How to Run the Retirement Race
Back in the 1970s, there was a famous middle- and long-distance runner named Steve Prefontaine. “Pre” as he was known, had the unique ability to lead races from start to finish because of his tremendous finishing burst. On the last lap, he routinely outsprinted competitors who had tried in vain to preserve their energy for the final kick. He once said of himself, “I’m going to work so that it’s a pure guts race at the end, and if it is, I am the only one who can win it.” Prefontaine’s secret weapon was having the guts to finish well in the last lap.
If you are thinking about retirement, how are you planning to run this last lap of life? By easing to the finish line or by finishing with a kick?
In America today, there is the thought that aging and retirement is a time to rest, relax, kick back in your bunny slippers and do whatever pleases you. Various voices in the retirement industry have promised us a perfect environment for our later years:
- The investment experts tell us that if we save our money and have the right investment strategy, retirement will be worry free.
- The leisure industry implores us to spend the rest of our lives relaxing in the lap of luxury on some cruise or exotic resort.
- Real estate experts tell us to downsize into a house costing twice as much as the one we are leaving or to let our cares disappear in a senior-oriented planned community.
But is this the best way to finish a race? J.I. Packer is a well-respected theologian. As an active 91-year-old and a model for how to finish well, he calls this kind of thinking, “Wrong-headed in the extreme.” In his book, Finishing Our Course with Joy, Packer says of today’s approach to retirement,
I think it is ironically deceptive, calculated in effect to produce the precise opposite of fullness of elderly life that it purports to promote. … It prescribes idleness, self-indulgence, and irresponsibility as the goal of one’s declining years. This, over time, will generate a burdensome sense that one’s life is no longer significant, but has become, quite simply, useless.
One of the biggest dangers facing retirees is losing our sense of purpose and being overwhelmed with a feeling of uselessness as we age. To misquote Forrest Gump, “Useless is as useless does.” Regardless of our stage in life, we are all in the process of becoming—whether we are becoming useless, or useful and significant. Even in our later years, we are who we choose to be.
So, if Packer is right and acting useless fosters a feeling of uselessness, then we need to reexamine how we will run that last lap of our race. Being useless is easy. Being significant takes effort.
If you plan on maintaining a feeling of usefulness and significance as you age, I suggest you be like Prefontaine. See the last lap as the time when you accelerate rather than hold back. See it as a time when you can repurpose all your lifetime of experience into a new burst of speed. Focus your energy on who and what is really important to you, and finish with purpose.
Even the great Prefontaine discovered he could not finish well, though, if he lost his focus. An underdog at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, Prefontaine was in second place in the 5000-meter coming into the last mile. Everyone expected his famous final kick to secure the gold medal. Sadly, Prefontaine ran out of gas with 30 meters to go, was passed by several runners and missed out even on finishing third and winning the bronze. Although disappointed, he learned a valuable lesson and later said, “To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.”
That’s a lesson for those of us facing our last lap—our life experiences are a gift to be used. Like Pre, we have all lost some races and we have won some races. Either way, we reach the final lap with a wealth of wisdom about how to live. Letting ourselves become useless will sacrifice that gift.
Are you going to use your wisdom to finish the race wearing your track shoes, or will you be content to sit back, lounge in your bunny slippers and simply wait for the race to end?
Since I’m going to be on that last lap whether I want to or not, I’m going to finish with a gutsy kick.
About the author – Andy Raub is known as “America’s Encore Coach” because of his passion to help retirees repurpose their lives and reorganize their money. An early baby boomer, he has been a financial advisor for 35 years, bald for 40 years, and husband to Jean for 48 years. Andy has the skill of a teacher, the insight of a writer, and the heart of a coach. He is “Dandy” to four teenage grandchildren, Dad to two daughters, and irritant to two sons-in-law. Andy is the author of the new book The Encore Curve – How to Retire with a Life Plan That Excites You and the founder of the Encore Curve program. See how The Encore Curve process can help you clarify your life and simplify your money at EncoreCurve.com.
 J.I. Packer, Finishing Our Course with Joy: Guidance from God for Engaging with Our Aging (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014), 29.