Reflections on an Active Retirement

By Yu-Chi Ho, written in 2001, updated in 2007 ( from )

Four years ago, much to the surprise of my dean, I told him that I planned to retire in 2001 after 40 years on the faculty of Harvard University (Note added 2007. Currently in the US there is no mandatory retirement age for university professor. This has in fact becoming somewhat of a problem since many tenured faculty chooses to stay on rather than retire. Thus, they block openings and advancement for younger faculties). Since then I have prepared my self for this transition, reflected on my life, and finally gone through the experience. Collected below are some insights that I learned from others, discovered for myself, and emotions that I experienced before, during, and after the transition. They are offered as amusement, free advice (probably worth the same), and my own catharsis.

If “Location, location, location” is the mentra for real estate investment, then “Preparation, preparation, preparation” should be the same for one of Life’s great transitions. By this slogan I mean financial preparation, emotional preparation, and leisure time preparation.

On financial preparation there is no lack of resources, advises, and people who are willing to offer help in return for your money. No need for me to dwell on it. Having weathered two boom-bust-boom-bust cycles in the past forty years, “Save, Buy, Diversify, and Hold” is the single best advice I have had. Anyone can start from zero net worth to become financially independent and the “millionaire next door” without the benefit of inheritance, lottery winnings, and stock options. This is not an American Dream but an American Reality.

The matter of emotional preparation is much harder. Many high level executives go into depression when they retire. The sudden transition from position of immense power to an average Joe whom his successor does not want looking over his shoulder can be traumatic. One macho friend told me that he actually cried all the way from his office to the parking lot on his last day. But on the positive side retirement is an opportunity to decide what you really enjoy doing. First of all, it is really amazing how many “life-or-death” work issues no longer matter once you have decided to retire. Here is a chance to be yourself and do what you damn well please. If you are really happy being a couch potato all day then by all means do that. But don’t just sit there and feel sorry for yourself. Again, there are a plethora of books and PBS programs to help you wade through the myriad opportunities available. The important thing is to know thyself first, then opportunities will present themselves. You will find more things to do than you have time for.

In my own case, here is what I did. Emotionally, I found that mentoring young students and seeing them flower gave me enormous satisfaction. Although I will not have new students at Harvard now that I am retired, a chance meeting with the Dean at Tsinghua University in Beijing produced a scheme where I will start supervising students and working with young faculty members of Tsinghua long distance. I only have to make short visit to China once or twice a year. Having such partners will also allow we to continue my life long love for research. Thus I’ll continue as Research Professors at Harvard for another five years being paid part time from research grants. Life will go on as before but at a more flexible and relaxed schedule.

My involvement and interest with Asian American public affairs in the past got me into the 80-20 movement at the beginning in late 1998. Here again I took advantage of the opportunity once I decided that “working for the community” is something I enjoy doing in my retirement.

Another adjustment for men, the problem of role reversal with your spouse also need to be mastered. This is part of the larger psychological transition from authoritative to supportive role.

The third preparation, leisure time pursuits, is related to the second. We all talk about travel. But in a larger sense, travel is simply one example of experience-based enjoyment. In retirement years your habits and environment have stabilized.

Acquiring more assets, financial or physical, often results in more work and hassle than they are worth. But new experience, once you decided what really makes you happy, can never be too much. Thus, by all means search for experience-based leisure time pursuits whether it is travel, golf, watch TV, whatever.

I recommend a book given to me by my son entitled “101 Secrets for a Great Retirement” by Mary Ellen and Shuford Smith. It is full of interesting and inspiring suggestions for almost every conceivable situation. For me, leisure time is the easiest one of the three part preparation. There is not enough time for all the things I wanted to do except to savor every experience and have a good time with one’s friends.

During this past summer I actually had four retirement parties. One given by the University which was totally expected. One organized and given by my 50 former Ph.D students from all over the world. They organized a day-long symposium and an evening banquet, invited my colleagues from all major Continents, published a special book in my honor, and paid homage and showered me with gifts. That was unexpected, touched me deeply, and an emotional high for my professional career. A third retirement dinner was intimate dinner given by a small group of friends. The last one was a total surprised party organized and given by Chinese-American friends in

the Lexington and Greater Boston area. They presented me with a beautiful 360o panoramic view photo of the Harvard Yard. As Victor Hugo said in Les Miserables – Life’s greatest happiness is to be convinced that you are loved. The late Atomic scientist, Robert Oppenheimer, also said that a person’s networth is the sum total of respect with which he is held by his peers. I feel very happy, grateful, and rich indeed!

On reflection, I’ll echo The sentiment of Jimmy Stewart in that well known Christmas movie classic – “It is a wonderful life” to which I like to add “America is a wonderful country”. I have been blessed with a wonderful family and friends and had a wonderful ride in life. It is time to give something back to my community, my adopted country, and my motherland for all the privileges and opportunities I have enjoyed.