It’s not over before it’s over. Life goes on. There are wonderful surprises awaiting you if you allow yourself to be open to them and seize the opportunity when it presents itself. I had no idea I’d be doing what I now do at this stage of my life and be having so much fun doing it. It was all unexpected, but I had the courage to jump into the water, so to speak. You are not a worn out, burned out part of a machine to be discarded into the scrap heap.
As a part of my series about the “5 Things Retirees Say They Wish They Were Told Before They Began Retirement”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Suzanne Miller.
Suzanne is an author and singer, having regained her vigor and singing ability after a long bout of illness. Her latest book, “Walking in Love: Why and How?”, has just been published and her first singing album, “It Ain’t Over Till it’s Over,” has also just been released. She had very successful prior careers as a naval officer, an engineer, scientist and senior executive in several of the nation’s most prestigious aerospace companies as well as serving at a senior level in the US Defense Department.
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 grew up in a small town in Southeast Virginia in the 1940s and ’50s. There were many good people in that town, but most were on a different page than I was about living my life. Everyone was big on doing what others expected of you. I figured if I went along with that, with my stubborn independence, I was probably not going to survive. I decided that going to college was my way out. I loved art, music and literature but, unfortunately, I needed a full scholarship and my high-school guidance counselor said, with those interests and my grades, that was never going to happen (affirmative action had yet to be invented). Never happen? Well, almost impossible. I would have to replace all my art, music and literature classes with math and science ones and get all “A” s for the final three semesters of high school and, “As we know, that’s not realistic”. I proceeded to do exactly what she said I was incapable of doing and won a full scholarship, but I had to study either science or engineering. I chose engineering.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
I got my engineering degree and then got a regular Navy commission but wanted to have a family, so I resigned my regular commission and came off active duty with a reserve commission. I got a civilian job working on Navy surface to air missile systems. One of my co-workers, a retired Navy captain, told me I had an interesting way of tackling problems. He suggested I apply for a job with the Navy’s “Think Tank”, then called the Operations Evaluation Group. It worked directly for the Vice Chief of Naval Operations, the second-highest officer in the Navy.
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?
At that time, most of my co-workers were very “geeky”. They would solve math puzzles for fun at lunchtime. They started kidding me about not joining in. I told them I got paid to solve technical problems and did not do them for free. They started putting me down, saying that was an excuse, and the real reason was I couldn’t do the puzzles. I decided to challenge them. “Twenty bucks on the table and I’d show you what I can do with your silly puzzles”. They picked their puzzles from small books of them.
I was trying to get accepted into a master’s program in electrical engineering and had to take a couple of highly technical courses to prove I could handle the work, so I had just finished taking this course in number theory. Of all things one might study, this was the most divorced from any reality or practicality. As it turned out, the problem I picked I was able to solve with an elegant analysis using such number theory. I won the money and shut them up for good!
By the time I got called in for an interview with the Navy I had changed course slightly and started a graduate program in applied mathematics at another university.
The personnel guy (that’s what they used to call people who worked in human resources), walked me up for an interview with the deputy director. He cautioned me that this person had an abrasive personality and was a real fire-eater, so be prepared for that and don’t take it personally.
I walked in and was immediately faced with a blistering attack of why was I here and why did I think I had anything of value to contribute to the organization? I told him people said I had a very creative ability to solve problems. He said, “Prove it!” and picked up a booklet of mathematical puzzles off his desk and threw it at me, saying “Pick one and go to the board and show me how you would go about solving it.”
It just so happened that the booklet was the same one I had picked my puzzle from at work. I then proceeded to fill up the board with this elegant number theory solution. It totally blew him away. I was hired on the spot.
As the personnel guy and I were walking away, he complimented me on my interview performance and said, “I know you’ll be getting your Master’s degree soon. If you need any time off for graduation, let me know and we’ll take care of it”. I said, “Gosh! that’s very nice, but I won’t graduate for another two years.” He said, “That’s not what your letter said, and he showed it to me.” I was aghast, in those days you typed out such a letter and you all know how sometimes, when you’re typing in a date, you make a mistake and put in the current year, instead of the future one. He said, “This organization has never hired someone into the professional staff with only a bachelor’s degree. Even then, most of our staff have doctorates.” I explained the error, and somehow convinced him it was a sincere mistake. He decided that, rather than stir up a ruckus, we would quietly ignore the mistake, but I’d damn well better get that degree!
The lesson from all this is inescapable. Life is uncertain. Stuff happens. Sometimes they are good surprises, sometimes bad. Just take them all in stride.
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?
It was that retired Navy captain co-worker who noticed my talents and encouraged me. This opened up a whole new world of career possibilities for me.
What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?
It depends on a person’s personality. I’m a musician at heart. I’d go home after a tough day at work and play my harp. It really helped put things in perspective. In addition, I am an intermittent person. I give the situation everything I’ve got until I get to a breakthrough or a good result. I then back off and rest up for a while before, once again, “going to war’” as I term my work style. Other people are different. We each need to pay attention and discover what works to re-charge our batteries, so to speak, and use that awareness to pace ourselves.
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?
Avoid self-serving egotism. Recognize and reward people publicly for their contributions. Be sure and blend some humor into the atmosphere. Especially foster a sense of “playing” at the challenge of work. It (and humor) gets people into their creative space, and there is a joy that comes with them doing that. They stick with the team because they get hooked on the joy of being creative. It also gives each person a sense of security. They know they are valued because the unique creativity they each bring to the work is acknowledged. Nobody can take that away from them.
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 nearly every aspect of one’s life. Obviously everyone’s experience is different. But in your experience, what are the 5 most common things that people wish someone told them before they retired?
1. If you’re unhappy before you retire, you’ll be unhappy afterward. Retirement isn’t a different world, it’s just a continuation of the world you’ve been in before you retired. The most important variable in your success is you, which is the same in both worlds.
2. It’s not over before it’s over. Life goes on. There are wonderful surprises awaiting you if you allow yourself to be open to them and seize the opportunity when it presents itself. I had no idea I’d be doing what I now do at this stage of my life and be having so much fun doing it. It was all unexpected, but I had the courage to jump into the water, so to speak. You are not a worn out, burned out part of a machine to be discarded into the scrap heap.
3. You’ve got many more skills than just the ones you used to use at work. Remember them, Think about them. Do a personal skills inventory. Have some friends help you do this, so you don’t ignore some great skill you have but undervalue.
4. Pace yourself, financially, for the long haul. You don’t know how long you’ll live. One of the worst things I see is when someone has lived past their expected demise and are out of money. You need to use some real discipline here.
5. Avoid the common peer pressure to “act your age”. Be who you are and refuse to let people impose their opinions on how you should act and live.
Lets zoom in on this a bit. If you had to advise your loved ones about the 3 most important financial issues to keep in mind before they retire, what would you say? Can you give an example or share a story?
Things never go the way one expects. I learned this from a lifetime of project planning. It’s good to make plans but you need to practice being flexible. If possible, include several different options in your plans. When reality hits, adjust to it with flexibility. Nothing beats the ability of money to solve problems. It can’t, by itself, make you happy, but it can sure do a lot to cure unhappiness because of a lack of choices money can enable.
I had my singing voice and stamina come back, unexpectedly. I had been handicapped with low stamina since suffering a severe heart attack. Over the years, good doctoring finally healed my damaged heart. I also lost my singing voice at age 22, for no discernable reason. That’s why I studied engineering and went into the Navy. Otherwise, I was ready to chuck engineering and sing for a living, as I had begun to do before I lost my singing voice.
After my heart healed, I found I still lacked stamina. The doctors had thought a damaged heart was the cause but it wasn’t. Instead, I was finally diagnosed as having a life-long auto-immune disorder. My immune system tries to protect me but attacks and destroys healthy parts of the body by mistake. Once I was properly diagnosed, they prescribed a thyroid (energy hormone) supplement my body was lacking. Within 24 hours, all my old energy came roaring back. Even better, I found, after a month or so, that my singing voice was coming back. This was totally unexpected.
Instead of sitting around watching TV, I decided to make an investment and pay someone to help me train my voice. That investment paid off in spades. I now sing around the country and world with several prestigious choral groups. What a blast it is to stand in front of hundreds of people and feel the affirmation their enthusiastic reception of your efforts provides.
I could do this because I had a little money put aside that allowed me to pursue this life option. Otherwise, without the training, my voice would have been so-so and I’d never have had the wonderful experience I’m having now singing. It’s not that hard to tone down your style of living to provide the cushion of financial resources that can be applied. Even so, we do need to be prudent while exploring a new thing. Even though I’m now a successful singer, I will probably never gain a lot of money from it. That’s OK.
If you had to advise your loved ones about the 3 most important health issues to keep in mind before they retire, what would you say? Can you give an example or share a story?
1. Be prepared for the unexpected. I never expected the heart attack that happened. Afterward, I submitted myself to my doctor’s wise guidance and, eventually, got OK. I never expected someone ever healed from a heart attack.
2. Keep your body fit, but be gentle towards it. I know many people who went all out in a particular sport when they were young and really wore out important parts of their body. I didn’t. I used to love to play beach volleyball. I had a killer overhand serve and, with my height (I’m pretty tall), I can really spike the ball over the net. With time, however, my shoulder started to hurt. The doctor said all my beach volleyball had damaged my “rotator cuff” and I had two choices. Get my shoulder operated on and hope it heals well enough that I can resume beach volleyball or, stop playing volleyball and see if my rotator cuff got well without surgery. I chose the latter course. There are other things I did instead.
3. Do your homework on health matters. Demand doctors explain things to you. You are your own best physician. Nobody else cares about you as much as you, yourself, do. Attend to health issues when you are younger. Don’t put things off. This reduces the risk of major surprises from neglect later in life.
If you had to advise your loved ones about the 3 most important things to consider before choosing a place to live after they retire, what would you say? Can you give an example or share a story?
1. Planning has its limits. I’ve had so many friends who moved to be near children and then the children up and moved away. The simple answer is to pick a place where you already know people or one where you have life interests that will keep you involved with people whose lives are similar to yours. For years, I lived, alternatively, on both coasts of the US. I’d be working in the Washington, DC, area (where all the money and political power was) and, just when things got calm, there would be a crisis on the other coast. At the time, Southern California was the place where you could find the bright, capable people who could actually make something. Even so, engineers need leadership. My bosses would say, “Suzanne, we need you on the West coast, The engineers are running amok’’. So I’d move there and get things squared away. After a while, though, my superiors would call me up and say, “We need you on the East coast. The government is all screwed up and we need you to help them straighten things out.” After enough of this, I finally bought a place on each coast. I realized that, without adult supervision, the engineers are always running amok. That is an aspect of their nature. At the same time, the government was always getting screwed up. It was in its nature for such things to happen, periodically.
2. In this way, both pre- and post-retirement, I managed to fit my life situation to this reality and it gave me options where to live and retire at on both coasts.
I actually retired several times. With the end of the Cold War, I had gotten tired of doing defense work without the threat of nuclear holocaust to motivate me to work so hard to help keep the peace. Then another door opened. UCLA used to have these wonderful weekend seminars on all sorts of topics, presented by top people in the field. One weekend I went to a seminar on the Dead Sea scrolls. Towards the end, a distinguished professor from New York University, Larry Schiffman, was summing up the weekend. He said, ”So we have been able to piece together about 80% of the fragments to the point where we can decipher the text. Are there any questions?” I hopped up immediately and said, “When do you expect to decipher the remaining 20%? He said, “Never”, and showed us a slide of a typical unworkable fragment. It looked like s piece of greasy rag. “The remaining material is in too poor a condition to decipher.”
I went up to him after the session broke up and asked if he was going to be around town the next day. He asked, “Why”. I said, “Do you happen to have one of those undecipherable fragments with you?” He said, “Yes”, and took out a small plastic box with the very fragment he used in his slide show. He asked, “Why the question?” I told him I was a scientist from TRW (Then a top aerospace company) who had a team of specialists in a field called hyperspectral imaging and, if he came by the lab, we would scan the fragment and pop out the text. He came by and it worked. We made the front page of The Wall Street Journal with that result. To end the story, if you go to Jerusalem today, and go to the “Shrine of the Book”, you will find that the Israeli government has used that technique to scan the entire Dead Seas Scroll collection and were able to pop out the text in all but a small percent of the cases.
Through this effort, I discovered there was this wonderful place close by called the “Ancient Biblical Manuscript Center”. I got to know the people there and was working with them. They appreciated my help but said, “You’d be more help if you knew some ancient languages”. I replied, “Yes, and sometimes it would be more convenient if I had two brains instead of one, but this is who I am and this is what I’ve got”. They persisted and had me meet up with Professor Ted Fisher of the Claremont School of Theology. I told him the Manuscript Center people wanted me to gain fluency in some ancient languages but I was dubious about that. He immediately took on an offended air. I asked, “What’s wrong?” He said, “You just insulted me.” I replied that I had no idea that anything I said was offensive and asked him to please explain. He said, “You are minimizing my capabilities as a teacher of ancient languages. I could teach first Century Greek to a brick, and you’re no brick”.
He was right. He was incredibly gifted as a teacher and I became a fluent translator of Greek. It opened up a whole new world to me. In my opinion, the English translations presented in the King James version of the bible are really bad, sometimes. Reading the original Greek was awesome. The people who wrote these scriptures were awesome people and their individual characters came to life in the original Greek.
To complete the story, I went ahead and went to Seminary, became a licensed Lay Vicar in an Episcopal Church parish, and had a wonderful five years doing something I had never planned on.
3. The moral of this story is that I seem to be open to new things and don’t worry too much about admitting my ignorance. For your situation, with such a perspective, who knows what options exist for you in retirement?
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. 🙂
Have pre-retirement courses for those planning to retire. I actually did some of this at Lockheed. There were so many people that had come to work at Lockheed as a young person and spent their entire working life there. There was this problem, however. A year or two into retirement, many people would just die off. The company was concerned and commissioned Stanford University to try and find out why this was happening? It turned out, engineering tends to be a “best practices” kind of place, in many ways. You get to know what you are good at and you practice your specialties during your entire work life. You think of yourself as a cog in a great machine and, like any other part, you wear out over time and become obsolete, so you are just tossed into the scrap heap of worn-out, antiquated parts.
This is not true, however. You can actually, with a little effort, re-educate such people out of that mechanistic way of thinking about themselves. I would take them out to lunch and teach them how to really eat a ripe fresh peach, for example. I’d give them a bib, so the juice could run down their face without any problem. I asked them to smell what the experience smelled like. How did their body react to the sweetness of the peach? Was there a pleasurable feeling? Try to describe it for me? This was only one example. With a little luck, after a half dozen or so sessions, the person would realize there were all these aspects of themselves that had been ignored or rarely-used, and they certainly were not a broken-down piece of machinery. They had a new purpose in life, to remind themselves of who they are as a living, breathing creature. This is the type of course with which we need to reinvigorate our retirees.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?
Yes, T.S. Elliot’s book of poems: “Four Quartets.” I read it as a young person and hardly understood a word of what the poems were about, but I instinctively felt they were important. Years later I understood. They’re about unfolding as a person, to be the person you were designed to be. There’s a beautiful Hindu expression about this–the Jewel in the Lotus. Each of us is a unique flower of great beauty when we manifest our individual “specialness”. Each of us is a lotus flower. We unfold. Finally, when we are fully unfolded, all can see what is at our core — the person we are intended to be — a precious jewel. Each of us has the potential to unfold and show the beauty of who we are to the world. I wrote my most recent book, “Walking in Love: Why and How?”, to describe the process of finding out who you are created to be and realizing that potential.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
“Be Still and know that I am God” — from Psalm 46:10. Learning to be quiet, to be still, to listen so I could hear the voice of God from both within and without, leading me and empowering me to become the creature he planned me to be.
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To find out more about Suzanne, please visit her website: https://www.suzannermiller.com/
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!