I retired from Occidental Chemical on September 15, after 36 years with the company.
I made this decision of my own free will. I decided that if I were going to start something else, age 63 is not a limit, but the older you get, the closer the practical horizon gets. Also, I felt that with the reduction in oil prices, having a non-traditional job in a division of an oil company might not be as much fun as it had been.
For most people, there is a process that leads to the final act of retiring, and it can be longer or shorter depending on circumstances and the type person you are. I set my date out six months. If you read a note of denial in this, you’re quite perceptive. In that period, I was like Schroedinger’s employee: simultaneously retiring but working. The superposition of those two wave functions allowed me to have things both ways and avoid dealing with the process. For a while. But at some point you have to break down the office and unwind what you’ve done.
I’ve had a number of different canonical jobs in the company, but most of my career was spent on environmental and public policy issues associated with our products and our customers’ products. For the past 20 years or so, I’ve been kind of an internal consultant on those issues. To that end, I had assembled about 3,000 hardcopy articles in files I had cataloged, abstracted and key worded. I simply couldn’t bear to throw them away, even though many of them could probably be replaced at some expense. So I scanned 1,800 of them and passed them on to a couple of colleagues in the relevant trade associations as electronic files. Don’t call the copyright police.
But that was only six of the 22 file drawers of historical materials I’d saved over 36 years. I went through each one. Each issue, each project. Eventually, I recycled three 90-gallon roll-offs of paper and I only took home four boxes of books and about the same quantity of personal papers and artifacts. The process literally took three months to complete, but I needed to do that so as to come to grips with moving on.
The process of reviewing all those articles and all those files reminded me of all the opportunities I’d had, the successes and failures, the people I worked with and some I fought with. Because most everything turned out for the best, I’d forgotten how difficult the issues were at the time, and how hard we had to work so the business would survive. I’d also forgotten some of the wonderful personalities on both sides of the issues. And I couldn’t help but think: how short those years turned out to be. Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes sang, “I had the time of my life...” And I did, too.
Memo to self: next time enjoy more mundane stuff, and take more pictures.
In the process of winding down, I realized that all the things I aimed for in building a career—at least in the conventional sense—are now moot. There are no more promotions or raises or bonuses; those days are past. The externally imposed discipline of getting up every morning to go to work or to school—something we’ve all probably done since kindergarten—is no longer operative.
I now have to substitute my own incentives. My own goals. My own schedule. My own structure. No matter how much you’ve railed at the tyranny of the alarm clock and the things you have to do, I think this is harder. To be fair, I’m not starting retirement from a standing stop with no responsibilities. I have two more years on the ACS Board, and plenty of volunteer work to do as an ACS tour speaker and career consultant.
I’d like to stay involved with the industry where I can still bring some value, and I frankly want to retrieve some of the golf games I gave up in the name of work. And maybe someday I’ll tell you about my research into the history of popular music between 1955 and 1990. There’s already a book and one peer reviewed article in a music journal, and more to come. But the secret is that I have to commit to each of these and put time on the schedule for them. None of these things will happen by accident; what happens by accident is you find yourself watching three hours of cat videos.
The New Horizons spacecraft flew by Pluto about the same time as my retirement. There was tremendous anticipation as it arrived. It turns out that some of the most interesting data was gathered when it looked back after passing it by.
As I was hurtling toward my retirement, people would say, “Congratulations,” as though retirement is an achievement, and perhaps it is. Reflexively, I would say, “Thank you,” but I didn’t really understand what they meant. In a way, I was embarrassed. I felt like I was abandoning the team and being a slacker. I still have some “fear of missing out” on things in my old organizations, and I worry about losing my edge. But now, I’m past the event, and just like New Horizons, I can look back at it and finally realize that what they’re saying is something like, “Congratulations on successfully completing this level of your personal video game.”
And now it’s on to the next.
Dr. William F. Carroll, Jr. holds a Ph.D. in Organic Chemistry from Indiana University, Bloomington, IN. He received an M.S. from Tulane University in New Orleans, and a B.A. in chemistry and physics from DePauw University in Greencastle, IN. He holds two patents, and has over sixty-five publications in the fields of organic electrochemistry, polymer chemistry, combustion chemistry, incineration and plastics recycling.