Have you ever tried to reverse engineer something? By that I mean take something apart that’s already built and see how it was created?

Maybe it was soup or a BBQ sauce you liked at a restaurant and you want to figure out how to make it. Maybe you took apart a picnic table or a part for an old motorcycle that’s no longer being produced. Whatever it was, you had to work backward and break down, pull apart or dismantle a process, a device or a system to see how it works.

People have been reverse engineering things since they started making wheels and carriages. Consider the Romans. In 264 B.C., they had succeeded on land but were behind in naval warfare, historians suggest. But during the First Punic War, they were able to take apart and study a Carthaginian quinquereme. Using the design, they were able to design a fleet of powerful ships.

It’s a helpful exercise to take things apart this way, not just because it’s fun but because it teaches you how to find the risks and vulnerabilities in old or outdated products. Eventually, people who reverse engineer can accelerate a product’s innovation by identifying new ways to improve its performance, upgrade its features or cut its production costs. And if you can pinpoint critical components of a product or process before it fails, the replacement parts can be built and ready by the time a problem arises and forces you to retire the product or power it down for a while.

So you might ask: What has this got to do with retirement?

I had a new prospect reach out to me recently who was thinking of retiring. In our first meeting, we spoke about the typical subjects and she had a typical attitude: She was turning 64, had run some initial numbers and felt like she had enough to retire comfortably. She was the right age and had the right amount of assets.

Yet other people keep working when they have enough money and have reached a key age like 62, 65 or 70. Why? Are they workaholics, disconnected from their families? Are they bad at golf and shuffleboard? Or is it something else?

When we work backward and try to understand how we came to decisions like these, we confront the psychology of the workplace. There are three basic emotional needs people must have to love their jobs: autonomy, connectivity and a feeling of competence.

When employees feel these things, it creates a successful culture at a company and adds to its strong bottom line. People struggling with unmet psychological needs, on the other hand, can’t work at their best. And if they aren’t getting those psychological needs met at work, then after they reach a certain age and asset level they will think about finally leaving work.

It's important to understand client psychology here—to reverse engineer it. These are big decisions, and advisors often gloss over all the factors that go into them. We all tend to fall back on the perception that retirement is just a great mental space where things easily come together. That’s not really the case.

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