A little retirement coaching goes a long way

Let me tell you about a recent revelation.

Earlier this year I formally launched a new facet of my 20-year-old career coaching practice: retirement coaching. It was a timely move, given the largest wave of retirees in history — boomers — totally redefining the word “retirement.”

All the stars aligned: a large market (baby boomers), a clear need, a good idea pretty well thought out, good timing and so on. So I jumped into retirement coaching, confident (among other things) that I was ahead of the curve, bringing all kinds of possibilities into the conversation’s mix: not necessarily quitting work but working part time, volunteering (of course!), serving on a board, traveling, pursuing hobbies, starting that business that’s been in the back of your mind for 30 years, engaging in formal and informal lifelong learning, committing to community involvement (running for local office, for instance) and so on. For the most part, as it turned out, this was — and still is — a very good idea.

Until it got better.

If that sounds a bit paradoxical, let me clear it up. A fundamental truth of teaching (coaching and teaching are very closely related, and I do both for a living) is that teaching and learning are the same function, and both participants — the ones traditionally labeled as “teacher” and “student” — actually serve in both capacities.

This became crystal clear to me in January 2003, my first-semester teaching graduate leadership courses at Fairleigh Dickinson University. It was an idea that I then realized I understood from the first client I coached in 1997. (Rick, that’s you. Still going strong, right?)

That wonderful, exhilarating teaching/learning synergy occurs, of course, when the environment is right. The teacher must go into this (as too few do) absent an omnipotent attitude and posture, and the student should be aware of the potential to bring enlightenment to the process as well. That is the collaborative, democratic approach to the experience of the moment leading to ongoing improvement of the process and the subsequent elevation of future moments — ad infinitum.

That’s what has happened already. It’s led to a wonderful discovery on my part, not that what I discovered is a hidden mystery of the universe.

In fact, it’s such a remarkable grasp of the obvious that it makes me wonder what took so long to “discover” it. It’s kinda like gravity: It had been there all along but it took a while before science defined it as its own phenomenon (Galileo, then Newton) and then went on to understand it in a different way (Einstein).

So what is this discovery I’m talking about? Structure.

Understanding — and then applying — good planning for retirement demands a grasp of much more than just the activities in which we can engage. That’s the easy part.

What I’ve found, in focusing more than ever on retirement is that even the most independent of us have been functioning in our own very well-structured lives, regulated by a structure that was, for the most part, imposed on us and with which we gladly complied: career paths, work and vacation schedules, volunteer and community time, professional development, waking and sleeping, scheduling almost everything else around episodes of our favorite addictive television series, and so on.

It’s not that we don’t understand this concept of structure. It’s just that, like gravity, it’s always been there, invisible, waiting to be understood. Once it enters the conversation, it takes on its own momentum, although defining what it looks like is another story.

That’s where the real progress takes place. It’s one of those easier-said-than-done things, but once engaged, is not out of anyone’s reach — for a simple reason. Whether you’re able to provide that structure for yourself or you need to continue relying on extrinsically supplied structure(s), either is OK. It just depends on which works with you.

It’s about self-awareness and self-definition. The rest follows very naturally from there. That was the revelation.

One way or another, this has success written all over it because there’s very little that can go wrong, provided you’re at the correct starting point. It just depends on which way is right for each individual.

And then there’s this. The reason today’s column is titled as it is — “A little retirement coaching goes a long way” — is that this thing we call “retirement” is no longer a short-term phenomenon.

It’s definitely a long way.

Career coach and corporate adviser Eli Amdur has been authoring his weekly “Career Coach” column since 2003 and is the author of his acclaimed career advice book “It’s Not So Far From Here To There: The thinking person’s guide to well-managed career.” He also is an adjunct professor of two graduate-level leadership courses at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey. Visit his website at www.amdurcoaching.com.

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