What Happens To Ambition When You Retire?


A question I am asked rather frequently has to do with ambition. Not long ago an email dealing with retirement and purpose landed in the inbox. The reader had yet to start her retirement. She was still a few years away but had a solid financial game plan and a hobby that engaged her. Her marriage had recdently ended, but she remained friends with her ex-spouse. Her relationship with their adult children was good. Yet, something was bothering her enough to ask for my thoughts.

The concern was simply this: does having ambition end when work ends? Does the striving for some type of achievement or distinction and the willingness to work toward it stop with the last paycheck? I could tell from her question that her definition of ambition is a traditional one, rooted in the concept of power, wealth, or recognition. She was really asking if striving toward more was soon to be over.

I assured the reader that wanting more, working toward more, and hoping for more didn’t stop with retirement. In fact, the desire for more actually intensifies. What changes is the definition of ambition and the meaning of more.

During my radio consulting career my ambition was pretty fearsome. I wanted to be a major figure in my industry. I was willing to travel 100,000 miles a year, be away from home for almost half of each year, take on more business than I could comfortably handle, and strive for more.

While my ambition was adequately fed for several years, eventually things started to fall apart. It took the closing of my business and a few painful years of readjustment to understand the type of ambition I was seeking was ultimately unsatisfying. It was based on the totally false assumption that there is never enough, in the bank, in the garage, in the size of the house, or in the influence over others.

Retirement allows for a completely different meaning of ambition. Being ambitious is about the quality of one’s life, the fullness of relationships, and the satisfying feeling one gets when volunteering to help others. It is about the desire to live each moment as fully as possible. It is about the opportunity to discover a side of one’s personality or talents that was always there, just waiting for the chance to burst forth. It is about more joy, more freedom, more acceptance, not less.

I assured the lady of all of this…. and received no response. Maybe my answer was so profound I erased all her mental doubts. Maybe she decided I had no ambition myself and was trying to sell the concept of becoming a sloth. Or, maybe, she is still thinking about the notion of being ambitious with a whole different range of experiences and payoff. Whatever her thoughts were, I am glad she asked the question. It gave me the chance to clarify my own ideas and motivations.

The ambition I experienced during my working years helped build the foundation that has allowed for over twenty years of a very satisfying retirement. However, it came with costs that cannot be forgotten. Through a reordering of priorities, the damage has been mostly undone. Because I now understand ambition in an entirely different light, I can welcome it whenever it blesses my day with fresh energy and optimism without harming relationships or my own mental balance.

Purpose, dreams, aims…different words for ambition. Yet, they all contain the spark that makes retirement so special.