Part Five: The changing face of retirement and defining legacy

I’m less than 6 years away from traditional retirement or about 8 years away from what is becoming a more common retirement age. I’ve been thinking about these upcoming years and asking myself questions. Many of the answers remain elusive.

Question: Do I want to spend these years doing the work I’m doing now?

Answer: Probably not.

Question: What am I looking for if I make a change?

Partial answer: More flexibility, less ongoing stress, fully funded retirement account.

Question: What do you really, really, really want to do?

Answer: Not sure.

Thought bubble: Really? What the hell? You’re not a child, you should know by now!

Question: Legacy?

Answer: I would like to leave Nashville, the city I have grown to love, better than I found it. Since I believe few people want to leave someplace worse than they found it, this thought is not much more instructive than confessing I have no idea.

Different Direction

My dad had one job his entire adult life. My mom was a teacher her entire career. Though the world is moving in a different direction now, the average time on a job being 4–5 years and the gig economy emerging, my siblings and I have tended toward decades on a job like we saw growing up.

I love my job. Sort of. It stresses me out. I settled into my work in the nonprofit world a long time ago. It’s important to me. It contributes to the good of the human condition. It will be a sizable part of my legacy. Still, it pulls me in too many directions and makes my brain hurt. It’s gotten political and tedious. It makes me tired.

When I was younger and heard my seniors in the workplace say “I’m tired”, I thought it was an age thing. Of course, you’re tired; you’ve been around a long time. What I get now is being tired isn’t exclusively an age thing because it isn’t exclusively a physical thing. It isn’t as simple as my body and brain fatigue more easily because I’m older. I’m not willing to agree that’s even true. When I say it makes me tired, I mean I measure value differently. I mean I get happy differently. I mean the things I have patience for has shifted. I mean I’m often secretly relieved when the end of the workday comes.

I used to feel energized by the noise of the day. The way different activities and responsibilities pieced together and made a life. A good life. It was work and kids and living in the best neighborhood ever. It was rich and sometimes complicated life anchored by parenting….getting kids to school on time (sometimes), enduring homework hell, sport-of-the-season practice, and later, surviving teenage driving and adolescence in general. Being a mom was the foundation for everything else. It was non-negotiable. All hell could be breaking loose at work and kids still had to be picked up from wherever they were at the appointed time.

“The Trenches”

Work was always next up. From early on to current I was earning credibility in “the trenches”, securing better positions, landing in a CEO position, learning to lead, growing the organization, developing an external network, solving problems, mentoring, and being political. Large work. Large reward. Mostly.

Relationships, friends, and partners, filled life in and made it richer. Infinitely richer. I don’t often use the “blessed” word because it can sound religious and I’m not, but to describe the undeserved richness so many friends have brought to my life, I will use the word blessed. I’ve been blessed.

Being a mom, doing well professionally, having a significant other (sometimes) and spending time with friends equaled happiness. Those are still happy making things but my life looks different now. My kids do not depend on me for active parenting. My job will forever present new challenges and opportunities, yet I find it somewhat less happiness inspiring than I used to. I don’t have a significant other. (If you’ve read prior parts of this series, you’ve had a glimpse into how I view the complexities of finding a significant other.) My friends are of the unconditional love type, and still make me damn happy and damn-er grateful.

I had, until very recently, the fairly traditional mindset of work hard, fund the retirement plan and retire, doing so early if possible. It was the default and worthy goal; my part of the American dream. The onset of retirement would be my announcement to the world of a secure financial condition, a travel schedule ready to be unleashed, a bucket list ready to be conquered and the magical unstructured day owned and celebrated.


It felt fairly straightforward until it didn’t. I started to think about legacy. What mark did I want to leave? What additional impact do I want to have? Am I ready for something easier (more selfish) or do I want something different? The question, “what do I want from the rest of my life” started looked more complicated than more simple. I had wanted the work I’ve done to be sufficient legacy, but ideas of something more keep dancing in my head.

Recently I did something unusual. I read a book…non-fiction. As a general rule, I am committed to the practice of reading fiction. I love a well-written story with a beginning and end. I like the time I spend reading to be for fun, for escape, for setting reality aside. Scrolling through Facebook early one morning while drinking coffee, I saw a post from a friend asking if she was the only one unfamiliar with the work of Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI). Nope. Me too.

What little I learned from the post tapped…ok, hammered…the what-do-I-want-my-legacy-to-look-like button. His book, Just Mercy, is an autobiography about the work of the EJI. I got it. I read it. I can’t stop thinking about it. The stories ignited my deepest sense of outrage but also offered enough hope to believe it’s still possible to save our collective human soul. I have been ready to drive to Alabama and offer to do whatever I can to be a part of this work. The practicalities of something so impulsive (although I have to admit I’m proud of myself for considering something wildly impulsive) makes it unlikely I will show up in Alabama unannounced. It has, however, re-framed how I’m thinking about retirement.

So I sit with the question of legacy and feel some new urgency behind it. It doesn’t seem important anymore to draw a line between work and retirement. It does seem most important to find my inner brave-and-strong grown up and make a decision. Suddenly I’m less interested in protecting my time and flexibility and more interested in using my powers for good in a new way.

Questions for Peace with Aging:

Question: Could I continue to make a difference doing the same work with the already known opportunities for success (and failure) and a predictable paycheck?

Answer: Yes.

Question: Could I make changes so the work would have new energy and consequently somewhat less bad stress?

Answer: Maybe.

Question: Would that particular course of action result in feeling like I settled? Like there’s still something else out there?

Answer: Yes. Maybe. Perhaps. (So, no idea)

Question: Is 2018 the year to find out?

Answer: Yes. A resounding, unequivocal yes.

Visit Donna at

Writer and metal smith/jewelry maker, Donna has lived happily as a mother, friend, creative, and nonprofit leader in Nashville, TN for more than 30 years. She is additionally committed to her cats, rock climbing, gardening and power tools. She believes that people are good, kindness is essential and artists should rule the world. Find her at
Writer and metal smith/jewelry maker, Donna has lived happily as a mother, friend, creative, and nonprofit leader in Nashville, TN for more than 30 years. She is additionally committed to her cats, rock climbing, gardening and power tools. She believes that people are good, kindness is essential and artists should rule the world. Find her at

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