For many of us, work is a primary source of accomplishment and pride. Throughout the course of our career, we point to projects completed, problems solved, and people helped. If you’re contemplating retirement, it’s easy to imagine you will find yourself missing the satisfaction that comes from a job well done, not to mention dwelling on the things left undone.
Unfinished business and unmet goals can make it hard to stop working. Our inclination to focus on what we didn’t accomplish reflects a psychological phenomenon called the Zeigarnik effect. It’s the tendency to remember interrupted or incomplete tasks more easily than those that have been completed. This phenomenon was first noticed in the early 1900’s and has been reproduced in a number of studies. The point here is, just because we more easily remember what is unfinished doesn’t mean those things should unduly influence our decision about stopping work. There is no guarantee that if you stay on longer or put more pieces in place, what was unfinished will finally be achieved.
You should also prepare yourself for the possibility that once you leave, your place of business will change. The processes and priorities you established may be altered, no matter how much you carved them in stone. The goals you sought may be set aside by others. How will you react if you learn that your successors changed (or eliminated) projects that were important to you? After you exit, will new employees even learn of your history with the firm? Nobody wants to be forgotten, but keep in mind that regardless of your legacy your departure will create an opportunity for others at the organization to step up, make their own contributions, and take pride in their own achievements.
Other points to consider
Some people remain in their job or business long after they should because work is their primary source of accomplishment and pride. They continue to work, by default and sometimes against their own interests, because they haven’t explored other ways of making noteworthy, meaningful contributions. They might be well served if they could broaden their definition of what constitutes an accomplishment. Allow me to offer an automotive analogy. Driving is not just about reaching a destination or how fast you get there. It also involves your ability to read traffic, avoid hazards, and treat other motorists with courtesy. Accomplishments in your career are more than just goals met. They can also be the skills you’ve mastered, the people you’ve mentored, and the mistakes you’ve learned from. Perhaps you’ve accomplished more than you realize!