Life By Design


The choices we make by accident are just as important as the choices we make by design. – Shad Helmstetter

The big question is whether you are going to be able to say a hearty yes to your adventure. – Joseph Campbell

My husband and I, along with many of our friends, are nearing the age of optional retirement. In fact, just last week, two of my colleagues, both still relatively young, retired from Bank of America. One is going to ‘nothing’ for a while, while the other is heading off to a job with another financial provider.

When I talk to friends our age, some know exactly what they want to do and how they want to live in the future. Others, not so much. They’re just beginning to dream about it, or seem to be putting off the decisions until something in the future forces their hand.

Choosing a life for the future in your fifties is very different than choosing one at twenty-two. I don’t even remember “choosing” a definitive life when I was twenty-two. I needed to get a job. That job took me to a town (Richmond, VA), and a bank (First and Merchants National Bank) and the rest is pretty much history. After seven years of marriage, we did actually deliberately ‘choose’ to have children, but after that life just took over. We moved where the jobs were, and we filled our life with our children’s activities. Raising them was our life outside of work.

But now, we get to really choose what’s next for us. It’s exciting, but it’s also damn intimidating.

Just the decision to “retire” is ridiculously hard. Do we have enough money? How much is enough money? (Does anyone ever think they have enough money?) How long should we wait? Do we even agree on what we want to do after we retire?

I am fascinated by people who decide to make the really BIG changes; like quitting their job and starting a new business; or selling their house and touring in a motor home; or maybe moving cross-country, away from children and friends; or renting out their house and spending a year in Europe. How did they KNOW when the time was right to make the big move?

Too much choice often paralyzes. Recent studies on choice and human behavior show that when given too much choice, humans often make NO choice. When offered twenty-four flavors of jams in a grocery store, consumers bought LESS jam than when there were only five or six options on the shelf.

Too many choices can be debilitating, causing us to procrastinate, be overwhelmed, seek more and more information, and often not make any choice at all – while the clock runs out.

Before I go any further, I need to stop and note that I recognize that is a great blessing to have some choices now. For some people, options at this age may be limited – by income, by health, or by family circumstances. Others are given a gentle shove by life through the threshold into another choice, before they were ready.

But if you are one of those lucky enough to have some choices, and are standing on the threshold looking at the options, how do you make them?

In my typical planner fashion, I wrote out a list of questions for Andrew to answer. It was sort of like an eyeglass exam – which view is better, this, or that?

Here’s a sampling of my questions:

On a Scale of 1 – 5:

How important is it to you to have a nice home, that we own? (versus rent, or live somewhat itinerantly in places we want to see)
How important is it to you to help our kids with graduate school costs?
How important is it to you to live near our children – and grandchildren – in the future?
How important is travel to you?
How important is service to others to you?
What do you really want to do, that you haven’t done yet? What are the top 5 things on your bucket list?
In the pie chart of life, where would you put your money and your time?

It was an interesting conversation. I learned some things about my husband I didn’t know. We agreed on some things, and not so much on others.

A nice home and a yard for him to putter around in were more important to him than to me (except for my dream of a writing and photography studio).

He would take care of grandchildren if needed, that’s a real non-starter for me (unless it’s just for a visit).

Travel was absolutely critical for both of us. We both want to traverse western Europe to soak up all the history, art and culture we can, until we literally can’t go anymore.

Non-profit service was on the list for both of us, but subservient to travel at this point.

He could work part-time in a wine shop and be very happy; I have dreams of going to photography school or writing a book.

More choices give you more freedom. But does it really, if we spend so much time trying to make choices that we never choose?

Sometimes you just have to choose. You have to say YES to something, which means NO to something else.

For now, we’re saying YES to improving our Charlotte home, with a major kitchen remodel. Score one for Andrew.

We’re going to keep working for a while (score one for Jeri, who is big on financial security), but make time – and budget – available to travel together to places that call us both. (Score one for both of us.)

Saying YES to something now means saying NO to something else. And given that we’re not twenty-two anymore, time will do its thing and remove some choices for us in the future.

Frankly, that part scares me; it’s a strong probability that there won’t be so many jams on the shelf to choose from in the future.

But, regardless, it helps to know that we are choosing by design right now, versus by accident or not at all. I think it’s probably a good idea to do this exercise every six months or so, from now on until we can’t choose anymore.

Do you know what your next adventure is? How did you recognize it? And, maybe more importantly, how did you make the choice to say a ‘hearty yes’ to it?

One thought on “Life By Design

  1. Without thinking about any one else — your husband, your kids, you co-workers, your brother, your friends — what is it that you really want? Figure that out and the rest will fall in place.

    For me, my first grandchild had just been born. I was fortunate enough to be in the delivery room and had watched my son “catch” his son. A few hours later my husband drove my son (who hadn’t slept in 36 hours) home for a few hours to spread the word about the birth of his son. My son asked me to stay in the hospital to watch over his family.. My grandson’s mother asked me if I would mind holding the baby (!! duh !!) while she slept. And for the next four hours I simply held my grandson, sitting in a hospital room that went dark as the sun went down. And for four hours all I did was look at him, and talk to him and sing to him. And I was filled with joy. And suddenly realized that for years I had become such an expert at multi-tasking that I no longer knew how to focus on one thing at a time.. And what a joy it was to simply do — and enjoy — one thing. For an extended period of time. The decision to retire was made for me with that experience. And then so many surprises came into my life . . ..

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