Why “Find Your Purpose” is Bad Advice for New Retirees

There comes a time in many retiree’s lives when the honeymoon phase is over. You’ve savored the release of work-related stress, you’ve done all the things you wanted to do (but couldn’t) when you were working, and you’ve luxuriated in setting your own schedule.

But slowly you start to realize that:

  • your days and weeks are blending together
  • you’re frequently bored,
  • you feel increasingly disconnected from the world around you, and
  • your motivation has left the building

As unsettling as these realizations are, it may also be unclear how to get motivated in this new chapter of your life. You may even find yourself wondering if you ever had any intrinsic motivation to begin with or if your motivation was largely external (and 100% tied to your demanding job).

In these moments, there never seems to be a shortage of well-intentioned but so-vague-as-to-be-useless advice like: “find your purpose”.

In my experience, hearing that I needed to “find my purpose” was unhelpful. And it added to my feeling lost and confused because the idea that there’s a big undefined thing called “purpose” that I needed to go find ASAP was too overwhelming and amorphous to do anything about.

So I took a different approach. I’m sharing it in case it’s helpful to anyone else sensing the honeymoon is over:

1) Lower the Bar

It seems counter-intuitive to suggest lowering the bar in moments where your motivation is missing (isn’t the bar already low?). But when people suggest you “find your purpose” it sounds like you have to go into a cave somewhere and come out with the answers to the BIG questions: what is the meaning of life? and why am I here?

I don’t know about you, but that makes me want to go fetal and eat carbs.

So instead of trying to figure it all out in one fell swoop, I lowered the bar by acknowledging that:

  • transitions take time,
  • early retirement is a profound life transition (no matter how long I planned for it),
  • there are many stages of retirement, and
  • both confusion and discovery are part of the process.

Putting additional pressure on myself was not helpful in this moment because what I needed was simple: compassionate curiosity towards myself and the patience to evolve.

2) Create a Weekly Ritual

I love to create weekly rituals because they provide a consistent form of structure, a solid container for ongoing self-discovery, and they can be quite pleasurable! Because I’ve never understood “find my purpose” as a finite project to complete in a set period of time, I found a weekly ritual far more useful for supportive conversation.

My ritual is to take a “crazy talk walk” with my husband every Sunday. It’s simple:

  • we go for a long walk (between 60 – 90 minutes)
  • each person gets half the walk to discuss: what do you want? what are your deepest desires? what have you always dreamed about? what do you love?
  • for the entire walk, we speak as if there are no constraints, everything is possible, and there are no limits, and
  • if anyone starts to criticize, judge, introduce obstacles, plan, or problem solve, the other person throws up jazz hands and yells “this is just crazy talk!!!” in order to get us back into the spirit of unlimited possibility.

With my body distracted by movement and less intimidating questions than “what’s my purpose” on the agenda, my true desires bubble up to the surface. And when they do, look out! Because there’s something magical that happens when you describe a dream to another human and they take it seriously, ask questions, and get excited. It suddenly feels possible. And that delicious sense of possibility is often accompanied by a rush of motivation to take a step in the direction of that dream.

Your ritual may be different than mine, but creating a little time each week to walk in new possibilities, connect with your desires, and have your dreams taken seriously is a gradual approach that feels a bit more solid and concrete than go “find your purpose”.

3) Give Yourself Permission to Dabble

If you have a regular weekly ritual, you may find yourself coming up with a number of things that you want to learn more about. So why not allow yourself to be curious enough about them to stick a toe in the water? These “dabbles” are low-risk experiments that give you a little taste of something to see if you want more of it (or if it’s different than you imagined).

The theme for my first year of retirement was: “the year of dabbling”.  Because my entire career was devoted to deep specialization, the mere idea of dabbling in a wide variety of different areas felt positively decadent! I chose things that I wanted to learn more about: strategic philanthropy, angel investing, and serving on both for-profit and non-profit boards. These dabbles forced me to grow, embedded me in networks of passionate people, and stretched me in new and different ways. Most importantly, dabbling requires action! And that allowed me to get laser sharp about what aspects I enjoy in a way that was far more tangible and precise than just thinking about it.

The Elephant In The Room

Ultimately, many new retirees have to resolve a troubling challenge:

You’ve worked long and hard to retire because you yearned for the freedom to do whatever you want. But now that you have complete freedom, it’s difficult to choose what to do with it (and nobody who is working wants to hear about that particular “struggle”).

My advice:

Be thankful for your retirement, find the community you need to support your dreams in this new chapter of life, and know that discovery is a perfectly normal part of the process.



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