Putting Purpose in Your Life

For most of my working life, this was how I imagined my retirement would be:

7:00 a.m. – Wake up slowly to birds chirping (no alarm clock).

8:00 a.m. – Meander around the garden, exercise a bit, read the papers.

Noon – Lunch at the golf course with three golf buddies.

1:00 p.m. – Tee it up, break 80, win all of the bets.

7:30 p.m. – Dinner out. Dry martini, rare New York strip, red wine.

11:30 p.m. – Bed with soft pillows, crisp cool sheets.

And last year, on my first day of retirement, I did pretty much exactly that.

My life of perfect leisure continued for several weeks. I’d wake up every morning cherishing my new-found freedom and have some sort of “perfect day.”

But then, somewhere into the second month, the pleasure I was getting from my new life diminished.

I felt as though I were getting mentally and emotionally fat. I wasn’t accomplishing anything except amusing myself. It wasn’t the great thrill I thought it would be.

I resolved to get busy. I insinuated into my schedule any number of projects I hadn’t had the time for when I was working. I fixed the screen door. Put a bike hoist in the garage. Organized my CD collection. Cleaned up my files. Worked the honey-do list. And so on.

This felt pretty good, but I eventually ran out of important projects. And when that happened, I was stuck.

About that time, I got a phone call from the guy who took my place at work. He told me how his job was going, the challenges he was facing, the successes he had enjoyed. I gave him a few pointers. But when I hung up the phone, I felt sad. I realized I was envious.

Somehow, the euphoria I had enjoyed in the first week of retirement had been replaced with something else. It was a feeling of–I can’t quite describe it. I felt rootless. Unanchored. Irrelevant.

Every look at the calendar app on my smartphone triggered this feeling. All of my rectangles used to be filled. Now–except for golf dates and dentist appointments–they were vacant.

If you are not retired now, you may think you want a calendar that looks like that. Trust me, you don’t.

In my third month of retirement, my “perfect” days had devolved to this:

7:30 a.m. – Wake up feeling irrelevant.

9:00 a.m. – Putter around the house like an old fool.

11:00 a.m. – Nap.

1:00 p.m. – Golf–so what?

7:00 p.m. – Complain about how bored I am while eating dinner.

8:00 p.m. – TV.

About six months into my retirement, my uncle and aunt came to visit. I admire my uncle. I asked him what he thought about retirement.

“The best thing about retirement is waking up knowing you can do anything you want to,” he said. “The worst thing, for many people, is exactly the same thing.”

In an essay Mark wrote for Early to Rise years ago, he put it this way:

Some people, who have had meaningful careers, retire with the hope of finding bliss in leisure but then find that leisure has given them a life without meaning. They feel lost. But there is no reason ever to live a single day without purpose.

When I was working, my goals were clearly defined. I had to build my business. I wanted to pay off the mortgage. I needed to fund my children’s college education and save money for retirement.

All of these goals motivated me. And because I enjoyed the work I was doing and did it well (most of the time), I felt like my life had a useful purpose.

Finding Your Purpose Is Important

But in thinking about retirement, I never considered that all of the leisure activities I intended to do might not give me that same feeling of purpose. In fact, I never realized that purposefulness was a huge part of the satisfaction I had derived from my life.

I realized that what I was missing was purposefulness. But now that my career goals had been accomplished, how could I find that?

Another thing Mark wrote helped me solve this riddle. He wrote, “You can’t achieve happiness by trying to be happy. You can’t have a quality life when all you are doing is taking care of yourself. The secret to living well is to pay attention to things and people outside of you. Only by looking outward can you find inward peace.”

I made a decision to incorporate “outwardly” focused activities into my life.

I got involved with a local charity I admired. I took this gig with The Palm Beach Letter. I transformed a strained relationship with my brother by helping him launch a very cool business. And sure enough, I started to feel a whole lot better about my life.

Now my day looks like this:

7:00 a.m. – Wake up feeling energized.

8:00 a.m. – Exercise.

10:00 a.m. – Research and write for PBL.

11:00 a.m. – Study my PBL investments and/or work on my brother’s business.

12:00 p.m. – Work on my charity.

1:30 p.m. – Do whatever I want for the rest of the day.

10:00 p.m. – Soft pillows, crisp cool sheets.

You get the point. When it’s all about trying to please yourself, retirement isn’t the pleasure trip you imagined. The trick, as Mark says, is to replace meaningful career activities with other meaningful activities while leaving yourself plenty of time for leisure.

If you are feeling the same way, there are steps you can take. For example:

  • Consider teaching. My wife’s cousin spent his career working in the trust department of the bank. Before retiring, he called on the dean of a local college to find out whether they might need some part-time professors. He now teaches a financial planning class every semester. And he loves it. And surprisingly, one does not need a teaching degree to work at the college level.
  • Work with the underprivileged. During the last four years of my father’s life, he taught reading once a week to prisoners at the local penitentiary.
  • Grow a garden. And donate the food to a local charity.
  • Volunteer to work for a nonprofit you feel strongly about. My aunt retired from the government five months ago and has poured her passion into the Friends of Liberia organization.
  • Become a consultant. My brother, upon retiring from NASA, did several projects on a contract basis for his former employer.
  • Get involved with local government. Attend the meetings of decision-making bodies. Volunteer for appointed boards and city commissions.
  • Embrace your cultural heritage. Become part of a group that celebrates and preserves your cultural traditions. For example, my aunt, who is of Irish descent, volunteers at Solas Nua, a center for Irish thought, literature, music, and more.
  • Participate in community activities. My town, Delray Beach, Fla., has many festivals and always needs volunteers to help run them.
  • Or best of all, make some money.

Here’s the thing. You can’t appreciate the day without the night. The yin without the yang. It’s all about balance. So nowadays I book “meaningful work” into every retirement day. And guess what? It helps. I get enormous satisfaction from my outwardly focused activities, and this allows me to enjoy my leisure time too.

So if you are pre-retirement, start looking for that activity that isn’t about you. And if you’re already retired? The advice is the same.

[Ed Note: Bob Irish recently retired from a long and successful career in the investment business and also wrote about investing in the past for Early to Rise. Bob is hardly poor. But neither is he super wealthy. In our view, he will be a great addition to our content because he will be writing about a way of living that we want for every Early to Rise reader.]
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  • I agree wholeheartedly with this. I have seen a lot of people dreaming of retirement and getting sick and tired of it very quickly. Perhaps, this is why so many retires people volunteer. It is a great feeling to help others, and to actually have time to help others. I get the same feel from my website, which I started for business, but quickly came to a conclusion that I feel much better helping others than deriving money by any possible way just to keep it profitable.

    Giving is certainly a great purpose in life.

  • I whole-heartedly agree! I am a recent retiree, and as I was nearing retirement my greatest fear was that I would find myself feeling bored and useless. I retired from teaching after nearly 40 years, and so I began to substitute teach. I have been a consultant to teachers in the past, and am looking for ways to better use my skills in that area as well. But I felt I needed something more. One thing I did was become involved in a business that enables me to help people reach out to others in kindness and gratitude while providing them with a vehicle to supplement their income or develop financial freedom. Becoming involved in business has “forced” me to meet new people by attending networking meetings, seminars and conventions. I am enjoying it completely! I have also become more involved in my church and with Woman’s Club (GFWC) at the state and local level. My mother is 85 years old and still actively volunteers at the local hospital, and is active in several different women’s groups. I hope I can follow in her footsteps!

  • This is soooo true! After retiring I realized I needed more so I became a volunteer tennis coach at the high school that opened up just down the road from my house. This evolved into me becoming the head coach last year. I also started a website to “grow” the sport of tennis in our community. I provide instruction, clinics, and open court play and enjoy ever minute of it. This has become a labor of love, and working with the teenagers keeps you young! I’d be lost without having this purpose in my life.

  • Sheila VanKeuren

    This was such a timely report. I am approaching retirement and have the exact same feelings as the writer had as he approached his retirement days. I have had some soul searching moments trying to find something that will bring me pleasure and fill my days and I have to admit I have not found an answer yet. Until I do, I think I may postpone the decision to retire. Another choice that might be available to me is to go part time, if the insurance piece can be worked out.

  • College teaching is not a retirement job. Nor should you be happy that it doesn’t require a teaching degree. Students pay a fortune for college education. College teaching is a calling – a vocation. It’s not a retirement home for has-beens who can’t cut it any more. This attitude is exactly what’s wrong with education. Colleges need professors who have fire inside their heart. Its shameful that you suggested this. A disrespect to college students and their investment. Gino Arcaro

  • I retired less than 2 months ago after 42 years with a transportation company. After only a few days after I retired I signed up for the ETR contest. I’ve been busy ever since that the time just flies by. Following the the input from ETR has kept me hopping. Keeping a schedule, making daily lists, exercise & looking for business ideas & all the rest. I thought being retired was going to be laid back, my back is sore from exercise, there’s more video’s & info’s to study than I have time for, and I have to give a daily account of what I’m doing, I even have to watch everything I eat. ETR is really a blessing for it helps me be the best that I could ever hope to be. Thank you ETR.

    • Craig Ballantyne

      Happy to help!