. At one point, however, I asked a question that was not met with the same warmth and candor. I asked, "In light of all of the remarkable things you’ve accomplished so far in your career, what’s your biggest professional regret?"
Silence .Then he said, I don’t have any regrets. If I had to do it again, I would do everything pretty much the same way. After another much longer pause he said something like this:
“Well, maybe I have one regret. My work lies at the intersection of four areas – economics, finance, real estate, and law. I have a very complete picture of how these interact and how they influence everything from real estate prices in ghettos to land speculation prices in the middle of nowhere. The problem is that I’m the only one who sees the big picture. My papers are published in econ journals and finance journals, while others are published in real estate journals and law reviews. Nobody else sees the big picture because they only read one type of journal.”
I said, “Would it be easier for people to see the big picture if you were to write a book that pulled all of this together? That way, everything would be in one place and you could connect all the dots.” He chuckled and immediately dismissed this, “I don’t know about marketing, but in economics they don’t reward books.” After 45 years of research, he was retiring with one needless regret. This was unfinished business that he would now have the chance to finish, but he was still letting a now irrelevant barrier get in the way.
The metaphor of an "unwritten book" can be a useful metaphor for us who are feeling that our routine is getting too predictable, who are feeling restless, or who find themselves retiring with a feeling there's something more to contribute.
Most people have at least one metaphorical book that would take our ideas or interests to a new level of expression. Importantly, it doesn’t need to be writing a book. It might be starting a website and blog, or teaching an adult ed course we’ve wanted to teach. It might be mastering a musical instrument and joining a band, starting a photo travelogue, moving to that lake house you always dreamed of, or starting an online business.
What’s interesting is that most of these “unwritten books” probably wouldn’t even have to wait until you retired. They were something that could have been started much earlier if we would have removed our make believe barriers.
Time to start the next chapter.
Someone once told me that he was such an efficient teacher that he usually spent less than 10 minutes preparing to give an hour-long lecture to his college class. Sometimes he said he even did it in real time when he was at the front of the classroom -- he just opened up his folder to see what the topic was for that day and started talking. He was an efficient, but not engaged teacher. He also didn’t enjoy teaching, and saw it as an interruption in other things he’d rather be doing.
“Mailing it in” became a popular phrase at about the same time “I’m working at home” became popular. It means being efficient, but it also seems to mean doing something with the minimal amount of work that is acceptable. Being efficient without being engaged.
I saw the exact opposite of this through a fog of pot smoke this past weekend.
Every May, one of the great parks in Rochester, NY holds a 10-day party in the park called the Lilac Festival. They ship in tons of fried dough and dinosaur-sized turkey legs. They also book really cool bands to play every evening until the police close them down at 8:30.
Last Friday they had booked a great concept called something like Classic Album Concerts. They would pick a classic album and then assemble top-rate musicians who could play the album note-by-note and word-by-word perfect. It would be the perfect live recreation of the album, but with musicians who aren’t dead or in heroin rehab. The first of these was going to be a recreation of the classic Led Zepplin album – “Led Zepplin II.” Since Led Zepplin was my very favorite, most ultimate, highly awesomest band when I was in high school, I rescheduled my Friday afternoon meetings so I could be smunched into the front row. The plan was to drive up to Rochester and sing along with the band for 41:38 minutes while my wife and visiting sister-in-law looked at their watches and occasionally tapped them to see if they were still running.
The band hit every single note and every nuance. Even the spacing between the songs seemed the same length as between the tracks on the album or 8-track. But after we had burrowed through the crowd and pot smoke to get to the front, there was something a little weird happening on the side of the stage. There was a woman with huge head phones who looked like she had jumped on the stage was going to wave and gesture at the crowd until the security guards tackled her to the ground. Then I realized that she was using sign language – she was a sign language translator for people who were deaf or otherwise hearing impaired. This would include people who had stood too close to Led Zepplin amplifiers in the 1970s.
I went back to singing along with the music until there was a 10-minute drum solo. At that point, I started spacing out and again noticed the sign language translating woman. Although there were no words to sign, she was air drumming. Instead of waiting around until the band started singing again, she got so much into the song that she was using her down time to flail around like she was playing Rock Band on the PS4. When they did start singing again, I noticed she then had the same idea during guitar solos. Any time there was a guitar solo, she would switch instruments and play a Guitar Hero solo for the hearing impaired.
From a “Mail it in” perspective, she was ridiculously inefficient. You don’t play have to play your interpretation of the air drums when the real drummer is right next to you. You don’t have to play air guitar for hearing impaired people when you could instead just back up a little bit so that they could better watch the real deal themselves. She didn’t have to do it. She would have been paid the same amount if she had spent the drum solo in the Beer Here Tent.
But from a “Be Engaged” perspective, this is brilliant. She was doing it all: the hair tossing, the tortured face gestures, the sweating . . . everything. I started watching her every time they stopped singing because she would again start playing Guitar Hero. Again, she could have spent the guitar solos tweeting a selfie or buying a Led Zepplin 8-track online, but she instead spent every minute being fully engaged in that minute. Mindlessly mindful. Electric Zen.
If someone told her she was being inefficient, she could have said, “Yeah, but I feel totally alive.”
That might be one big trade-off between focusing on being efficient at a task or being engaged with it. If you’re efficient, you have the satisfaction of saying, “I’m done.” If you’re engaged, you have the satisfaction of saying, “I feel totally alive.”
There’s a place for both. With some tasks, you just want to get them done. If you don’t like cleaning, grading, answering email, or doing your receipts, it makes sense to be more efficient. All of these things can take a variable amount of time, and you want that to be short.
Other tasks, take a fixed amount of time. You have to be in class for 50 minutes, you have to be in a 60-minute meeting, you have to watch a 2-hour dance recital for your third grade daughter, or you have to be a sign language interpreter for a 41:38 minute concert. It’s hard to make these efficient because you have to be there for the entire duration. So you might as well consider being engaged while you’re there. It’s going to take a more effort, but the worse that can happen is that you like it more and that you "feel totally alive."
By the way, if you decide to go on stage and play the air guitar at your daughter’s third grade dance recital, make sure to get a video of it.
Party on, Wayne.
On a late afternoon about 20 years ago, I stepped into a slow elevator with my college’s most productive, famous, and taciturn senior professor. After 10 seconds of silence, I asked, “Did you publish anything yet today?” He stared at me for about 4 seconds and said, “The day’s not over.” Cool . . . very Clint Eastwood-like.
Most of us have some super-productive days and we have some bad days, but most lie in-between. If we could figure out what leads to great days, we might be able to trigger more of them in our life.
Think of the most recent “great day” you had. What made it great, and how did it start?
For about 20 years, every time somebody told me they had a great day, I’d ask “What made it great? How did it start out? About 50% of the time its greatness had to do with an external “good news” event like something great happening at work, great news from their kids or spouse, a nice surprise, or nice call or email from a grateful person or an old friend. The other 50% of the time, the reason for “greatness” was more “internal.” They had a super productive day, they finished a project or a bunch of errands, or they had a breakthrough solution to a problem or something they should do.
External successes are easy to celebrate with our friends. Internal successes are more unpredictable. What made today a great day and what sabotaged yesterday?
When people had great days, one reoccurring feature was that they started off great. There was no delay between when they got out of bed and when they Unleashed the Greatness. People said things like, “I just got started and seemed to get everything done,” or “I finished up this one thing and then just kept going.”
One of the most productive authors I've known said that got up six days a week at 6:30 and wrote from 7:00 to 9:00 without interruption. Then he kissed his wife good-bye and drove into school and worked there. When I asked how long he had done that he said, “Forever.”
About a year ago, I started toying with the idea that "Your first two hours set the tone for the whole day."
Think of your last mediocre day. Did it start out mediocre? That would also be consistent with this notion.
We can’t trigger every day to be great, but maybe we have more control than we think. If we focus on making our first two hours great, it might set the tone for the rest of the day.
What we need to decide is what we can we do in those first two hours after waking that would trigger an amazing day and what would sabotage it and make it mediocre. For me, it seems writing, exercise, prayer, or meditation are the good triggers, and it seems answering emails, reading the news, or surfing are the saboteurs.
Here’s to you having lots of amazing days. One’s where you can channel your best Clint Eastwood impression and say, “The day’s not over.”
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I'm Brian Wansink, and I've been lucky to work with lots of wonderful researchers to discover insights on how to help people become more effective, happier, and more meaningfully connected with each other.
See what works for you, and share it with others.