Retirement Realities: Bridging The Gap Between Means And Meaning

Apr. 12, 2016 11:13 AM ET14 Comments
Mitch Anthony profile picture
Mitch Anthony


  • Conversations about retirement need to be much more than a discussion about how much money we need to have invested; it needs to connect means and meaning.
  • Most of us don't want to retire; instead we want more control over our own destinies including how we spend our days.
  • Retirement should simply be one stop on a life-long journey; it should never be the final destination.

You've heard me say it before: retirement should be retired.

We need to stop obsessing about "retirement, the destination," and spend more time focusing on -- and enjoying -- the journey. The truth is that most of us don't really want to withdraw from work and community. What we want, instead, is more control -- over what we do, how we do it, and when we do it. Wouldn't it be great to have a couple million dollars socked away? No question. While having a lot of money may give us a level of financial control, obsessing about having enough so that one day we can kick back prevents us from experiencing life to its fullest. Too many people focus on "the number" while life passes them by. By the time they have enough, it's too late.

The goal with investing should not be to have as much money socked away as possible, but to have enough so we can get the most life we can with the money we have -- in other words, a Return on Life™ (ROL). What clients really need to understand is the relationship between "means" and "meaning."

"I just want to get there."

"If I ever get the right amount of money, I'll be there."

"Once I get there, everything will be perfect."

These three sentences sum it up: When we reach that magic number, we will experience nirvana. There's no discussion of goals, or what happens between now and then. The assumption is that there is a "there," but is that realistic?

"There" is certainly a destination. But how do you know it's the right destination? And what do you do once you've arrived?

Clients can play king of the mountain and spend all their energy on warding off would-be climbers or they can move on with the realization that "there" was anything but a final destination. If they choose to make it final, they will begin playing defense in life, and the decline from living to survival will begin.

"What is your number?"

"Where do you see yourselves in 10, 20 years?"

"What is your goal?"

All these questions lead to "there." They assume there is a plot on the map where everything comes together and that once they've arrived, their focus should be on keeping it together. Instead of continuing to explore, these folks become stagnant.

My guess is that many of your clients retire at 65 because they thought they were supposed to and within a very short time, realize they have made a mistake. Why? Because they stop exploring. It's a classic case of buyer's remorse: While they were chasing the destination dream they were fine but as soon as they arrived it was over.

In life, when you are playing defense, you are no longer living, you are only surviving. Defense is an essential element in any financial plan, but in life it is death in its earliest stage -- a signal that the boards have been attached to the windows, the gate is locked and the gun is loaded for looters. People save up their whole life to get there, only to realize it wasn't what they were expecting. I have seen this deception play out a thousand times. Perhaps this was what Tennyson had in mind when he wrote:

"How dull it is to pause, to make an end,

To rust unburnish'd, not to shine in use!"

We all know the old adage, "it's not about the destination, it's about the journey." Yet the financial services industry continues to treat the entire proposition as if it is about the destination. If a client's life means nothing more than a number, then the conversation should be about the destination.

But if their life is about relationships, usefulness, significant contributions and meaningful engagement then we need to ask better questions and we need to change the assumptions about where the conversation begins. If money is going to help your clients live a more meaningful life, we're not going to get there with the same destination maps we've been using.

"Where has your journey taken you so far and what role has money played?"

"Where do you find yourself at the moment: What would you like to change and what would you like to keep?"

"What are the potential scenarios that could play out in your future and what role does money play in them?"

There's no question that it has gotten better, but there still aren't enough financial advisors asking these questions. Those who engage in these deeper conversations understand that their first priority is to help clients get a greater ROL, and that ROI exists for that purpose -- not vice versa.

On the map of life there is a static place, a resting point if you will, and it's called the grave. Short of that, life should be a continuum of learning, growing, evolving, next stages, transitions, transformations, life lessons, epiphanies, discoveries, challenges and change.

Age and retirement have little to do with it because the place is not geographically located: It is within us, it is who we are and who we are becoming. We keep thinking, we keep dreaming, we keep observing, we continue to explore. We do not reduce our journey to a single destination because there is no "there" there.

This article was written by

Mitch Anthony profile picture
Mitch Anthony, America's Retirement Coach, is the founder and president of Advisor Insights Inc. and the Financial Life Planning Institute, the leading provider of financial life planning tools and programs for the financial services industry. For almost two decades, Mitch and his team have provided training and development for both individual advisors and major organizations throughout the world. Mitch personally consults with many of the largest and most-recognizable names in the financial services industry on both financial life planning and relationship development. Mitch is a consistently top-rated presenter who has spoken to groups ranging from 10 to more than 10,000. He has been named one of the financial services industry's top "Movers & Shakers" for his pioneering work. Through the Institute, he has partnered with Texas Tech University, the University of Georgia, and Utah Valley University to develop financial life planning programs for their undergraduate programs. Mitch is a sought-after expert for the media, and a regular columnist for Financial Advisor magazine. His columns have appeared on CBS MarketWatch and in the Journal of Financial Planning. His original comic strip “Stanley Brambles, CFG (Certified Financial Guru)” appears monthly in the print edition of Research magazine. Mitch is also host of the daily radio feature, The Daily Dose, heard on over 100 radio stations nationwide. Mitch is the author of many groundbreaking books for advisors and consumers, including perennial bestseller StorySelling for Financial Advisors, cited by "Financial Advisor" magazine as the number one "must-read" book for financial professionals. Mitch's other books include The New Retirementality (now in its 4th edition), From the Boiler Room to the Living Room, Your Clients for Life, Your Client's Story, and The Financial Lit-Kit (The Cash in the Hat, The Bean is Not Green, and Where Did the Money Go?). For information on these books and more resources, click here. Contact Mitch at

Disclosure: I/we have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours. I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it. I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.

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