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Column: 'Retirement' can mean controlled freedom after work

Column: 'Retirement' can mean controlled freedom after work

September 10, 2019

The period of life we call “retirement” means different things to different people. It may mean you hang it up and strike out into the sunset with the RV, or, like George Washington, it may mean you go back and run the army.

President Washington retired at 65 years old, and moved back to his home in Mount Vernon. The year was 1797. Most people thought he would have plenty to worry about and plenty of income, but most of his assets were tied up in land, and he never truly “retired” in his heart. To create an income stream in retirement, he started a whiskey distillery. To keep himself busy, he invested in local opportunities and tended the farm.

But Washington was never able to unplug. His definition of retirement expanded, and he ended up volunteering to join the army again. John Adams was so elated he commissioned him as commander-in-chief of the armies without even a conversation. While Washington was never drawn into battle during this period, he did become an instrumental figure in the “Quasi-War” with France.

Not two years later, he contracted an illness while surveying his farm one evening in the snow and sleet. The doctors couldn’t bring him back. He died in his bed at Mount Vernon with Martha by his side, and some of his last words were, “Doctor, I die hard, but I am not afraid to go.”

The amazing thing about Washington’s story is that he was actually really bad at our modern understanding of “retirement.” He wasn’t able to stay away from work; he couldn’t let the causes he loved go on without him.

Retirement is typically defined as, “The period of life when one chooses to permanently leave the workforce behind.” But Washington’s reality was broader, something like “controlled freedom,” or, the flexibility to do what you want, where you want, for the causes you want.

Controlled freedom is getting to work for the causes you believe in—and paying yourself to do it. This is the heart of retirement, and the goal for many in America today. Sure, there are challenges. Discovering your passions, finding your purpose, creating dependable income, prioritizing health and relationships—all these can be obstacles. But there is no orthodox way, no one path we are all pursuing.

Washington started a whiskey distillery. He quit his retirement and went back to work. He died prematurely because he got sick. But he had no regrets—because he served something bigger than himself.

If only we could have his fierce focus of purpose.

Philosopher William James said, “The great use of life is to spend it for something that will outlast it.”

Whether you spend your retirement in an RV or commanding an army, what matters is you set a goal and see it through, starting now.


Adam Setser

Financial Advisor

Kerrigan Capital and Risk Management

3543 N Crossing Cir, Valdosta, GA 31602



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