Thursday, September 29, 2016

Finding My Purpose

Last night I was reading a great blog, Our Next Life. A young couple, currently aged 39 and 41, is on the fast track to early retirement. They have done the planning and the math, and anticipate both of them being ready to retire at some point in 2017, this coming year. Wow -- I am impressed! I never could have retired in my forties.

In my online retirement reading, I have found that there is a considerable community of bloggers out there writing on Personal Finance (PF) and specifically on Financial Independence (FI). They discuss how to calculate the point at which you have accumulated sufficient savings and/or non-employment income to no longer need to work for pay for the rest of your life, and strategies for getting to that point. For most people writing on the topic, achieving FI is a goal that they have set as a prerequisite for retirement. With financial independence, your time can become your own. You are no longer obligated to sell your time in order to receive money to live.

A subset of younger bloggers have the objective of "Financial Independence - Retire Early" (FIRE). Many of these younger folks go to quite extraordinary lengths to establish a long stretch of future life for themselves unimpeded by the necessity of paid employment. One line of thinking is, why wait to retire until you are too old to enjoy it?

Mr. and Ms. ONL are on the FIRE path, and have written about their strategies and the process particularly thoughtfully. Browsing through their blog, I came across a post entitled: What Do You Want Your Tombstone to Say? // Defining Our Purpose. They make the point that retiring early is not just about escaping from unfulfilling or overwhelming work, but rather about the rich purposeful lives that they will be able to lead when the majority of the hours of the day are no longer committed to an employer. They present some simple exercises that they did (and that you or I can do) to help define their life purposes.

An interesting article I read recently related to this topic is: "Why You Wake Up Each Day" by Mike Drak and Jonathan Chevreau published in the Summer 2016 issue of Money Sense magazine (pages 27-30). In it they discuss the concept of "ikigai," a Japanese word that refers to having a sense of life purpose. They ask, "Once you have found your ikigai, why would you ever want to retire? What would you wish to retire to?" They argue that instead of working crazy hours and slaving to save for retirement, a better strategy would be to find your life purpose now, and re-balance your time and priorities to include a mix of purposeful work and increased leisure that will be sustainable throughout your life.

First, a couple of quibbles and asides. Many, and perhaps most people do not have work that aligns with their life purpose (assuming they know it) in a meaningful way. Second, it is devilishly hard to balance work and leisure, especially if you do have a satisfying, rewarding job. Our current economic system is designed as all or nothing: you have a fabulous well-paid job but you are expected to work 60+ hours a week at it, or you have no job at all (or a McJob). Finally, there is something deeply discouraging, even twisted, about young people and also our knowledgeable elders being so eager to divest themselves of work. There was a time when work was a primary way for a person to contribute their knowledge, skills and labour for the benefit of their family, community, and the world. How is it that our society has turned work into mindless drudgery, or into value-conflict-ridden excessive overwork, while the things we really care about must be pursued in our ever-decreasing leisure time?

Okay, now that I have that rant off my chest, my question is, what is my life purpose, my ikigai? I have to admit, that question fills me with anxiety. My gosh, I am sixty years old! Why haven't I figured out my life purpose yet?

Mr. and Ms. ONL's exercises have you start by generating a list of things you like to do and would do more of if you had the time, and then you work through to identifying themes, and ultimately your key life purposes. However, I have already done that. I have lists of what I would do more of (many of which I have written about in earlier posts on this blog.) In brief, if I were retired, I would write, paint, garden, travel, pursue outdoor adventures, volunteer for causes I care about/become engaged in community initiatives, and be more present in the lives of my grandchildren. I might "keep a hand in" at work, engaging in or continuing on with certain projects that I am very interested in.

That is not just one thing, a life purpose, but a whole bunch of things, none of which seem particularly earth shattering. I have tended to think of "life purpose" as something at a higher level, more significant. Long ago, I identified a "three-legged stool" that expresses my core directions and commitments: knowledge, creativity, and love. As I have revisited that stool over the years, it hasn't really changed. Perhaps I would add two more legs now, which are earth/nature, and health.

I was talking to Rob this afternoon, and he said he has never felt a need for a life purpose or any consequences for the lack of one. He is content to just be. (He is not an A-type personality.)

I, on the other hand, am an A-type controlling controller perfectionistic over-achiever. Deep down, although I know this may sound silly, arrogant, and unrealistic, I really do feel a huge sense of responsibility for doing my part to contribute to a better world, and a sense of duty to keep at it, retired or not. Whatever "it" is (that elusive life purpose). Certainly it's not just indulging myself in painting landscapes, writing fiction, or having fun playing with my grandkids -- is it?

Maybe I am thinking of life purpose in a way that is too grandiose and hierarchical. In fact, I have always had a wide range of eclectic interests and pursuits. Perhaps it is enough to have shorter term goals and pursuits that feed my brain, my heart, and my creative soul, and let the world look after itself. Maybe I need to take a page from Rob, and learn to just be (a little, from time to time). What could be better than really getting to know my grandchildren and being part of their lives as they grow up?

Maybe, if I do this, when I am 95 it will all come clear in retrospect: "Aha! So that was my life purpose!" Just as long as my epitaph does not say: "She always worked really hard."


  1. This is a very insightful and provocative post, Jude. I don't believe that our 'life purpose' can ever be summed up as just one thing, or focused on just one period in time. Rather, I believe that 'life purpose' is comprised of a gazillion snapshots in time, some big...and some seemingly tiny. Teaching a child to read...or to appreciate art. Listening to the lonely, comforting someone in distress or sharing a kind word. Writing insightful posts that help others to reflect and grow. All of these are very small things that add up to great purpose.

  2. Wise words, Donna. Thanks for making the point that little things add up over time to a larger purpose. Of course that is true. We make our lives one day at a time, always guided by our values and (sometimes shifting) sense of purpose. Bottom up, not top down. Thanks.

  3. Thought provoking post Jude. I sometimes wonder whether our life's purpose is something others will see, something we might even be unaware of. I agree about your stool analogy and the importance of love. Demonstrating that love through your actions can resonate across so many people and cause ripples that may inadveredly define your purpose. I'm getting myself tangled up in words here but hope you get my point? Anyway lovely post.

  4. John, thanks for sharing this thought about how love is translated by actions, and those actions resonate with others. When my dad passed away, the church was full with people standing at the back, and the service had to be broadcast to a screen in another room for additional attendees. He was engaged in the community in so many ways: school board, search & rescue, founder of the ski club and ski instructor, cadets, the Legion, the Rotary Club, the college board, work in the jail, and on and on. He touched the lives of so many people. Would he have said that he had "a" life purpose? Perhaps not, but he had a powerful sense of community and made many significant contributions.

  5. I found my way to your blog via Donna's Retirement Reflections, and randomly found this post. I wrote something very similar soon after I retired, and I've read several "what is my passion/purpose?" posts of others, so I don't think your question is unique. I think it is a rare person who has one great passion or purpose that they want to pursue in retirement. I think it's a good thing to have many interests (and you listed some great ones) and pick and choose them - or add others - as you go along. The important thing is to enjoy your life and not have too many regrets when you are no longer able to do the things you want to do.

  6. Hi Janis. Thanks for stopping by. The idea of "a" life purpose is pervasive, although as you point out so clearly, perhaps not that typical for most people. History tends to remember people for a particular significant contribution: discovered penicillin, painted lily ponds, wrote Lord of the Rings, etc. Yet no doubt those famous people had rich and complex lives with many interests and accomplishments, and maybe the thing they are most remembered for doesn't even align with what they would have described as their life purpose.

    I would like to read your post on life purpose. It is a topic that grips me as I become older and look back at my life and also look ahead. As Donna suggested above, perhaps life purpose is not a linear or overarching goal so much as the multiple facets of one's life when looked at as a whole.