The vision of retirement I hold in my mind looks something like this: I am spending my days in school -- whether it's out in the field or in a lab. I am studying the brain and human behaviors, and I am spending my evenings at the homes of my professors who are also my friends. All the while, I am free of the fears, anxieties, 'I wishes' and 'I wonders' that come with youth. I am calm and at peace in the academe, and I am discovering new things about how we think and interact with one another and what the implications may be for the next generation of things we bring into the world.
Retirement, for me, is an opportunity to learn, applying a lifetime of experiences and mature curiosity towards a fully-informed goal. Youth is not wasted on the young so much as our current education model is ill suited to youth. I found myself, in school, craving unstructured experiences. I wanted to work hard but towards the end of exploration, not GPAs and status symbol degrees. Instead, school had me chasing grades and brand-name diplomas for others' approval rather than chasing experiences I could pack away and use as raw material for insights later on. Today, when I encounter people who are insecure about their educational background, I ask them what they did with the time and I am almost always impressed. They've often learned so much about how to live, and they've looked fear -- real fear -- in the face and held fast. They've found meaning where others found a master's degree.
Meanwhile, I cowered with a fear of my own all through school. Math.
No matter what I did, I couldn't do it well. I'd drill and practice when I wasn't negotiating with my parents for extra reading and writing time. (Alright, maybe I could have spent less time on that last one.) As I got older and could own my time more, I dared not approach challenges like math and science for fear of failing grades, being perceived as stupid and being forced out of school. I couldn't see where the paths through equations led other than to more red marks, an unfinished college degree and the unemployment line. I knew that, as long as I could write well and synthesize information, I would always find work, and I'd have a degree to boot -- something to ply hiring managers with as I moved through professional circles.
I also lacked inspiration and self-confidence in school (and, in math, I still do). So, rather than bang my head against difficult things in the classroom, I flung it at internships and jobs in the real world where the stakes felt more real and I could see the world into which I would be tossed and expected to navigate for the majority of my life. That world was full of people like me -- people who spoke in prose about brass tacks rather than raw logic about theorems.
Had I known then what I know now, I'd have thrown caution to the wind and studied the brain -- all of it. When I was young, that would have meant hours in lab, years of tests and decades of research. But, today, with the proof already in the pudding in so far as my degrees are concerned, it means reading, conversations, inquiry and exploration. I can go from the why to the how, rather than the other way around. So, I'm reading, watching, discussing and exploring the topic in my own way. Each time I hear the same information explained a little differently, it's fascinating. I'll catch myself smiling when I see, in research, what I have witnessed in my own life experience.
Now, to be fair, I am not consuming information from authors who assume I've studied organic chemistry and advanced mathematics. The content I'm working through is written and produced for a layperson. So, it sits in that sweet spot between interesting, educational and entertaining. Everything is easy until it's difficult. Beneath the well-edited and boiled down surface of what I am consuming is a complex world of math and science.
I know because I have seen how hard my friends work who pursue these complex subjects. They give up entire chunks of their lives for long stretches at a time each day to pursue a narrow area of research made all the more complex by a simple fact: no one has ever found the answer they are hunting for. They spend years in what, to me, would feel like a soul-sucking void. To them, there's no higher calling. They're pioneers, and they don't need me to tell them they're marvelous.
I always love to talk about the little bit I know of the brain with friends who know a lot about science. The fact is, my friends studying the heart or the kidneys know more about the brain than I do. It's humbling and fascinating to test what I know and hear more of what lies beneath. I feel kind of like a stowaway on the boat they're sailing through the rough seas of scientific discovery.
So, when I retire, I'll try to build a skiff of my own. I'll study organic chemistry at a pace that's right for me. I'll dive back into advanced math knowing that, if I fail, it's fine. I've lived my life. I'll have my executive function, my retirement savings and nothing to lose.