Lessons from the Leonard Cohen school of retirement

Microphone stand and wooden stool under a spotlight on a stage

Image: jgroup/Bigstock.com

Leonard Cohen never actually retired or set up a school of retirement, but there are valuable lessons we can learn from his life. Cohen died in 2016, but the New Yorker magazine interviewed him a few weeks before his death.

Lesson 1: You don’t have to retire

If you love what you do, find it engaging and have the skills to pull it off, why stop? Of course, not everyone will be able to not retire. If your work has been physically demanding; if your health is poor; if you’re losing—have lost—interest in your job; you may need to retire.

But there’s a question: What would I have to do to position myself so I won’t want to retire, and also to have that choice? For Cohen, his music and his writing was part of who he was. And he simply kept at it.

Lesson 2: Live life with purpose

Cohen was ‘soldierly in his habits’. He’d be up and writing before dawn. He kept his tools of trade in his workroom—a couple of laptops, two acoustic guitars, a keyboard and a microphone for voice recording.

Most of the work on his last album ‘You Want It Darker’ (released just before his death) was created in this room. This was his thing and, whatever your thing (or things) may be, live it, do it—intentionally.

That doesn’t mean you don’t follow other interests in retirement, take life more easily and go on those trips you planned, but you do things on purpose.

Lesson 3: Challenge yourself

Relaxing in your retirement years is fine, but there’s a need for the occasional challenge—even if it’s just to prove to yourself you’ve still got what it takes. For Cohen, it came in his mid-70s. He embarked on an international tour for five years.

This was no gentle, geriatric affair. This was a series of 380 concerts with his band, with each concert lasting up to four hours. He started in Canada and finished the tour in Auckland in 2013.

What challenge are you planning in your retirement?

Lesson 4: Make people a priority

‘For some odd reason, I have all my marbles, so far,’ Cohen said, and added, ‘I have many resources.’ Then he listed those resources as: his daughter and her children who live downstairs; his son two blocks down the street; his friend, Bob; ‘and another friend or two who make my life very rich.’

There’s a broad truth in how he uses the term ‘resource’. People are a health resource with ‘dozens of studies’ showing that ‘people who have satisfying relationships with family, friends, and their community are happier, have fewer health problems, and live longer.’

People do make our lives ‘very rich’.

Lesson 5: Live life to the end

Cohen died leaving unfinished business—unfinished poems to arrange and unfinished lyrics to record. ‘I don’t think I’ll be able to finish those songs. Maybe, who knows? And maybe I’ll get second wind, I don’t know. . . . I’ve got some work to do. Take care of business. I am ready to die.’

His head and his workroom were still full of ideas and projects. Unfinished, yes, but these are also signs that his life remained full and he was living his life in his way to the full. The interviewer described it as ‘living to the last’.

What a great way to go.

Bruce Manners: the author of Retirement Ready?, Refusing to Retire, and founder of RetireNotes.com

Category: Attitude, Lifestyle, Working

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