John O’Connell – Of Auroras and Snowy Owls

I was talking to some photographer friends in October, two years after my retirement as a newspaper chain’s executive editor. We were discussing the most memorable pictures we’ve taken, and I said that I loved the Northern Lights shots I took on my trips to Iceland and the snowy owl photos I made on a weekday visit to Jones Beach. One of the photographers said how proud and thrilled I must be to have captured both of these “trophy” images. “You know, most of us live our whole lives hoping we’d be able to get even just one of those, and you have multiples of both.”

That unexpected comment suddenly crystalized my joy at being retired, being finally free from the time-eating, energy-sapping, anxiety-provoking, positivity-destroying, managerial-tip-toeing, daily-deadline-driven life of an editor and journalist.

The advice you always hear given to retirees is to “keep busy.” I offer something different: You should be as busy as you want to be, but the challenge is to be selective, to realize that you (to the extent your health enables) are in control—at last—of what you want to be busy with.

I have never felt as free to live my best life as I do now. Sure, with age comes more doctors’ appointments, more MRIs, more pains and aches, less income, a little less physical mobility. But age also brings more wisdom, more maturity and, best of all, discernment, calmness and appreciation for what one can do.

So I can head off to Iceland on the hunt for auroras. I can lie in the sand in winter on a Tuesday clicking the shutter at a rare bird. I can write what I want. I can nap. I can cook. I can help others. I can be more of myself. I can learn what I want, not just what I must.

Of course, I didn’t wait until retirement to start taking pictures, or writing, or being myself, or learning. These are activities people do their whole lives.

And most of the many thousands of people I have interviewed for jobs in 43 years of management, and hired and fired, were seeking to do what was best for them. It may sound crazy, but some of the best conversations I’ve had at work were with folks I had just fired or who were in my office to resign. Because in those situations, they had—unwillingly or willingly—realized that the jobs they were in weren’t the jobs they should be in. And that’s wonderful.

“To thine own self be true,” the Bard wrote. Losing or leaving a job, changing careers, moving away or moving home are all daunting prospects, emotional catastrophes. But they can also be brilliant opportunities to learn lessons, practice resilience, sharpen skills, do more interesting things, simplify, meet new people, and appreciate the cleansing focus that hunger brings. Getting fired is a temporary disaster—no doubt! But it can lead to a permanently better you, a happier you, a stronger you.

When I decided to retire it was because the income no longer mattered to me as much as my time. Not that I like the idea of having less money; it’s just that at a certain age, a different age for each person, you start worrying that you’ll run out of time before you run out of money, and it’s easy to decide which one is more indispensable.

For those who quit or get fired before it’s time to retire, I say GOOD FOR YOU! What happens next is up to you. You can revel in the misery, linger too long in self-pity, or go learn something more about who you are and start doing who you are. Best wishes to you.

John O’Connell spent 20-something years in corporate Human Resources Management, and then another 20-something years as a reporter, editor and executive editor for a constantly award-winning Long Island weekly newspaper chain. He retired in 2016 and is semi-self-employed as a columnist, editor and event photographer.

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