Pretirement and Political Consumption: The Set-It-And-Forget-It Approach

I think having a strategy toward elections and political “news” is particularly important for people in pretirement.  We pretired folks have a goal of abundant free time, which we will need to fill in healthy ways.  Politics and government policy are important to be informed about, but only up to a small point.  What is more important is our individual happiness.  We want to do things that cause thoughts that then release happy endorphins into our system.

Whew!  The latest “most important election of our lifetimes” is finally over.  The country was stoked to the boiling point with fears that were blared across social media, in every newspaper and on every TV news channel.  Lawn signs littered the city and countryside.  More money was spent than ever.  The people finally had their say.

Me?  I participated far more than most citizens, but in a way that kept me more sane than in prior elections, using an approach that I plan to hone in the future.  I call this civic engagement style, “Set it and Forget it.”

I think having a strategy toward elections and political “news” is particularly important for people in pretirement.  We pretired folks have a goal of abundant free time, which we will need to fill in healthy ways.  Politics and government policy are important to be informed about, but only up to a small point.  What is more important is our individual happiness.  We want to do things that cause thoughts that then release happy endorphins into our system.

It’s great to experience, whenever possible, happy, healthy endorphins.  It’s bad to be addicted to cortisol, the fear and stress hormone.  Politics and the “news” media today, and maybe since the beginning, are based on getting your attention by tripping your inner alarm system.  In other words, politics and the “news” industry function by addicting you to unhealthy, unhappy cortisol.  Who wants to take a bad drug?

Some of the symptoms from excess cortisol exposure, are:

  • Severe fatigue.
  • Muscle weakness.
  • Depression, anxiety and irritability.
  • Loss of emotional control.
  • Cognitive difficulties.
  • New or worsened high blood pressure.
  • Headache.
  • Bone loss, leading to fractures over time.

Sounds a little like what many people encounter in older age, doesn’t it?  It also sounds like our reactions to partisan “news”.  Well, I want a healthy pretirement, which requires making choices that reduce my chances of experiencing all of those feelings and by creating conditions that help me experience the opposite of everything on that list.

I left Facebook and I never went on Twitter specifically because I realized that time spent on social media makes me feel worse, not better.  The post-Facebook feeling was much like the feeling an hour after eating a big gourmet doughnut, which is to say unsatisfied and slightly regretful for the binge, yet also wanting a small additional hit of fat and sugar.  Whenever I happen to mention that I’m no longer on Facebook, nearly every single person says “Yeah, I don’t spend much time on Facebook anymore, either, but I like seeing pictures of our friends’ and families’ growing kids.”  Right.

Even if that’s partially true, I’m not here to judge anyone but myself.  Social media’s effect on society, though, is of course worrisome.   How does looking at pictures of my cousin’s new baby contribute to further national tribalism and hacked elections by foreign dictatorships?  I take responsibility for having occasionally found myself on Facebook arguing with people whom I haven’t seen since high school (and really never knew all that well even then).  Those online “debates” seemed to become competitions for who had the best grasp of soundbites in the media, never once led to anyone’s perspectives changing by one inch, and always left me more frustrated, unsatisfied and distressed about the world than before.  We used words with each other online that we’d never use in person with them, making it awkward sometimes when we actually saw the person.  I found Facebook to be a cortisol shower, so I left it.  A couple of years later,  I do not miss it.  I can report that I have just as many real friends and family, and am happier and more productive.

Cable “news” is a business model built on generating cortisol in you.  The stereotype of an older person sitting in their chair shouting at their set as they watch only the cable opinion shows that reinforce their preexisting views, is a little too accurate for comfort.  I do not want to be a person who frees myself from full time work, only to fill the extra hours with some corporate-induced sugar high of anger due to provocation on TV.  I saw a study recently that measured some 40-plus “breaking news alerts” from the major cable news channels per day.

In addition to ditching Facebook, we cut the cord on cable television many years ago.  Now we curate what we watch, looking for shows on Netflix and Prime TV that we think will be satisfying to watch.  I don’t watch much TV but, when I do, I want that powerful medium to stimulate thoughts that fill me with happy endorphins, not make me unpleasant at cocktail parties.

It is also important to be an engaged citizen, right?  If the older guy shouting at his TV stereotype is unflattering, so are those we all encounter who never seem to come in contact with a newspaper and would have a hard time telling you who their own governor is and probably couldn’t find England on a map.  No one should want to be that person, either.  Citizens who so un-engaged are also probably so passive and unread in their general approach to life that they, too, are probably not much fun at cocktail parties.

So how can a person approach elections and politics in a relatively healthy way that doesn’t lead to them becoming either an angry or a boring variety of pretirement couch potato?  I do not claim to have perfected a method in the face of the $16 billion duopoly that is the American political industry designed to provoke my outrage and keep my attention on the perpetual campaign.  However, I am pushing back on it in a couple of useful ways.

Set-It-and-Forget-It Political Engagement:

  1. Vote in every single election, whether primary, general or special
  2. Give a little money to candidates and causes but put it on monthly auto-pay.
  3. After that, focus on happier subjects than the “news”, such as being a pleasant cocktail party guest.

We really do exist in a Coke vs. Pepsi kind of world when it comes to most of the choices on the ballot.  That analogy is a little unfair, because policy is a lot more impactful than our choice of chemical sugar waters.  On the other hand, some of the insult that emanates daily from the perpetual campaign duopoly and “news” industries is unfair to chemical sugar waters.  Exactly like Coke and Pepsi, however, the fundamental marketing machinery of our two major political parties is identical.  Also, for all practical purposes, we only have those two choices if we want our votes to occasionally be for a winner.  Sorry, third party enthusiasts, but I’ve given up on those.

I try to be a realist so, realistically, I am a member of one of the tribes that the system has served up to me.  That’s a given, so a whole lot of worry and decision-making, stress and cortisol is avoided by voting for my tribe.  I vote in every single election, primary, general and special, and I vote for my party’s candidates 100%.  Judge me, if you will, but I can’t really conceive of voting for the other tribe’s values, philosophy or candidates and I don’t see that other parties’ candidates making any effort to come in my direction.  Neither wants to be “New Coke”, so they stick to their tribe.  That part has been set and forgotten, so I don’t need to spend my time being a political junky or policy wonk.

We don’t live in a direct democracy.  We live in a republic.  That means we each have one vote, which we can apply toward our favored candidate.  If they win election, policy and the “news” media is really their problem at that point, not mine.  I can’t help them anymore.  They spend their term voting on policies to run our government, then we have an opportunity later to vote for or against them.  That’s really it.  We can choose to vote and consider it set and forgotten, then do other enjoyable things between elections and let the elected representatives do their jobs.  Or, we spend the interim consuming media, ranting on Facebook, raging against the machine looking for the next cortisol hit.  It doesn’t matter to how well our government works because our main role is to vote once per term.  I vote for my tribe in every single election, which is whole lot more than most people do, then I try to set it and forget it.

Sometimes, a candidate comes along who either impresses or shocks me enough that I want to help or hurt them.  In other times, because my wife and I are engaged in the community, we feel obligated to attend political fundraisers we are invited to.  We want our neighbors to experience happy endorphins when they see us, so we go to these dull, crowded things but least there is always beer and snacks.

We cut checks at those fundraisers but, in the past few elections cycles, I’ve gotten more enamored of auto-payments to selected candidates and get-out-the-vote-for-my-team organizations.  I can budget our spending better this way, which lets us give more over many months than cutting a check.  Best of all, my campaign contributions have been set and forgotten.  When I get the urgent weekly texts amounting to “OMG! I am campaign staffer Julie and something has just happened/or might happen, so please send in a gift RIGHT NOW!” I stay relaxed, knowing that my $20 for the month for the cause is already in motion so, when it arrives, Julie and her team can all look up from their computers, give each other high fives, raise a cheer to me and take the rest of the day off.

Whether you like it or not, if you’ve read this far, you are probably already part of one political tribe or the other.  To your tribal leaders, your vote is taken for granted has been already set and forgotten.  Sorry to break it to you.  That’s because the elections industry duopoly expends all of its capital on trying to persuade the people supposedly in the middle. those who have managed to reach adulthood without choosing either Team Coke or Team Pepsi.  If an electric prod can occasionally get them to the polls, they are likely drink either flavor.  That’s the entire game.  On these swing voters every election hinges.  It doesn’t matter how much you or I spend our valuable pretirement hours reading the front section of the paper, obsessing on every outrage, yelling at the TV, door knocking, putting signs in our yard or otherwise bathing in cortisol like we’re taught to.  We might as well just vote every time, give a little money here and there, then focus on happier subjects.  Do that, and we’ll be much more active citizens than the vast majority yet we’ll be happier, too.

How do you stay sane in face of the $16 billion permanent campaign duopoly, social media toxicity and the relentless industrial “news” cycle?

Advertisements

Pretirement Motivation: The Bosses I’ve Had

The longer I work, the more the quality of my relationship with my supervisor seems to count toward my job satisfaction.  I’ve had several managers in my life with whom I worked for significant stretches of time.  I was really fortunate with most of them but, two of them, well, hoo-wee!  They did more to plant me on the long path to pretirement freedom than anything else.  More later about what I learned from working for them, and getting away from them.  If it’s true that we learn the most from the challenging people in our lives, then I am grudgingly grateful for this pair’s abundant gifts to me.  Or something.

The longer I work, the more the quality of my relationship with my supervisor seems to count toward my job satisfaction.  I’ve had several managers in my life with whom I worked for significant stretches of time.  I was really fortunate with most of them but, two of them, well, hoo-wee!  They did more to plant me on the long path to pretirement freedom than anything else.  More later about what I learned from working for them, and getting away from them.  If it’s true that we learn the most from the challenging people in our lives, then I am grudgingly grateful for this pair’s abundant gifts to me.  Or something.

When I started out in my career, trying to get my first foothold on the rock face of the mountain climb ahead, I didn’t care to whom I reported.  “Just gimme the job and I’ll figure it out.”  In my twenties my attitude and best plan was that I wanted some kind of a coherent non-profit career.

What a strange thing the manager/report relationship is, when you step back.  You’ve had maybe one or two interactions with the person in an unnatural competitive interview process.  The next day, that near-stranger holds a huge amount of power over your every day existence and entire professional future.

Managers matter, too.  In college, one of my very best friends and I held part time jobs working at a golf club with a team of other students.  We took golf bags off carts, cleaned the clubs and kept the driving range stocked with balls.  Clearly, the job was not complicated or demanding, which was a perfect counterbalance to working so hard for good grades.

One day, the assistant golf pro who managed us, an easy-going fellow, was suddenly gone. I never learned why.  In his place was a new guy, Wade, who was memorable to me only because he was wound so tight that it was comical to other people.  It was a golf course, not a hospital emergency room, but Wade was prickly, ambitious and clearly insecure in his new assistant golf pro role.  I don’t actually remember any words he ever uttered but, as with nearly everyone we humans encounter in life, I recall perfectly my inner reaction to him:  Poor Wade’s vibe was, “Saguaro Cactus.”

In fairness, the assistant pro job was probably an important promotion for Wade, because this private club was selective, expensive and had an influential membership.  Wade sometimes manifested his innate stress by snapping at us about this or that inconsequential thing.  He caused the fun tone we had previously enjoyed to evaporate from our little team of eager college kids, who were mostly there to earn a few simple bucks without a lot hassle.

I never had words with Wade but my friend did.  I don’t remember when Wade left my life or vice versa, but I happily and instantly erased him from my mind.  Years later, his name came up when I was talking with my good friend.  Right out of college this talented friend had started his own software company at the dawn of the dot.com era.  His company followed the classic tech startup script: Identify a niche, write some code, create a product, secure some sales, attract  venture capital, grow the staff to hundreds and, in a few years, sell the company.

He still works full time for himself, though he probably doesn’t have to anymore.  I once asked my friend his motivation for starting his own companies, which always awed me as a person who gravitated to what I felt was the comfort and safety of large organizations.  He didn’t hesitate:

“You remember that guy Wade?”

It took me a beat before I did. “Oh, that guy.  Ha!  I wonder where he is now?”

My friend said, “I don’t know, but I couldn’t see myself working for jerks like him the rest of my life.  That guy made me determined to never have a boss.”

I, on the other hand, proceeded to have several bosses, and I take responsibility for my choices.  I always assumed I had no business having a business, and I think I was 100% right about that.   I also never saw myself as an S&P 500 corporate type, because corporations seemed to me dog-eat-dog environments, where the profit motive caused people to step on someone’s head while competing to climb the ladder.  Now that I have some career experience, I’m sure that’s mostly an incorrect Darwinian stereotype about major corporations.  Nor did I see myself in the military, though I really admire people I know who did go that route. I think I might have liked the Navy or Coast Guard, but that’s just my current self speaking to my earlier self, which is pointless.

Rather, I distinctly decided during my senior year in college that I wanted to pursue my passion for trying to make a difference through some kind of public service, and that I’d probably do so working for a larger non-profit organization or government agency.  I assumed non-profit organizations filled with passionate people who worked to make a difference in the world were also places where I stood the best chance of being treated as a human being myself, rather than an expendable corporate cog, which seemed kind of important, too.

I’m not qualified to judge corporate life with any accuracy but I think I was basically correct about non-profits.  I’ve generally been treated well and I feel that, frequently, I’ve enjoyed the satisfaction of having helped make a difference.  For the most part, I’ve reported to humane leaders who appreciated my contributions and who coached and rewarded me fairly.  I’ve tried to model my own behavior as a manager on what I learned from those fine leaders, some of whom remain mentors and even friends.

I also learned a lot from surviving the more toxic leaders I reported to.  A couple of my many educational takeaways from them were:

  1. “Don’t wish for my boss to change.  I’m the one who needs to change something.”  When I have realized in the past that I’ve lost respect for my manager, I have learned that I am one who needs to act.  People above them have different relationships with them, so no one is likely going to act because I’m unhappy.  It was easy to remain stuck by fooling myself that “This is just how work and bosses are”.  That is simply not true.  I need to analyze the situation and calculate my happiness level in it then, if necessary, start sharpening my resume and cultivating my network.
  2. Life is too short to be unhappy at work.  Some of the most miserable people I have ever met address their unhappiness with work by trying to cement themselves in place more firmly.  Their hate for their jobs and unwillingness to solve it through taking action puts them in a posture of constant pain, which manifests in all kinds of toxic behaviors.  They seem to me like a child who thinks that if he holds his breath long enough, the person he’s angry at will pass out.  Not me.  I believe in monitoring my work happiness and remaining prepared to leave when the organization I once worked for has changed around me unsatisfactorily in some way.  I try hard to stay entirely positive and grateful about being employed but also committed to freeing myself to do something else, if needed.  We work in this modern world of few pensions, few protected unions, no contracts and “At-Will Employment.”  If there is to be any fairness at all in such a lopsided world, we have to approach the agreement to hold a job as a two-way street.

Though my current situation is a good one, a big point of this blog is to help me plan for how to spend my time after I eventually retire the sword and want to do something else, as nearly everyone my age seems to be contemplating.  What I want is still a work in progress.  I hope through this blog that I can explore myself but also learn from others’ experiences in creatively tackling this common question stemming from a growing desire for more work freedom.  In other words, I want to start defining my pretirement.

That exploration is still ahead of me but I realize after nearly three decades of working for organizations, during which I’ve had several significant supervisors, some of whom were wonderful to know and others whom I was relieved to flee, I think I am evolving to the place that my good friend started out with:  At some point, I want to be done with bosses.

What about the bosses you’ve had?