Retiring Early and Finding Your “Ever After”
Early, voluntary retirement can open the door to pursue your dreams.
BY DEAN J. HAAS
Courtesy of Dean J. Haas
So time is a river
rolling into nowhere I will live while I can
I will have my ever after
This lyric, from “The Finer Things” by Steve Winwood, was blaring from my car radio on a freeway in San Diego at the instant I decided to accept State’s offer to join the Foreign Service in March 1987.
And, quite consciously, it was also the first song I played after crossing the Mexico-U.S. border from Juarez in late July 2011 as I drove into my retirement.
Words matter and have power.
Before I share some reflections about “life after the Foreign Service,” including the value of retiring as soon as you’re eligible, finding a new path and chasing new dreams, let me offer a few facts up front:
• I was inspired to retire at age 50 by two other colleagues whom I admire and saw move away from the Foreign Service successfully as soon as they were eligible.
• I wanted to leave the Foreign Service feeling positive about my career experience and ready to continue contributing to State in a new way.
• I am single with no children, making the financial side of this decision somewhat less fraught with nervousness or guilt. (But do know that the FS retirement package provides a life-long cushion, the true monetary value of which too many people underestimate, particularly the health care benefit.)
• I left the Service as a Minister Counselor, with 10 years of time in class remaining. So the decision to retire was mine alone, not made for me.
Saying “No”—and “Yes”
So, what’s the deal here? What would possess me to walk away from a successful career and consciously choose a new path?
For me, it was about passion and the need to find a new calling— not unhappiness with my Foreign Service assignments. I honestly never had a bad job, and I enjoyed a truly wonderful set of supervisors, mentors and role models from the very beginning of my career. They inspired me and showed me what success looks like. They led from the heart and were personable. They revealed themselves and were approachable.
Still, as I approached the age of 50, I realized there were basic things about the career that I was ready to say ‘no’ to. Things like moving. And bidding (it gets harder, not easier). And stressinducing difficult conversations (necessary, and frequent, when you manage many employees).
To be a successful senior FSO and leader, I think one must be able to embrace all three of these realities with energy, eagerness, optimism and drive. Instead, I found myself wiped out at times from the huge highs and lows of the experience.
For me, it was about passion and the need to find a new calling—not unhappiness with my Foreign Service assignments.
So as age 50 loomed on the horizon, I parsed through my last few assignments to assess what I was still willing to say ‘yes’ to. What I most enjoyed. The answers came easily: mentoring, coaching and teaching, and working with and learning about people from all backgrounds.
I wanted to walk away from (i.e., say ‘no’ to) the aspects of the bureaucracy that I felt got in the way of good work. I saw too many decisions being taken by peers and senior leaders that were fundamentally different from the decisions I thought I would make in their roles. Too often, I saw bureaucratic timidity when bold, brave and heart-centered decision-making was essential.
Finding the Dream
Perhaps I could be helpful and add more value if I reimagined and redesigned myself. Could I use my experience, my network and my love for the State Department and its people to train and coach the next generation of leaders? How might I help people listen to their hearts, pursue their passions and lead from where they are?
Around Christmas 2010, I made my final decision to retire. I actually realized it was final when the struggle in my mind was over how to draft the emails to bosses and mentors about the decision rather than mulling over the decision itself. Yes, I worried about my colleagues’ reactions, but I knew my decision. I wrote to them from the heart, and I gave six months’ notice to smooth the transition.
Know that your colleagues are going to be gracious and generous and a bit envious, and more supportive than you might imagine, even if you surprise them. I am so grateful for the kind and generous replies I received. Yes, there was one significant effort to talk me out of my decision. And that conversation was cordial, thoughtful and unconvincing.
You will need to come to grips with the word “retirement.” As you read the literature, you’ll see a lot of references to the importance of retiring to something. The thought of not having to get up for work can seem incredibly attractive at first, but you’ve still got to have a plan for this new, great (and potentially very long) chapter in your life.
Answer the following questions: What’s my vision for the rest of my life? What’s my dream? What does my new ideal world look like? Where do I want to try living? (Be careful, by the way, about certainty on where you retire before you’ve tried the place out for a while.)
Reconnecting to FSI
My own answers to those questions pointed me to a yearlong set of courses and practical training at the Coaches Training Institute, leading to a professional coaching certification. When the first question posed to students on the first day of coaching class was “What’s the dream?” I knew where my heart and my future were headed.
I wanted to ask people those big questions and then witness them connecting their dots, personally and professionally. I wanted to be there to listen and intuit, and acknowledge and champion, and observe and point them forward on their new paths.
When I talked to a very senior and influential mentor about maintaining my connection to the State Department, she was in a position to offer me a part-time position in the Leadership and Management School at the Foreign Service Institute. That was fortuitous because I had maintained a connection to FSI ever since I worked there as a trainer in the late 1990s.
I felt comfortable in the classroom, in aspects of training design and adult learning, and as a subject-matter expert on the Foreign Service experience. I was first assigned to the Deputy Chief of Mission/Principal Officer course and the Senior Executive Threshold Seminar, and then moved into Fundamentals of Supervision and Intermediate Leadership Skills. I also joined FSI’s roster of leadership coaches.
Classroom training and work as a leadership coach for State Department clients became the first part of my dream realized. And, there was more for me to do.
California, Here I Come!
I’m a native Californian whose heart has always stayed connected to the West Coast. I wanted to spend more time in San Diego (my hometown) and work from there for part of each year. This has evolved into me spending between a third and a half of each year living by the Pacific Ocean. It’s still amazing to awaken each morning hearing and seeing the waves crash (which is happening as I write this).
A typical day for me includes a couple of coaching calls (both State Department and private clients); answering some State Department email and interacting with FSI; taking a long daily walk with my audiobooks (a huge new part of my retirement!); and socializing with longtime local friends. Family connections are important to me: I live about a 30-minute drive away from my active, vibrant 80-year-old mother.
The Foreign Service’s “up or out” structure will tell you when to go if you don’t decide for yourself.
I have found in the last year or so that the word “retired” has faded from my vocabulary. My life is different from when I worked full time, yet I am not “retired.” Not close!
This is the message I want most to be heard by those contemplating an early, voluntary departure from State: realize you have this enormous gift of an annuity and paid health care, find your passion and calling for the next chapter and follow your dream. Make the world yours. It’s possible. You will soar.
And, Know When to Go
Never forget that the Foreign Service’s “up or out”’ structure will tell you when to go if you don’t decide for yourself. I have seen too many colleagues stay too long because they don’t see (though others often do) that their trajectory may have peaked. Sometimes unhappiness and even bitterness creep in. Sometimes they aren’t aware that they are blocking the advancement of others to leadership positions. So know when to go.
Here are some tips on making the decision:
1. Take the superb pre-retirement courses that FSI offers, as soon as possible. Learn about ways to prepare yourself, your family and your finances for a new life.
2. Run your numbers. The Office of Retirement offers online resources to help you get an idea of what your monthly annuity will be. Do not forget the value of the health care benefit; it’s huge!
3. Focus on the things at work you really love. What aspects of your job turn you on and engage you consistently? Are those things you want more of in your daily life? What’s possible?
4. Breathe and step back. Envision a future outside of a daily routine. What’s your ideal day? What’s your calling? What’s the dream?
5. Consider some coaching sessions with a State Department coach (we have about a dozen available) to run through your ideas and your decision-making process. You’ll be amazed how a few powerful questions combined with hearing yourself talk about your future can propel you forward. (See Leadership Coaching on the FSI/LMS website or search “Leadership Coaching” in Diplopedia for more information and to apply for a coach.)
6. Assess why you are staying in the Foreign Service. What will be enough in this career? How will you know when you are satisfied? What more do you want to accomplish? This must be your answer for you, not a promotion board’s opinion of you.
7. Once you have decided to exit, enroll in the Job Search Program at FSI. It is absolutely superb, and an amazing departure gift from the institution.
And if you decide you aren’t ready to retire, if you have more to do, then please continue to thrive in your great work on behalf of the American people, their values and our country’s interests. This career is an extraordinary opportunity, presented to very few. Make it your own best and most extraordinary moment.
Live while you can and enjoy an “ever after” that you create.
- Exploring New Worlds: Life and Work After the Foreign Service (The Foreign Service Journal, February 2010)
- A World of Possibilities: Life and Work After the Foreign Service (The Foreign Service Journal, January 2006)
- Slouching Toward Retirement
- Department Ethics Office: Post Employment Restrictions
- Manuscript Clearance Procedures for Retirees
- Making the Transition to Retirement: Insurance Needs, by Ambassador Herman J. “Hank” Cohen
- 4 Roads to Early Retirement, by Tom Sightings (U.S. News and World Report)