How To Keep Your Mind Sharp Even After You Retire

Lifelong learning doesn’t stop when you retire. It may only be just beginning.


Bill Watterson, who wrote the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip, said “Life is like a car battery. It recharges by running.” And Henry Ford agreed: “Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at 20 or 80. Anyone who keeps learning stays young. The greatest thing in life is to keep your mind young.”

Sound advice for people who believe retiring after years of long hours and non-stop action is just an opportunity to veg out.

“You can live your later years in a state closely resembling plant life and your brain life will respond accordingly,” said Dr. Rosalind Dorlen, a psychologist in private practice in Summit, N.J.

“You get mushy. Based on the data, learning is the mechanism for development of your brain no matter how old you are. Sitting passively and watching TV is not a way to enhance your brain,” she said.

Make Lifelong Learning Your Retirement Goal

Don’t retire and then try to come up with a lifelong learning plan.

Tom Vanderbilt, author of “Beginners: The Joy and Transformative Power of Lifelong Learning,” suggests you start thinking long before your retirement date about how to keep the battery running.

“Don’t wait until retirement to begin the process because you’re still working and busy — or think you’re busy,” he said. “It’s far better to have a plan in mind than suddenly facing this void without one.”

Part of that process, according to Clif Smith, mindfulness leader at Ernst & Young and author of “Mindfulness Without the Bells and Beads,” is developing the right attitude and understanding the dramatic change in lifestyle that awaits.

“You have to make a deliberate choice about how you are going to move into retirement, how you are going to spend your time,” he said. “How will you develop relationships to replace the social circle you had at work?”

Think about who you’ll be spending more hours with. Have a plan to maintain lifelong learning skills that work with that person. “You may be spending more time alone or with a spouse or partner,” Smith said. “And if you’re not comfortable with that now what will happen when you retire?”

Find High-Quality Education

When it comes to what is considered traditional education, the opportunities are virtually endless. Marilyn Anderson, author of “How to Live Like a Millionaire When You’re a Million Short,” points out this is a golden age for lifelong learning.

“There are about 5,000 different courses that people can take from Ivy League schools and other universities, many free and in all kinds of subjects, ranging from business to food science, religion to foreign language,” she said.

Beyond the traditional, YouTube videos teach all kinds of skills, from pottery to how to cut your own hair. TED Talks are free, too.

Don’t Fully Retire From Lifelong Learning

Paul Dillon, who launched a consulting business himself, suggests another possibility. Don’t retire entirely. Dillon “retired” in 2006. “I wanted to do something creative,” he said. “I always had this idea of starting my own business. So I thought I’d try it.”

He’d worked as a marketing and business consultant for a large financial firm and figured making the transition would be easy.

It wasn’t. “I had a number of things I tried at first that didn’t work out as well as I thought they would.” But he persisted. One client, knowing Dillon was a Vietnam War veteran, asked him to do research on issues involving veterans employment. And that opened up an untapped opportunity he now specializes in.

These opportunities are everywhere, he says. Stop myopic thinking, he says. “If you were a marketing manager for a large consumer brand, don’t think that that’s all you can do,” Dillon said. “Talk to people. Expand your horizons. Maybe you’ll come up with something new.”

Retire From The Expected

Lifelong learning calls for breaking out of your comfort zone. “Sometimes people are afraid because they feel they might be bad at something like new technology. So they avoid it,” Dillon said. “But they’re kidding themselves. The human brain is a novelty seeking machine.”

If you enjoy learning about something, it doesn’t matter if you’re good at it. “It seems like an obvious point, but you should do things that bring you pleasure. So while you practice and get better, even when you fail you enjoy the practice and the failure.”


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