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Lost and Found: My Moorings

I was lost in thought walking in my neighborhood one day about six months ago and found myself in a sudden panic: Wait, it’s Wednesday and I should be at work! What am I doing here?

One afternoon I woke up at 4:00 and almost cried because I thought I had missed the whole day of work and I still had so much to do...

Full stop!

I had to remind myself that in the past year I had made the decision to retire.

Clearly, I was still getting used to it.

Retiring is very different today than it was years ago when my father was making that decision. He had worked hard all of his life, many years needing to straddle two different types of work in an effort to support our family of seven. By the time he was 65 he was simply tired out. Who could blame him? His own mind set was that he made it that far, he had earned the right to sit back and enjoy his time doing whatever he felt like doing. He and my mother traveled the country, visiting Alaska and parts of Canada then. He golfed and went out with friends. Following some very challenging health problems, he died 12 years later. He was only 77.

My decision to retire came under very different circumstances. I was almost 70, in good health, and while I loved my job, my father had always told me to start my own business. He worried about how institutions treat women and worried about salary discrimination. He felt that being independent was critical, noting also that it was important to have something of one’s own creation. I thought about this throughout my entire career.

I was not a stranger to starting my own business. Indeed, when I was seven I had my own "potholder" business. I made potholders and sold them door to door. I bought more loops with the profits and saved the rest of the money for my next venture. By ten years old I had graduated to having a “school” on my mother’s front porch and a “camp” for the neighborhood children in the backyard. By 14 I had my first job and continued on that vein throughout my college years. In other words, I couldn't remember a period of time when I wasn't working.

When I secured my MBA, a gentleman who I will always remember, Elmer Tropman, advised me through Pitt’s career counseling services. He thought I ought to start my own consulting business. I admired Mr. Tropman, and so I did start my business, focused on research administration. It was very successful for two years but when UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh called me to start a Research Coordination program, I was ready. I could be entrepreneurial and launch something that would have lasting benefit for an organization that I loved.

This was a theme throughout my career. I secured positions where none had existed previously. I started development programs in many medical disciplines and for groups of patients, families and donors within the community. It was great because I could exercise my entrepreneurial spirit while doing the development work that I loved.

I became accustomed to working with outstanding teams of people, having wonderful assistants who handled travel, expense reports, meeting arrangements, etc. I was the recipient of convenient parking. I attended meetings and spent a great deal of time with administrative and medical leaders, many of whom were simply outstanding. All the trappings of executive privilege.

My father’s words still rang in my ears. “Start your own business.”

One day about a week after two major events had been organized by our team, both extraordinarily successful by anyone's measure, not one person had called to thank us or tell us that the work we had done was appreciated. It wasn't the first time. But this time I felt so bruised that I actually made my decision then to leave and launch my business. I planned to go on my own and create a culture that worked for me while using the unique skills I had honed over the years. This very important thing, lack of appreciation, was what it took to jump-start my plans. I made my “retirement” announcement to leadership. And six months later, I was gone.

In the weeks following my departure, I slept many hours, making up for lost time over the last decades. I watched a great deal of television, sleeping through many programs. I ate my husband’s wonderful food, now for both lunch and dinner. Whoops! My inner self said, "You are really gaining weight." I went to the gym even more regularly than before and began to walk with neighbors. I had the time and the inclination.

My business, Gayle Tissue Strategies, launched in March last year, almost one year ago.

As the weeks wore on I was proud of my website and the new client with whom I had contracted. I was pleased to be able to work with a new group of people and go somewhere different. Then I was thrilled to contract with a second client who was working abroad, something for my new associate and I to do together. But without even noticing, I was sleeping even more, at unusual times, and sometimes feeling a little paralyzed in my thought processes. By August I had contracted the flu and was out of commission for almost a month. Yes, my body was telling me something.

On the outside everything was going well enough, but on the inside I wasn’t sure what was happening. My routines had changed dramatically and that wasn’t comfortable for me. I was used to stopping for my morning coffee on the way to work. I missed the wedding soup served Tuesday and Thursday at the cafeteria. I was going to travel for the first time since I left my job and unhappily realized that I faced making the arrangements myself. I had to send someone a calendar invitation and I didn’t even know how to do it—my wonderful assistant always handled those details. I missed wearing my work clothes. I panicked when I had to change the ink in my printer--I had never done that before. I panicked again when I had scan something and send it. “Oh, you better take a nap,” my inner self told me.

I missed my friends at work…yes, I could see them, but it wasn’t the same. Their work had gone on and I wasn’t sure who or what they were talking about anymore. And while they hoped I was doing well in my business, it was clear that their most important focus was elsewhere, as was proper.

I was not really able to work effectively (by my definition and habit). I was somewhat foggy in my thinking…Tired? Bored? Depressed. Yes, that was it, all three of those. “You better have a snack,” my inner self told me.

This went on for longer than I would like to admit. I wondered what happened to the excitement of being on my own—I wondered what was happening to me...I even considered closing the business...I wished that I could call my father and get his take on the situation.

Then one day about three months ago, something changed. It seemed like one day, but looking back on it I am sure it was hundreds of imperceptible changes over time. Finally, for more hours and then days and then weeks, I felt like myself again. Stronger and more creative. I had weathered a storm. Actually, it felt like a tornado. I became eager for new experiences and new people.

I wasn’t worried anymore about taking on responsibilities to help make major fundraising changes in one of the out of town organizations with which I was working. Suddenly I had my energy and fortitude back.

That was dramatically demonstrated to me when I took action with one client, completely changing our contract with them and assuming more responsibility within the organization. As I began to contact individuals within the community and beyond to begin relationships on behalf of my clients, I could also see I was back, along with my courage and determination. Even more than before. My inner self said, “You better celebrate with some candy.”

There is no doubt, I had to work hard to make this transition. Now I do still love my husband’s cooking, but in much smaller quantities and with a focus on steamed vegetables (without sauces) the way I like to eat them. I enjoy going out with him to eat lunch together and enjoy meeting new friends for coffee. I still enjoy “consulting” with former staff/friends/colleagues--that will never get old, they are so important to me. I go to the gym at 7:00 am, a little later than previously, and found a whole new mix of friends. Because I don't have to be at work on a fixed schedule, I even have time to visit with them briefly during our workouts. And I avoid candy, for the most part. Except for Swedish fish and they are "in" anytime.

I can stroll through Costco whenever I feel like it. I can take a day off or an afternoon break and not worry about anything. I can go to eat Chinese food and see a movie or spend time at the library. I am able to participate in a research study at Pitt and I have the time to visit family members and friends who are not healthy at this point in their lives. My blood pressure is down. I enjoy my time volunteering on two boards.

I have really turned the corner. Suddenly I am able to appreciate everything that I am doing in a very different way. I laugh more and harder. I enjoy the company of my sisters even more than before if that is even possible. Everyday I am looking forward to all of my meetings with my clients and trips to New York. I relish time with my associate, feeling productive and discussing strategies for success. That never gets old either. And I am not sleeping through days, just a five minute nap in the afternoon and seven hours at night (and I mean sleeping through the night).

I am busy and mindful of my life advantages. I have the most vivid memories of my years of structured work, appreciate what I learned and all the people who meant something special for me. I also know how to work now in an unstructured environment.

I never thought of retiring and just traveling or sitting on the beach. All of my career I wanted only to continue what I was doing and make an impact on our community and I am planning impacts of magnitude with each of my existing clients' goals.

Now I recognize that even when you carefully develop your ideas, when you plan a business or pursue your hobbies, when you have unique experience and recognized success, retirement is a transition of major proportions…it’s not only important to plan what you are going to do, but it’s important to psychologically prepare for it. As a friend of mine has said, retirement from an intense career represents a new season of life.

I have learned a great deal about consulting and about myself during this past year. It has surely prepared me for the years to come. And I am proud that I've learned things like how to handle calendar appointments on my own. I have even been thinking of making my own wedding soup...


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