Endings and Beginnings
In her very first publishing job, at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill’s UNC Press, Joanna Hill discovered her passion for books. From marketing manager and book designer to executive director, she’s spent more than 40 years in the publishing industry, first at university presses, then as a freelance designer, and later with nonprofit publishers. A year before her planned “retimement®,” she quietly left her job.
Joanna is certainly not the only person who’s experienced an unceremonious end to an illustrious career. Baby Boomers grew up thinking that there would be a metaphorical gold watch awaiting them at retirement, but reality rarely rises to this abstract expectation. No matter how your last full-time job ends—whether it’s with an all-out celebration worthy of your legacy, or a less notable send-off—this milestone still marks a significant life change, and it can lead to an uncomfortable and even difficult transition period.
When Boomers started to turn 65, they became the first generation since the advent of Social Security that was forced to re-think retirement—a situation that was greatly influenced by the 2008 financial crisis. Many were also unprepared or unwilling to accept retirement and the notion of “golden years.” Boomers want to stay engaged, and retain a sense of purpose in their lives, no matter how their full time career ended. The proof is in the fact that they are retiming in an unprecedented way.
Determining what’s next can be equal parts exhilaration and terror, but even without a roadmap, Boomers are learning how to allocate and optimize time for working, living, and having fun, and they are embracing change and uncertainty like never before.
Joanna Hill is a perfect example. Throughout her career, she pursued her dreams while also juggling the responsibilities of childcare and eldercare. She became a mother at the age of 40, and enthusiastically embraced the role of sole breadwinner and older single mom to her daughter Louisa. Moving to the West Coast and then to Santa Fe, Joanna left behind the safety of a stable job in the university press world for the flexibility of freelance life, which allowed her to spend quality time with her infant daughter. Years later, she packed up again, and headed back east in search of greater job stability and financial security. All the while, she remained committed to publishing, which is her passion. While raising her daughter, Joanna earned a master’s degree in religious studies, and excelled in her work. Then she arrived at the last four years of her full-time career.
This is the story of that stage in Joanna’s life, and the beginning of the one that followed it.
Joanna Hill, 67
Current home: Santa Fe, New Mexico
Marital status: Divorced
Children: One daughter, Louisa, 28, a playwright and writers’ assistant for a TV show in Los Angeles
Earning: Joanna currently runs her own small publishing house, does freelance editing work, and also earns money from her investment portfolio.
MA: What did you do before you retimed?
JH: I was working as the executive director of the Swedenborg Foundation, a small nonprofit publisher in West Chester, Pennsylvania
MA: Do you consider yourself a retimer?
JH: At this point in my life, I am appropriating time for those leisure and creative pursuits that I either ignored or couldn’t get to when I was working full-time. However, I do remain active in publishing, writing, and consulting— still maintaining that “purpose” that I associate with working. It is about living a more balanced life. So yes, I am a retimer.
MA: What motivated you to change the way you spend your time?
JH: I left my job at the Swedenborg Foundation just before turning 65. I had planned to wait at least one more year to maximize my Social Security benefits, but it was clear that the job I was in—a job for which I thought I’d prepared my whole life—had become a disappointment – and was not worth the stress and anxiety I was feeling.
MA: That must have been hard, especially knowing that this was your last full-time job.
JH: It was. I came to the job full of ideas and enthusiasm. I’ve always enjoyed the publishing business, and this job seemed the perfect marriage of two of my greatest interests and passions: publishing and Swedenborg.
Before joining the Swedenborg Foundation, I was the founding publisher of the Templeton Press, which is now part of the John Templeton Foundation. I spent 12 years there, working with Sir John Templeton—the founder of Templeton Funds and a Wall Street legend—and it was a very fulfilling experience. I took his ideas and translated them into successful publishing projects, much to his satisfaction. I learned so much from Sir John and wanted to bring that experience and vision with me to the next position.
MA: But after a while, you realized that you had joined an organization that did not support your vision for making a positive impact. It must have been crushing that your end-of-career job turned out that way.
JH: Initially, my enthusiasm blinded me to that reality, but it soon became clear that the position was a grueling one; it involved juggling the wishes of a 16-member board and the moods of an uncooperative staff I had inherited. During the four years that I was there, I made many improvements to the physical site, financial reporting practices, the development of publishing projects, and overall operations, and I longed to take the organization to a higher level of professionalism. However, the toxic atmosphere made for a stressful and unrewarding work environment, and I became pretty burned out. When the board announced a reorganization and change in the foundation’s focus, I decided that was the perfect time to leave.
MA: Was there a defining moment that gave you that impetus to resign?
JH: The last straw was when I received a FedEx telling me that my contract was not being renewed, and they also requested that I stay to help with the transition. I thought, “That’s it. I’m done!” Did you ever see that “Sex in the City” episode where a guy breaks up with Carrie via Post-it note? That’s what it felt like.
MA: They sent you a “Dear John” via Fed Ex? That must have been devastating.
JH: It felt very cold and I was hurt. It did not feel kind or respectful, given my commitment and achievements. In retrospect, though, I am glad it happened when it did. It forced me to realize how nervous and anxious I had become from working in such an unsupportive and toxic environment. Leaving was the best possible outcome.
MA: Hindsight is 20/20 but while you were in the thick of it, did you consider quitting? And if so, was it mostly financial reasons that kept you there, or old work habits dying hard?
JH: I did consider leaving after the first two years or so, but one of the board members convinced me to stay, in part to save the reputation of the chairman of the board since the organization had a hard time finding good leadership. I was thinking about different exit strategies, but the success that I was having—publishing award-winning books, for example—undermined my resolve to leave. I guess I felt a bit conflicted, and my habit of persevering and overcoming challenges certainly played a part in the decision to stay.
MA: What happened once you left the job?
JH: Curiously, once I got the FedEx telling me that my contract wasn’t being renewed, my house that had been on the market for several months sold immediately.
MA: So you left your job, sold your house, and started your relocation process, all at the same time. That’s a lot of change and uncertainty. How did you manage that along with your disappointment about how the job had ended?
JH: It was a time of extreme highs and lows. It was great that the house sold quickly, but I had to stay in the area for another three to four months. Luckily, I was invited to live at a local retreat center run by a more liberal branch of the Swedenborgian church during that period of time. That experience provided me with a much-needed pause, time for reflection, and the company of loving, thoughtful people. The retreat center is in the countryside, and the woods were just outside my door. I realized how peaceful I felt in nature, which influenced my future decision about moving to Santa Fe and where to live once I got there.
MA: How did you choose Santa Fe?
JH: My daughter and I had lived there when she was a baby, and I always wanted to return once my financial situation became more stable. But first I wanted to see where Louisa was headed before deciding where I would move. After she got a job in LA, I began to look west. Santa Fe is a creative place, with a special energy, and the light is beautiful. It’s a very inspiring atmosphere that attracts interesting and open-minded people.
MA: You bought a house?
JH: I found an artist’s casita just outside of town, and it spoke to me. I don’t think I would have chosen to live out in the country if I had not had that time at the retreat center.
MA: What were some of the challenges of adjusting to life in Santa Fe?
JH: Overall, the transition was a resounding success! Once the cloud of that job had lifted, I was able to focus on my new life. I joined a tennis/health club, and have been playing on a USTA tennis team. Playing tennis has been a lifeline; in addition to the exercise, I enjoy the camaraderie of the group, the friendships I’ve made, and the competition. I also practice yoga, have joined a writing group, and have taken Spanish language classes as the community college. I have a renewed appreciation for the value of community.
MA: We never get enough quality time with friends when we are in the midst of a 24/7 career, and it’s great that you have that now. What about your professional transition?
JH: During the first two years here in Santa Fe, I served on the board of a small local nonprofit that promotes publishing in New Mexico. It was a good opportunity to get to know local authors and the publishing community. I also started a publishing company with a friend, and am doing consulting work for another small publisher in the area. And I wrote a book.
MA: You wrote a book?
JH: Yes, it’s called Spiritual Law: The Essence of Swedenborg’s Divine Providence. The idea came out of my master’s thesis—I wanted to make Swedenborg’s philosophy accessible to the lay reader.
JH: Thanks. It was terrific to get it published and it was great to do it on my own. Plus, it got a starred review in Publishers Weekly.
MA: Are you still writing?
JH: I’ve got two more related books in the works, and have already started on a memoir and other writing projects. This summer, I attended a memoir- writing workshop run by Cheryl Strayed, the author of Wild, on the Isle of Patmos. The workshop was a major turning point in my approach to writing and living. I met wonderful people, attended great master classes, and fell in love with Greece.
MA: Retiming at its best—and what a change from the toxicity of your last job! How important is your publishing house to you?
JH: It’s important. I want to write and publish good books that make a difference, and have a sense of purpose. I look forward to generating some revenue, of course, but it’s more important to experience the joy of producing, writing, getting good reviews, and reaching people. The joy is what drives me, not the money. I am also getting some freelance assignments, but I’m selective about those. I don’t want to end up in the same rut as before, when work was all there was.
MA: What’s the biggest difference you notice in yourself since retiming?
JH: I am calmer. I’m really happy and very productive doing varied activities. Before, when I was in the throes of my 12-hour workdays, and the exhaustion that resulted from them, I didn’t have a chance to catch up—to evaluate things, and not be so anxious and reactive. I have a much better quality of life now.
MA: How do you feel now about that last full-time job?
JH: Although I thought that job would be the pinnacle of my publishing career, it turned out to be a huge disappointment. It has, however, given me a much greater appreciation for what I have now.
MA: Do you have any advice you would like to share?
JH: No matter where you are in your career, my advice is to never forget that your well-being has to be a priority. Nothing will be perfect, but the negative cannot outweigh the positive. If I’d had a better work-life balance back then, I wouldn’t have burned out and continued in such an unappreciated role. I could’ve assessed my work situation earlier, with greater clarity, and saved myself a lot of angst. I’m very relieved to be out of there, and very happy with where my life is these days.
MA: What does success look like to you?
JH: Being healthy in mind, body, and soul. Being able to have lots of creative expression. Having supportive and loving friends and family.
MA: What’s more important: well-being or money?
JH: Well-being, without a doubt.
MA: If you had one more hour in the day, what would you do with it?
JH: Read more.
MA: if you had one less hour, what would you give up?
JH: That’s hard. I’d probably give up some of my quiet unstructured time in the morning, but I wouldn’t want to.
MA: Do you dance?
JH: I love to.
MA: What music do you dance to?
JH: My favorite way to clean the house is to crank up some rock and roll on Pandora, and dance. I also enjoy music from the 60s and 70s, blues, Lucinda Williams, Dolly Parton, Taylor Swift, and of course Adele.
“Life is the dancer and you are the dance.”
― Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose
[This interview has been condensed and edited.]