DISPATCH FROM RETIREMENT

A jolt of intuition leads to the best career move ever

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Friday, December 4, 2009

On a day not unlike like many thousands of other days, I turn myself in at the security desk at my office building. Scalding tea drips off my right hand. I juggle my loaded briefcase with my left and curse indignantly as the purse strap slides once again from my shoulder and catches in the crook of my arm. Fresh, hot splash. Probably second degree.

As I reach my desk, however, the template, the familiar drill, gives way. I don't reflexively answer the bleating telephone. I don't click on my computer to calculate the coming day's mayhem. I detour, stand rooted in front of the huge plate-glass window.

Just as the last of the morning dark slides away, Rosslyn appears, many floors below me, exploding in cherry blossoms. Down to the left, I see the early joggers and sightseers. I see people leaning over cafe tables in animated conversation, sipping cappuccino in Freedom Park.

What if I had this morning off, like those people? To the right, the park's remnants of the Berlin Wall remind me that entire generations have never experienced a moment's freedom. The reassuring sense of good fortune I had hoped to summon fails to materialize, and suddenly, it hits me. "I no longer want to do this work. I am done. I will retire."

Like most of my major decisions, this one arrives intuitively, instinctively, without rumination. My gut talks to me, I talk back, and in the end, I don't hedge. I liked my career in the federal government. Maybe my timing is premature. But I will retire.

How unsettling this epiphany is! Who have I been that I am so eager to not be now? Have I ever felt time running out like I do right this minute? Where is the intensely dedicated professional who ignored this very view only yesterday? What am I doing in these painful shoes?

I want a vivid, challenging life, but another one, a different one, before it is too late. I will shake free of this career that I fought to have. A stab of loss. Then a sober, strategic idea: For now, I must keep the decision to retire to myself. I relax, begin the morning's work by rote, by remote control. The decision -- to leave a career -- is already behind me.

Horse blinders come off with astounding rapidity. Within the hour, a staff meeting, exposed as an insufferable waste of precious moments I'll never regain, immediately tests my command over my impulsivity. I want to leave, just walk out.

I am known for my passion for my work. And now, I plot to be free of it. To pad the corners, I apply and am accepted for an intensive year of travel and study that will literally give me distance from my career. Over the next few months, I reconnect with a dozen former colleagues, question people who have recently left their professional lives.

I travel to Pennsylvania to visit one of my best friends. Liz and I began our federal careers together. At her kitchen table, we drink hot tea and talk through a long weekend about pensions and benefits, expenses and annuities, anxieties and hopes. Excited and nervous, we determine to hold hands and jump over the retirement cliff together.

Liz immediately begins a second career. Reluctant to stampede my tender "I have always wanted" fantasies, I put prudence and practicality on hold. The bargaining begins. I evaluate each costly temptation with a single question: "Is it worth going back to work?" The answer becomes automatic: "Nothing is worth going back to work." I easily dance away from frivolous expenses and glissade into genuine retirement.

My best career move yet? Accepting the freedom to choose how I spend each moment. Sometimes, strutting to the beat of the a-n-t-i-c-i-p-a-t-i-o-n melody, I spend that freedom in joyful new discoveries. More often, retirement means a deepening commitment to what already felt most like me, what I already loved.

-- DiAna Hart Smith, McLean


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