who were Lewis & clark

Retirement Lessons From Lewis & Clark

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I recently read one of the best books I’ve ever read.

It led me to places I never imagined.

As a result, I even “became a professor”, teaching a class at the University of North Georgia on what I had learned. (But I’m getting ahead of myself.)

The book was about Lewis & Clark.  As I was reading, I couldn’t help but see the countless metaphors of how their expedition applies to our retirement journey.   They provided lessons that each of us can benefit from as we navigate our retirement expeditions. 

Today, I’m sharing the retirement lessons from Lewis & Clark.

These lessons will help you achieve success in your retirement in the same manner Lewis & Clark successfully navigated their journey to the Pacific Ocean.

I trust you’ll enjoy the journey. 

Lewis & Clark led an amazing expedition of discovery. In the process, they provided a roadmap for how to live a great retirement. Today, I'm sharing their retirement lessons... Click To Tweet

what Lewis & Clark discovered

Retirement Lessons From Lewis & Clark

One of the best books I’ve ever read is Undaunted Courage (Amazon affiliate link), a #1 New York Times Bestseller written by Stephen Ambrose. If you’ve not yet studied the amazing feat that was the Lewis & Clark expedition, I strongly recommend you consider reading the book.  I didn’t fully realize the scale of their expedition until I read this book and was mesmerized by all that they endured.

Whenever I read, I try to think of ways to apply what I’m learning to my own life.  I consider myself an “active reader” and enjoy challenging myself as I read words written by others.

This book penetrated my mind, and I couldn’t help but see the connection between what I was learning from Lewis & Clark and our journey of retirement.  I’ve always enjoyed thinking in metaphors, and this book was full of them. 

A month after I finished the book, I received an invitation to speak to the Los Angeles chapter of the American Association of Individual Investors (AAII).  I presented on the retirement lessons from Lewis & Clark. (The webinar was recorded, you can view the YouTube video here).

A few months later, I was invited to teach a class at the University of North Georiga as part of their Personal Enrichment, Action and Knowledge Series (PEAKS). Since I had a presentation ready from the AAII work, I suggested the same topic.  They agreed, and last week I “taught” my first college class. 

Below is a photo from the session:

teaching a class on lessons from Lewis & Clark
“Professor Fritz” teaches his first University class.

If you’d like to see the slideshow I used for both presentations, you can view it here: “Learning To Thrive In Retirement: Lessons From The Lewis & Clark Expedition.”  (Note: some slides of interest are not included below, so I’d encourage you to take a few minutes to scan through the entire presentation.)

I’ll incorporate relevant slides from the presentation as I outline the lessons from Lewis & Clark below.  

Lesson #1:  The Lewis & Clark Expedition was Similar to Retirement

Following is a summary of key elements of the Lewis & Clark expedition.  As you read the list, think of how many of these attributes also apply to our journey in retirement:

  • A journey into the unknown.
  • The journey included elements of danger.
  • Preparation was critical for success.
  • Self-sufficiency was required.
  • Once underway, it was tough to turn back.
  • There were unexpected developments en route.
  • The expedition was a success.

Lesson #2:  Preparation is a Key To Success

My personal belief is that the primary reason the Lewis & Clark expedition was successful was their level of preparation.  Imagine the questions they had to answer as they prepared for a 3+ year journey into the unknown. As I created this slide, I tried to imagine myself in their shoes as they prepared.  Then, I thought about all of the questions each of us have as we’re preparing for retirement.  The comparison is interesting:

what do I need to do to retire?

Lesson #3:  Milestones Help Keep Your Journey on Course

I created the following map to provide a summary of the Lewis & Clark expedition.  I find it a helpful way to comprehend at a glance the scale of their accomplishment:

Where did Lewis & Clark go?

As I thought about using their expedition as a metaphor for retirement, I modified the milestones to reflect those on our retirement journey.  Assuming the “Continental Divide” is the date of our retirement, I came up with the following milestones for our retirements:

what you nee

Recognizing there are milestones you need to achieve on your retirement journey is one of the lessons from Lewis & Clark.  Don’t jump blindly into your journey, but realize there are steps that you can take throughout the journey that will improve your chances of success. 

Lesson #4: Have The Right Team in Your Boat

Lewis & Clark were intentional when they chose members of their expedition, focusing on what skills each of the members could provide.  Their expedition success depended on having the full complement of skills “in the boat” that were required to meet whatever challenges they faced.  They needed good hunters to provide food, strong oarsmen to pull them up the Missouri River, people who knew how to trade with Indians, strong navigators to find their way, medical knowledge to deal with injuries, etc.

Likewise, retirement is not a journey we should take alone.  If you’re not 100% confident managing your finances as a DIY investor, this is an area where it justifies paying an expert to ensure you’re ready for retirement. Hire a CFP who’s worked with hundreds of others on their journey, they can help you navigate your way.  You’ll also need an attorney to develop your legacy plans, an accountant to help with your taxes, and a blog writer who writes about the unknown trail ahead (I know a guy, wink).

Lewis & Clark were partners in the expedition, and they focused on communication and understanding to avoid conflict.  In the same way, partners in a marriage have to work together to adjust to their new life in retirement.  Communication is key, and understanding your partner’s desires, strengths and weaknesses will go a long way to avoiding conflict during your expedition.  There’s a reason I cited relationships as one of the keys in my book, Keys To A Succesful Retirement.  Finally, realize your relationships with co-workers will fade, and focus on building relationships with the people you’ll be spending time with in retirement. 

Relationships mattered for Lewis & Clark, and they matter in your retirement.

Lesson #5:  Adapt For The Unexpected

Lewis & Clark knew very little about the Rocky Mountains they were to be crossing.  There were no maps of the area, and they were literally “blind” to what was ahead. Canadian surveyor Peter Fidler estimated The Rockies to be 3,250 feet tall during his 1792 survey.  In reality, the mountains were far more daunting, and hauling all of their supplies on foot would be impossible.

They needed horses.

Fortunately, during their ’04-’05 winter layover in present-day South Dakota,  they had recruited Sacagawea (and her Quebecois trapper husband, Charbonneau, who knew numerous Indian languages and served as a translator).  Sacagawea was a member of the Shoshone Tribe, an elusive tribe who lived in the peaks of the mountains and were famous horsemen.  Sacagawea was instrumental in facilitating the negotiations for the required horses, and the expedition was successful as a result. 

lessons from Lewis and Clark - horses

Similarly, we should be prepared for the unexpected in our retirements.  By studying information on Retirement Blind Spots, for example, we can “develop our own Sacagawea” to help us prepare for the things that might surprise us on the journey ahead.  Recognize you don’t know what you don’t know, and focus on building your knowledge and flexibility to adapt to the unknown challenges ahead. 

Lesson #6: Mitigate The Risks

Lewis & Clark faced seemingly insurmountable risks on their expedition, but that didn’t stop them from doing as much as they could to mitigate the risks they were aware of.  From their discussions with fur traders, for example, they knew they would face hostile Indians.  Part of the mission from President Jefferson, however, was to interact with as many of the Indian tribes as possible during their journey and compile information on their cultures, territories, and traditions.  To mitigate the risk, they brought extensive trading items they knew would be of value to the Indians (e.g., beads), and made sure they had members of their team who had skills in communicating and trading with Indians.  They had some close calls, but their strategy proved sufficient to mitigate the risk.

Knowing of the risk that they could die en route, they also made plans to have periodic shipments of all of their botanical samples and maps delivered “back East,” sending 1-2 members of their Expedition back with the materials to ensure safe delivery.  Likewise, they included members on their team who had boatbuilding skills in the event they had to carve canoes from trees to replace any lost boats en route (a strategy they had to use when they were unable to haul their boats over the mountains and needed replacement boats for the journey West from the Continental Divide).

One of the retirement lessons from Lewis & Clark is learning to recognize, prepare for, and mitigate the potential risks we face on our journeys.  Following are a few examples:

Lesson #7:  Explore Alternative Routes

The final of the lessons from Lewis & Clark comes from their return Eastward.  After spending the winter of 1805-06 on the Pacific Coast, the team pursued alternative routes back home (note the various green lines across the Rocky Mountains on the map of their route, below).

Lewis and Clark mountain route

Part of their mission from President Thomas Jefferson was to determine the northernmost point of the Mississippi River watershed since this was the definition of the land purchased in the Louisiana Purchase. In addition, he wanted them to find the easiest passage over The Rocky Mountains.  Neither objective could be met without exploring alternative routes. 

Their expedition benefited from seeking new paths.

As a metaphor for retirement, we should recognize the value of exploring different routes during our retirement years.  Our retirements benefit from the eager pursuit of our curiosity, and curiosity will lead us down new paths. As I wrote in Retirement Is Like A Game of Poker, we should always be open to picking up new cards and discarding the ones of lesser value currently in our hands.  It’s only by trying different cards that we can build our best hand.

Like Lewis & Clark, our journeys will benefit from seeking new paths.


As I think about the time I spent reading Undaunted Courage (Amazon affiliate link), two thoughts come to mind.

One, the book shed some light on retirement lessons from Lewis & Clark.  As I read through the book, I was continually surprised by how many metaphors applied to our lives in retirement.  Theirs was an extraordinary expedition, and there are lessons we can learn from them that will increase our odds of a successful retirement journey.  Summarized:

The Retirement Lessons From Lewis & Clark

  1. The Lewis & Clark expedition was similar to retirement.
  2. Preparation is a key to success.
  3. Milestones help keep your journey on course.
  4. Have the right team in your boat.
  5. Adapt for the unexpected.
  6. Mitigate the risks.
  7. Explore alternative routes.

The second thought is this:  we can all benefit from being “active readers.”  Rather than just reading the words on the page (or computer screen), THINK while you read.  Challenge yourself to find ways to apply the words to your life.  Make a game of looking for metaphors.

It makes reading more fun and can lead to places you never expected.

Like teaching in a University classroom.

Class dismissed.

Yours truly,

The Professor.

PS.  My Dad was a college professor for 38 years and “The Professor” was his nickname in the coffee shop where he met friends for breakfast every week.  I take great pride in adopting his nickname as my own, at least for today’s post.  I wish you were still around to read this post, Dad.  I truly enjoyed an afternoon of “standing in your shoes” and trust you’d be proud…

Your Turn:  Which of the lessons from Lewis & Clark most resonated with you?  Also, are you an “active reader?” If so, what truths have you found while reading a book?  Let’s chat in the comments…


  1. Wow Fritz, I must add this Stephen Ambrose’s book to my list. I thoroughly enjoyed his “Band of Brothers”. I love your comparison of how proper planning and execution will make a challenging journey successful in retirement. Contrast that to the first documented transcontinental exploration of North American 276 years before Lewis & Clark by Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, treasurer of Spanish Conquistador Panifo de Navraez. The mission was poorly planned, underfunded, and misdirected by an incompetent navigator that resulted in de Navraez landing in Tampa Bay looking for gold and glory instead of modern-day Mexico. They reached the mouth of the Mississippi River in Louisiana only to be swept out to the Gulf of Mexico losing Narvaez and his men forever. Only four of 300 men survived a brutal eight-year journey, traveling across the western edge of Florida, across Alabama, Louisiana, Texas into Mexico, reaching the Pacific Ocean in Mexico. Along the way they were harassed, enslaved, faced starvation, and were idolized as messiahs by the numerous tribes they encountered. They were rescued by New Espana (Mexico) colonialists in near Mexico City in 1536. If interested in this fascinating journey read “A Land So Strange: The Epic Journey of Cabeza de Vaca” by Andrés Reséndez.

  2. Professor,

    Valuable lessons and parallels!. Thanks for sharing.

    It underscores the importance of planning diligently and well – while remaining open and flexible to be able to adapt as the inevitable course corrections and unanticipated opportunities emerge.

    Your points on exploring alternative routes is key. This can really expand one’s vision of what the journey ahead could be, before charting a specific course forward. Often I see people envisioning a single path
    that ends up limiting.

    Always appreciate your insights.

    – Joe Casey

  3. Wow. Stretching a metaphor. Nicely done. Read the book years ago and am always impressed with such explorations. Of course, the bears we face in retirement are not nearly as scary or dangerous a grizzlies, though they might be as rare. And they were miserably depressed in Oregon/Washington. Was returning to the east a metaphor for a retirement gig?

  4. Great presentation and article! I have read the book and I love how you compared the two journeys. Thank you for the slides; I read the book on my Kindle and the visual representation of the trip was more difficult to get straight in my head.

  5. Great post, all of Ambrose’s books are great. After I read Undaunted Courage years ago it prompted me to read the full original and unabridged journals of Lewis and Clark. It can be a tough read with the language of the time, but it’s enthralling. And as mentioned by another commenter thankfully we don’t have to deal with the possibility of a grizzly around every corner. I guess it keeps you on your toes though

  6. Living in the Pacific Northwest, we have a lot of regional history regarding the Lewis Clark expedition. However, I never considered an analogy between their famous adventure and the retirement adventure. (I clearly need to be a more active reader!) When we are up in the mountains, my husband and I frequently wonder how Lewis & Clark felt when they got through a mountain peak and found another one looming ahead. (I guess that could be a good analogy for the challenges of life in general.)

    BTW – reading your blog helped blaze the trail for my way into retirement and starting my retirement blog. Thank you Fritz!

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