I must admit that I'm a bit of an oddball when it comes to accepting what most people refer to as "common sense." For example, I lived in one of the storied "two-flats" behind the great Wrigley Field in Chicago during my single days, yet I was a rabid White Sox fan. I spent most of my teenage years listening to seventies music, while the rest of my friends in high school blasted Def Leppard and Twisted Sister. I graduated from college having taken only one business course—a required course my freshman year—while focusing all of my other courses in the liberal arts, yet I've spent every moment since my graduation working in business. Politically, my views have never seemed to fit with either major party—rather I refer to myself as what they call a "radical moderate." I listen to talk radio while I work out. I love my toast burnt. Go figure.
So, while admitting to my "non-linear" nature ahead of time, I have to say that I've never understood the financial obsession that Americans have with the idea of retirement. The first time I remember hearing THE STATISTIC was in my high school consumer ed class. What is THE STATISTIC? You've no doubt heard it repeated on numerous Nightingale-Conant programs and in nearly every financial book on the market. In fact, the great Earl Nightingale introduced his version of THE STATISTIC on his classic recording, "The Strangest Secret." Based on recent economic data, THE STATISTIC goes like this: Out of 100 people who reach retirement age at 65, 4 will be financially independent, 1 will be wealthy, and 95 will be broke. This statistic has been stated various ways, and the numbers have shifted just slightly over the years—mostly in the negative direction. However, this statistic has served to wake up the general population that they need to get their financial house in order. And that's not altogether a bad thing.
Yet, something struck me in consumer ed class that has stayed with me for more than 20 years: Has our obsession over preparing financially for our "golden years" cost us something important during our early years? Has the need to "be a millionaire" by the time we're 65 become too important? Has it obscured our ability to live life fully in the present? And, most of all, has it served to cast too narrow of a veneer over our retirement—making it purely a financial nirvana in which we live in relaxation and luxury without a care in the world?
Now, don't get me wrong. I think that financial security and even wealth can be great assets as we reach our retirement years. But, they are only assets when placed in a larger context—when we step back and define retirement more broadly. After all, what good are millions of dollars in the bank without loved ones to share it with, without a purpose for which to spend it, without a healthy body and mind to experience it?
Then, just a few years ago, I came face-to-face with an incredible man who contradicted nearly everything that I had been taught to believe about retirement. His name was Sir John Templeton, the founder of what is now the Franklin-Templeton Mutual Fund Company. Sir John is reportedly one of the richest people on the planet, with a fortune of several billion dollars. I was fortunate enough to work with Sir John on a product we called The Laws of Inner Wealth, detailing his philosophy of spiritual abundance. Now, here was a man who had more money than several hundreds of thousands of people combined. If there was anyone who had earned the right to retire at 65 to the Bahamas, relaxing and playing shuffleboard, he was it. Indeed, when I arrived at his office building in Nassau, Bahamas, I expected a place of opulence, a place where Sir John was waited on hand and foot by servants. I also anticipated difficulty in completing our project, which was on a tight deadline—given that Sir John was nearly 86 years old and probably had better things to do than record an audio program, which I assumed the president of his Foundation had coerced him to do.
When I arrived at Sir John's office, I was stunned. It was very nice, but hardly opulent. In fact, Sir John's office was very humble, filled with old furniture, an old black analog phone, and a desk stacked with apparent "projects in process." The coffee table was filled with current newspapers and magazines—this was a man who was certainly still in touch with what was going on in the world.
Then Sir John entered the room, walking briskly with the energy of a 21-year-old, neatly dressed in a light blue suit and tie, and welcoming me with his patented and infectious smile. He extended his hand out to me with a firm handshake and told me how he had been so looking forward to recording this program, a chance to discuss the spiritual principles that his Foundation, called The Templeton Foundation for Progress in Religion, was trying to foster in our modern world. We recorded his segments in just one day—an incredible feat for any author. Sir John was as focused as anyone I had ever worked with. Yet, he also knew his limits, taking little "cat naps" every 90 minutes to restore his high energy level and stamina.
My experience with Sir John altered my view of "retirement" dramatically. Sir John had more money than most people could ever dream of—ultimate financial security in his "retirement years." Yet, his energy, focus, and drive at 86 was probably no different than when he had founded Templeton Mutual Funds nearly a half-century earlier. Far from "retiring," Sir John never missed a beat, switching his focus in his elder years to a lifelong passion—helping religion and spirituality to progress at the same level that science had progressed in the past hundred years. To foster this goal, Sir John gives out one of the largest charitable awards each year to the person who helps to foster this spiritual progress.
Before and after our recording, Sir John was briefed on all manner of projects relating to his work at the Foundation; his schedule seemed to be as demanding as any corporate CEO. Here I was faced with a living contradiction on what I thought retirement was all about. This man hadn't "retired" from anything; he had merely moved on to an exciting new stage of life.
After this experience, I identified four strategies Sir John followed that, if imitated, will lead to a much richer, more holistic and rewarding retirement for you:
- Determine, well ahead of your Golden Age of 65, a larger purpose for your retirement. This idea is more important than any amount of money you could put away. Sir John had a vision for his Foundation for Progress in Religion that provided him a purpose so strong that it gave him the vitality and focus of a man many years younger. Yet, statistics show that, regardless of how much money they have, retirement is the most difficult transition that most people make in their lives. In fact, post-retirement heart attacks and bouts with depression are extremely common—especially for those who make a sudden shift from work to leisure. Why is this? It's not that we won't want to slow down at all—even Sir John needed his cat naps—the key is establishing a larger purpose for what is sure to be nearly a third of our life.
- Make an even greater investment in your health than you do in your savings account to prepare for your retirement. Again, according to the statistics, in the near future most people will not, mostly due to financial considerations, be able to retire at the Golden Age of 65. What's more, as I just mentioned, this generation is poised to have the longest retirement on record, with life expectancies skyrocketing because of advancements in medical care. You don't want to spend all those years in a hospital bed, crippled with a major disease, or severely limited in your mobility because of being overweight. Sir John was a model of health—obviously the fruit of a lifelong obsession. He was fit, trim, and full of energy. Yet, again, he knew his limits and pushed himself right to those limits, but not beyond them. Make an investment in your health now, so you can reap the dividends later.
- Customize the idea of retirement to one that fits your lifestyle and personality. There is no "fixed formula" of when you should retire, how much money you should have, or what you should do during your retirement. In fact, for many people, the whole idea of retirement is anathema—they prefer to just keep doing what they've been doing—why stop because someone tells you to? Sir John reminded me of a passage I had read in Stephen Pollan's book called Die Broke, in which he chose a new model for retirement—that of Ulysses. To quote Stephen Pollan, "Rather than viewing your life as finite, as a climb to an arbitrary fixed point—at age 65—at which you stop, approach life as an adventure. Like Ulysses, you're on a journey, a trip over hills and through valleys with no known ending other than death. Don't accept someone else's judgment as to when your trip should end. Do your own navigation and make your own decisions on your journey to the new economic age." I couldn't say it better.
- Finally, yes, finances do matter. But, again, they matter only to the degree that they help you fulfill your predetermined retirement goals. Forget the formulas and tables that tell you how much money you must have to retire comfortably—you are in the driver's seat. Once you determine your own goals, adjust your investing and savings accordingly. Sir John's goals were ambitious and required huge assets to execute. Yours may be nearly as ambitious or more modest. You hold the key. Once you cover the first three steps we just discussed, this fourth step becomes much easier to execute.
So, rather than being frightened by THE STATISTIC, it's much more important to ask yourself if you pass The Templeton Test. If not, take a fresh look at your retirement goals. Think of yourself as Ulysses on a grand adventure. And, oh yeah, throw out all that useless "common sense" on your retirement. Take it from someone who knows—"common sense" isn't all it's cracked up to be.