Entrepreneurial Ego

Think running a company is grueling? Try taking a break

George Eastman, the founder of Eastman Kodak, is an inspiration to all business builders who fantasize that their lonely hours toiling at a workbench will someday allow them to enjoy the sweet smell of success. Eastman, a prototypical scientist-turned-entrepreneur, embodied the credo of our entrepreneurial society: Climb from rags to riches, and you can luxuriate in all the joys a free-market society has to offer. Strange, then, that immediately upon retiring from the company he'd founded, Eastman committed suicide. The brief note he left spoke volumes: "My work is done. Why wait?"

Eastman's decision to end his life just as he seemed poised to savor the material rewards of a stellar career is not all that uncommon. Many people who reach the top of an organizational hierarchy view leaving their corner offices as a kind of mortal blow.

There are many ways to explain why vital, productive, and creative company builders balk at the prospect of becoming professionally inactive during retirement. In fact, it isn't difficult to understand why a person who gets a lot of psychological lifts from a career would view surrendering them as undesirable. It's also now well documented that a career full of challenge not only can inhibit the development of physical diseases ranging from the common cold to cancer but also can prolong life.

I witnessed all that firsthand while working with a former entrepreneur who mentored aspiring business builders through the Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE). SCORE relies on retired executives to give those who lack resources free advice for their fledgling enterprises. In return for sharing his expertise with young entrepreneurs, this volunteer received something money couldn't buy. He got feelings of challenge, competence, and self-worth from watching his pupils apply and profit from his knowledge. His tenure at SCORE was the first time in his life he helped build a company without the promise of short-term cash and long-term equity. But interestingly, the work led to an improvement in his physical health.

Soon after I had this experience, a patient I'll call Dan was referred to me by his older brother. The two brothers had built a multimillion-dollar business in the automotive-parts industry. After watching Dan work 12-hour days for 30 years, his wife began pressuring him to retire from the business at the tender age of 57. Dan opposed the move but was incapable of articulating why, so he went along with it.

Within a month of announcing his plan to retire, Dan began experiencing severe cardiac arrhythmia and fainting spells. His symptoms prompted three cardiologists to conclude that stress rather than cardiac disease caused his problems.

When Dan finally came to my office, he appeared on the brink of collapse. This once vital man acted like a depressed octogenarian: lethargic, helpless, and hopeless. When he was president of his company, he had been a scratch golfer who'd steal time away from business to get to any course he could. Now he was dreading his planned move to "a living hell on a bunch of Florida golf courses with decrepit old farts."

Our treatment plan called for Dan to extend the period over which he would retire to one year instead of the one month he had allotted. He was to begin serving as an emissary to his employees. He would also introduce his successor to industry trade groups and serve as an internal consultant to both his brother and the man he'd hired to take his place. The goal was for Dan to garner kudos from people he'd worked with for three decades as well as from members of his trade groups.

Once Dan began to retire slowly from the corner office, people who would never have thought to bother him with requests for help felt they'd been given a green light to go to him. When solicited for his help--including being invited to serve on the executive council of his trade group--Dan concluded that a variety of challenging opportunities lay ahead now that he was no longer burdened, and secluded, by day-to-day management responsibility. That realization, coupled with therapy devoted to unraveling why his self-esteem was rooted so deeply in his status as an executive, had Dan feeling like his old self and embarking upon what he called "half a dozen half-time consulting jobs" within a year of our first meeting. His love of golf returned along with his health. And he's gone seven years without a visit to a cardiologist.

Few instances of forced retirement get resolved as smoothly as Dan's. Not many retirees have someone willing to prod them into productivity when their body and soul cry out for rest and relaxation. Our culture is so imbued with the notion that stopping to smell the roses is the appropriate reward for a lifetime of work that we seldom consider that there can be dire consequences from abruptly doing so. That said, here are a few things about passive retirement to bear in mind:

The bigger you are, the harder you'll fall. This truism refers not to your ego but to your job status. Unlike middle managers, who have to hone their interpersonal skills on a daily basis, people who've built businesses are used to having people adapt to them. When they retire, such executives are less adroit at adjusting to new social situations. Staying linked to a role that gives them self-esteem may make disengaging from work a simpler task.

Followers of Hegel, beware! With all due respect to the philosopher who believed that work is joy, work should be only one source among many from which joy can be derived. The psychological rewards of building a successful business are powerful enough to create a psychological dependence akin to a drug addiction. For the work-addicted entrepreneur, retirement cuts you off from your lifeline while simultaneously demanding that you immerse yourself in an activity you've developed no skills for.

If you've grown accustomed to the limelight, stay out in the sun. While many highly successful people shun publicity, others bask in it. There's much to be said for staying active in professional organizations that allow for networking opportunities. Membership in such groups can give a person a way to sustain personal fame while easing away from work.

Notice that nowhere have I advocated earning money as a way to counter the deleterious effects of retirement. Why should I? Compensation is not the issue here; feeling vital is. If you think that smelling the roses--a passive, isolating, purely contemplative pursuit--is what your future has in store for you, consider the meaning of vitality before you head for the botanical gardens. Life is joy when you feel needed, responsible, contributory. All roses need are insects capable of helping them pollinate. I doubt that's what you have in mind for the culmination of your career, so consider some alternatives now, regardless of your age.

Dr. Steven Berglas is a management consultant and a psychologist on the faculty of Harvard Medical School.