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“Have a purpose.” With Beau Henderson & Jim Wasserman

Have a purpose. You are no longer working for someone else, but you still need to work for yourself. What is that thing you always wanted to do? Write? Learn to play an instrument or dance? Become a collector of miniature ceramic chickens? In retirement, I finished the book that we all supposedly have inside […]

Have a purpose. You are no longer working for someone else, but you still need to work for yourself. What is that thing you always wanted to do? Write? Learn to play an instrument or dance? Become a collector of miniature ceramic chickens?

In retirement, I finished the book that we all supposedly have inside of us, and as of this writing, I have found three inside me (and counting). My wife (a retired banker) struggled how to define herself post-career, but she discovered her own incredible voice as a writer, both jointly as we write a blog on ex-patting and on her own as she shares her wisdom on personal finance. It was hard for her to learn (she’s a numbers person), but that struggle and mastery has given her purpose (and me a run for my writing). We have taken online courses and hiked many kilometers in Spain. We set goals, but they are OUR goals now.


As a part of my series about the “5 Things You Should Do to Optimize Your Wellness After Retirement” I had the pleasure of interviewing Jim Wasserman.

Jim has had two career lives: first as a business litigation attorney, and then, for 25 years, as a Humanities teacher specializing in media literacy, teaching young people how media affects, even nudges, us in our supposedly independent decision-making. Jim has also been a writer for many years, writing on subjects ranging from law to education, and is the author of a three-book series, Media, Marketing, and Me (Rowman & Littlefield) on teaching consumerism, financial literacy, and media literacy. Jim now lives in Granada, Spain, where he is pursuing his dream of leading an Ernest Hemingway-like writer’s life, and to that end has made the important first step of becoming a personal attendant to a host of cats.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

I first followed the path people told me I “should” do, becoming a business litigation attorney. I was not happy, as I never felt that, for the amount of societal resources I had availed myself of to get where I was, I was giving enough back. My epiphany came when I was before a city council debating whether a company flag outside its business constituted a “sign” that could be regulated. As we exchanged definitions of signage, it suddenly hit me, “What am I doing? Why am I doing this?” I went home to my wife and said, “I don’t want to play at this anymore.”

I then sent my resume around and found a school that needed a last-minute fill-in for a teacher. I didn’t even really have a budget to pay me full time, but I said I just needed to get in the door. I loved it. I felt like I was actually doing things to make the world better by helping the next generation to make themselves better. I was now helping to prevent problems rather than clean them up afterward. I guess I was good enough because I stuck around doing it for the next 25 years.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?’

Well, my approach to teaching about media was to encourage my students to be “hands-on,” and that meant getting involved as much as possible. Investigators should test claims in advertising and try to get a visceral experience whenever possible. My students challenged me to do the same, and that led me to try out for a reality TV show (to experience reality TV behind the scenes). My wife and I got on a national reality show, flew to NY to compete, and actually won!

Can you share a story with us about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting? What lesson or take-away did you learn from that? l

As a teacher, I thought I always had to know the answer. One time, a student stopped me in the hall and asked me if I could explain about an incident from the 1790s (that I had never heard of). I told her of course, but I had to go to a meeting, so she should meet me in my office in thirty minutes. As she walked away, I turned and sprinted up a back stairwell two stories to go into the back entrance of the library, find a book to research the incident, then sprinted by another back stairwell back to my office. I arrived thoroughly out of breath, but casually said (between gasps), “What did you want to ask about? Oh yes, that, of course…”

Jump ahead a week and I had a bad cold. Another student asked about something in class and, too ill and tired to fake it, I closed my eyes and said, “I’m sorry, I don’t know that.” I waited for shouts of “Fraud!” and a mass walk-out, but when I opened my eyes the students were all still there. I then said, “Would you do me a favor and look it up before the next class and then you can teach the other students and me about it.”

I learned from that true teaching is not giving answers, but empowering students to find their own answers.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

When I first went from law to teaching, I looked for a model. I found one in an older colleague, an Irish woman named Bridget. She let me sit in the back and watch, not only how she presented material, but how she organized a class and dealt with students in a fun, yet clearly directing manner. I imitated her in my own class (even saying, “Oh, give over!” with a brogue to students), but she also helped me to find my own way of doing things (usually involving puns) so that I developed a personal teaching style in which my class and I, together, explored the world and our parts within it, and “always with a little humor” (quoting The Manchurian Candidate).

When I got a call from a prestigious private school that had heard about me, I told them that I was flattered, but that if they wanted the original master, they should seek out Bridget. Bridget got the job, but the next year she told me there was another opening and she lobbied for me to get it. I did and we ended up partners again for another wonderful fifteen years.

What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?

Don’t think of it as “I teach history,” but as “I teach these STUDENTS, this year, history.” That way, every year is different as you have a unique set of learners. I may have covered George Washington 25+ times, but he was never the same twice.

What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?

Ask the sergeants. I remember WWII movies where a young officer would show up with a new theoretical strategy, only to find the grizzled, veteran sergeant trying to tell him why that theory won’t work in the field. In the same way, leaders need to have a vision, but they need to consult the people on the front lines whether, practically, the theorized system is working, creating a constant two-way feed of information, collaboration, and adjustment. Not only did I always give feedback to my administrators, but I took seriously student evaluations of my classes and my colleagues whom I supervised.

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. Retirement is a dramatic ‘life course transition’ that can impact one’s health. In some cases, retirement can reduce health, and in others it can improve health.

Can you share with our readers 5 things that one should do to optimize mental wellness after retirement? Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. Have a purpose.

You are no longer working for someone else, but you still need to work for yourself. What is that thing you always wanted to do? Write? Learn to play an instrument or dance? Become a collector of miniature ceramic chickens?

In retirement, I finished the book that we all supposedly have inside of us, and as of this writing, I have found three inside me (and counting). My wife (a retired banker) struggled how to define herself post-career, but she discovered her own incredible voice as a writer, both jointly as we write a blog on ex-patting and on her own as she shares her wisdom on personal finance. It was hard for her to learn (she’s a numbers person), but that struggle and mastery has given her purpose (and me a run for my writing). We have taken online courses and hiked many kilometers in Spain. We set goals, but they are OUR goals now.

2. Have a daily plan.

Just because the world no longer tells you what to do every day doesn’t mean you wake up every morning thinking, “What shall I do?” There is nothing more daunting than an open schedule, like being set before a blank canvas and told: “Paint!”

My wife and I always have a general idea of what we are doing that day, usually made the night before. It might be a plan to write for the day (until the sun says “Tennis, anyone?”) or a day hiking or meeting friends (till the icy wind suggests Netflix indoors), or catching a bus over to explore a new mountain village, but we always start with a general idea.

3. Stay Human

Laundry, showering, shaving, getting dressed — they’re not done just so people don’t move away from you on the bus. You need to do it for yourself.

I’ve rolled back daily shaving to once every two or three days (in part to have that “Spanish look”), and I have moved my daily shower from morning prep to afternoon, but I still do them, because it makes me feel renewed, not just a sloppy carryover from the day before.

4. Stay connected

You have friends and family back home (if, like us, you have moved), so take the time to see how they are doing and let them know how you are. Life may go on separately, but social media is a gift that allows long-distance hugs and messaging.

We use WhatsApp and Line to video chat with our sons (who are in two different countries) and friends, and keeping up with correspondence is a nice part of my afternoons. Even a simple “Hey! Life here is good. How are you?” can keep up a connection so that distance doesn’t cut it.

5. Be a part of the community

We were definitely strangers in a strange land here in Spain. Not only did we have to make new friends, but there are new customs to learn, not to mention a new language. As daunting as it is, and no matter how many social and linguistic goofs we make, we still get out there. We laugh at our mistakes, such as when, instead of telling someone my tennis injury was better (mejor), I said it was a woman (mujer).

We have a friend who volunteers at the Red Cross and another who works with stray animals, and we likewise join in community service. We regularly meet with other expats and exchange helpful tips over wine and tapas, and we even joined a couple of local Spanish tennis groups (We still can’t understand all the coach’s instructions, but we are good at hanging at the back of the line and imitating the others).

Or

(Choose) Can you share with our readers 5 things that one should do to optimize their physical wellness after retirement? Please share a story or an example for each.

In your experience, what are 3 or 4 things that people wish someone told them before they retired?

1. People thinking of retiring are afraid of all the things they will leave behind, which they think might also include a purpose. I suggest you focus not on what you might leave behind, but what are you bringing WITH you: your skills, your interests, and most of all, your dreams of the future.

I say that we carry with us two self-defining notions, responsibility (what society tells us we have to do) and purpose (what we tell ourselves we should do). Most of our lives, the two fuse together to make us who we are. The key to a happy retirement, for me, is to learn how to let go (extricate) responsibility and redefine who we are mostly by purpose. It can be hard, but letting go of what society says you have to do (and who you are because of that) doubles the space you have to explore what you want to do and who you wish to be.

2. Be a newbie again. Most retirees spent their last professional years at the top of the work pyramid, giving answers, but now one is at the bottom again as a newbie in retirement. That can seem scary, but I tell people to remember the excitement when they first started a new career and the road was open before them. Remember how you sought out wise people already down the road and asked for guidance, deciding which parts of their journey to imitate and which to make your own? Well, that same sense of adventure, walking into the unknown (and many times blazing new trails) awaits. Be sure to seek out wisdom, however; don’t presume that, because you were successful on the career trail, you know everything about this one.

3. Maintain your health. Sitting around “doing nothing” can seem great after a life-time of go-go work, but it isn’t healthy. You are in retirement for the long haul, and maintaining a fit body will help you enjoy it longer and have more quality in your adventures. Dancing till dawn or flying across the ocean requires good body prep.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?

When I was young, I wanted to change the world all at once, to take on the evil giants like a valiant knight tilting at windmills (to borrow from Don Quixote). As I have gotten older, I take a more measured, long-term approach. Two books have helped me to realize this. One is the Tao te Ching, the original book on Taoism. I love the analogy that a rock in a river seems to “win” by parting the water, but come back in a hundred years and the rock will be gone because the river kept doing its thing, wearing down the rock. The other book is Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, wherein the most powerful man in the world at that time (Emperor of Rome) saw himself as just one part of an interconnected whole, all working to achieve a harmony within the universe.

Together, these books have helped give me a long perspective in many ways. First, I can look back on my career and see that I needn’t have won the Nobel prize in economics or experienced a “Eureka!” moment to have led a successful career or had an impact; the continued communication I have with the over 1,000 students I taught is more than reward. Second, I see that, just because I am retired doesn’t mean I am out of the game or have nothing more to contribute. Everything I do, from writing, to picking up trash as I hike a trail, to giving long-distance advice to the up-and-coming generation, helps the greater whole (and keeps me a part of its vibrancy).

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I won’t get into an economic discussion of communism, but somehow, we have forgotten that “communal” and “community,” though similar in etymological origin, mean different things from the former and that no one should be against embracing these latter words as values. We need to always ask ourselves what we can do for the community and those around us, as whether we like it or not, we are all in a symbiotic relationship. To that end, I would suggest everyone start once a week doing something for the community (and not by bettering themselves). Take a walk and pick up trash, a volunteer with an animal shelter, or stock up a community food pantry. What I would really love it if people did so and logged hours on a community website, but with the hours not totaled individually but simply “by us.” That way, we see what a community does in its own name, not what someone does in his or her name to get (even secondarily) acknowledgment of their own worth; it’s about the worth and value of the community.

I am not religious, but I have a degree in religion, and one of the most profound things a professor said was that the highpoint of the Old Testament was when Abel asked, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The rest of the Testament serves to answer that question with an unqualified “YES!”

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

My father was the epitome of the “Greatest generation.” He grew up in Tennessee, made it through the Depression, was a bombardier in WWII and then built a successful curtain, drapery, and bedspread business from nothing. He was always pragmatic in his approach. I grew up in comfort with his efforts, going to a private school and having college and law school paid for me, but he also held me to account. Specifically, if I went to him with a problem (even young), he would listen to what I had to say and then say, “Here’s where you are, and (gesturing) here’s where you want to be. Why don’t you go and think about YOUR problem and come back with YOUR ideas for solutions to YOUR problem, and then we’ll see how I can help you with YOUR plan.”

Make no mistake, he was always there for me, but he insisted that the first assessment, plan, and effort had to come from me. He taught me to trust my ability and that I should always put in at least the same effort into making my way as I expect others to. The other part of this, of course, is that he did always help as he could, gave me guidance, and I learned how important it is to help others with their plans and assist them with their efforts as I could.

I went from being a lawyer (with lawyer-salary tastes and spending) to being a teacher with much-reduced income. At the same time, my first marriage ended. For a period I was in terrible debt. I made a plan, however, getting my foot in the door of education, working my way up, while at the same time reducing my debt (trading in my hot red convertible for a “sensible” car) and changing my all-around life-style, as we say in Spain, poco a poco (little by little). I took back control of my life and have had the good fortune to find both a career and a life partner that brought me joy. It was never a sure shot, but I made it to “happily ever after.”

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Richard Thaler, a behavioral economist, and Nobel prize winner. I didn’t realize it as I went through my studies, but degrees in psychology, religion, and law were all about studying WHY people do the things we do, and in particular, the systems set up to “nudge” us in certain directions. I got to bring all that together when I taught media literacy (media being the ultimate vehicle for nudging), so I’d love to meet the mind that first (after Thorstein Veblen) really put it all together about how we are nudged into making decisions we think are our own.

What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?

My wife and I have a blog at yourthirdlife.com. They can also email me at [email protected] I also publish articles for various websites, which a google search will yield (along with at least two other Jim Wasserman authors, please don’t confuse us!). And did I mention my books…?

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

¡A vosotros, Igualmente!

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