September 29, 2021

How to Retire and Not Die: Gary Sirak and Max Sirak

We typically think of retirement as what happens at the finish line but according to Gary Sirak, retirement is really just the beginning of another long race. If you’re not prepared to run it, you could literally be bored to death. Gary’s a financial analyst but this book isn’t about money, it’s about how you’ll spend your days. To make it through that race, you’ll need to have a concrete plan.

Gary and his son, Max Sirak have put together the new book, How to Retire and Not Die: The Three P’s That Will Keep You Young. On Author Hour today, they discuss what it means to have a plan and how to create it, how to develop and exercise passion and purpose, and why the work we do before retirement tends to get a bad rap.

Hi Author Hour listeners, I’m here today with Gary Sirak and Max Sirak, authors of How to Retire and Not Die: The Three P’s That Will Keep You Young. Gary and Max, thank you so much for being with us today.

Gary Sirak: Thank you for having us.

Max Sirak: Yeah, thrilled to be here.

Jane Stogdill: Before we dig in, can you all tell us a little bit about who you are and how this project came to be?

Gary Sirak: Sure. I’ve been in the financial services business— we own a third-generation financial services company in Canton, Ohio— and I’ve spent most of my career, if not all of it, helping people prepare for retirement. Especially the money side of it. But it became pretty apparent to me that retirement wasn’t all about money and there’s much more to retirement than how much you got in your bank and how much you’re getting every month. That really was how this book came into be and how Max and I started working on it.

Max Sirak: Then, meantime, in your second book, The American Dream Revisited, I helped him finish one of the chapters in that book at a place that he was stuck. And from that experience, I think when it came time to write book number three, he decided to give me a call and see if I would help out with that.

Gary Sirak: It’s been a great experience and really nice because we get to talk a lot, so it was fun. Max lives in Colorado, I live in Ohio. It allowed us to communicate a bunch more than we normally would have communicated.

Jane Stogdill: That’s great. Also, somewhat related to some of the advice in this book about how to spend retirement time, but we’ll get to that maybe in a little bit. Gary, you describe retirement as a marathon, that you climb a mountain to get to. What does that mean?

Gary Sirak: You have a work career and it’s not a straight-up line. You move from job to job, you might move towns, you might move states, countries. What I figured out when I talked to people is that no one’s career was a straight line. I mean, I can count them on one hand. To me, it seems like everybody’s climbing this marathon mountain to get to the top of retirement where they can plant their flag and kick back and have a cold one in their easy chair.

That’s kind of how I saw the marathon and I said okay, at the finish line, everybody’s really happy and celebrating and that’s kind of what retirement looks like, at least from the outside in but not really the way it works.

Jane Stogdill: How does it work?

Gary Sirak: Well, then you have this interesting 26 years after you’ve climbed the mountain, you got this 26-year marathon that you have to run or live, and basically, that’s kind of how this thing stretches out. So, you have this mountain, you’re climbing, when you get to the top, you think, “Oh it’s cool, I’m good.” Then you find out, “Wait, I got 26 years more to live of my life, maybe, what do I do? I don’t have any plan,” and that’s really why I wrote the book. It’s to help those people figure out what that plan is.

Jane Stogdill: Okay, great. You make it sound like retirement is hard.

Gary Sirak: What did I use, Max? It’s a full-contact sport.

Max Sirak: I don’t think that made it into the book.

Gary Sirak: No, it didn’t, but it is a full-time – didn’t you cut that? Darn. Anyway, I like that line. Yeah, it’s a full-contact sport. It’s not kids’ play. All of a sudden, you go from five days a week working, six maybe, to all of a sudden, you have seven days off. It’s a big difference. You were from two weeks’ vacation to 52 weeks. You got to figure out how to fill that time and so many people, most people haven’t filled it at all.

The Three P’s

Jane Stogdill: What’s the danger of not planning appropriately for what to do during retirement?

Gary Sirak: Well, throughout my career, the results are rather devastating. I mean, if you want to know why I really wrote the book, I got tired of visiting people in hospitals and friends of mine in just really bad situations and that whole terminology being bored to death isn’t a mistake. That’s not a – it’s a real game. I mean, you can be bored to the point where you don’t have anything to do and the next thing you know, you get sick and you’re going to doctor. You just need to have something more in your life.

Jane Stogdill: That would be the common mistake people make is that they don’t plan.

Gary Sirak: Correct.

Jane Stogdill: You all argue that work meets certain needs. What are those and how do you advise people to make sure those needs continue to be met after they stop working?

Max Sirak: Yeah, I think that work gets kind of a bum rep, right? We scapegoat it for a lot of things, we blame it for a lot of our aggravation and frustration and of course, it is and can contain those but it also gives us a lot. It gives us structure, it gives us social connection, it gives us money. Obviously, there is a sense of identity and value and worth that comes from work and for people who are lucky and fortunate in what they’ve done for their jobs. 

There’s also passion that can come through work and a purpose. The thing is, just because you stop working, doesn’t mean that your needs for those things are going to go away and you need to have a plan as to how you’re going to meet those.

Jane Stogdill: You mentioned passion, purpose, and a plan there— and these are the three P’s, right?

Max Sirak: Correct.

Jane Stogdill: Tell us about these three P’s and why they’ll help keep us young?

Gary Sirak: The three P’s really are key to the whole game. If you do not have purpose and you don’t have passion, you get up in the morning and you don’t have anything to do. That’s really a bad way to start your day. Having some purpose, having something you want to do for yourself— and that’s the passion part— purpose is what you do for other people.

Where I find a lot of people who come to see me, literally, think “Oh well, I’m going to babysit.” I said, “Great, for your grandson. Wonderful. How many days a week?” “Well, one.” I said, “Okay, what are you going to do with the other six?” They’ve got to have some reason to get up in the morning and get moving. They need a real plan, something that they can live by because they’ve been working off of plans their whole life on schedules, meetings, or similar plans. Your time is set for you, well, all of a sudden, your time isn’t so you need to do that. It’s critically important to a healthy retirement and a happy one.

Max Sirak: Yeah, we use a really simple definition of passion and purpose that my dad just mentioned, right? Passion is the stuff that you do for yourself and purpose is what you do that contributes for others and we have a handful of exercises to help people get in touch with both of those things and places where they might be able to find those things. Then we have a scaffolding that we recommend for your schedule. A real simple way to build that plan that is all-important.

The Retirement Mindset

Jane Stogdill: Yeah, let’s get into the how. Although, before you dig into the how, you also talk about mindset. We can talk about that for a minute here if you want as well. How can we get into the right retirement mindset?

Gary Sirak: Wow, I have seen so many sides of that curve. What happens is, I meet with somebody— I just had someone in yesterday and we were discussing how they felt about retirement, and actually, they were pretty glum about it. They were excited not to be working but they weren’t very excited about what they weren’t going to do because they didn’t know what it was going to be. All of a sudden, they were – I could see it, their mood change quite a bit. We had a discussion about mindset and I said, “Listen, you have to have a pretty positive attitude about this because it carries over. If you’re negative about being retired and you’re unhappy and you’re bored and all that stuff, that’s going to carry over, and not it’s going to be healthy for you.” I think having a positive mindset about this is really a big deal.

Max Sirak: Yeah, I think a lot of people— anytime you’re dealing with an ending there’s grief that goes with what’s been lost or taken or what you are leaving behind. But there’s also the opportunity of new beginnings and the creation that is inherent in those endings. So, where you put your mind matters. Are you retiring from something or to something? Carol Dweck and The Growth Mindset, I think are valid places to start. You’ve got to have your mind right if you want to have a good retirement.

Jane Stogdill: Tell us more about the growth mindset?

Max Sirak: Retirement is a marathon like we said, and there’s some connotations to running a marathon. It’s not easy, it takes a little bit of work. Some miles are going to be more difficult than others and some will feel like a breeze. It’s a matter of thinking that you can do it and that making little bits of progressed every step, being more important than getting it perfect and getting it right. And understanding that it’s a process and that if you continued to practice, you will get better at retirement. To expect that you’re going to be great at it from go, I mean, that’s just not how the world works. Rarely are we ever good at anything the first time we try it.

Jane Stogdill: Yeah, if you could just get my six-year-old to understand that.

Gary Sirak: That pretty much hits it right on the head. I’ll give you a great example, there’s a friend of mine who decided to learn how to play guitar. He retired and he’s been doing YouTube guitar lessons and he asked me if I would come over and listen to him play his guitar because no one else would and I said, “Sure, I would do that.”

I went over and afterward and he said, “What do you think?” I said, “Well, you have a lot of time. You should use it on YouTube. You’ve made great progress because at least you know where the strings are, but you got a lot of work to do.” And he laughed and said, “You know what? It’s kind of cool. I am having fun and I’m getting better every day,” and I said, “That’s a great attitude.” Two years later, he’s still not any good but he is still having fun and he is getting better every day. 

Jane Stogdill: That’s great. Okay, so how do we put together a plan? What are some of the exercises and tools you suggest people use? 

Gary Sirak: The first thing I do is trying to help them figure out what it is they’d like to do. I use something called the wish list. That came out of me sitting in an exercise one day listening to somebody talk and I was actually thinking about something I really want to be doing in that lecture. I thought about, “Oh wish list. I wish I was doing this instead of working.” That’s really how that became a factor in the book. 

There is a whole bunch of things throughout life that I thought, “Oh, I’d like to do that. If I wasn’t working I’d do this, I would do that” and that really was one of the first pieces.

Max Sirak: There is also something that we called the retirement key, which is an exercise where you look at your life and you step back and you break things down into three categories; what do you like, what do you love, and what do you hate. By going through those exercises and filling out those lists, that begins to put you on a path towards filling out your plan. We recommend that again, we’re not trying to make you too busy in retirement. 

You are supposed to have enough time to enjoy it, so really all we’re hoping to get people to do is schedule three different activities each day. Three steps, three steps a day that’s all you need. If you are smart and you can get those steps to meet all of those needs we talked about with work, then that’s the path to that happy long successful retirement, with any luck. 

Jane Stogdill: Making lists and deciding to do three things a day, these things aren’t difficult. It sounds like the problem is just that we aren’t doing them. 

Gary Sirak: That would be very correct. It’s kind of interesting how many people— and actually the exact same reaction you just had, “Oh, that’s not that hard to do.” I said, “Okay, try it for a while and tell me how that works” and then they come back and say, “Well, that’s way harder than I thought it was.” Part of this is because you actually have to put effort into it. You have to sit and think and you have to decide what really fits your needs and meets your wants. On paper, it sounds simple but in reality, it does do some – you have to do some deep dives I think. 

Max Sirak: I think too, it goes back to the whole mountain and marathon, right? So many people view retirement as the finish line and haven’t even thought for a second about what they’re going to do when they get there. “What do you mean when I get there? I’m going to be retired, it’s going to be great” and that’s not always how it goes. 

Purpose and Passion in Retirement

Jane Stogdill: Can we talk a little bit about purpose? That’s a real buzzword these days and everyone is hearing how important it is to figure out what your purpose is. How do you actually do that? 

Gary Sirak: I’ll let you handle that, Max. 

Max Sirak: Okay, so very kind of you. You know, purpose, right? Like you said, it is a big buzz word and there is a lot of buzz around it and rightfully so. It is one of the three P’s that you need but I think that it doesn’t have to be this huge archetypal unified concept of like, “This one thing is my purpose.” We break it down to just making sure you are doing stuff for other people that help other people. That can be filled in a myriad of ways.

Whether you are volunteering, or you could be mentoring someone, or you could be babysitting, or you could be sitting with a friend, or you could be helping a loved one. I think we could get so stuck into these lofty highfalutin ideas of purpose that we sort of miss the forest for the trees when really it is just about making sure you are connected to others and helping them. 

Gary Sirak: It’s very interesting. I’ve had so many people that I’ve come across who have looked for what their purpose is and found it kind of by accident. I had one client of mine who was very good at baking and realized there is a whole shortage of baked goods in some of these assisted living places. She would bake and bring cookies over or brownies or whatever they were. Another [client] got involved with meals on wheels and just said, “Wow, there’s people that don’t have food. I’m going to get into that” and she drove for meals on wheels for a couple of days a week. 

I have another guy that, his purpose— he’s a communications guy, loves to talk to people so he found himself as a starter at a golf course. I asked him about it and he said, “You know, Gary, they’re always late, they are always slow. My purpose is to keep these people okay and happy while they are waiting to tee off. I have jokes and I talk to them. It’s really interesting but I really enjoy that and I get up every morning and I think ‘oh, this would be a fun day. I will meet someone new.” So, it is different ways to find purpose. 

It doesn’t have to be earth-shattering. It just has to be something that, like Max said, you are doing for someone else. 

Jane Stogdill: That’s helpful, thank you. Well, I think it can be intimidating to some people. I mean, my life’s purpose, it sounds like something a hero in a movie would set out to discover on a journey to the gods or something. 

Gary Sirak: Yeah, but they’re not quite that complex, but yeah. People make it pretty – I mean, there are some pretty heavy-duty conversations that I’ve sat and listened to and I say, “Oh okay.” and they say, “What’s your purpose?” I said, “You know, I kind of like to go to—I like to eat barbecued ribs.” I mean, they are looking at me like, you know? But I was kind of making light of it because the reality of it is people do take it very, very serious and I think it’s important but I don’t think it is critical to the fact that you are trying to save the world. 

Max Sirak: Talk about a high bar, right? Like what is this unifying theory of my life and what I’m here for? You know, that’s – how do you even begin? I think it also fits into something we wanted to do with this book is to keep it a little more lighthearted in tone because yeah, thinking about that stuff in that way will trip you up and probably not going to lead to that happy successful retirement that you want.

Jane Stogdill: Speaking of the lighthearted nature of this book, what was it like? I guess, Max, I’ll ask you to work with your dad in this kind of way.

Max Sirak: Super funny in that I gave him a draft of the book and let’s call it March or I got the draft – okay, I gave him a draft of the book and it was not funny. It was not humorous— not tongue and cheek— and he returned the entire manuscript to me with one note, “Hey, can we make this funnier?” and luckily, that happened on, let’s call it March 15th of 2020. Given the year that we had, I had a nice fun project to work on. How can I make this book funnier? 

Gary Sirak: It was a little darker than I wanted so we made it a little lighter than— we kind of softened it a bit. 

Jane Stogdill: Well, I think it’s been effective. Has it been difficult to sort of give over all of your ideas in your words to your child?

Gary Sirak: Well, that was interesting too. We did how many hours of interviews, Max? 

Max Sirak: Oh, I bet there was 24, 26 hours of interviews. 

Gary Sirak: It was brutal on Max, pretty easy on me. I just had to talk. So, Max would ask me questions and I would go off and wherever I was going off and eventually he said, “Hey Dad, can we talk about this?” and I said, “Sure!” So, we did a lot of conversations and quite frankly, it was a lot of fun because we were able to communicate and discuss things and concepts. I learned a lot from Max. I mean, Max did a ton of research on this and he would bring things up I had no idea anything about this— “Oh, I like that. Let’s put that in the book.” He said, “Well, I already did.” I said, “Good.” We had lots of conversations like that. 

Jane Stogdill: Obviously, one of the big takeaways here is that you want your readers to actually make a plan and to that end, the book will take them through that process, including the exercises, and by the end of the book, your readers will have created plans. What else do want readers to walk away with after putting down this book? 

Gary Sirak: That there is a really bright light at the end of this retirement tunnel. I mean, the reality of it is you get to retirement that there is a light there and there’s a door to open as Max referred to it. You know, something stops and something opens and there’s a whole bunch of possibilities. I mean, realistically that’s what I’m after. 

I just want people to look at this in a different way because so many come in there so focused on money and they really don’t get it and then once they get it, there’s this real shock to their system. I just want to let people know there’s an answer to that shock. It doesn’t have to be that way, it can work out really well if you spend some time. 

Max Sirak: Yeah, I would add that pie in the sky, we mentioned the importance of finding a good retirement role model. With any luck, if someone reads through this book and does the exercises we recommend and really takes the time with it and gets good at being retired, that they can then become the retirement role model for their peers and sort of pass along what they’ve learned and help other people retire and not die. 

Jane Stogdill: All right. Well, Gary and Max, it’s been a pleasure speaking with you. Again, listeners, the book is, as you said, How to Retire and Not Die: The Three P’s That Will Keep You Young. Gary and Max, in addition to reading the book, where can people go to learn more about you and your work? 

Gary Sirak: garysirak.com.

Max Sirak: That would be the best place. 

Gary Sirak: That would be the only place actually. It’s interesting, are there others? No, that’s it so that would be the place to go, yep. 

Jane Stogdill: That’s Gary Sirak. 

Gary Sirak: Yes. 

Jane Stogdill: Dot com. 

Gary Sirak: Yes. 

Jane Stogdill: All right, thank you so much. 

Gary Sirak: Hey, thank you. 

Max Sirak: Thank you, it’s been a pleasure. 

Gary Sirak: Yeah, it’s really been fun. Thank you.