Tom Peters is a smart guy and has influenced millions of people since co-authoring In Search of Excellence nearly 30 years ago. He was an early blogger and has stayed connected, continuing to write books and speak widely about leadership and other topics. Peters understands he also has been a lucky guy, achieving considerable material prosperity, traveling around the globe, rubbing elbows with powerful people, and largely escaping diseases and other physical ailments.
Even the installation of a pacemaker a few years back did not cause an appreciable change in his Type A playbook. It did, however, make it necessary for him to avoid power tools when he engaged in the closest thing he has to a hobby on his Vermont farm: brush cutting. Acknowledging a modest bond with former President George Bush, Peters says there is immense satisfaction in doing battle with Mother Nature's undergrowth. Doing it with manual tools is even more gratifying, and also more taxing.
Thus it was in early April this year that he found himself about to take a long trip. Having spent most of the day planning for the trip, he decided in late afternoon to take a whack at the brush. Temperatures were unseasonably warm, his clothing was too heavy, and he'd been sedentary all day (Peters' language is much more colorful). It thus was not surprising that his heart decided to send him a powerful message as he was doing battle with the brush -- it began beating irregularly. Through the ambulance ride to the hospital, the tests and diagnosis, and the inevitable "what if" questions that flowed through his mind, Peters learned that he had not had a heart attack but a cardiac arrhythmia.
In hindsight, however, he did have an attack -- a mortality attack, an "a ha" moment, or whatever you choose to call an "I can see the end" experience. "It was a gift from the gods," he says. "It was precisely, psychologically nasty enough" to get his undivided attention. "It was that proverbial smack on the head."
So, for the first time in 45 years, the 67-year-old Peters has taken the summer off. He has trimmed back on his business activities. And he's been asking himself the same questions as millions of others who are in or nearing the traditional age of retirement.
If it's any comfort, Peters makes no claim to having the right answers or even all the right questions. But he has begun making some decisions about how he wants to live the rest of his life. Here are some of his thoughts during a recent telephone interview. (And, yes, he was at his Vermont farm, and was just about to leave on a long trip. I did not ask about his brush cutting plans.) During the course of the interview, Peters frequently stressed that he was not in the lifetime advice business and that the approaches he hopes will work for him may not work for everyone else or even anyone else.
1. Have the Conversation. "I'm right in the middle" of this process, and am "having my big internal debate," Peters says. Looking back on his career, he says, "I hope that the stuff I've done has mostly been in pursuit of being of some value to some substantial number of people." Now, the question becomes, "Do I still have to work 90 hours a week, and am I a [expletive] for not wanting to spend my time saving the world, or is it OK, after 45 years, not to have to spend my time that way?" Peters cites similar conversations with friends over the same issues. Perhaps the only point of agreement is that "there are 100 or 1,000 or a million strategies, and none of them is wrong."
2. Saving the World Your Way. While there may be a place for "save the world" exhortations, he is tired of being made to feel guilty that he's not Bono or Bill Clinton. "I think it's wonderful to save the world, but you need to be part of the world, too." Peters says he realizes that his hectic and focused activities separated him from much of what life is about. His summer highlight reel includes witnessing the lengthening of the days and, more recently, their shortening. "That's been the biggest kick in the world," he says.
3. Let the Path Find You. From his many conversations with friends and peers, Peters says "the one thing" that has emerged "is that when you make an enormous transition" in your working life, "you really have to be careful not to find another way to work 18 hours a day, six days a week doing something else. . . . Immediately finding a way to fill your time is really, really bad news," he says. "I know it sounds crazy, but you've got to let what you're going to do find you, rather than you pursuing it."
4. It's the Journey, Not the Destination. This is too simplistic a way of framing the motivation for how to spend your time. But Peters admits he is well along in making such a shift as he contemplates his later years. In addition to appreciating "smell the roses" moments such as he has been experiencing on his Vermont farm, Peters also acknowledges that "goals" can become a more elusive target. Being in the moment also can be more comfortable than confronting questions that may not have answers, or answers you're not yet ready to hear. "If one is not on the edge financially [and thus driven by the need to make money], this stage in life carries a frightening degree of liberty," he says. "And it can be simply, boldly, terrifying."
5. Find Your Balance. For Peters, "even allowing the word balance into my life" amounts to a victory of sorts. "The fact that I can even say the word with a straight face is huge for me." His own sense of balance is playing out by "looking for opportunities that are useful but fun, and only on my own terms in terms of my schedule."
6. What's Your Next Window. As he approaches his 68th birthday this fall, Peters says he and others he's spoken with have agreed it makes sense to plan for the next seven or eight years with the assumption that it's likely he'll maintain his health. "I feel -- statistically or actuarially -- that I can think about doing anything physically that I want to do for the next seven or eight years." After that, the odds favor what he refers to as a "non-trivial chance of a nasty event" in terms of his health. It might not kill him but it would materially narrow the options for how and where he spends his time. "So, I've really given myself a window," he explains, "and that has been of immense help."
7. It's OK to Close Doors. At 67, the options for what Peters does with his life are narrower than when he was 27. He views this as a good thing, not a regrettable consequence of aging. "I think the door closing is of enormous importance," he says. "Now, I don't necessarily know all the doors that are closed, but not having to think that I have the possibility to be anything is very liberating. . . . To mentally have the potential to have the most productivity, I've got to acknowledge that those other doors are shut."
8. Nyet to Reinvention. It's popular these days to talk about reinventing yourself in retirement. Peters isn't buying it. "Statistically and emotionally, I believe that the way I can be of help to society is by doing what I know and what I've been good at." The idea of flying off and doing something entirely different as some sort of life-affirming statement is, to him, "ridiculous."
9. Stay Connected. Peters knows that despite having been a blogger for six years, he's hardly near the peak of technological competence, or even on the same mountain. But he works at staying connected to the process. "I do feel at some level that if I am going to be of some general value to groups that include people who are significantly younger than I am, then it is important to not be totally out of it" about what's going on in their world. "I don't want the 35-year-olds in my audience to think of me as as 'pops' giving the kind of advice that only 65-year-olds can understand."
10. Lose the Stress. Peters says a close friend recently left his long-time career position at about the same time that Peters was taking his extended summer vacation. Both men were struck by significant health improvements that could only be related to substantial reductions in the stress levels of their daily activities. "We were both in a state of shock," he recalls. "Neither of us had a clue about how much stress we were dragging around." His personal promise: "I am no longer ever going to run in an airport to catch a flight."
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