Writing your own “About the Author” page is a strange experience. Now that I’m “retired,” a resume-style article outlining my education and career milestones seems irrelevant. Instead, I will explore how I got here.
I’m 60 years old and fortunate to have been retired for 5 years. My career had three distinct phases starting out as an educator, then international consultant, and finally an entrepreneur. Creativity was the connecting thread. In each role my focus was to push boundaries, challenge assumptions, and designed unique experiences. Living a creative life has always felt natural to me, but can also be stressful because it conjures significant amounts of uncertainty and change. Innate childhood qualities and traits never really leave you.
Retirement is a heaping pile of inertia. For me, retirement is synonymous with creative living. I am fortunate to have found release from economic servitude in relatively good health, but spending the rest of my days confined inside a privileged life of recreational somnambulism is untenable. Liberation from the workforce is an opportunity to reclaim your life and do something creative with it while carrying along your aging-related aches and pains. This is the underlying ground of my work in Exploring Life.
The foundation of creative living is learning from direct felt experience, not acquiring information from books or screens. It is a time to harvest your own experiences and create something useful and interesting from them. It is a time to harvest the past and identify the self-evident lessons of your life and create something meaningful to share with others. And it is a time to stop talking in abstraction and turn into the full force of your life. Here is a lesson I have learned that contains an element of irony: As I become older, relationships and friendships will increase in importance, but, ironically, I also care far less about what people think of me. Perhaps this is one of the benefits of aging.
Creativity thrives on the frontier between choice and limitation. Boundaries and restrictions are fertile ground for deep creativity. Being creative is never an expression of privileged self-indulgent entitlement and doing whatever makes us feel good about ourselves. The school of life can inspire awe and suffering with remarkable ease. In one moment we celebrate a joyful moment and in the next we grieve over a significant loss. Deep creativity spans the entire range of human experience.
We make far fewer choices than we realize. We can’t choose the society or family we are born into. I could not avoid the cultural assimilation imposed by 12 years of mandatory education. I was educated whether I wanted to be or not because people I will never meet decided schooling was in my best interest. I had to be “prepared” for the workforce, which didn’t sound pleasant. Public education originates in the tyranny of the prerequisite; that is, people calling themselves “experts,” having no idea who I am, make decisions about what I need to know and how I will come to know it, hour by hour, day by day, month by month, and year by year until I’m roughly 18 years old. They tested me to make sure I knew before they agreed to release me. We are all, to some extent, products of mass assimilation. It can take a long time to recover from your education.
After my release from public education, I decided on more education. My reasoning was clear and precise – I didn’t know what else to do. I had summer jobs in warehousing and sales that introduced me to income-generating forms of suffering. University seemed like a good place to delay the inevitable. I spent four years pursuing an undergraduate studies in music composition and arranging with a major in piano performance. I then pursued two years of graduate studies in ethnomusicology, which was profoundly interesting. Then I suffered through an undergraduate degree in education, which reminded me of the assimilation I experienced in public school. And then it happened. I couldn’t avoid the workplace any longer.
I wasn’t prepared for the workforce at all because I had no expertise in drama and theatre. In the workplace you have to act like something you are not in order to survive. You need to develop fake persona to become part of the team. To be successful you must donate your soul to the status quo. Now that my education had stopped, something called training took over. There is one basic purpose to training in the corporate world and that is to school employees in the art of conformity and compliance. It is a way to preserve the illusion of individuality. There is very little creativity in the workplace, only innovation and myopic visions. The reason is obvious – you can feign creativity in the workplace as long as the existing structures of power remain in tact.
Something memorable happened during a training session at Apple Computer in Cupertino, California. I was part of a group of people receiving training to become “Apple Certified Trainers.” The trainer evaluated our fit for the job using Meyers-Briggs Personality Test. We completed the test, received our label, and then physically organized by type in different parts of a large room. I was the only person standing alone. It seems that I am an INFJ, one of those rare personality types representing less than 2% of the population. I held out hope that I was special. It was the wrong kind of special. The trainer seriously questioned if this type of work was a good fit for me. This test, it seemed, carried a lot of weight. I went on to be a successful trainer and eventually left Apple to become an international consultant.
I’m one of those disruptive creative types who found ways to struggle through remarkably uncreative domains of experience. The workplace clamors for innovation, but launches cruise missiles at genuine creativity. Innovation is a brilliant strategy to limit, constrict, and confine creative work.; that is, as long a creative work serves the status quo, it is acceptable. The problem is, it is no longer creative. Deep creativity proceeds by ejecting the status quo at the outset, severs tightly held assumptions, challenges entrenched beliefs in uncomfortable ways, disrupts existing power structures, and redirects existing lines of influence. In other words, it’s a good way to get you into trouble.
Does it not seem strange that the best humankind can do is sell childhood to mass education, impose 30 years of economic servitude, and then, if you a fortunate, taking your exhausted body, mind, and spirit into the deadening force of retirement? Why is it we put the acquisition of stuff before establishing quality of life for all? Is this really the best we can do? I’d like t think not, but I’m not sure now. Our collective inertia is staggering.
Human beings are greedy creatures. We spend a large portion of our lives in a competitive cultural space devoted to the imposition of wealth inequity and economic servitude. On the surface, it is a struggle to make enough money in order to provide basic necessities, while a whole host of other economic competitors try to relieve you of it. Underneath, it’s a patho-adolescent version of survival of the fittest that we seem unable to free ourselves from. The workplace is a struggle to maintain your sanity while ever-increasing demands and technological innovation continue to wear you down. Those of us fortunate enough to escape the narrative of greed sometimes feel as if life has passed us by once we have integrated the trauma. Now, after 30 years or more in the workplace, we can retire and, you know, travel. The problem is that wherever you travel, your always with yourself.
It’s not as bad as I am making it out. You can do a lot of good for people in the workplace while earning a good living. I did. If you are fortunate enough to undertake work that aligns with your innate sense of purpose and vocation in life you are among the most fortunate among us. I was not that fortunate, but I did feel a sense of genuine accomplishment in some of the work I did, and I know I helped others in the process. I also met a lot of good people. And I also endured smiling well-dressed narcissists. However, my work was never my vocation, but it was always a creative exercise. The workplace taught me the value of role-playing, but I was never very good at it. That’s the reason I had to become an entrepreneur. It was a break for freedom.
After my career was finished with me, I no longer knew who I was nor what to do with myself. The honeymoon with retirement is brief. The light-heartedness of having time to yourself soon morphs into and existential monster. Sooner or later, you ask the question you don’t want to ask. Now what? You look at yourself and take stock of the physical, mental, and spiritual wear and tear in your presence. Somehow you no longer look the same to yourself, as if you have become a stranger. In the workplace your identity, purpose, and motivations were obvious, if inauthentic. Now what? You have to define your identity, purpose, and motivations on your own and nothing in our education or career has prepared us for the foreboding horizon of retirement. I can see why many people avoid retirement – it’s the perfect way to avoid yourself.
Retirement only lasts one second. I was working on one day and the next day I was retired. The root of the word retirement is “retreat.” So I have retreated from the workplace because my culture feels that it is appropriate at my age to do so. The inner shift required is substantial. Now, five years into my retirement, I am able to recognize myself again. We are not meant to live in isolation, especially later in life, but we must undertake an inward journey that takes us to those haunting core questions: Who am I? Why I am here? What should I do now? How can I live a fulfilling life? And you must go on this journey alone with nothing to guide you. Ironically, it is the creative energy of this inward journey that makes you more available to the world around you.
Now, at age 60, I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up, and I finally realize that I don’t need to know. I need to learn how to embrace the here and now, and to be attentive to my own experiences, other people, and the world around me. It’s about embracing my limitations to discover what is possible. Moreover, it is about continuing my passion for deep creativity and the ideal of living a creative life to the end of my days.
January 16, 2021
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