Habits a professor cultivated that now help him in retirement (opinion)

When I was in my 40s, I went to dinner with a group of faculty members at a conference. One of my friends knew that another person at the table would turn 65 in the summer and innocently asked, “So are you thinking about retirement?”

The fellow clapped back, “I don’t play golf, so why would I ever retire?” His tone stopped any further conversation, but I remember thinking, “I don’t play golf, either. Does that mean I won’t retire?” Up till then, I had never given any thought to retirement. Yet I then started thinking about retirement, and when I retired two years ago, I was glad that I did.

Last month, a longtime friend and I zoomed to catch up. At one point, the person mentioned they were going to teach a class in the fall. They had retired a few years ago, and with the same innocence of my long-ago friend, I asked, “Why are you doing that?” My friend sharply responded, “Because I am bored out of my mind. That’s why.” End of conversation.

Those two interactions bookend how I have come to think about retirement. I often advised harried graduate students and early-career faculty not to blow off exercise. I appreciated that raising young families and trying to get tenure often meant that they had too little time in a jam-packed day. “When you’re feeling overwhelmed,” I’d say, “is exactly the day you need to exercise. No one wins if you get sick.”

I tried to follow my own advice. And I recognize now that the habits I created along the way on the tenure track have held me in good stead at a new stage of my life. Here are a few of those habits.

  • Meditate/be mindful. Meditation helps ground me in the morning before I get going. I am able to slow the urge to flit from task to task and make sense of the day ahead of me. Periodically throughout the day, I’ll stop for a few seconds before I begin a new task, focus on my breathing and begin again. I find that I’m able to focus better and am less frantic. Many good apps to help you do this are available, but I use Waking Up.
  • Memory. I had a high school English teacher who made his students memorize poems. He said it added “a rose to the garden of your mind.” We all bellyached about the task because it wasn’t cool, but secretly I enjoyed committing to memory a poem. I’ve returned to memorizing the work of great poets—Yeats, Neruda, Angelou—not only because I like the pleasure of the sound of the words, but also because it helps facilitate my memory.
  • Fast. When I was in college, a movement called Fast for a World Harvest occurred. For a number of years afterward, I fasted periodically—the longest was for eight days. I now try to fast for two days a month. Fasting has nothing to do with losing weight. When I fast, I am brought into a greater sense of being in the world. Just as meditation enables me to be more thoughtful, fasting enables me to be more connected.
  • Exercise. The pandemic was useful in grounding us in our homes. My husband and I couldn’t go to a gym, but we could walk about two hours a day. I stretch every day, and my regimen gets longer as yet another body part starts to give me trouble. We continue to walk. I run, and we hike a lot. Being outside, as with fasting, brings me closer in contact with nature.
  • Read. The point is not only to read, but to read with someone else or in a group. Last year, five of my friends and I had Zoom conversations about James Joyce’s Ulysses. This year, a different gang is reading the novels of José Saramago. I took a class at St. John’s College in Santa Fe last year on The Brothers Karamazovand this summer I will take another on Kazuo Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans. I am all of Dostoevsky by reading Demons with a friend. Literature makes me reflect, and reading in communion with others helps me think through thorny issues that I may not have considered.
  • Get involved. Democracy is at risk. The climate is in shambles. Fascism is on the rise. Inequality is surging. Homelessness is rampant. Racism is all too obvious. Gun violence is endemic. I am entirely comfortable ceding voice and authority to those who are younger, but not to participate in some fashion is to simply accept inequities rather than help eliminate them.
  • Experience and experiment. I have tried new adventures that I never had time to do when I was teaching. I’ve regained my interest in chess. I’m learning more about jazz. We travel for two months of the year, and it involves a good deal of visiting art museums and attending classical music concerts as well as hiking. What I try to do is avoid wasting time scrolling through Facebook, watching the breaking news of the day and pursuing other inconsequential activities.
  • Confront death and dying. I lived as an out gay man during the AIDS crisis. I had to begin to grapple with thoughts about death and dying at a young age as I watched too many friends die. All of us at my age today know relatives, friends and colleagues who are passing away. Sure, death is inevitable. Reaching this stage in life should enable us to think through what life means and what others mean to us. When I look back on my life, some of my most meaningful conversations turned on those who were dying from AIDS. In those moments, I not only supported the individual, but I also figured out what I wanted from life. The same is true today.

I offer these thoughts about how to prepare for retirement if you are on the faculty, not as a recipe with a required list of ingredients. We all will have our own recipe. I think it’s a mistake, however, to be so wedded to our work that we think that the only alternative is a round of golf—or that retirement is boring. If we develop habits early in our careers, we’ll be better prepared to add on to them when we retire. We’ll be able to view retirement as a different stage of life, yet one that is still full of hope, challenges and the ability to continue to think through many of life’s great questions.

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