A Lesson on Living Well and Retiring Happy from “The Alchemist”

happiness

A recent newsletter from health, wealth, and personal growth expert Brian Clark got me thinking about what one of my favorite books, The Alchemist, can teach us about the journey towards retirement.

There’s a story in the book about a young boy who visits a beautiful castle to ask the world’s wisest man the secret of happiness. The wise man tells the boy to walk around his castle grounds while holding two drops of oil in a spoon, without letting the oil spill. A couple hours later the boy returns. The wise man asks him about what he saw, and the boy says he was so worried about not spilling the oil that he didn’t actually see anything. So the wise man sends him off again, and this time the boy takes in the gardens, the mountains, the artwork. But when he returns to the wise man, the boy realizes that he’s spilled the two drops of oil.

The wise man tells him, “The Secret of Happiness lies in looking at all the wonders of the world and never forgetting the two drops of oil in the spoon.”

Waiting for “someday.”

As Brian points out in his newsletter, old-fashioned retirement planning tells us a very different story about happiness.

For our entire working lives, we’re supposed to focus on “keeping the oil in the spoon” — working hard, saving as much as we can, controlling our spending, paying our bills, and making prudent investments. Then, once we hit 65 or 70, suddenly it’s time to put that spoon down and open our eyes to the wonders of the world.

I’ve known so many hardworking people who delayed vacations, home renovations, vehicle upgrades, big dreams and simple everyday comforts, all because they were waiting until “someday” when they’d feel comfortable spending that money. I’ve known retirees who were so worried about running out of money that — even in their 70s and 80s — they spent more time watching the oil in their spoon than they did enjoying retirement. Worse, many of these retirees had grown so fixated on maintaining their nest eggs that retirement was actually a depressing experience. With no more work to do and no more money to earn, they felt lost. They felt like their lives no longer had any purpose. Instead of being out in the world enjoying the freedom they’d spent a lifetime working towards, they spent their days puttering around the house and arguing with their spouses.

Some of these folks were able to reflect, adjust, and turn their retirements around.

Others kept waiting for a “someday” that never came.

Balance and reinvention.

The wise man in The Alchemist suggests a much better approach to living that I believe applies to financial planning as well. Focusing all your time and energy on hitting a number that’s going to make you feel good about retiring isn’t going to make your life fulfilling. But neither is splurging on every whim for a hit of fleeting happiness. Living your best life is a continual process of balancing and rebalancing your assets against the passions, places, and people that are most important to you. A solid financial plan doesn’t just help you take in the world’s wonders, it supports those experiences while also ensuring your family’s wellbeing.

I think folks who embrace this kind of thinking are going to appreciate that the line between your working life and your retirement doesn’t have to be so defined. A financial plan that’s organized around your life goals and transitions can help you work on making “someday” tomorrow. Instead of dreaming for decades about a vacation you’d like to take, talk to your fiduciary advisor about how you can start planning to realize that dream vacation next summer.

Likewise, today’s happiest retirees are finding that retirement is full of possibilities for exploration and reinvention. They find new, more fulfilling applications for their professional skills. They learn new skills that open up new opportunities for part-time work or full-time play. And with the support of their financial plan, they learn to worry a little bit less about their assets and enjoy themselves responsibly.

In The Alchemist, the boy visiting the wise man gets a gift that’s even greater than the lesson he learns: he gets to take his journey through the castle twice. None of us are going to be that lucky. Call up my team at Keen Wealth and let’s talk about how we can help you find the balance between enjoying today and protecting tomorrow.

Bill Keen: Focusing all your time and energy on hitting a number that’s going to make you feel good about retiring isn’t going to make your life fulfilling. But neither is splurging on every whim for a hit of fleeting happiness.

About Bill

Bill Keen is a CHARTERED RETIREMENT PLANNING COUNSELOR℠ and independent financial advisor with nearly three decades of industry experience. As the founder and CEO of Keen Wealth Advisors, a registered investment advisory firm, he specializes in providing personalized retirement planning designed to help people thrive before and during their retirement years. With a passion for educating others, Bill regularly blogs about retirement planning, hosts the podcast Keen on Retirement, and has contributed to U.S. News and World Report, Reuters, Wall Street Journal’s Market Watch, Yahoo Finance, and other publications. Based in Overland Park, Kansas, Bill and his team work with clients throughout the greater Kansas City area and across the nation. To learn more, connect with him on LinkedIn or visit www.keenwealthadvisors.com.

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