Recent discussions of whether California Senator Dianne Feinstein should retire ignore one of the most important elements that affect decisions about retiring: The willingness to assume a new identity.
Identity is an amalgam of one’s history, beliefs, and behaviors. A significant portion of the mix involves one’s job or profession. Eliminate it–as suggested to Senator Feinstein—and you become a new person. In this article, I list five questions to ask yourself if you contemplate retiring or are dissatisfied with how your retirement is going.

When It’s Time to Let Go

Have you ever asked yourself when is it time to let go of something that gave meaning to our life? When Senator Feinstein returned to Congress last month, a not-so-civil discussion ensued about whether she should resign for the good of the party and nation or continue until her term was over. Many of her supporters’ and detractors’ comments were cloaked in high-minded concepts of what was right and what was wrong. Some were protective of her legacy, and many comments fell along political lines. But behind all the heat and smoke was something more self-reflective; the fear of aging.

Simply put, when is it time to let go of something that gave meaning to our life? It is a question that continually plays itself out for those of us in our “twilight years.” Deciding to let go is a big decision.  And even if you are not there yet, you will be.

So, for the moment, let’s forget about whether Senator Feinstein should resign and turn the question on ourselves: How do I know when it’s time to let go, and if I can’t, why not?

Start Asking Questions Now

In professional sports and entertainment fields, the answer for athletes and performers stares them in the face: the homerun hitter whose batting average hasn’t broken 150 in three years doesn’t need the coach telling him he’s in a hitting slump. The basketball player whose speed on the court dazzled his fans now shuffles. The ballerina whose elegant moves brought audiences to tears, now at 40, struggles to maintain her balance when lifted, and the opera singer known for easily reaching high C in the past now only performs in less demanding operas.

In these areas, objective measures of when to let go seem obvious. But how should those of us in less demanding professions make those painful decisions of when to stay or leave? As someone who has counseled seniors for more than 30 years, I’ve found when people can answer five questions, they tend to have more satisfying results regardless if they decide to stay in a profession or retire. And here is a kicker, the sooner you start asking these questions, the better you be prepared when decisions are necessary.

1. Are You Ready to Modify Your Identity?

Identities are an amalgam of beliefs, history, and behaviors. Pull out something significant, and you become a different person. Since your profession constitutes a large portion of your identity, retirement is not just the end of work, but rather the birth of a new identity, whether you are a filing clerk, professional athlete, or national political figure.

2. Are You Willing to Use Compensatory Strategies?

As we age, our processing time increases, our legs become a bit more flabby, the openness we were famous for becomes more restrictive, and it may take us an additional few seconds to understand the points made during a meeting. Yes, we are getting older, but not necessarily wiser. However, a wealth of compensatory strategies can be used to produce results comparable to what they were years ago.

3. Are You Hurting Anyone By Staying?

The ball player who refuses to think about retiring has constant feedback if his playing is hurting the team: a rookie takes his position, he’s traded, or he is simply let go. But in other professions, the effects of actions affected by aging are not always apparent. Does your staying require significant changes in your organization or acceptable modifications by your fellow employees?

4. Are You Staying Out of Fear?

We often make a decision out of fear.  We stay in a bad relationship because we fear being lonely. Or we stay in a dead-end job because it contains less uncertainty than unemployment.

We delay retiring because we fear not finding anything significant to do when we stop working. Making decisions out of fear is always less favorable than choosing something because it has positive effects on our lives.

5. Are You Willing to Do Something Different in Your Job?

When the legs of top baseball players go, you will often find them in ‘pinch-hitting” positions. When that no longer works, they may become batting or base running coaches. For some, a willingness to shift to a less prestigious position is a financial decision, but for most, being connected to the game in any capacity preserves their identity.

Are answers to these five questions sufficient to determine whether it is time to go? No, but it is a good beginning. Your answers will begin the process of deciding whether you continue efforts to hold on to something that is slipping through your fingers, or as the Buddhist principle of impermanence suggests realizing it may be time to let go, since nothing–even your abilities is lasting. For people like Senator Feinstein, who have reached the pinnacle of their profession, retiring poses an even greater blow to their identity: the struggle between who you were and who you are becoming is one that is beyond politics–or should be.

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Stan Goldberg

Stan Goldberg is a Professor Emeritus of Communicative Disorders at San Francisco State University. For over 25 years he taught, provided therapy, researched, and published in the area of information processing, loss, and change. Stan has published seven books, written numerous articles and delivered over 100 lectures and workshops throughout the United States, Latin America and Asia. He is currently working on a novel and a book on loss. He also consults on issues of personal, institutional, and corporate change. He has served as an expert legal witness in high-profile court cases and is a consulting editor for Oxford University Press. Stan leads workshops for adults whose lives were suddenly and traumatically changed. He serves at the bedside hospice volunteer in San Francisco for Pathways Home Health Care and Hospice. and is a featured columnist in the Hospice Volunteers of America quarterly magazine. His published magazine articles, essays, poems, and plays have received numerous national and international writing awards. Written with humor and sensitivity, they have appeared in magazines ranging from Psychology Today to Horse and Rider. His latest book is Lessons for the Living: Stories of Forgiveness, Gratitude, and Courage at the End of Life It’s a memoir of his six years as a bedside hospice volunteer; an experience that taught him to accept his cancer and live fully, no matter how long that might be. He can be contacted at Numerous downloadable articles appear on his website

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