Another View: You'll just know when it's time to go

Frank McDonough

Search the subject of retirement on the Internet and you find most responses provide computational models to help you decide whether you have enough money to retire. The human, emotional side is rarely addressed.

But, suppose that you have enough money. Frank Lloyd Wright said in 1932, 'Give me the luxuries of life, and I will willingly do without the necessities.' He found the balance in his day, and I have found it in mine.

If money is not the issue, health often is. But I'm lucky here as well.

My father grew up on an island off the coast of Galway, Ireland. There, he, my grandfather and great-grandfather dined mostly on deep-sea fish, a few vegetables and potatoes. The occasional treat at Christmas was an orange. No fast food for them. So I inherited good genes.

Why, then, would one want to retire from what many have said is the best job in government? I want to tell you right away that it is not to play more golf. Many a Monday morning after a crummy weekend match, I am happy to get back to work where a quick success or two will restore a positive outlook.

For me, the decision to have surgery after a gym injury was easier than the decision to retire. There is both remorse and excitement associated with retirement.

Why remorse? Why a bit of fear? For me, it has to do with the nature of work, how it changes throughout life. Early on, it was a way to pay for the necessities plus a few of the things I really liked at the time, such as going to the beach or having some fun on the town. Later, work grew more interesting, even if on the occasional bad days it seemed to be a sentence equal to the length of the mortgage on a home.

A close confidant told me 10 years ago that work takes on a new meaning when you no longer have to work. 'To find joy in work is to discover the fountain of youth,' Pearl Buck said. In my case, I have worked long enough to find that joy.

It was important to me to find a proper door through which to leave government. My retirement would have to occur when the organization and I were riding high, even though it seems irrational to the inner spirit to exit when things are going well.

A single incident caused me to refocus early this year. A colleague suggested that a certain private-sector job would provide a good fit with my experience and abilities. That conversation started a process. Years ago, I learned that when my mind starts to think about changing jobs, it will not rest until I make the change.

Still, everyone has doubts. Some of it is silly: What if nobody comes to my retirement party? Some is more serious: What will I do now?

As in The Celestine Prophecy, if you listen in the silence, you will hear the right thing to do. For me, it was last month, during the closing hours of a Washington conference I hosted. Visitors from our own government, Canada and Mexico were generous in their praise. So, on April 11, in mid-morning, I nervously approached my boss, M. J. Jameson, telling her I would be leaving in six weeks or so.

Since then, I feel like a kid on a giant slide at the swimming pool. The notes and calls complimenting me on a great career are like the water propelling me along. The end will be a big splash Wednesday at my retirement party'and I hear a lot of people will be there.

Frank McDonough, deputy associate administrator for intergovernmental solutions at the General Services Administration, retires this week after 38 years of federal service.


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