In prior generations only the poets and philosophers wrestled with the “Why are we here?” question. Such angst seemed neurotic when the all religions pointed to the same purpose of human existence: to love God and serve others. To be humble before our creator and be a righteous member of your community.
Now in the Selfie era, this doesn’t seem to cut it. Many have cut loose of religion. Moralities – not morality – find less and less common ground. Agreement on what is good, true and beautiful has fragmented and even the idea that life could and should be meaningful seems squishy.
Against this backdrop of relativism and pluralities, FIers (people on a path to financial freedom) are uniquely pressured to figure out an answer to the “Why are we here?” question. The one commonality of all FIers is this living with intention. They know that life is choices and they have the guts to make them. They can’t escape the big “Meaning and Purpose” questions – because every expenditure has to contribute to one’s enough point: that bundle of things you will willingly work for and aren’t willing to live without. They are always asking, “What makes life worth living?” As your FI or retirement date approaches, this scrutiny shifts from purchases to your post job life. What’s worth doing? Where do I invest my time and attention when I don’t have to invest it in a job? Who am I if I am not my profession? Why am I working towards early retirement, anyway? Stopping work isn’t enough – what am I starting?
What am I going to do with my one wild and precious life? (see poem at the end)
You have decades to fill and economic necessity no longer structures your time, gives you and identity and circumscribes your possibilities.
I hit that existential angst myself when I had enough money and had run out of the plans I’d had for what to do with all that free time. One day I found a plush toy porpoise in an empty parking lot, some child’s loss and my gain. It came to represent my search for a porpoise/purpose in life – made me laugh to see how insecure I’d become without a definition recognized by society as purposeful. That was 40 years ago. Since then I’ve found an inner compass for shaping my daily life that has both meaning and purpose for me and many others. It’s like a gyroscope, or radar, or geiger counter. Something inside me reads my inner states and outer circumstances and orients me. Every moment of our free lives we have multiple options of where to step next. We step, committing to one of the diverging paths, and new options show up. Some steps are big, like signing a book contract. When I step there, my next steps are shaped for years – but eventually that assignment is fulfilled and I’m back to that sensing of where the lights are, where to step, what to invest myself in next.
How will you recognize which step is the right one? Here are three clues from my own 40-years of purposeful living.
- If you have a religious or spiritual bent, you have the benefit of an ethical framework you don’t need to reinvent. You are assured that God has a plan for you, that there is a “larger scheme of things” into which your life fits. This traditional guidance system has built in ways to serve. You can do good deeds, like take a mission trip to help out in a disaster or build a school or bring the teachings to others. You can join groups within your congregations – study groups, service groups, meditation/prayer groups. You can turn to elders in your religious tradition for guidance, either through pastoral counseling or spiritual retreats. You can renew your vows.
Religion however doesn’t give you a pass on looking within for guidance – and many find that even this sprawling framework of wisdom and beliefs is not enough to make choices that feel true. You have guidance, but not a free pass from making your own choices.
- An existential approach has far less certainty and far more range. You can do anything you choose to do, but you must reflect on the fruits of your choices to keep choosing well. To paraphrase John Lennon’s line, your life purpose is what happens when you are busy doing what you think your purpose is. You have purposes for what you do, and then discover the real purpose only in hindsight. Maybe you think your purpose is served by running for office, but in fact you lose and leave politics… after meeting your wonderful life companion. Or you win and stumble on an issue you knew nothing about and it grabs you and keeps you as its standard bearer for decades. You cannot escape purposeful living. If you are alive you make choices and these choices shape your life. Maybe you don’t know exactly what your purpose is, but even just the question, “What’s my purpose?” guides your choices. Robert Byrne said, “The purpose of life is a life of purpose.” If all this seems circular, it is running you around enough to understand that purpose isn’t something you don like an outfit, it’s something you live into, you discover in the rear view mirror. Your only job is to keep the faith that your life has purpose and to keep making the best choices you can and to keep humble and reflective and learn as you go. Living on purpose isn’t a set of goals. It’s an alertness to what life might be asking of you – or at least what you might be asking of yourself.
- You can also approach purpose through self-reflection guided by pointers of where to look for clues. You coax out specifics of your purpose by asking questions like: What am I good at? When am I happiest? What did I love doing as a young child? What moves me when I read the news? What are my core values? What would I like written on my tombstone? What longings have I denied because they were too bold, too scary, too exposed? Who do I most admire? If I could change one thing in this world, what would it be? What wants to live through me that has not yet had a chance to live? What am I most proud of having done, however small or large? What have I done because I was supposed to that turned out poorly? When does it seem like things are just falling into place? What shows up always when I show up (like what’s the tune that’s always playing in the background)? Through such inquiry you are almost defining the personality of your purpose so you’ll recognize her when you see her.
All three of these have helped me along my path. The result is a life I always find useful, rich and interesting, always challenges me to grow, always strives to help others along their way however well or poorly, always feels right even when I stumble. It’s a life infused with fun, joy and intrigue. I’ve left a trail of accomplishments and relationships that in the grand scheme of things feels on the plus side of eternity’s ledger (if there is one).
In this moment, having fulfilled on the 2016 inner-call to update Your Money or Your Life with Millennials in mind, having launched the book and met many people on this path, I find myself paused and listening again.
The brightest light on my path at the moment is the desire to help others to find a path with heart, a path that reflects their own sense meaning and purpose, a path that’s both responding to the world’s call and to an inner calling. I want to help people draw their maps to traverse unknown territory. I want to bear witness to the challenge of finding your way when you step off the straight and narrow humdrum conveyor belt, when you venture forth because the old life is too small (and boring) for you. I want to validate your inklings and help sharpen your fuzzy images of the future. I want to celebrate your intention to make meaning and to be purposeful and to grab hold of the reins of your life so in the end you know your life as yours, not just some default program you let run and run until your life runs out.
Somewhere in the territory defined by the following quotes you may intuit a personal sense of purpose. These quotes also point to the conversation I would love to have with you. They are just words on a screen until they come alive in dialogue, until they shine a light within you to help you choose a path worthy of you.
“Don’t ask what the world needs, ask what makes you come alive because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” Howard Thurman
“I don’t know what your destiny will be, but this I know. The only ones among you who will be truly happy are those who have sought and found how to serve.” Albert Schweitzer
“This is the true joy in life, being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one.” G.B. Shaw
And the wonderful Mary Oliver poems, including this one, Wild Geese:
“You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.”