Witnessed another “retirement” discussion the other day. Two surgeons this time: cardiac and vascular. One a recent retiree, one not ready. Highly specialized careers, but same old clichés — “Should have done this years ago.” vs. “Can’t afford it yet.”

There is a lot of demand for these guys, but they too are conscious, perhaps more than most, about the perils of staying in the game too long. They may be better surgeons than some of the younger folk, but , at a point, they are not.

As one put it: “After decades of getting better and better, there is a point when you can just go off a cliff.” (The patient is probably the one in freefall.) He illustrated his point by drawing a graph in the air, hand rising gradually from left to right, and then falling abruptly.

Charles Handy

This brought to mind Charles Handy, CBE, who was born in 1932, the son of an Irish clergyman, Oxford-educated, executive with Royal Dutch Shell, co-founder of the London Business School, teacher, writer, philosopher, broadcaster, raconteur, entrepreneur, husband, father and erstwhile Warden of St. George’s House, Windsor Castle.

St. George’s House is a small, residential consultation centre situated within Windsor Castle. It was established in 1338, well before the term think tank could have been applied, and it is still hosting people with ideas and addressing current issues. Charles Handy would have been right at home.

Charles Handy had a very good thing going as a speaker at corporate events. He was masterful: informative, thought-provoking, profound, articulate and amusing. Of course, a soft Irish brogue always adds a special dimension.

I attended one of his seminars some years ago. He spoke about many issues of importance to business people, including retirement. To illustrate his thoughts on the latter subject, he used a similar graph to that of my surgeon, which I have attempted to replicate here.

The vertical axis is intended to mark what I would call “quality of life”, while the horizontal axis marks the passing of time. We start as feeble, ignorant children and, over the years, acquire education, a job, a partner, a career, children of our own, real estate and motor-vehicles with spark plugs, all of which improve the quality of our lives until, assuming the Grim Reaper is eluded until old age, an inevitable decline.

Handy’s thesis is that if you wish to maximize the quality of life, as is quantified by the total area under the line, it is important to pay attention to where you are on the line and to recognize opportunities to turn left, make a change in your life and enhance your life experience. He suggests that it is easier to do this while your line is still rising, and recommends that you do it more than once.

Handy’s metaphor for the end of life is Davey’s Bar. He tells the story, not unfamiliar, of seeking directions from a farmer in the Irish countryside. The directions provided include the advice to turn left one half-mile before you get to Davey’s Bar. If you are on a motoring holiday and you miss the turn and arrive at Davey’s Bar, it is easy enough to turn back, and eventually get where you wanted to go.

Real life, however, is not like that. We are not sure just how far down the road we will encounter Davey’s Bar, so if we wanted to take any off-ramps, we should be thinking well in advance of where else we would like to go and what else we would like to do, and paying attention to the possibilities before we miss them.

Handy would also suggest that by paying attention to enhancements to the vertical axis, it is also likely that the area under the line will be increased by an extension along the horizontal axis; people who are happy and fulfilled in their later years are less likely to drop in on Davey’s Bar any earlier than they should.

Certainly Charles Handy has made left turns in a timely way. He has enjoyed a life of accomplishment, variety and success, however you might define it. He has had much to say about business, but he also shares valuable perspectives on personal issues, and relationships. You might want to check out some of his work. As far as I know, there is no reading room at Davey’s Bar.