Michael KreponRetirement

Quote of the week:

“I do not intend to hide in the taiga (the woods).” — Mikhail Gorbachev, last telephone conversation with George Bush before announcing his resignation on Christmas Day, 1991.

After thirty years with Stimson, it’s time for me to retire. I’ll still be affiliated and keep my oar in the water, of course, but multiple signals are telling me that the time is right to make way, get on Medicare, and welcome the next stage of my life.

A lifetime of hard work combined with good fortune have allowed me to do many things I’ve wanted to do. Bonus time for me occurred in 2001 when I stepped down from running Stimson and stopped doing tasks that wore me down. There was more bonus time after close encounters with the medical profession.

If you are working to reduce nuclear dangers and arms control, you have been granted the gift of meaningful work. There are frustrations galore. As if the work isn’t hard enough, some workplaces are trying. It’s hard to avoid feeling trapped professionally at some points. I can relate, but others have it much harder. If you feel blocked at present, it may not be as bad as you think.

What can help in trying times? Perspective matters. Our time of troubles shall pass, and you will have the chance to clean up wreckage and begin new construction. I hold the belief that when you are working on a worthy cause, there is no such thing as a bad job because every workplace can teach you something. For starters, a job can teach you what you like and do not like about your workplace. You can put this to good use when you do gain more responsibility. I firmly believe that every job can help you develop at least one skill. Collect and hone these skills, and you’ll have upward mobility.

This philosophy has worked for me; you might try it out. If you do, you might find an easier path forward. And it could make you less disgruntled with the jobs you have along the way. If this constitutes Boomer-splaining, I plead guilty.

Two or three of you who are really dissatisfied with working for someone else and have the talent and policy entrepreneurship to succeed might try creating your own NGO. Then you can nurture a workplace for your peers.

Sounds far-fetched? Yes, until you realize that almost every NGO in this field started out this way. Stimson certainly did.

The best time for NGO start-ups is when the world is changing. The need becomes even greater when changes are negative. The Nuclear Threat Initiative, like Stimson, was created when the Cold War ended. Look at it now. The Arms Control Association was created in 1971 when debates over the ABM Treaty and MIRVs were intense and when former insiders joined together to increase their influence as outsiders. Check out the start-up dates of other NGOs in our field and I’ll bet that most of them were created during a time of great need and/or opportunity.

If you’re convinced that a start-up will fail for lack of funding, you won’t try to succeed. If you are bold enough to try, then don’t quit your day job. Informally approach funders that recognize the need to nurture talent and challenge them to provide a start-up grant.

You’ll need a game plan and a niche that is not well covered. The obvious niche is generational. Many of us of a certain age have a hard time reaching out to Millennials. You can do this better than we can. But you’ll need a plan, a signature program at the outset, energy and talent.

I’m here to testify. My first NGO start-up was in 1970. Two colleagues and I were graduates of M.A. programs but we learned more from teach-ins and demonstrations. The issue was Vietnam; our business plan was to channel my generation’s activism toward change in U.S. national security policy. We had something distinct to offer, but we needed lots of help.

We found help from a newly retired Cabinet officer. Willard Wirtz was the Secretary of Labor for John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson. He was starting up a consulting firm and had extra office space. Someone pointed us in his direction. We went to him and made our case. He sat behind his desk, puffing on his pipe. We told him that, whatever the cost was, we couldn’t afford the rent. He puffed some more and then said, “Stay as long as you like.”

I learned later that Mr. Wirtz got on LBJ’s busy calendar to express his misgivings about the Vietnam War. LBJ looked directly at him and asked, “Remind me, what Department are you running?” LBJ then told Mr. Wirtz that the meeting was over and resolved to fire him, but had too much else on his plate.

Willard Wirtz is one of my role models. His suite of offices was in 1211 Connecticut Avenue, NW – the same address as the Stimson Center’s current location.

One of the lessons Mr. Wirtz taught me is that retirement is about new beginnings. Next up is finishing my magnum opus on the rise, demise and revival of nuclear arms control. This story begins with Eisenhower. I’m now up to the Clinton administration, so I’m on the home stretch. Then I’ll explore some new things, offer counsel when asked, and check off items on the ‘to live for’ list that Alessandra and I have been compiling for four decades.

These posts will continue, more or less regularly. Writing isn’t just a habit; it’s a form of restoration and renewal.

Comments

  1. Andrew J. Pierre (History)

    Michael,
    Your very very perceptive contributions–in so many forms–have been outstanding and much valued by me. My only regret is that we have not had much direct contact. I am delighted to know that you will keep writing your thoughtful pieces and look forward to reading them. Stimson has been a great success!

    Best wishes for the years ahead…we need you now more than ever.

    Andrew (Pierre)

  2. Roberto Zadra (History)

    Thanks, a really nice message for younger generations. Greetings from Brussels.
    Roberto Zadra

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