For most of our lives, a sense of purpose is pretty automatic. As a kid, play helps you learn and grow toward being a productive adult. As a teen, you rebel as a way of gaining the confidence to step out into the world alone. As an adult, purpose is focused on meeting the needs of employers, customers, clients, or patients as well as making sure your kids, parents, friends, and communities thrive.
Although there are a gazillion studies that prove having a sense of purpose keeps you happier and healthier, society assumes we don’t have one in retirement. So there will be no grand ceremony where your new, customized retirement purpose is handed to you in an elegant envelope. (Sorry…)
At first blush, this seems like a gross injustice. In reality, it’s ideal. If personal purpose at this stage of life was predefined, we’d be cast in a common mold when we’ve grown into unique individuals capable of doing amazing one-of-a-kind things with our time and talents. It’s not a travesty that we need to seek our own purpose when we get this far. It’s a graduation present.
Retirement is for doing the rare good that only you know how to do. A big piece of that good is doing right by yourself wiht how you get involved in something bigger. That’s not common knowledge: your purpose needs to make you happy once you retire.
Virtually every single thing I’ve read in the last five years about retirement has addressed the need to have a purpose. None of those sources acknowledged that it’s difficult to figure out what it is. Finding your new purpose will be more like planting a garden than buying a new coat. You don’t see what you’ve invested in right away. A lot of work goes into it before things sprout–much less bloom. It often takes trial and error and some stumbling around to find it, too. That part should also be fun.
When my younger son graduated from college, he stayed in the same apartment in the same town and kept selling shoes at the same sporting goods store where he’d worked part-time since his sophomore year. This kid is usually highly motivated and had just gotten a very marketable degree. I was baffled. I knew it had to be coming from something more than just wanting to goof off. He had quasi-good reasons for staying where he was. “He owed it to his friends to cover his share of the rent.” (They all knew he was graduating and would be moving out in June when they signed the lease that included the summer months). “He wanted time to decompress after the rigors of school.” (What?!) The reasons got flimsier and flimsier as the summer set in.
I decided he might be paralyzed by too many options. But when I brought that up, he said he loved having so many options. It finally became clear as I pushed him for more information each time we talked about it: the problem was not the options. It was the perceived finality of the decision once he made it. He was seeing this one choice—what to do next–as an inalterable, lifelong commitment. If he chose wrong, he’d be stuck with that choice for as long as he lived.
Having made more than a handful of major career changes myself, good ol’ Mom was a fairly credible resource on this. Once we’d talked it through, he was quite willing to act. He landed a job within weeks and moved across the country to start a pretty amazing career. (And no, he is not doing now what he started at then.)
Don’t assume you only get to decide how you’re going to live retirement once either. You get to decide every day if you need to. The only inviolate rule is that you have to be the one deciding. And you have to decide based on what’s important to you and how you want to live your life. Choose consciously. And make a big piece of those choices about purpose. Is there a way you want to make the world just a little better? How can you get on with it in a way that’s fun for you at the same time? Then do that. If the choice turns out not to be a good fit, choose again.