Greg Bishop, a Park City attorney, recently had lunch with a close friend who is nearing retirement. As they were catching up, his friend shared something like this:
For the last 20 years, I’ve been a pretty important executive at a few different companies. Given my leadership roles, I was involved in nearly every major decision. Sure, I worked long hours, but I really enjoyed the professional challenges. I finally have enough money to be comfortable, but the thought of retiring scares me. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to adjust from being an important executive to being someone who just golfs.
Regardless of what you do – or did – for a living, having your self-identity closely tied to your career is not uncommon. Nor is it unusual for people moving into retirement to feel a little lost at first.
After reflecting on his friend’s concern for a few weeks, Mr. Bishop was reminded that when a new-born caterpillar emerges from its egg, the first thing it does is eat the shell to give it the nourishment it needs to survive. Then it begins eating the nearest leaf, then the next one, then the next, and so on. In fact, the caterpillar’s primary purpose – its fulltime job, if you will – is to eat leaves so that it can grow (some caterpillars can grow to more than 100 times their original size).
Because its rigid outer layer does not grow like the rest of its body, a caterpillar will shed its exoskeleton four or five times during its life to allow it to keep growing. When it is fully developed, the caterpillar will attach itself underneath a branch, shedding its exoskeleton one last time. After forming a final protective shell (a chrysalis), the caterpillar will release digestive enzymes that will consume much of what it was in order to produce the protein and fibers necessary to allow it to transform itself one last time.
Through the process of metamorphosis – a Greek word meaning transformation – the caterpillar that spent almost all of its entire existence consuming leaves, will miraculously change. When it emerges from its chrysalis some 5-21 days later, it will no longer be a crawling caterpillar, but rather a two-winged butterfly that will abandon its tree and ignore the leaves in favor of fluttering between flowers and feasting on nectar. Even though a caterpillar and its eventual butterfly may appear to be two completely different insects, they are actually the same organism (in fact, recent scientific experiments have demonstrated that a butterfly can remember the solution to a puzzle it learned when it was a caterpillar).
Similarly, a career can be thought of as a transitional, caterpillar-like phase where the primary purpose is to foster future growth and development. When you are fully formed, you shed your career exoskeleton to become what you are destined to be. Mr. Bishop explains that he has shed his own exoskeleton several times – for example, as he moved from being a litigation attorney in Washington, D.C., to an in-house corporate attorney working for different companies in New York, Paris, and Utah, to a senior executive responsible for the legal, compliance and HR functions of a public company. Although he is still years from retirement, Mr. Bishop is now preparing for his final and most important transformation: from career caterpillar to retirement butterfly.
Much as a caterpillar will secrete digestive enzymes to utilize what it was to grow into what it will become, the metamorphosis we call retirement provides the opportunity to repurpose your many years of education, skills and life experiences to become an improved version of yourself. How your many parts will be reshaped and redeployed in your own retirement metamorphosis is completely up to you. But regardless of what you decide, retirement will free you from the constant burden of eating leaves, allowing you to fully explore the flowers around you, and to enjoy the sweet nectar of new life experiences.
Or, you can hang around the tree and think back on the good ol’ days when you spent all of your time eating leaves.
About: Greg Bishop has a BA in English Literature, an MBA, a Juris Doctor, and three decades of experience in legal, compliance, and HR matters. In 2019, Utah Business Magazine ranked Mr. Bishop as among the “Legal Elite” for in-house attorneys in the State of Utah. However, he feels that the greatest thing he has to offer is his passion for living life to the fullest and helping and empowering others to do the same.