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Plan your bonus years like you plan your working years

by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Life section of the Annapolis Capital, Sunday October 7, 2012

An old business school riddle goes something like this:  If there are five frogs on a log and one decides to jump off, how many are left?   The answer: Five.  The reason: Deciding to jump is not the same as jumping.  The number of frogs on the log is reduced to four only by execution, by the “action” of jumping – not by “deciding” to jump.

Annapolitan John Kelly is a man who learned his business school lessons well, and he continues to execute on his plan even in his bonus years, having just completed his 67th circumnavigation of the Sun.

A reader who shares biking and photography interests with John told me several months ago, “You have to meet John Kelly.  He is the most intentional, focused, versatile and interesting individual I have met in a long time.”  And so he is.

After earning his undergraduate degree in mathematics and a master’s degree in computer science at the University of Minnesota in the late 1960s, he spent the next eleven years – from 1969-1980 – in the US Air Force as a computer systems analyst, specializing in what was then a new field: Computer performance evaluation and capacity planning.  As an Air Force captain, he also attended Purdue University, where, in 1974, he earned a Ph.D. in industrial engineering and operations research.  All this is important because John always wanted to own his own company, and his years in the military prepared him to jump off the log.

And jump he did.  In 1980, he left the Air Force and founded Datametrics Systems Corporation, a computer company specializing in producing computer performance evaluation software.  Seventeen years later, Datametrics had more than 70 employees and nearly $10 million in annual revenues.  As John was building his company, he was also a teacher, writer and dreamer.  He wrote a book on evaluating computer performance, wrote more than 50 articles for trade journals and newspapers, taught computer performance evaluation to more than a thousand students in 10 countries around the world and for seven years conducted three-day professional development seminars at George Washington University.

And he dreamed.  He dreamed of retiring when he was 50.  He missed it by two years, selling Datametrics in 1997, when he was 52 years old.  “John,” I asked, “Why in the world would you want to retire at 52?”  His answer was “to learn new things and explore the world.”  His response reminded me of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes who said, when asked why, at age 92, he was reading Plato:  “To improve my mind,” he said.

John dreamed of using his new-found freedom to improve his knowledge and skills and learn new ones.  In our book, Reboot, we call this “enrichment work,” and it is an important element of successful aging for those who include it in their bonus years’ portfolio.

John pursued his post-career activities with the same resolve that he brought to his work.  Example: Prompted by his wife, Karen, a sailing enthusiast, he decided to learn to sail – and then jumped off the log again.  John and Karen traveled to Annapolis for weekend sailing classes; took a one-week live-aboard course in the British Virgin Islands where they learned to read the weather and fix mechanical problems; attended a safety at sea seminar the Naval Academy; and volunteered in the Navy’s Offshore Sail Training Squadron for three years.  Throughout this period, they tested their new seamanship knowledge and skills in repeated sailing trips to the Caribbean, the English Channel and the Greek islands.

Never one to go half way, John later bought a small marina in Eastport.  Naming it Woodsback in honor of Jerry Woods, the previous owner and its location on Back Creek, John is now its owner-operator.

In 2006, John enrolled in the Executive Seminar program at St. Johns. As a former teacher and entrepreneur, he was fascinated by the collaborative style of teaching used at St. John’s – and later agreed to chair the St. John’s Business Friends Committee to help strengthen ties between the college and the business community, including seminars designed to appeal to business leaders.

John wanted to practice advanced digital photography, so he participates in National Geographic photography expeditions – most recently to Antigua, Guatemala where he photographed Semana Santa (Holy Week). At the end of the month, he is heading for Oaxaca, Mexico to photograph Dias de los Muertos (Day of Dead).  He is now tackling photography with the same focus and discipline he applied to building his company and learning to sail.  John’s pics can be viewed at www.flickr.com/photos/jckelly/. 

Like many others, John also wanted to use his bonus years to continue some of the activities from his pre-retirement days. He wanted to continue to give back – especially to encourage young people and to assist aspiring business men and women.  So he taught in several different venues – including math classes at George Mason University; GMAT math review courses, to help young people who wanted to go on to college; and the board room, giving advice and counsel as a company director.

John used his management expertise by devoting six years to writing a monthly column on small business for this newspaper and volunteering as a mentor with the Annapolis chapter of SCORE – the Service Corps of Retired Executives – which provides free business advisory services and “how-to” workshops and seminars to new and established small businesses.

John Kelly’s use of his time in his post-career years is a good example of the rewards of intentional planning and purposeful execution.  Acquiring new knowledge and skills improves your mind; giving back through teaching and advising that reflect hard-earned wisdom improves the world; using your skills – such as photography and writing – to share the fruits of your experience informs and inspires others.  These are exemplary bonus years activities.  Indeed, later-life is just another stage of exploration, and planning the bonus years journey is the first step to execution – even if you improvise along the way.

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