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That’s exactly how you imagine financial freedom to be, isn’t it?
And that brings us to this apparent contradiction: If you want to enjoy all the best things about retirement (i.e., the best things you imagine retirement to be), you must never do what most of us think we should do when we retire—that is, devote your time to being happy.
The Problem with the Conventional Idea of Retirement
I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: You can’t find happiness by trying to be happy.
It’s one of the wonderful ironies of life. Happiness seldom if ever comes to us when we are trying to please ourselves. Much more often, it arrives while we are focusing on something or someone we care about.
In fact, this experience has been so common in my life that I’d like to suggest it as a sort of life secret: The way to be happy is to focus your time and energy on someone or something you care about.
There are three points to this secret that are worth noting:
1. The already stated irony that happiness comes only when you are not seeking it.
2. And this is certainly related to the first point—that to achieve happiness, your attention must be cast outside of yourself.
3. That you must devote your time, your attention, and your energy to this outside object—in other words, you must work.
This last point is difficult for some people to absorb—especially in the context of a discussion about retirement. We’ve conditioned ourselves to think that happiness in retirement means
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• Spending more time trying to be happy
• Paying attention to “number one”
• Doing little or no work whatsoever
In fact, people who do just that usually end up bored, unhappy, and forever trying to fix themselves by spending more of their time pursuing pleasure.
Our book club conversation about Man’s Search for Meaning illustrates this point. Here we were—nine very successful, reasonably well educated, financially independent men—who, when asked what we intended to do with the rest of our days, had certain very similar perspectives:
• Although we all expressed an interest in playing more golf or spending more time reading, not a single one of us wanted to spend all his time in leisure activities.
• When asked by our host, “How would you like to spend your retirement years?” everyone included some sort of meaningful work in his answer. One, for example, wanted to join the Peace Corps. Another wanted to sell the virtues of reading to more people. Two talked in general terms about doing something that would give back to their communities . . .
We didn’t all begin our careers thinking this way. We weren’t all and always focused on meaningful work and giving back. For the most part, our working lives were driven by the desire to succeed and even to excel. And in achieving those goals, we may have ignored or lost track of the idea of having meaning in our work—of having a purpose that goes beyond money, beyond power, beyond ourselves.
Whatever we failed to do, we now recognized the value in meaningful work.
And so that’s my first early retirement recommendation for you.
Finding a Meaningful Purpose—and Happiness— in Your Work
You don’t have to wait until you are financially independent and actually retire to enjoy an early retirement mind-set. The sooner you can make your business about something other than making money,
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gaining power, or in some other way enhancing your personal situation, the sooner you’ll begin loving your work.
That will happen the moment your work stops being about you.
Here are five ways you can find more personal pleasure in your work.
1. Make customer satisfaction your number one priority. Ultimately, business should not be about sales, market share, renewals, repurchases, or even profitability. It should be about leaving the world you inhabit a little bit nicer than it was before you entered it. You can do that only by focusing on customer satisfaction.
In my many years of starting and running businesses, I’ve had all sorts of goals. For many years, I was a big advocate of sales. Then, of profitability. Then, of a combination of numbers. By focusing everyone’s time and attention on those numbers, I was able to stimulate a lot of growth. But after the initial successes were achieved, I never felt that good about hitting the numbers again. When I changed that policy and made qualitative goals a priority, I noticed that business started feeling more rewarding. I still paid attention to the important numbers, but I didn’t make them my primary focus. And an interesting thing happened: Sales and profits continued to increase, but so did product quality and customer satisfaction—two objectives that always eluded me when they were secondary.
2. Focus on improving your people for their benefit, not yours. Every time you interact with your employees, you have an opportunity to make them wiser and thus increase their prospects of being successful. If your goal is to create a great business that provides great products and terrific customer service, you will want all employees to be at their best. You won’t achieve that by badgering or belittling. Yes, you can browbeat some people into improving themselves—but it’s much easier (and better) to inspire them to transform themselves.