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I'm retiring. Why is everyone calling me brave?

October 8, 2012: 11:09 AM ET

What is it about our connection to work that makes the very act of stopping so scary?

By Heidi Sinclair

retirement

FORTUNE -- A few weeks ago, at the age of 54, I announced my retirement after 30 years in the communications business. The overwhelming response to my surprising news from friends, associates and family who are at least 40-years old is "I am envious." From the over 50 crowd, there is often the added comment of "and I am right behind you."

For the under 40s, the response is disbelief. One friend said, "I just don't believe you. It won't happen." This goes as well for the retread or failed retirees. "You will be back!" they warn.

I am not headed to Florida to play golf. I will stay active writing, serving as a director on corporate boards and a maintaining a meaningful non-profit role. But I will not be back. There is too much else that beckons and, as I have discovered, life is both precious and precarious. It needs to be lived fully.

The response to my retirement announcement that surprised me most is this: "What a brave, thing to do." At least 50 people told me that what I was doing was courageous, admirable, bold, and inspirational. Really?

Over the course of my life, I have had a few acts of real bravery. I gave birth to all three of my children, including the nearly ten-pounder without drugs. I started a company at 23, with a $50,000 bank loan guaranteed by my parents. I was terrified that I would lose their precious money, but I paid them back in 18 months. I locked my ex-husband, an addict, out the house and forced him into rehab. That took more courage that you can imagine. When I was 13, I convinced a man who kidnapped me not to rape me and instead to drive me back home. In each of these moments I had to overcome real, tangible fear and do something that required me to dig deep and find the courage to deal with the situation.

Retiring to me feels indulgent. Tomorrow I will get up whenever I want and I will spend the day as I please. Yet, to so very many, this is courageous. What is it about our connection to work that makes the very act of stopping so scary? What are our fears and why is work so important?

I heard a few of these fears from my friends and associates:

"I can't imagine not getting a paycheck ever again. Even though I have saved enough that I don't need one. I like getting the tangible reward."

"I don't know what I would do with myself."

"What if something happens and you don't have enough financial security? Ever since the market crashed in 2008, it doesn't feel safe."

"Who am I, if I am not this very successful business leader?"

"Are you not afraid of becoming irrelevant?"

"I have worked so hard to get where I am, it feels like I would be throwing that all away."

I do get it. Work, if we are lucky (and I have been), is more than a job or a paycheck. It is a big part of who we are. Not just the title, but all that we have built over time: our reputation, our network, our curriculum vitae of roles and responsibilities and the resulting legacy. It is also the many life tradeoffs that we made along the way, all the missed children's birthdays and soccer games and concerts or the fact that most of our friends are actually work friends.

As I cleaned out my office, I lingered over the treasures of my working life: awards, framed totems to my achievements. In the end, I left them all behind. I do not want to carry a shrine to my executive success into my new life. I am bringing the intangibles of my career with me: the ability to build and guide an organization, to create impactful relationships and to position people, ideas and entities for success. But mostly, I filled my box with the curiosity and passion that has always driven me professionally and now guides what is next in my life.

Perhaps what has made it an easy leap for me is that I have terrific role models in my parents who retired early to live amazing, full, challenging lives. And I had a plan. I planned for this retirement financially but more importantly, I set some goals. For my plan, I broke down my life into five categories: professional (the boards, occasional projects, etc.), travel (my husband and I have a little bucket list of adventures that will take us through a least the next decade), organizational (simplifying every aspect of our lives), creative (writing, a family project or two) and finally, skills (acquiring or relearning to speak French fluently, to sail…and yes, to play golf).

Having a long term plan made me eager to get on with it. Yet it took a push, a series of circumstances including my father's illness that said it is time to be done. Not next year. Now. So I am shoving off boldly, but not bravely.

Heidi Sinclair recently retired after a 30-year career that included serving as Chief Communications Officer for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, CEO for Burson-Marsteller EMEA and President of Weber Shandwick Global Technology. She is on the board of directors for Bag Borrow or Steal, Bodymetrics, Concordia Coffee and Portero Luxury and frequently writes and speaks about innovation, media and life.      

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