From Bill: I’m going to keep my introduction short today. A Canadian financial planner named Mark McGrath shared a personal story about his father’s experience with retirement.
But, I think it’s well-written and thought-provoking so I asked for permission to share it here. (Warning: there’s suicide in the story.)
It runs longer than I normally share, but it’s a fast read.
Make sure you know what you're retiring to.
This was a hard post to write. I almost didn't write it, in fact. I've started and trashed this story many times. But I believe there are important lessons in this story.
Warning: this does not have a happy ending.
This is a story about my dad. My dad grew up the youngest of four siblings in Quebec. He, his siblings, and my grandparents moved to Vancouver in the 70s, and my uncle opened a tile store. My dad worked for him for a while, then eventually opened his own store.
He was a relentless entrepreneur and a good father.
He was shrewd and penny-wise. I used to joke that he would split 2-ply toilet paper to save money. But he was also a savvy investor, and he did well in his business.
He didn't care about tile and saw the business as a means to an end—a way to build wealth and retire. He was laser-focused on this goal.
He was fit, active, and a traveler. He was a scratch golfer and swam 80 laps at the pool three times a week. He was also a black belt in karate and extremely disciplined.
Like many French Canadians, he loved steak and beer. But any time he found himself getting "soft", he would just switch that off—he would diet and quit drinking for a month or so until he got his six-pack abs back.
I didn't realize as a kid how impressive that was.
He used to read books on longevity and admired the lifestyle of the people of Okinawa. Okinawa has some of the highest life expectancies on Earth, and is home to one of the greatest concentrations of centenarians.
He planned to live a long, long time.
My brother and I had a great childhood. We played sports, went camping, and took family vacations. I played high-level baseball and my brother played high-level hockey, and our parents never missed a single game. We lived in a nice house and had everything we needed.
My dad was private, and we never really knew his financial situation. Growing up, we would ask him if we were rich, to which he always said, "no, but we have enough".
Eventually, my parents split up. But they remained close and lived in the same neighbourhood. One day he told us he had sold his business and was retiring.
We were thrilled. All he wanted to do was retire so he could keep travelling, golfing, swimming, and enjoying his life. He booked a two-month trip to Asia to celebrate. He was 58.
And then it all went downhill.
Within a month of returning from his trip, he was back working for the guys who had bought his store. He didn't need the money; he just missed his store and his friends. His best friend was his first employee—a man he had hired 30 years earlier.
This worked out for a while. But slowly, he started to change. After a few months of near-daily golfing, he got bored. And then he got depressed.
He changed. One day he said he didn't like steak anymore. This man had eaten steak three times a week for over 40 years. Something was up.
He called me one day from the UBC Psychiatric Ward. He told me he was having dark, intrusive thoughts and thought he should get checked in. I didn't realize how serious this was, but I noted that he had the wherewithal to realize it and seek help immediately.
I went to see him, and he had made friends with half the patients in the ward. As we walked the halls, he greeted the patients and told me about their stories.
He told me that night he had made a mistake by going there. That he didn’t belong there. They gave him anti-depressants, and he checked himself out.
He seemed better until a few days later. We were scheduled for dinner at my mom's house, but he didn't show. This was not like him. After about 30 minutes, my mom panicked and said: "something is wrong."
We called the police, and they came by about an hour later. In mid-sentence, the officer got a report about a car accident in his earpiece. The vehicle involved fit the description of my mom's car, which he had borrowed.
He looked at us and said, "Your dad is alive, but..."
We rushed to the hospital. All we knew was that he was alive. We had no idea what the extent of his injuries were.
When we got there, there wasn't a scratch on him. The paramedics told us they needed to jaws of life to pry him from the wreckage. It was a miracle.
But something was nagging at me. My dad was an exceptional driver. And the crash location was a j-curve intersection he drove through twice daily on his commute for over 20 years. I called his best friend to get his take.
His best friend told me that my dad had called him right before the accident. He told him he had stashed his wallet and ID under a garbage can in a parkade on the other side of town. A parkade he had no business being at. To this day I still don't know why he did that.
My only guess is that he crashed that car intentionally. He went 100km/h through a red light straight into the j-curve. He rolled it three times. I think he didn't want his ID on him because he didn't want to be identified immediately.
But he was wearing his seatbelt...
Over the next few weeks, he was overcome with the fear that he would be arrested and put in jail because of the accident. We tried to explain that no crime was committed, and that no one was hurt. But he was adamant. This fear paralyzed him.
Then one day, I was on the Skytrain on my way home from work. My dad called and said he had a fight with my mom and he was going to grab a hotel. I told him to come and stay at my place for the night, but he didn't want to bother me.
That was the last time I spoke with him.
That night, on a foggy Thursday in October, I was awakened by a phone call from a private number. I ignored it.
They called back. It was the police, and they told me my mom was upset and that I needed to drive the 40 minutes in the middle of the night to see her. I told them if I was driving across town in the middle of the night, I wanted to know why. He was hesitant, but I was persistent.
Then he told me, "Your father is dead."
I collapsed and remember only that I kept saying, "I had so much more to tell him".
He had rented a car for some reason, drove it to the middle of the Lion's Gate Bridge in Vancouver, turned on the hazard lights, and got out.
Then he jumped. Two cyclists—one on the bridge, and one down below on the seawall—called it in.
Why am I telling you all this?
Selfishly, because it's been almost a decade, and I'm not sure I've really had an outlet until now. But also because I think I know what happened, and I think people can learn from it.
What I think happened is that my dad's business became his identity.
He was the tile guy.
He was the guy that sponsored all of our sports teams.
In a booming town, he was the guy you went to when you needed tile.
He was the tile guy.
And when he sold his business, he stripped himself of his identity.
Now he was a nobody. He lost his purpose, the very thing that made him who he was. Whether he knew it or not, I think he loved the business because it gave him a sense of fulfilment he didn't know he'd miss. By losing his purpose, he lost his essence, his spirit. The thing that gave him his joie de vivre.
He had surmounted his biggest challenge and achieved his singular goal. And there was nothing on the other side.
Remember, this was a guy who had lots of friends, social activities, sports, and hobbies. Still, retirement undid him in less than 18 months.
Humans require a purpose. And if that purpose is linked to your business, be careful leaving it behind.
As a financial planner, I didn't get any training in this. We learn about the financial side of retirement but not enough about its emotional and psychological aspects—about how our identities can be intertwined with our careers and our businesses.
So when you think about retirement, think about what you're retiring to.
Focus on your relationships, mental health, community, and purpose.
And spend time before you retire on finding a path to fulfillment.
Mark’s practice is focused on retirement planning for Canadian doctors, but even if that doesn’t describe you, I think he’s worth a follow on Twitter. (And if it does happen to describe you, here’s how you can set up a free consultation with him.)
7 other things worth knowing today
Amazon will lay off 9,000 more employees in the coming weeks, CEO Andy Jassy said in a memo to staff on Monday. The cuts are on top of previously announced layoffs that began in November and extended into January, totaling more than 18,000 employees. (CNBC)
Sam Altman, the CEO of OpenAI said in a recent interview with ABC News that he’s a “little bit scared” of artificial intelligence technology and how it could affect the workforce, elections and the spread of disinformation. He says his excitement over its transformative potential was balanced by his concerns about “authoritarian regimes” developing competing AI technology. (CNBC)
Amtrak announced new cheap fares along its most popular route, from Boston to NYC to DC. Fares are as low as $5, but there’s a catch—you have to travel in the middle of the night. (Fast Company)
Humanoid robots are coming: A heavy-hitting startup called Figure, which just emerged from stealth mode, is building a prototype of a humanoid robot that the company says will eventually be able to walk, climb stairs, open doors, use tools and lift boxes—perhaps even make dinner. (Axios)
'Indentured servitude': Nurses hit with hefty debt when trying to leave hospitals: Requiring nurses to repay for training programs has become increasingly common, with some hospitals sending $15,000 bills. One nurse: "We’re desperate for a job, we just got out of school, we don’t know any better." (NBC News)
A driver spent $180,000 to start an Uber Black business. Then the company deactivated his account. (A reminder that if you're on someone else's platform, they sort of own your business.) (MarketWatch)
At what age do childhood memories start? Earlier than you might think. Age 3, or about preschool age, is the turning point when explicit memories begin to get more frequent, detailed, and adult-like. (Fatherly)
Thanks for reading. Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash. Thanks to Mark McGrath. See you in the comments.
My sympathies go out to the man whose father committed suicide after retirement. In the wealth management business we can focus too much on the numbers and not enough on the emotional side of retirement, and having done this for 40 years I have seen a number of clients struggle with retirement.
My father, who worked for Exxon in an oil refinery for 35 years seemed to be doing fine when an early retirement “ reduction in force” offer came his way. About three months into retirement he called me one day and said “I slept until 8 am this morning”…
I took the bait and asked “ What’s so bad about that” and he replied “ If I had slept until 8 for the last 35 years someone from the refinery would have called your mother to see what was wrong with me, but now nobody cares”. Fortunately, or not, my mother had later developed some medical issues that made her more dependent on him and he had new “purpose” around his household, but I will never forget that call and the power of having a purpose to get up every day has on one’s mental well being.
Thank you for sharing that story.