How do you, as an advisor, define retirement? What would you say if I asked you to finish this sentence, “Retirement is like ______________.”? What would your clients say? Is retirement like a death sentence or more like winning the lottery? I’ve actually heard both examples at my workshops. How do you think those responses will affect people making the transition from work to leisure time? The way in which we as individuals, and as a community of advisors, think and speak about retirement greatly influences how clients perceive and set expectations for their golden years.    

Advisors are the retirement gatekeepers. Clients rely on us to help them plan the next phase of their life. It’s a powerful responsibility, which if not taken seriously, contributes to the growing problem of new retirees ending up disappointed in the early phases of retirement. A recent poll conducted by BlackRock and Boston Research Group found that current workers who are planning for retirement often envision retirement as something very different from what current retirees are actually experiencing. Whether it’s retirement age, life expectancy, savings, relationships, health, or part-time employment, the way in which new and soon-to-be retirees describe the mental, social, physical and financial aspects of retirement can either limit or unleash their retirement journey.

We often use metaphors to explain or communicate a concept by likening it to something else. Our familiarity with one allows us to understand the other. I often compare retirement to marriage, because I believe people have to grow into it and adjust along the way. Just as you could never have your entire married life planned on the day of your wedding, you can’t plan for every aspect of retirement on the day you retire. Retirement is a process that clients can grow into and adapt to as they go. There is no perfect plan, nor is there a single best way to plan for all of it.

It Starts With You
Metaphors are also common in the financial services industry. We liken ourselves to doctors who diagnose problems and provide remedies through a written plan … or architects designing and building towers of wealth. However, thanks to cohorts like Bernie Madoff and Robert Allen Stanford, some people liken us to used car salesmen and Ponzi schemers. Most of us don’t deserve those negative comparisons, but we can change these perceptions by adding value to our services that go beyond just the financial aspects.

Before we can help clients develop empowering metaphors we have to examine our own beliefs, as both individuals and as an industry. Take a moment to write down how you describe retirement or what you compare it to.  Is it a blank slate or a clean slate? A gift or a burden? Are they solemn years or active years? Is it the next phase of life or the last phase of life? Notice the emotional energy and images that each metaphor portrays.

Next, consider how these metaphors were developed. What and who influenced them? Did you them learn from family, friends, colleagues or retired clients? Just as every financial planner needs a financial planner of their own, each of us needs to learn how our beliefs about retirement impact our clients. Too often, our sole focus is on the financial aspects of retirement, discussing and preparing clients to only achieve their goals that carry a monetary component, such as traveling or helping their grand kids pay for college. That implies that retirement is just about financials when, in fact, we know it’s not. Because there’s much more to it, I believe we must assume the role of frontline defenders, which carries an obligation to help clients create “metaphors” for their social life, personal relationships, mental and physical well-being, and financial wherewithal.

Client Exercises
Many times, taking on a new role like this or engaging clients on a different level requires that advisor develop new language and skills to help make the transition. Thankfully, discussing retirement metaphors calls for skills that most advisors already excel at: Asking good questions and listening. Generally, I don’t sit with every single client and go through metaphor exercises with them. I have found that many people have never thought about retirement in this context, so one-on-one conversations can feel awkward at first and filled with answers like “I don’t know” or “I’ll have to think about it.”  In those cases, I try to get them into the right frame of mind by suggesting retirement is part of life and ask, instead, how they describe life. Is it a test, a game, a gift, a beach?

Instead, I find it most beneficial to ask the question in a group setting, such as at one of my Naked Retirement workshops. On a worksheet I have several fill-in-the-blank statements such as, “Retirement is like ______________.”  “My social life is like _______________.” and “My physical life is like ______________.”  Once they’ve filled in the blanks, I ask why it’s like that, and whether their beliefs are setting them up for an empowering or disempowering journey. It’s a fun and simple series of questions where the attendees do all the work and walk out with a different sense of what it will take to be successful in retirement.  

Metaphors At Work And Home
Another important aspect of retirement metaphors that advisors need to be aware of is that clients have metaphors that may help them in their professions but can create challenges at home. The manager who believes work is a test, and who must be prepared and organized for anything, may complicate life at home by maintaining the same expectations. Helping clients separate work from retirement can help alleviate this kind of tension, and it can be as simple as helping them verbalize their work metaphors and helping them see the need to change or adjust as they transition away from that life. Experience has taught us that it’s probably not a good idea for a husband to alphabetize his wife’s spice rack, or develop housecleaning and cooking processes after 30 years of never having done those things.  

You may also find that some people develop metaphors to protect themselves, and which may take time to undo. No matter if they have been burned by missing a small detail or felt to feel like a failure despite their best efforts, there’s no need for instant transformation. The process is more about opening them up to new ideas and thoughts about retirement. If they espouse negative metaphors like, “Life is not fair,” or “Good guys always finish last,” avoid trying to be a psychologist or counselor and, instead, offer a resource -- such as a therapist -- to which you can refer them.

Retirement metaphors offer advisors the opportunity to help clients clear up misconceptions and set realistic expectations about everyday life in retirement. The way we think about and describe our work, relationships, social life, finances and health plays an important role in our own life and practice. The same is true for clients where creating or changing even one metaphor could potentially transform the way you and a client approach what I believe to be the greatest opportunity to live life to its fullest.   

The metaphors we adopt, and help clients adopt, can shape perceptions as well as actions. Helping clients develop empowering metaphors, while avoiding less-than-meaningful thoughts and ideas, is important to the client/advisor relationship, as well as to our industry. I invite you to treat retirement like a camera and focus on what’s important. Be sure to capture the good times, develop from the negatives, and if things don’t turn out the way you expected, take another shot! Mentally, it’s like an ocean: calm and still as well as rough and rigid, but in the end it’s always beautiful. Socially it’s like the game of basketball, not meant to be played alone. Physically it’s like riding a bike, you have to keep moving or you’ll lose your balance, and finally our time in retirement is like a taxi. The meter just keeps ticking whether you are getting somewhere or just standing still.

Follow Robert on Twitter @robertlaura. He is the president of SYNEGOS Financial group, co-founder of RetirementProject.org, creator of the Laddered Dividend Portfolio and author of Naked Retirement. He can be reached at rl@robertlaura.com.