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Why Retirement Could Be Bad For You

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By 09.11.2009

You cannot imagine how many times I've heard business builders lament: "By the time I'm able to smell the roses, I'll be too old to walk through the garden!"

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Entrepreneurs should be so lucky. Here's what your recently retired buddies--those, that is, who can still afford retirement--slathering sun screen all over their balding pates don't know: Lying fallow erodes psychological health.

Martin Seligman, expert on the psychological origins of depression, detailed the ill effects of a life of R&R in his book, Helplessness: On Depression, Development, and Death. Studies show that men who retired from corporate jobs, donned their gold watches and lazed about at a resort lived measurably shorter lives than those who sought productive work. In fact, plenty of retirees who traded productive work for sunshine and early-bird dinners dropped dead surprisingly soon after making the transition.

Here's what's going on: Humans need challenges to replenish their sense of self-esteem. Without it, we feel impotent, vulnerable and helpless. Lack of self-esteem saps vitality, the kind that makes you feel like you can change the world--precisely the kind of energy entrepreneurs are suffused with when doing constructive things. Just as fish have to swim and birds have to fly, entrepreneurs have to build, improve and build again. Without that process, they - quite literally - die inside a little every day.

I call this idleness-borne syndrome Supernova Burnout. Unlike other forms of fatigue, this brand of burnout is very private and self-condemnatory. Those who suffer from it experience chronic trepidation, despondency or depression. In some cases they turn to alcohol, abandon their loved ones or fall prey to some other form of self destruction.

The prescription for Supernova Burnout is pretty simple: action. A patient of mine name Carmine (real names have been disguised) can attest to that. The grandson of an Italian food importer from Tuscany, Carmine became one of the largest importers of Italian wine in North America. At age 52, he sold his 25-year-old business to the Seagram Co, making Carmine wealthy beyond his dreams.

And, yet, he had little psychic energy to sustain him. Both of his children were in college, and his wife was devoted to her job as an English teacher. A hard worker since his youth, Carmine never developed hobbies and had few interests apart from wine. His line when we first met: "I have a world-class case of seller's remorse." Soon enough, Carmine was frequenting strip clubs and fraternizing with the help. (One dancer even began calling him at home, at which point Carmine severed contact.)

Sexual conquests, of course, were no substitute for the rush Carmine got from running his business. Worse, his marriage was on the line. I told Carmine that work might well be the best medicine. Perhaps he should approach Seagram about a consulting gig. (After all, he still had a bevy of well-placed contacts with suppliers overseas.) The company leapt at the offer, and Carmine found the satisfaction he had been missing--and craving--for so long.

Carmine's tale is no outlier. Given all the pressures--from friends, family, colleagues and, not least, the media--to enjoy the fruits of their labor, ennui-plagued entrepreneurs are myriad, whether they know it or not.

A final warning about Supernova Burnout: As much as they love to rack up accomplishments, entrepreneurs love to burnish their legacies nearly as much. That may feel satisfying, but it doesn't deliver the same vitality that comes from shaking things up and tackling new challenges. As Benjamin Franklin put it: "When you are done changing, you are done."

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