“Let me see you start it,” is what I called out to my 15-year-old nephew. His mom had asked him to mow the lawn and this was only his second attempt at the task. He had already made sure there was gas in it and even primed the engine a couple times. He pulled the cord, and the engine barely made a sound. He was quick to troubleshoot the situation, remarking, “oh yea, I forgot the starting fluid.”

I was surprised because I hadn’t seen anyone use starting fluid on a gas mower since I was a kid, and the mower he was using looked relatively new. He went to the garage, grabbed the can, walked over and sprayed a healthy dose on it. He pulled the cord again and this time the engine responded with a low murmur but didn’t fire up.  He sprayed another round of fluid on it and gave the little red mower a stronger pull. The engine roared to life, creating a memorable smile and a quick comment, “I guess it just needed more starting fluid.”

The entire event was comical and left me dumbfounded because he was spraying the starting fluid into the muffler, which is where the exhaust from the mower comes up and doesn’t play a role in how it gets going. In the moment, I didn’t have the heart to tell him he was going about it the wrong way. He was just so proud to get it running that I didn’t want to tell him that he may need to buy his mom a new engine if he kept doing that because starting fluid is extremely flammable, and a muffler can get extremely hot after a short period of use.

The reality is, people don’t know what they don’t know and sometimes do things they think are necessary or helpful, but can turn into problems or be of no actual benefit. I see this all the time when it comes to retirement planning and living. People often prepare for it in ways that don’t always make sense, including just going through a series of motions of what other people have said or told them to do without really stopping to question it or ask for advice before they start it.

Unfortunately, most of what people have been told or trained to think about retirement won’t help them make a meaningful transition. In fact, it’s so far off that it can make things worse. Spraying starting fluid in the wrong spot on a $300 mower is a cute and funny mistake of little significance, however, preparing to start a multi-million dollar journey that could last 30-40 years the wrong way can be much more to recover from.

This is the primary reason why I have spent the last year developing a new assessment tool designed to quantify personal retirement readiness. The program is designed around the concept of retirement intelligence or retirement quotient (RQ) and is a framework for understanding an individual and not only appreciating their world, but also gaining insights from it in an effort to better prepare them for their retirement transition.

The goal is to provide insight and context for transitioning a client’s current thoughts, feelings and behaviors into their new retirement reality, while addressing any variations that may arise. This is done by engaging clients in a series of questions that looks at their knowledge about the transition (IQ), by understanding and managing new and competing thoughts and feelings about it (EQ), developing a new sense of identity, purpose and meaning (SQ), and by fostering a resilient mindset around aging, longevity and legacy (AQ).

That’s a fancy way of saying, it gets people thinking and talking about aspects of retirement they haven’t given much thought to and helps them develop realistic expectations and plans for retirement rather than making vague assumptions and feeling disappointed when they don’t come to fruition. While there are scientific components to it, it’s really about helping people avoid common traps and pitfalls and avoid wasting the first few years trying to figure it out on their own.

I think one of the most important aspects of retirement intelligence is the idea that there is no universal, or single best way to retire. In other words, we know that an introvert would define a successful life in retirement differently than an extrovert. Women retire differently than men and that solo-agers have different plans and goals than those with adult children and grandkids. Furthermore, some people enter retirement recently divorced, widowed or maybe as a caregiver. 

That makes it essential to value these differences and understand that any real breakthrough or aha moment for clients in the non-financial planning process won’t come from a series of questions or score. Instead that comes from conversations and discussions about them and how their personality, preferences and current behaviors will transfer over to retirement. I can’t overstate this need for conversation and discussion enough because when we started beta testing the program, the questionnaire had to be printed and physically taken by circling their answers and then emailing them back to me. In every single questionnaire that came back, people made handwritten notes about their answers.

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