If I Don’t Know My Purpose Am I A Retirement Failure?

Photo credit:  Ian Schneider

When I was in my 50s, I gave my mother (who was 30 years older) a copy of Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life.  She was in a funk, battling a tendency toward untreated depression, and I thought it might help her.  Of course, I hadn’t considered some underlying reasons why that was a poor idea (she was an avowed atheist and often frustrated by her generation’s limited expectations for what women would do outside the home).  My inappropriate choice was based on the title, which implied that everyone already has a purpose and our job is to accept and live into it.  My mother didn’t read it, so I feel only a smidgen of regret at the gift.  But I think that I was dead wrong….

Here I am, almost as old, inundated with a drumbeat of blogs, and aphorisms that urge me to FIND—REIGNITE–CREATE a purpose-driven life, which is typically described with an almost sexual PASSION at the center.  A sampling from the web includes: 

  • “Be fearless in the pursuit of what sets your soul on fire”
  • “Life – seize it and make it amazing. Discover your passion. Take chances. Follow your dreams. Today is the day. Don’t pass it by”
  • “There is no passion to be found playing small—in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.”
  • “The things you are passionate about are not random. They are your calling.”

Books extolling this certainty for later-in-lifers proliferate –now is the time to find that passion!  Directly or subtly, effort is at the core:  How to find your passion after you retire.  As one website, 60 & Me suggests, now is the time for people to become more purpose-driven and more passionate – and probably do something that looks like work (paid or unpaid):

“The overlap between what you are good at and what you are paid for is your profession. On the other hand, what you are paid for and what the world needs is your vocation or calling.  The point where what you love overlaps with what the world needs constitutes your mission. Then lastly, the combination of what you are good at and what you love is your passion.”

THIS QUOTE EXHAUSTS ME, in part because I had to read it three or four times to understand it.  MOREOVER, IT MAKES ME FEEL BAD ABOUT MYSELF. Not only do I have to have purpose and passion – I need a mission and a vocation in my retirement!  I have no idea where to start with this….

There is a dark underbelly to the mandate of finding purpose at all life stages.  I have a colleague, quite brilliant, a wonderful administrator who effortlessly makes things happen within a large bureaucracy, is exceptionally kind, and who suffers from a sense that her life is not meaningful because there is no focused PURPOSE at the center, nothing that DRIVES her daily work.  She feels that she is not enough.  Her work life lacks passion. Or focus. Or certainty.  Or something. 

I don’t blame Rick Warren, although producing a book that has sold 30 million copies provides impetus for others to adopt his words (but not his meaning).  Warren’s work focused on finding purpose by living fully into beliefs and a community shaped by a particular set of virtues and principles.  It has less to say to the self-motivated individual who tries to self-actualize through individual striving.  His title was highjacked.

So, back to age, retirement, and a redefined “purpose”. I find comfort in some ideas that I have come across, most of which involve making purpose more “right sized” in our lives rather than the driver of happiness and fulfillment.  Dmitri Pavluk talks about self-actualization, which includes insight (think of the Buddha!), awareness and clarity (look around; be observant!), and connectedness (Yay! Other people) – and, yes, something called purpose.  In other words, purpose can only be understood in the context of a whole life that has both inner and outer expressions. The elements that he defines as self-actualization are related, fluid, and inseparable.  We change.  We grow. Life does not always happen on the schedule that we had in mind. 

Mark Manson, whose blog often addresses questions of personal meaning, says it more simply:

So when people say, “What should I do with my life?” or “What is my life purpose?” what they’re actually asking is: “What can I do with my time that is important?”

I couldn’t make my mother happy, but I know that she adored her family and made my high school friends want to come over to our house because they felt so welcomed.  She exposed me to eggplant in the late 1950s, when no one else in Ann Arbor knew what an eggplant was, much less how to cook it.  She enjoyed living in several foreign countries during her adult life. She taught me not to stand on the sidelines when an important political question is on the agenda.  I am not an atheist, but her questioning of EVERYTHING has been an invaluable model for me.  I remember her (when not severely depressed) as “right sized” and adventuresome. 

When I look at Ian Schneider’s photo above, what I see is visual irony:  How often do passion-purpose lead us to a place where all we can (metaphorically) see is our tired feet in a featureless landscape?  That sense led one of my internationally recognized colleagues to retire earlier than he had planned.  However, a year later, as we checked in at a casual breakfast, he described his choices about how to spend his time—to read and think, explore awareness and joy of nature, create new connections with his wife –with a sense of gleeful gratitude

In the end, isn’t caring for a precious asset – time – at the core of purpose?  I can do the most important and meaningful things that are available today.  And tomorrow.  And stop worrying about BIG PURPOSE AND PASSION.  …To be continued….

25 thoughts on “If I Don’t Know My Purpose Am I A Retirement Failure?

  1. Thank you, Karen. As I look forward to retirement in the near future, I have started to feel the very pressure you identified – find that one big thing that will drive your purpose! Thanks for the concept of right-sizing. I would add that purpose isn’t singular, especially in retirement.


  2. Karen, I’ve thought about this topic as well. Part of my thinking revolves around my three Rules for Retirement:
    1. Does it have to be done? Yes. OK, I’ll do it. (dishes, laundry)
    1a. It can be done whenever I feel like it.
    2. Does it have to be done? No. Will I enjoy doing it? No. OK, I’m not going to do it.
    3. Does it have to be done? No. Will I enjoy doing it? Yes. OK, I’ll do it.
    I’ve concluded I don’t *need* to have a purpose (anymore). Like you, I had a purpose during my entire career at the U of Minnesota. The purpose varied with the position held, but in all four of them, I felt I was making a positive contribution to advancing the mission of an institution, the goals of which I vigorously endorsed. After 40+ years, however, I decided I don’t have to have a purpose. I can read murder mysteries and whatever other books strike my fancy, putter in the garden, work on my high school reunion, work on Krystin’s book, teach people to play bridge—all activities I enjoy but none of which constitute “purpose” in any larger sense of the term. I also intersect with Elliott and his life as he wishes and make whatever contributions I can to him. So the idea of purpose in life doesn’t bother me.


  3. Karen,
    As always, I enjoy hearing (in this case, reading) your thoughts. Retirement can take many forms, most of which you (and others in their comments) have captured here. For those of us for whom strategic planning was a passion throughout our careers, we tend to approach retirement as a project rather than the next phase of our life journey. Having retired from the University of Minnesota at age 59 in order to accept a marriage proposal, pack my bags, get married for the first time, and move to Duluth, I approached retirement as an entirely new adventure with lots of unknowns. Oh, I had dreams of traveling domestically and internationally with my husband, Jerry, and we honeymooned in Italy, Austria, and Germany together. But the rest of that dream was not meant to be…instead, our life took an unexpected turn. With symptoms dating back at least seven years, Jerry was diagnosed with Lewy Body Dementia in 2016. I am still his loving wife and step-mother to three sons and their wives, but I am also Jerry’s health care advocate and primary caregiver 24/7. Despite Jerry’s devastating diagnosis, he still delights in the activities of our nine grandchildren, especially our soon-to-be first-grade grand twins. At this phase of our life journey together, our grandchildren warm my heart, and my faith, courage, and stamina sustain me. I enjoy singing in our church choir, get regular exercise, and look to family and friends here in the Northland for help and support. And despite the many challenges that lie ahead, my purpose in retirement has been revealed, the light of God’s presence and care will never dim, and I am truly blessed.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Carol — your story is an important reminder that we often don’t get to choose our future — just as true for most college students as older people….life happens, and resilience is what allows us to have hope and fun.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Carol, I know you were writing more to “Karen” but I can’t help but comment on how your “faith, courage, and stamina” are an example to us all as we balance the priority of planning with the reality of what shows up in our lives. You note that you are truly blessed and may these blessings continue to abound. Thank you for your thoughts.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Thank you, Karen Martha, for sharing your thoughts about my story. Your kind words are greatly appreciated.


  4. And, as fascism rises in the US and globally, perhaps we can think not just of ourselves and what gives us pleasure in retirement, but of what the world demands of us. Many of us have the luxury of time — and perhaps we can use this luxury on behalf of something larger than personal satisfaction in retirement. It is amazing what can happen when a lot of people show up.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for reminding us of the many paths available upon retirement. I cannot speak for Karen Rose, but I see retirement not so much as about “personal satisfaction” but about a changed encounter with my authentic self, what I have been calling “soul work” in a blog and in more to come. Parker Palmer captures where I am on my journey well: “the movements that transform us, our relations, and our world emerge from the lives of people who decide to care for their authentic selfhood (p. 31). . . We are here not only to transform the world but also to be transformed.”

      I went to my 50th class reunion in 2012, and I was amazed by all the people who seemed to be engaged in “personal satisfaction” judging them to have shallow lives, since I was still working in education, which felt like a more noble endeavor to me. Now that I am retired, I am more understanding about the various ways that people choose to live their lives. I agree, the opportunity and time to effect change in our world feels immediate in retirement, but again, not to everyone, and I respect the choices people make, believing that those choices are their path. I love Mary Oliver’s lines: “it is a serious thing/ just to be alive/ on this fresh morning/ in the broken world.”

      This is exactly the kind of discussion we hope to promote with our blog. Thank you again for your comments.
      Karen Martha


  5. Karen, your essay immediately reminded me of the words on the grave of my father: ‘ne contente mens’. Since I guess that not many understand this Brabant-Dutch dialect it could translated as: ‘A contented man’.
    This is how he described himself in the many conversations we had during the last months of his life. He knew and appreciated his ups and downs, his strengths and weaknesses, his accomplishments and failures, He was sent to war at a young age only to find out later is was the wrong war in the eyes of those who sent him there in the first place. And he never was bitter, stayed loyal to country and king. He built his business as a real estate broker only to find out that the ones he trusted could not be trusted. But trust in the other person was a core value throughout his life. He was devoted to his profession but also worked all his life in his parish as a volunteer. He was well known in the upper circles of our city but he loved to sit, drink a pint and chat with the bike shop owner, the plumber, the gardener, the factory worker in our neighborhood. He may have drank too much occasionally and was in our view a right wing conservative army reserve. But he was proud on what his seven children (his squad as he mentioned to outsiders) accomplished in life be it academically or otherwise and made friends with all their friends.
    To make it short: in his retirement I could see that he enjoyed the life he has had and at that time still had. There was no longer a purpose like providing for a family of seven, saving the parish church from the fiscal manoeuvres of the bishop, building a professional training course for would be real estate brokers. There was time to do things that would contribute to his sense of a balanced life with my mother. Reading the paper, spending a few weeks in Limburg, travelling with friends to Santiago de Compostella, working the garden. Gradually their world became smaller but it was a happy world in a smaller house but in the same parish.
    That is how he became ‘ne contente mens’. I guess that it could be a purpose to pursue for all those in retirement.

    Boudewijn A.M. van Velzen.


    • What a beautiful and balanced description of one man’s life. It inspires me because I can see that not everything was easy or black and white, yet your father followed his values as closely as he could. I especially enjoyed reading about how he spent his later years. Would that any one of us do so well. Thank you, Karen Martha


    • Your comments about your father flood me with memories about my evolving insights into how different it is to be/think Dutch than American. Not only are your paragraphs a tribute to a man, but they evoke thoughts and images that I can’t express well in English, but for which my Dutch is too poor. I also think of Nijs Lagerweij, who (when he was feeling content), would look at me and say (in English, which he never really loved speaking) “I am at ease.” Somehow the idea of being at ease — comfortable in one’s own skin, while remaining cognizant of the difficult passages and compromises that we have made and may continue to make, may capture it. Thank you….and I found this…It is so hard to read poetry in any language, but this feels right.

      De Contente Mens
      Hij is niet tegen het nieuwe,
      niet tegen de vooruitgang,
      niet tegen de aardse geneugten
      doch is tegelijk levenswijs.
      Het leven zowel als zijn aard maakte
      hem enigermate filosofisch berustend.
      Hij laat zich niets wijsmaken,
      verwacht niet te veel,
      doch verheugt zich over het goede om hem heen
      en dat alles vormt zijn tevreden zijn, zijn content zijn.


  6. Great article! Small things count. I believe that every person great or small has important work to do. But it doesn’t have to be something extraordinary or amazing. It can be something very small, like thinking well of yourself and being satisfied with who you are, what you want to be and what you want to do. I also believe that it is more about the journey and less about the destination. The point of life is just living. No need to put so much emphasis on reaching a destination. Happiness happens every day.


    • Thanks so much Joanne — for those of us (like me) who have paid too much attention to the rewards of “productivity” (whether a book or a nice dinner party), it is wonderful to occasionally wake up with gratitude and a commitment to just doing the next right thing. I tweeted your blog post about National Book Week!


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