Say Yes to Everything for as Long as You Can
HBO's "Julia" tells the story of Julia Child at the point in her life when she becomes a well-known cookbook author and television personality. It's a fairly light, unchallenging, and likable show (and surprisingly features the actors who played television's Frasier Crane's brother and ex-wife), though totally skippable if the premise doesn't float your boat.
Julia Child began the career that made her famous later in life, having worked for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during and following the second World War. (Her Wiki page claims that she invented a formula for shark repellant during the war which is still in use today!) She met her husband Paul while with the OSS and, after Paul joined the United States Foreign Service, the couple moved to Paris where he was assigned. It was during their time in Paris that Julia fell in love with French cuisine. Her first book, "Mastering the Art of French Cooking", was published in 1961 when she was 49 years old and her first television show, "The French Chef", debuted the following year.
I don't think I'm spoiling anything by discussing the finale of "Julia": we all know that she continued to publish and work in television, because that is the only reason Julia Child became a household name. ("The Joy of Cooking" is just as famous as "Mastering the Art of French Cooking", but how many people know the name Irma S. Rombauer?) If you plan to watch the show and want to keep it a surprise, though, skip the next paragraph.
The end of the final episode finds Julia and Paul discussing whether she should agree to a second season of "The French Chef". Paul, who was ten years older than Julia, wants to convince her that at an age when other couples are thinking about retiring, Julia has new and exciting possibilities ahead of her. "Let's say yes to all of it," he says. "Say yes to everything for as long as we can. Let's drop dead someday, saying yes." What a beautiful sentiment.
My great-uncle Bill died last week, just a few months shy of his 93rd birthday. He loved staying busy and worked full-time until last September, well into his 92nd year. He was a great person and I will miss him.
And Bill didn't just keep working into his 90s – he worked full-time in a challenging and often stressful technical job. Believe it or not, Bill was the person that hospitals called when their computer systems went down. He was there day or night to talk people through the process while getting their systems back online. He loved the energy, the personal connection of helping someone through a difficult problem, and staying up-to-date on technological advances.
I'm not sure when Bill married my grandmother's sister Valerie, a second marriage for both, but I can't recall it ever being another way. My dad comes from a big family, so I grew up in Michigan with lots of cousins and aunts and uncles and great-aunts and great-uncles. Many of them lived in the same area and I saw them often, but the others – like Bill & Valerie, who lived in North Carolina – I might only see once or twice a year or even once or twice in my whole life.
All of that is a preamble to say: I knew who Bill & Valerie were my whole life, but I did not get to know them until I was in my late 30s. They were aware that I traveled with bands and would ask each time we saw each other to let them know if I would be in their area. Lots of people said stuff like that but then struggled to understand what I did for a living, or even the way I lived. It was weird, no doubt, and the idea of trying to explain myself to a couple of oldies was not that exciting. But I finally said yes and we made plans to meet for lunch during a day off in NC. (This was before I moved to the state.)
I could not have been happier. Bill and Valerie were everything I could have wanted older relatives to be: kind, funny and fun-loving, curious, openminded, friendly, and supportive. I loved our time together and, though I moved to Durham for different reasons, was very happy to be able to see them more often.
Bill once told me the story of his retirement. He had done everything you were supposed to do, working his way up the ladder, saving and investing his money, and retiring at the age of 65. He said that after six months of playing golf and sitting on his butt, he was done with retirement. Bill went back to work and continued working full-time until last September. His post-retirement career was 27 years, longer than I've been out of high school. (By the way, Valerie also continued working late in life, only fully retiring within the last five years.)
He didn't need the money – he'd already saved enough to retire by age 65. Bill went back to work because loved feeling engaged and alive. Sure, the money let him do the things he enjoyed, like traveling, treating friends & loved ones to dinner, and buying gifts for his wife. But he had too much energy to just sit around. He poured himself into everything he loved – his family and friends, wining & dining, hobbies (he loved golf), travel (he even got a pilot's license so he and Valerie could travel more) – and having work that excited him was just one piece of the puzzle.
Bill's energy exceeded his physical capacity to use it. When mobility became an issue in his late 80s, it didn't slow him down. Bill used a motorized scooter so he could keep up with the pace of life he wanted. If he resented needing a scooter, he didn't let it show. He would have resented staying home because of failing legs even more.
I am inspired by the way Uncle Bill lived his life. He worked hard and enjoyed time outside of work just as much. He saw that other people's ideas about getting older didn't suit him and carved his own path. It would have been easier to stop working, to do what everyone else did. Or to work a job that didn't require him to keep up with technology or answer the phone in the middle of the night. But "easy" was not the goal: being alive and engaged meant so much more to him.
I'm sure I'll draw different lessons from his example as I grow older, but this is my takeaway right now: live the life you want. That might mean working harder or longer or living more modestly than other people. So be it. That seems like a fair trade for being able to live how you want. Financial freedom – which Bill had at age 65 – is less about retirement and more about being able to define a good life on your own terms.
Here's to saying yes to all of it for as long as you can. Here's to Uncle Bill.
Timothy Iseler, CFP®
Founder & Lead Advisor
Iseler Financial, LLC | Durham NC | (919) 666-7604
Iseler Financial helps creative professionals remove stress while taking control of their financial futures. As both advisor and accountability partner, we help identify current strengths and weaknesses, clarify and refine your long-term goals, and prioritize understandable, manageable, and repeatable actions to bring long-term financial well-being. Reach out today to take the first step.