Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Professor Jim O’Donnell, author of The Shortest Investment Book Ever , but this post has nothing to do with investing or retirement. When I read Jim’s biography, I was struck by the fact that he gave up a lucrative career in the financial industry to teach at a little college in Indiana. Three months after moving, his wife was diagnosed with terminal breast cancer.
This is a tremendously powerful story that I asked Jim to share with us, one told in his first book Letters for Lizzie . It’s a long story but I think it’s well worth the time. If you’re not free now, you can print it out  and read it later, but please read it.
Wait! How ‘bout, do you even like what you do?
I’m grateful to Jim for having shared so much enthusiasm for my little work – The Shortest Investment Book Ever  – to help people save for retirement. But saving money for retirement is only one part — even if a big part — of the larger challenge that life deals us as we face our retirements. And I think each of us begins facing that challenge long before we actually retire. We may be led to examine and change our spending. We may contemplate moving to a lower cost area or to place we’ve always wanted to live. We may begin thinking about what we will do with all the time – which could be a source of joy or trouble – that retirement will give us. And as we begin to look at these different issues and plan for the future, it’s not too soon, if you’re still at work, to think hard about what you’re doing right now.
If I could, I’d encourage you to do the kind of work that makes your heart sing. I’d want you to find that place in life – and in your work – where your joy in doing something intersects with the world’s need to have something done. I’m convinced that that’s place where real joy lives. And that’s where I’d wish you to live.
Do you love what you do?
Whatever it is, do you see it as important, meaningful work? Why are you doing it? Is it just “to pay the bills?” If so, good for you. That’s a worthy reason to do something. You’re being responsible – and we have too many today who would do well to become more responsible. But if money were no object, what would you want to do? Think about that question today and tomorrow, too, because your answer to that question could greatly influence the kind of life and the kind of retirement that you’re going to face.
If passionate involvement lies at one end of the work spectrum and being a drudge, and living under wage slavery lies at the other end, where are you along that spectrum? Just as successful retirement savings plans begin years before someone’s actual retirement, so too, successful retirement living begins years earlier, as well. Often it begins with our hobbies or involvements with others, outside or inside our work life. But during our work lives, we may not have the time or the means to get involved enough. Then suddenly – or not so suddenly – in retirement, we have the time. And maybe, too, if we’re prudent (or blessed) we’ll have the time and some money to get more involved in a whole new line of work, where making money or rising to the top is no longer as important, say, as helping kids read, getting heat for poor people’s homes, or using your skills and abilities you’ve built up over a lifetime to bless those in less developed places.
How & Why I Took An 80% Paycut
If I may, as an example, and not a perfect example, let me share a bit of my own story, my own journey to discover that point where my bliss and the world’s need intersects. Early in my life, I never thought that I would become a college professor, which is what I am today. But back when I was 46 – I’m 60 now – I had a chance to take an 80% pay cut (Wow! Who could pass that up?) and move from cosmopolitan Boston to rural Indiana (Again, wow, who could pass that up?).
Now you might rightly ask, “What kind of nut are you? Why in the world would you do something so crazy?”
And “crazy,” indeed, is what friends back in Boston and New York, where I’d lived and worked for much of my adult life, thought I was. Well, in my case, I had come to faith, and come I did in a most powerful way after years of living with the pursuit of money and satisfying me being the center of what then passed for my idea of God. And suddenly, as if hit over the head with a spiritual two-by-four, I woke up to a different reality: I was not the center of the world, and what I had been given was meant not just for me, but also to help this very broken-down world. For about nine years after my coming to faith, in 1985, I prayed a certain prayer. It was quite simple and went something like, “Lord, please help me to use my gifts and talents to their highest and best use.”
At the time, I didn’t know much about prayer or about God, please understand, but I hoped that if there really was a God – as I now began to believe there was – that my prayer would be heard and answered. But if it were heard, I wasn’t sure I’d know how to respond. In time, however, after beginning to write and speak a bit all over the place about the convergence of faith in God in my life and work, I was invited to come speak at a little college in Indiana. You know, I was just supposed to come to tell students about what I did for a living and how Jesus had changed my life, even if not my job. I came, and I did that. And then I went home. But the president of that little college in Indiana called me up a few months later and wondered if I might want to come teach business and economics at that school. I didn’t. But I kept remembering that prayer I’d been saying over and over again, the one about wanting my “gifts and talents” put to their highest and best use. And not long after that, I felt a kind of divine tug, if you know what I mean, to come and see. Maybe to try it for a while. You know, see if this was right for me. If this was a way to use my gifts and talents — given to me by God — in a higher and better way.
And so that’s how, for me, I started to think about doing something else. I didn’t sense I HAD to do it. I had no sense of God shouting at me through a megaphone, “JIM!!! Turn or BURN!” No, not at all. It was something offered to me to try – like candy extended on an open hand. And I sensed, right there and then, that I had been given the gifts and experience that, with God’s grace, might make it work.
My new life has been filled with many challenges and adjustments, joys and disappointments. Three months after I arrived, my wife (whom I love) was diagnosed out of no where with terminal breast cancer. She survived treatment and surgery; but nine months later, the treatment turned out to have killed her heart. Now she needed a heart transplant. But having so recently battled “terminal” cancer, she was not eligible. She went into hospice. She was given weeks to live. I was angry with God. Still, I fought and prayed on her behalf, and Lizzie wound up getting heart transplant through a very small experimental program that was not supposed to give much extra time to Lizzie but would extend the knowledge of science. Ha! Science learned something, but, more important to me, Lizzie’s still alive today and doing pretty well. She volunteers a lot of time to hospice work and to many other people who are suffering. We both think we’re very fortunate people, even if this is a very difficult world sometimes.
Has it been easy? No. A walk in the park? Hardly. But it’s been, I think, a worthy use of the time and life God has given me. Now, at 60, I’m not all that far from retirement. I’ll probably try to keep teaching as long as I have the strength and health, because I think teaching is important. For me, it’s a place – not the only place – where my desire and the world’s need intersect. As I get older, I know I’ll have to cut back. But I don’t need to know that just yet. For me, playing golf every day and having cocktails on the veranda at 4 would not wind my watch for long. For a week or two, maybe. But not much longer. For now, I’m grateful to have the time, the desire, and the abilities to do with that time what I think is important and helpful.
What Will Be Your Legacy?
And soon, or maybe even now, it will be YOUR time to choose. What will you do? Maybe your choices will be limited; or maybe, you will have many different possibilities. One thing is for sure: you won’t get your time back; you won’t get to live it twice. And as you enter into, or as you may already be living through your retirement right now, you’re also becoming something else, something good or something less than you might have hoped.
What are you tending to become? What is it that you want these summary years of your life to stand for and to say to those who will live on after you?
Funny, isn’t it? In life or in retirement, oftentimes, the more we focus on ourselves, the more we may find we’re bored or we’re missing something or we’ve got aches or pains. On the other hand, the more we are able to focus on others and try to help them with their needs – be they grandchildren or a neighbor or needy people overseas – the more we tend to find – odd though it may be – our own needs met.
And, surprise, surprise, much more may be thrown in, to boot.