Finding Your Purpose in a Long Retirement
I’m happy to be writing for Can I Retire Yet? again after a two-year sabbatical. I’ll be holding down the first-Monday-of-the-month position this year while Chris continues to fill out the rest of the calendar. It’s good to be back in this familiar place with its thoughtful audience.
In the coming months I’m looking forward to exploring some new directions and revisiting a few old ones. Topics on my personal radar include annuities, Medicare, senior living, taxes, inflation, budgets, and budget travel. I may range a little farther afield than in the past, but we’ll see.
Before diving back into personal finance for upcoming posts, in this one I want to take a deeper plunge into my time off from the blog. What were the motivations? What did I accomplish? And have I learned anything about the elusive quest to find purpose and meaning in retirement?
Turning a Page
I started Can I Retire Yet? in 2011 shortly after my early retirement, and I turned the reigns over to Chris about two years ago. So, for nearly a decade, this blog provided a rewarding creative and technical outlet for me. For most of that time I was excited to get up in the morning, learn more about personal finance, and turn that knowledge into blog posts.
But toward the end of my full-time years on the blog, I began to feel dissatisfied. The same old financial questions kept coming up, and they were becoming less fascinating to me. Farther down the road in retirement, I was becoming less interested in the settled questions and more exasperated by the unsettled ones like “What is the safe withdrawal rate?”
As I entered my sixties, I didn’t want the last productive chapter of my life to be all about money. I wanted to aim higher. We all know there is more to life than pinching pennies and monitoring investments. But there are new layers to that truism as you get older. You can’t take your wealth with you. But I like to think and live as though you can take the wisdom you’ve accrued.
After leaving the blog, I had several ideas on my plate. But an old boyhood dream bubbled to the surface — completing a long-distance hiking trail. Time was running out for the fitness that would be required. At any rate, it would only take me a season or two to complete, then I could get on to whatever was next.
Ironically, doing that hike led me to what was next: Writing a memoir that recounts my outdoor adventures along with some of the physical and mental challenges I’ve faced. The result, I hope, is a compelling story that is entertaining and educational for others.
That has blossomed into a huge project that has taught me much, and given me a strong sense of purpose.
Meanwhile, new trends in the economy, plus caring for aging parents, have rekindled my interest in personal finance.
So, I’ve got plenty on my plate for the foreseeable future!
In my article on Purpose posted several years ago, I wrote that ultimate purpose lies in something beyond the dollars, something that wealth enables, but doesn’t deliver on its own.
I’ve long observed that the high-performers who are likely to retire early are also the people likely to go on feeling the need for productive work of some kind. But that “work” may be different in retirement.
For many that work is intimately connected with service to others. I admire that impulse, but it isn’t my strongest drive.
For me, purpose has always been intimately tied to creativity. And by that I mean creativity in the broad sense of producing new ideas, or things, or services. In my career I was an engineer, not an artist, so creativity during my working years was mostly expressed through creating technical products.
Whatever purpose you find can in turn provide meaning.
How We Find Meaning
For my previous article I interviewed other early retirees and found ten “themes” that led to purpose and meaning in their lives.
Some of these themes include Recreation, Travel, Fitness, Giving Back, Caregiving, and Spiritual Growth. (I might also include Friends and Family in this group now, a prominent theme that I missed earlier.)
One other theme, Homesteading or tinkering on and improving your home, is a huge creative outlet for many. In a number of cases, that seems to be the main retirement project.
I need more than that. The themes most closely tied to creativity for me included: Hobbies, Learning, and Encore Career.
What is it about any one of these themes that inspires meaning? An old article I came across recently reminded me of some universal guidelines:
Love-based activities are more meaningful than those rooted in fear. Activities that inspire us with the joy and energy to seize each day will naturally produce more meaning. Having a principled structure to our life will keep it from being meaningless. And activities that require courage generally involve subjecting ourselves to change and new experiences — a process almost guaranteed to produce meaningful results.
The Life Cycle of Purpose
Many creative, hard-working people are not satisfied with the same purpose their entire life. Purpose is not static. It can, and probably will, change over time.
My own life has held several decade-long stages between which I shifted personal or professional gears. And, within each of those long stages, I can see smaller phases that repeat, the life cycle of a purpose, you might call them:
- Kickoff: newbie, drinking from the fire hose, learning, excitement, increasing power
- Stability: leverage, income, influence, opportunities, routine
- Maturity: obligation, boredom, impatience, repetition, limitations
In that last stage I find myself turning down opportunities for growth because I am no longer energized by the domain. I’m unsubscribing from emails, reducing my correspondence, and saying “No” to commitments. When that happens, it’s a reminder that new purpose may be in order.
The search for purpose is itself an important task. As long as you are alive, you may be on that quest.
Related: Becoming a Beginner in Retirement
In his book, Taking Stock, hospice doctor Jordan Grumet cautions against entangling your purpose with either the building of wealth, or the resting and relaxing after having done so.
Both are natural enough activities, not inherently wrong. But purpose goes deeper Grumet says. It comes from answering the question “What does becoming our best self look like?” The answer to that question is much more important than either making money or spending it.
Grumet also suggests purpose is not about having or achieving something, but about advancing toward some goal. That resonates with my experience. Purpose is found in the journey, not the destination.
To focus on your purpose, picture yourself, says Grumet, lying on your death bed and thinking, “I really regret I didn’t have energy/courage/time to…”
Whatever fills in that blank is a suitable purpose. Especially if it’s an “idea that keeps you awake at night.”
I’ve had a lot of wakeful nights wrestling with my idea to write a memoir.
Harder even than my long-distance hike has been writing a book about it. At first, I thought it would be a light travelogue. But then other authors helped me realize that if I wanted to write a memorable book, I had to draw on my personal life. That meant putting my failings and fears into print.
Telling that story has been an opportunity to set my life in order, to make sense of the highs and lows, to string them together into a coherent narrative that offers something to others. I have made mistakes, as detailed in the book, but perhaps my salvation is that I’ve learned from many of them.
Tackling this book was not a logical decision to achieve some goal. Rather it was my response to a transformative experience. It felt like a gift had been dropped into my lap. And it seemed a terrible waste not to share it by telling the story.
The result is the most ambitious writing project I’ve ever undertaken. I liken it to producing 32 perfectly-polished blog posts on a collection of topics that interconnect consistently with each other. It’s been grueling; it’s pushed me to my limits; but it’s also been deeply satisfying. The people I’ve met and friends I’ve made working through a year-long critique process have been inspiring. And all of this has produced a driving sense of purpose.
In a recent post, Chad at Clipping Chains wrote about the ancient Greek concept of eudaimonia, often mistranslated to “happiness,” but meaning more appropriately, “human flourishing.”
Chad describes four meaningful pillars revered by the ancients: belonging, purpose, storytelling, and transcendence.
I was immediately struck by the juxtaposition of purpose and storytelling.
Storytellers create narratives that supply meaning. Just ponder some examples from the world of personal finance:
- “Owning a home is the way to build wealth”
- “Getting a degree from a prestigious school is the path to professional success”
- “Buying insurance will keep you safe”
- “Living frugally and investing the difference is the route to financial independence.”
Whether right or wrong, those are all storylines that invoke a host of meaningful implications.
The storytellers control the conversation. If you want to lead or have an impact on the world, learn to tell stories. There is a raconteur role for each of us. It could be writing, visual arts, teaching kids, selling a product, lobbying, activism, or organizing volunteers around a cause.
I never thought I would be a storyteller. The skill hasn’t come easily to me. I’m not some extroverted entertainer. I can’t tell a joke to save my life. Even in the written domain where I’m comfortable, I’ve had to learn new techniques like writing dialog, using sensory impressions to describe scenes, and openly relating my feelings so the reader can experience them.
But I’ve learned a lot, and you can too.
Living uniquely, developing a valuable perspective, then telling the story, is a proven path to a meaningful life.
But it’s not easy. You can’t live a unique life without subjecting yourself to challenge and struggle. A key ingredient on the path to growth is pain or discomfort. Avoiding work and chasing after leisure is a deeply flawed strategy.
Aristotle knew this well. He taught that a life of flourishing was an active, inquisitive, and involved life, though one that still made time for contemplation.
Chad writes that the great opportunity of financial independence isn’t to “eliminate problems, but to create better problems.”
So, to find purpose, don’t stop working. Instead, do the most meaningful work.
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NEW BOOK: Beset by chronic pain in early retirement, I must learn how to walk again using crutches in order to realize my boyhood dream of completing a long-distance hiking trail through the towering Rocky Mountains. My memoir about that experience is Rain and Fire In The Sky: Beyond Doubt On The Colorado Trail. If you might be interested in reading a draft of the book, or being notified once it’s published, please add your email address to my list at this link. (Only used for occasional news related to the book.) Thanks!
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[The founder of CanIRetireYet.com, Darrow Kirkpatrick relied on a modest lifestyle, high savings rate, and simple passive index investing to retire at age 50 from a career as a civil and software engineer. He has been quoted or published in The Wall Street Journal, MarketWatch, Kiplinger, The Huffington Post, Consumer Reports, and Money Magazine among others. His books include Retiring Sooner: How to Accelerate Your Financial Independence and Can I Retire Yet? How to Make the Biggest Financial Decision of the Rest of Your Life.]
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