What Does Retirement Mean to You? The Parable of the Black Belt

“Remember that retirement is an amplification of your current free time.  If your weekends are spent watching reruns and eating unhealthy food, stay at work.  Retirement isn’t for you, no matter what your age.”  – From the blog “1500 Days to Freedom”


I love “The Parable of the Black Belt” as told by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras in their book Built to LastThe authors invite you to imagine a martial artist kneeling before the master sensei.  The occasion is one the student has prepared long and hard for.  After years of dedicated practice this is the ceremony where he hopes to be awarded his black belt.    

The sensei begins, “Before granting the black belt, you must pass one more test.”  “I am ready,” answers the student. 

“You must answer the essential question: What is the true meaning of the black belt?”

“The end of my journey.  A well-deserved reward for all my hard work,” replies the student. 

The sensei, with a disappointed look on his face, responds, “You are not yet ready for the black belt.  Return in one year.”

A year passes and the student is once again kneeling before the sensei.  “What is the true meaning of the black belt?” the sensei asks. 

“A symbol of distinction and the highest achievement in our art,” the student answers.  The sensei, once again not satisfied, replies “You are still not ready for the black belt.  Return in one year.”

A year later, after much thought and preparation, the student once again kneels before the sensei.  “What is the true meaning of the black belt?” the sensei asks.

The student confidently replies, “The black belt represents the beginning – the start of a never-ending journey of discipline, work, and the pursuit of an ever higher standard.” 

“Yes.  You are now ready to receive the black belt and begin your work.”

Fourth Quarters and Symphonic Crescendos

What is the true meaning of retirement?  If your answer is, “The end of my journey.  A well-deserved reward for all my hard work and a chance to spend my time in ease and leisure,” then you are not ready for retirement.  Think about it and return in a year.    

In the spirit of retirement being the beginning of something exciting rather than a withdrawal from a lifetime of contribution the husband and wife writing team of Richard and Linda Eyre, in their book Life In Full, offer a couple of meaningful metaphors.

Richard and Linda both like to watch sports on TV, but Linda usually only watches the 4th quarters of games.  Her reasoning is:

“…that is when the game is decided; it’s always the most consequential and usually the most exciting part of the contest.  Players, though tired, lift their games and redouble their efforts.  What happened in the first three quarters doesn’t matter much if the fourth quarter is stellar.” 

Linda adds that, with life expectancy in the US at close to eighty years, perhaps we should divide our life into quarters.  This would make the time from 60 to 80 years-old our own personal 4th quarter. 

She continues, “…it should be the most consequential and the most exciting part of life.  We may be a little tired and worn down in the fourth quarter, but we can lift ourselves and actually feel better than ever before and take our game to new levels.  And again, remember the fourth quarter is full of time-outs and other ways to make the clock pause so that we can revise our game plans.  We might have a medical procedure or a new diet or exercise plan or other methods of regrouping, all of which will make the fourth quarter longer.” 

What if we are lucky enough to live past eighty, as is increasingly common?  Linda suggests viewing these years as “overtime”, which is even more exciting and consequential than the 4th quarter.    

This reminds me of something said by author Lucile C. Tate at my college graduation in 2001.  Lucile, who was well into “overtime” in her life, gave the graduates the 10 words she had adopted as her life motto.  The 10 magic words are: “Work in place of worryFaith in place of fear.”  She added, “Those words sustained me through each book I have written, and they must sustain me again if I am to complete my last biography, because I am 87 and only on chapter three.”  Lucile was making the most of her “overtime”. 

Richard Eyre uses a different metaphor to remind him of how he wants to live the final quarter of his life.  Under the influence of Linda, Richard has grown to appreciate classical music.  When they attend the symphony Richard states, “…it is the final movement that I love the most.  That’s the one with the most emotion, and it’s the only one I can applaud after.  Again, life is the same.  It’s the final movement that brings it together.”  Richard invites us to view the years we are granted beyond 80 as our encore. 

The Eyres were good friends with management consultant and author of the book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen R. Covey.  When Covey died at age 79 in 2012 from injuries suffered in a biking accident the Eyres report that he was working on a book titled Living Life in Crescendo.  All of us should try to live our lives in such a manner.    

The Luckiest Generation

My parents’ generation, the generation that survived The Great Depression and won World War II, is often referred to as “The Greatest Generation.”  I was born in 1963 making me among the youngest of the “Baby Boom” generation.  You could also refer to baby boomers as “The Luckiest Generation” as we have lived in a time of great prosperity and relative peace.

Baby boomers are currently either in retirement or contemplating retirement and the Eyres remind us that our good fortune continues.  We have more wealth, better health, more free time, more connections, more knowledge, more wisdom, more technology, and more opportunity than any previous generation. 

It would be a shame to waste all of that on nothing but leisure.  While leisure can be an important part of retirement it shouldn’t be the focal point.  Retirement should be a new beginning, not an ending.  A time to contribute and give back, not to withdraw.  A time to do something meaningful.  To help others and make the world a better place.  It will take some planning and creativity but the goal for each of us should be to make our retirements like an exciting 4th quarter or a symphonic crescendo. 

Last weekend Vin Scully retired after 67 years of being the voice of the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team.  Scully is 89 years old.  In his remarks prior to the game Scully said:

“People say to me, well, now that you are retiring, what are you going to do?  Well, you know, if you are 65, and you retire, you might have 20 years left of life or more, and you better have some plans.  When you are 89 and they ask you what your plans are: ‘I’m going to try to live’.”  

I am not going to argue with Vin Scully, so if you are 89-years-old you get a free pass.  If you are younger than that and considering retirement you need to imagine yourself kneeling before your sensei and answering the question “What is the true meaning of retirement?”  If you don’t have a good answer, think deeply about it and return in a year.

  4 comments for “What Does Retirement Mean to You? The Parable of the Black Belt

  1. September 28, 2016 at 2:18 am


  2. Matt @ Optimize Your Life
    September 28, 2016 at 7:12 am

    This is a really great perspective. When people cite the statistics on the high rates of depression amongst retirees, it feels like they must be viewing it as the end of their work journey rather than the beginning of a new one.

    Thanks for the thoughtful post!

  3. February 1, 2017 at 10:01 am

    Having been retired for 5 years, My husband and I have been able to travel widely. I have been able to spend so much more time on my hobby – bashing metal! I’ve started a blog, and I certainly have no difficulty filling my day. But sadly my husband and I do like watching the odd rerun and eating unhealthy food every now and then, but we still enjoy retirement! I haven’t missed working for a moment. I reckon I have one-third of my life still to come, I’m going to make the most of it

    • Brent Esplin
      February 1, 2017 at 6:05 pm

      Glad to hear retirement is working out well for you, and I wouldn’t worry too much about watching the occasional rerun.

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