Successful retirement doesn't just happen. Getting the most out of your golden years takes lots of hard work, years of careful planning, and preparation for the emotional, physical, and financial changes you're going to go through once you stop working.
And who better to teach us a little something about effective preparation than a former Navy SEAL?
Commander David Sears retired from the Navy after serving as a SEAL for 20 years. He planned and executed hundreds of covert missions all over the world, and today he shares how the lessons he learned in some of the hottest pressure cookers imaginable can apply to how we civilians approach our daily lives. In particular, I think three Navy SEAL maxims from Commander Sears' new book, Smarter, Not Harder, could help seniors develop new strategies for overcoming some common retirement challenges.
1. "Get off the X."
"In military terms, X is the ambush site," says Commander Sears. "It's the area of the highest chaos, the most advantage to your adversary if you're caught on that X. And this happens in life. It's not just military. You can get caught on an X of your own making."
For retirees, X is often a mental fixation that's keeping them from living their best lives. Some retirees worry so much about financial security that they have trouble switching from a "savings" mindset to a "reward" mindset and don't really enjoy themselves. Another common X is having your sense of self so wrapped up in work that once you stop working, you feel lost.
Commander Sears says that getting off the X is often a matter of life and death in the military. Most of us will never have to deal with stakes that high, but Commander Sears does want his audience to use this maxim to prevent emotional and mental ambushes as well. Getting stuck on retirement X's can certainly lead to serious health problems, including stress, depression, and poor eating and exercise habits.
"When you find yourself in this situation where you're essentially being ambushed by life's events, you've got to get off of that," Commander Sears says. "Chaos can ensue. So, you have to take action. You have to move to a better space where you can start to re-instill order and start to cope with whatever external influences or problems are ambushing you."
2. "Two is one, one is none."
What good is the flashlight in your backpack if the battery dies? How will you light a fire if your matches get wet?
Again, for Navy SEALs, these kinds of issues could be a matter of life and death. That's why it's standard procedure to have backup equipment and a Plan B at the ready. The SEALS have a particularly tough way of hammering this point home during training.
Commander Sears explains, "We would take a diving mask and fill it up with water, and then make you lie on your back. You're sucking in this water and have your eyes open and it's just absolutely miserable. You begin to appreciate the idea that you need to take care of your equipment. If a strap on your scuba fin breaks, you're in for a very long day if you don't have an extra one. The saying 'Two is one, one is none' came from the idea that I need to have some redundancy built into the physical systems that I'm carrying. It goes beyond that to redundancy in also your mental systems in terms of your planning."
Adjusting to the pandemic taught us all a little something about backup planning, especially when it came to things like vacations and holidays. I think that mentality has broader applications in retirement as well. What happens if you're planning for an active retirement full of sports and travel, and then a health issue limits what you can do? What happens if the hobby you're planning to devote most of your free time to doesn't fulfill you like you'd hoped? Could the birth of a grandchild affect your plan to move across the country? In these kinds of cases, having that backup plan is going to help you adjust to unforeseen circumstances without ruining your retirement.
Another important kind of "redundancy" planning in retirement is your income. One reason that affluent seniors tend to enjoy retirement more is that they aren't relying on just one bucket of assets to support them. When you can coordinate diversified investments, cash savings, a pension plan, and Social Security benefits, you have options that will help you maintain your quality of life no matter what the financial markets or the wider world throw at you.
3. "The only easy day was yesterday."
Imagine yourself and a group of your closest buddies on the beach. You all link up, arm-in-arm, walk out into the surf, sit down ... And stay there. For hours. In the freezing cold water. Until someone just can't take it anymore and quits.
That's just one way that Navy SEALS are trained to survive the elements during their "Hell Week." But as rigorous as that training is, executing missions out in the field is even more challenging.
"Once you leave the training, they'll say, you're going to be colder," says Commander Sears. "You're going to be more tired. You're gonna be hungrier. You're gonna be hotter than you ever were. It's really hard for you to imagine that while you're in this scenario, but it's completely true. I've been colder, wetter, more tired, hotter than I ever was in training. So, the idea is that training is in the past. The easy part is in the past. What you have now in front of you are the challenges coming up. And when you learn to embrace it, you can learn to love challenge and growth."
One of the funny paradoxes of retirement is that a stage of life that sounds easier can actually be harder. Not working should be easier than working, right? Having a nest egg that's designed to support you for decades should be more reassuring than worrying about how ups and downs in your career could affect your monthly paycheck. Having all the free time in the world should be more relaxing than having to rush through a simple cup of coffee every morning.
For retirees, the challenge of tomorrow is learning how to let go of those old routines and mindsets and embrace everything that's ahead. Rather than staying stuck on the life X's that are ending, successful retirees develop a beginner's mindset. They see new places. They try new things. They make new friends and deepen their older relationships. And when they're supported by a strong financial plan, they can face whatever is coming around the bend with excitement and confidence.
"You don't drive looking in your rear-view mirror," says Commander Sears. "You glance in it for some reference, for some reflection on where you've been. But 99% of your time is spent looking out the front and to the sides. That the road in the rear-view mirror is straight does not guarantee that the road in front of you is going to be straight. It will change all the time."
Bill Keen is a CHARTERED RETIREMENT PLANNING COUNSELOR℠ and independent financial advisor with more than 25 years of industry experience. As the founder and CEO of Keen Wealth Advisors, a registered investment advisory firm, he specializes in providing personalized retirement planning designed to help people thrive before and during their retirement years. With a passion for educating others, Bill regularly blogs about retirement planning, hosts the podcast Keen on Retirement, and has contributed to U.S. News and World Report, Reuters, Wall Street Journal’s Market Watch, Yahoo Finance, and other publications. Based in Overland Park, Kansas, Bill and his team work with clients throughout the greater Kansas City area and across the nation. To learn more, connect with him on LinkedIn or visit www.keenwealthadvisors.com.
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