A few weeks ago I was listening to Teresa Amabile’s interview on the Harvard Journal Podcast about How Retirement Changes Your Identity. She mentioned a concept I had never heard before but I immediately identified with: an identity bridge.
An identity bridge is a sense of self that carries you through a change from one place to another. For those pursuing early retirement, this concept is exceedingly important for your sense of self.
We (the American we) wrap a great deal of our identifies in our jobs. “What do you do?” is far too often the first question asked when people greet each other. Losing this sense of self is a major blow to people who retire, causing them to struggle to create a new identity when they stop working.
My Samhain 2018
Last October a friend of mine held a Samhain party for Halloween. Samhain is a pagan Halloween-like festival combined with a bit of a new years celebration.
While we didn’t do this festival by the book, there was one activity that was helpful in reflecting and looking forward. Our host organized number of activities to help bring out the discussion and set a direction for each of our next years.
One question was to figure out one thing that you want to change about yourself in the next year. If you’re like me, finding one thing to change is easy! I’d like to eat healthier, get stronger, be more productive – and a million other goals that match up with the most common new years resolutions.
I dug a little bit deeper, looking into my new jobless future and came up with one that was weighing on my mind:
Stop identifying myself by my job, accomplishments or work.
After a decade of calling myself a programmer, a company director, an owner, an author or a product manager, all of the sudden my personal role was no longer my defining characteristic (if it ever really was).
Using this as a defining characteristic is a very American approach to our relationship with ourselves. If you don’t feel you identify in this way with your day-to-day career, then you’re two steps ahead of many of us here in the states.
Next Steps > Giant Leaps
When thinking about how to make this change to stop identifying myself in this way, I started to look into other interests, hobbies and creative outlets that could instead fill the basis of my identity.
When making a major life change, the more parts of your life you can keep the same, the easier it is to maintain positive mental health and forward momentum in life.
For instance, look at two scenarios:
Dave quits his job. He immediately buys a tiny house and throws himself into its creation. He decks it out with the intention to tour the country in it.
Maria builds a tiny house while working. She gets it to a place where it is usable and takes a few weekend getaways. She parks it in a friends backyard and spends a month living in it while continuing to go to work. Then she quits her job with the intention to tour the country in it.
Who do you think will have the highest chance of achieving their dream – Dave or Maria? Maria right? She’s already taken many steps towards her goal. She’s put in the grit to get past some of the boring parts and has a much greater understanding of her own relationship with that goal.
Dave, on the other hand, will have many opportunities to give up. He may give up before his house is complete – before he ever gets to use it! Maybe he’ll give up before he takes it on an overnight trip. Maybe he won’t enjoy living in it. All of these are risks that Maria has overcome.
Small Steps Today
You can do the same thing with many goals you have today. If you have a goal that’s impossible to do without leaving your job (ex: hiking the Appalachian Trail, creating a business, etc), see what small steps you can take to vet the idea now. That will serve as a bridge to retirement, allowing you to immediately work on it more.
For instance, ever since reading A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson, I’ve been interested in hiking the Appalachian Trail. The “Dave” way to do it would be to buy a bunch of gear, wait until there was plenty of time, then hike it. It’s also why most people who start the trail without preparation don’t finish it.
A more Maria way to tackle that same goal would be to go on small hikes close to home. Maybe try to build up to overnight hikes, then multi-day hikes. Spending a long weekend away camping.
I’ve found that if I truly want to do something, I’ll find a way to make small steps in that direction. If I can’t motivate myself to even take those steps, then the long-term goal is unrealistic.
The same tactic could be used for buying things. For instance – if you go out hiking X times, then you’ll revisit the idea of buying a new water bottle, or a pair of hiking polls. There’s a sense of validation before commitment.
Blogs and Creative Outlets as a Bridge
So what does this have to do with the idea of an identity bridge? In both cases, there’s a sense of preparation before commitment. Jumping in can be fun for sure, but there are other ways.
One of the most common identity bridges is creating a creative outlet – like blogs. The same is true for any business or creative outlet. “Side hustles” are all the craze these days too. To me, the most underlooked advantage of these hustles is to continue that sense of self in retirement. You can continue to call yourself a blogger, or an artist, or a writer, or an editor even without your day job.
Other Identity Bridges
Dina Gerdeman wrote up an excellent article that touches on a number of identity bridges. She digs into a number of bridges that
- Maintaining a life philosophy (here’s mine) – Creating a personal mission that guides what you focus on.
- Investing in a hobby – Increasing time in something you love doing and putting your heart into it.
- Finding an old interest (from childhood) – Going back to what made you happy as a kid and bring that back into your life (I recently picked up the complete Calvin and Hobbes collection, which fits in here).
- Improving relationships – Going deeper with relationships.
- Using work skills in a new way – Finding opportunities in your local community, online communities, family or friends to use your skillset.
- Finding a new source of affirmation – Replacing that sense of accomplishment that many get from work can be tricky. This could come in the form of volunteering or helping others.
- Putting a stake in the ground – Getting a business card, registering a new business or setting a commitment/goal for yourself.
For more elaboration on each of these, I’d encourage you to check out Gerdemans article Welcome to Retirement. Who Am I Now?.
Balancing a Bridge with Leisure
One thing I love about the identity bridge idea is not letting retirement become a panacea for everything that’s wrong. There’s still a sense of continuing parts of your life that you enjoy, building those up now and continuing them after.
For me, I’ve spent a bunch more time on things I loved before – programming, hiking, skiing and just slowing down. I didn’t wait until I stopped working to start doing these, otherwise I would have been setting myself up for failure.
That’s not to say there won’t be new things that I start doing that I’ve never done before! For those activities, I aim to dip my toe in and approach them with a sense of optimistic curiosity rather than reckless abandonment.
I like Gerdeman’s explanation of this balance from her article:
A central question for many is this: Should they fill their days with pleasure, like cruises, golf, and meeting friends for breakfast, or should they devote themselves to more purpose-driven, meaningful activities, like volunteering or becoming active in local civic organizations?Welcome to Retirement. Who am I now?
Getting that balance right, especially for highly motivated people who worked hard and retired early, is going to be an ongoing challenge. What’s right for everyone will be different. Being conscious of your own balance is important, but worth exploring now rather than later.
What do you think of the identity bridge idea? Are there areas you are trying to continue after you stop working? Are there things you struggle with finding a way to try now?