Perspectives of Retirement
By Richard S. Smith, MD
I would like to add my perspectives on my recent retirement to this edition of ASSH Perspectives. In February, 2021, I retired after over 30 years of practice. This was a planned event centered around my youngest daughter’s graduation from medical school in June, 2020, and the expiration of my orthopedic and hand boards in 2023. My group was able to find a well trained young hand surgeon to take my place. He arrived in September of 2020 and I retired 6 months later. My retirement has been even better than I expected. Life has slowed down and this has given me the opportunity to enjoy my life and family in ways that I really couldn’t have imagined. There have been a lot of steps involved in getting to this point and I thought it might be helpful to share some of these with you. I’m going to divide my thoughts into three groups: young physicians, those in mid practice, and those nearing retirement. In my mind there are different priorities concerning retirement in each stage.
My first advice to young physicians would be to obtain a financial advisor. Notice that I didn’t say an investment advisor. You may be wooed by someone promising great market-beating returns, but the reality is that it is extremely difficult for any investment advisor to consistently beat the markets. What you need is someone looking after your entire financial picture and helping you to develop a long term plan. You will have issues concerning insurance, your children’s education, payment of student loans as well as many other factors. Most importantly you’ll need to get some sort of handle on how much you spend. Any discussion about the amount of money needed for retirement is based on your spending habits. Once you figure how much you spend the rest of your financial situation can be figured out. I would be extremely leery of two things: first, depending on your 401K to finance your entire retirement and investing in projects outside the norm of stocks, bonds, etc. I was fully invested in my retirement plan for 30 years, and stuck to a fairly consistent investment strategy, but I would be very nervous relying entirely on that money for my retirement. On the second point, physicians are easy prey to people looking for money to invest in startups, but the reality is that most of those startups fail. You may hit a home run but more likely you wind up making a costly mistake. Without a solid financial basis you can never get to the place you want to be.
For those in the middle of their practice life, I would emphasize the need to cultivate family, friends and hobbies. These are going to be the bedrock of your life in retirement. You can have all the money you want but without these three things your life will be difficult. There are a lot of hours in the day to fill and these are the ways to fill it. In regards to family I have always remembered something I heard at a meeting of the Southern Orthopedic Society when I was a resident. They were presenting a well earned lifetime achievement award to Dr. Leonard Goldner of Duke. The presenter was congratulating Dr. Goldner as a father and said something that always stuck with me. He was describing how important fatherhood was and said, “There are a lot of people who can do your work but you’re the only person who can be a father to your children.” I always tried to remember that no matter how difficult work got to be, and through the grace of God and my wonderful wife, we raised two awesome daughters, both of whom honored me by becoming physicians. For me, friends and hobbies ran together since I’ve played golf since I was very young. Regardless of what you do, make sure you develop friendships outside of work. My other hobbies include writing, playing and recording music as well as reading all sorts of fiction and non-fiction. But whatever you want to do take time to develop these hobbies so that by the time you retire you’ll be looking forward to doing them.
For those nearing retirement, I believe the most important thing is remember that your practice, the hospital, and your patients will be just fine without you. I would emphasize the fact that medicine is what we do, not who we are. You have touched many many lives during your practice but when the time comes to quit, let it go. I remember doing my last case in residency. My pregnant wife was in the car waiting to drive from Florida to Houston for my hand fellowship and I walked by the OR desk on my way out. I got a few “See you laters” and “Good lucks” and that was it. I remember thinking how I had given my heart and soul to my residency and nobody seemed to care that I was leaving. But the reality was that their work was carrying on regardless if I was there or not. I did have a very emotional farewell from the surgery center that I worked at, but I also realized that they were going to carry on the next day regardless if I was there or not. We all want to think we’re irreplaceable, but the reality is that the next generation will take over and do a fine job. I saw a number of physicians who couldn’t seem to let it go, and would hang around the doctor’s lounge or even try to prolong their time in their practice but I strongly urge you to make a clean break, hit the door and don’t look back.
When I’ve been asked to describe retirement I usually compare it to a graduation. I graduated from high school, college, medical school, residency and fellowship, and now I’ve graduated from work. I’m excited about the future and it’s exciting to see the plans I put in place have helped things come to fruition. I think I’ve finally found that sense of calm and wholeness that the Hebrew word for peace, shalom, really means. I hope my simple words will help you find shalom as well.