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Stop worrying about how much you matter

For many years – almost as long as he could remember – Ian* owned and ran a successful pub in his small town in Ireland. Ian was well-known around town. He had lots of friends, many of whom he saw when they came to eat and drink, and he was happy.

Eventually, Ian decided to sell his establishment. Between his savings and the sale, he made enough money to continue to live comfortably. He was ready to relax and enjoy all his hard work.

Except that almost immediately, he became depressed. That was 15 years ago and not much has changed.

I’ve seen a version of Ian’s story many times. The CEO of an investment bank. A famous French singer. The founder and president of a grocery store chain. A high-level government official. And these are not just stories – they’re people I know (or knew) well.

They have several things in common: They were busy and highly successful. They had enough money to live more than comfortably for as long as they lived. And they all became seriously depressed as they got older.

What’s going on?

The typical answer is that people need purpose in life and when we stop working we lose purpose. But many of the people I see in this situation continue to work. The French singer continued to sing. The investment banker ran a fund.

Perhaps getting older is simply depressing. But we all know people who continue to be happy well into their nineties. And some of the people who fall into this predicament are not particularly old.

I think the problem is much simpler, and the solution is more reasonable than working, or staying young, forever.

People who achieve financial and positional success are masters at doing things that make and keep them relevant. Their decisions affect many others. Their advice lands on eager ears.

In many cases, if not most, they derive their self-concept and a strong dose of self-worth from the fact that what they do and what they say – in many cases even what they think and feel – matters to others.

Think about Ian. If he changed his menu or his hours of operation, or hired someone new, it directly affected the lives of the people in his town. Even his friendships were built, in large part, on who he was as a pub owner. What he did made him relevant in the community.

Relevancy, as long as we maintain it, is rewarding on almost every level. But when we lose it? Withdrawal can be painful.

As we get older, we need to master the exact opposite of what we’ve spent a lifetime pursuing. We need to master irrelevancy.

This is not only a retirement issue. Many of us are unhealthily – and ultimately unhappily – tied to mattering. It’s leaving us overwhelmed and over-busy, responding to every request, ring and ping with the urgency of a fireman responding to a six-alarm fire. Are we really that necessary?

How we adjust – both within our careers and after them – to not being that important may matter more than mattering.

If we lose our jobs, adjusting to irrelevancy without falling into depression is a critical survival skill until we land another job. If managers and leaders want to grow their teams and businesses, they need to allow themselves to matter less so others can matter more and become leaders themselves. At a certain point in our lives, and at certain times, we matter less. The question is: Can you be OK with that?

How does it feel to just sit with others? Can you listen to someone’s problem without trying to solve it? Can you happily connect with others when there is no particular purpose to that connection?

Many of us (though not all) can happily spend a few days by ourselves, knowing that what we’re doing doesn’t matter to the world. But a year? A decade?

Still, there is a silver lining to this kind of irrelevancy: freedom.

When your purpose shifts like this, you can do what you want. You can take risks. You can be courageous. You can share ideas that may be unpopular. You can live in a way that feels true and authentic. In other words, when you stop worrying about the impact of what you do, you can be a fuller version of who you are.

That silver lining may be our anti-depressant. Enjoying the freedom that comes with being irrelevant can help us avoid depression and enjoy life after retirement, even for people who have spent their careers being defined by their jobs.

So what does being comfortable with the feeling of irrelevancy – even the kind of deep irrelevancy involved in ending a career – really look like? It may be as simple as doing things simply for the experience of doing them. Taking pleasure in the activity versus the outcome, your existence versus your impact.

Here are some small ways you might start practicing irrelevancy right away:

  • Check your email only at your desk and only a few times a day. Resist the temptation to check your email first thing in the morning or at every brief pause.
  • When you meet new people, avoid telling them what you do. During the conversation, notice how frequently you are driven to make yourself sound relevant (sharing what you did the other day, where you’re going, how busy you are). Notice the difference between speaking to connect and speaking to make yourself look and feel important.
  • When someone shares a problem, listen without offering a solution (if you do this with employees, an added advantage is that they’ll become more competent and self-sufficient).
  • Try sitting on a park bench without doing anything, even for just a minute (then try it for five or 10 minutes).
  • Talk to a stranger (I did this with my cab driver this morning) with no goal or purpose in mind. Enjoy the interaction – and the person – for the pleasure of it.
  • Create something beautiful and enjoy it without showing it to anyone. Take note of beauty that you have done nothing to create.

Notice what happens when you pay attention to the present without needing to fix or prove anything. Notice how, even when you’re irrelevant to the decisions, actions, and outcomes of the world around you, you can feel the pleasure of simple moments and purposeless interactions.

Notice how, even when you feel irrelevant, you can matter to yourself.

*Not his real name.

Originally published in Harvard Business Review and reproduced with permission.

Peter Bregman is CEO of Bregman Partners, a company that strengthens leadership in people and organisations through programmes (including the Bregman Leadership Intensive), coaching, and as a consultant to CEOs and leadership teams. Best-selling author of ‘18 Minutes’, his latest book is ‘Four Seconds’. To receive an email when he posts, click here.

July 22, 2021

This article definitely hit a spot with me, it was like reading my own story. There is no doubt that getting involved into something after retirement is highly beneficial to maintaining some relevancy.

In my case I pursued my passion for photography which I never had the time for while working. Being the perfectionist that I am, I enrolled in a uni photography course and it's the best thing I did. I am surrounded by like minded people, all of mature age (thankfully the Uni runs different age groups) and I made a few new friends.

Great article, thank you.

May 23, 2019

Keep working man's habits.

Sunlight aligns the circadian cycle. Exertion balances the hormones. Sleep restores.

May 23, 2019

The discussion about relevance strikes me as a problem due to the self-centred and inward looking worldview that prevails. It seems like a long time since people thought about how their work contributed to the greater good or the team effort. By doing so, it is possible to transition into another unpaid activity in retirement that can equally contribute (or more!) to the greater good in retirement. For example, many people on this forum would no doubt be outstanding financial literacy teachers for young people in their local community.

Ken Ellis
August 07, 2015

In total agreement. There is more to life than your business career a point many men lost when trying so hard to succeed

August 07, 2015

I saw my father stop work at 68, hate it and go back to working harder than he had for many years. Irrelevancy saw him need hospitalisation as he spun into depression. Retirement is just a concept someone made up to sideline workers. It is not compulsory. Your life doesn't end when a 'job' does. Many of us need to work till we drop, others pause or simply slow down. Find your own path.

May 23, 2019

Specifically, sideline older workers to make room for a larger number of younger workers needing jobs. Not so relevant any more.

August 07, 2015

Agree with Ramani 100%.

As a Gen-Xer, I saw my dad (and other dads) get made redundant because even despite 30, 40 years of service to the same company, the company decided that "they weren't relevant anymore". "The company" was, and always will be, bigger than any individual - even the CEO.

So is it any surprise that in return, as employees, we don't see "the company" as being "as relevant" to us ? Our parents showed loyalty, got none in return, so some of us will not be sorry and in fact, eagerly wait (even though it is 30 years away) for retirement. The "relevance" is also lessened by the fact that some of us have 'colleagues' at work, but they are not 'friends'. There's no emotional ties there.

I know that I will at last have the time and the money to really do what it is that I want to do.

August 06, 2015

It is wonderful to see Cuffelinks expanding its reach into wider and fuzzier realms of retirement. Irrelevancy here is very relevant.

The principal problem seems to derive, in my view, from our unassailable axiomatic belief: I matter, and what matters to me in my 'I' role matters to the world. Reality check: broadly, no. I may matter to my small circle for a while in varying degrees, but this is destined to decay (a form of non-physical entropy) over time into nothing.

Most of our angst comes from accepting seemingly positive developments as deserved or earned, but seemingly negative events as combative. Given ultimate demise, best to re-train our mind as we approach the end.

While we train the youth to get into active work, as humans we do not devote sufficient attention to training the about-to-retire how to ease off. While family and friends might help smooth the passage to irrelevancy, the responsibility for slowing down remains one's own: 'to husband out life's taper at the close, and keep the flame from wasting, by repose', as Oliver Goldsmith said.

If we can grasp the truism of non-existence (our infinitesimal existence relative to the vastness of time), irrelevancy would be sen as the necessary precursor, with the accompanying hint of freedom merely a harbinger of total freedom (from existence) to come. Bliss!


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