Life After FIRE: Finding Your Purpose

This is the 5th installment of my 9-part series on Life After Fire. And I must admit, we’ve covered a lot of ground in the past month. Specifically, we: 1) identified the core challenges in transitioning from full-time employment to early retirement, 2) discovered our conscious and unconscious beliefs about retirement, and 3) addressed the “who am I?” question by analyzing our life as data and surveying five trusted assessors about our gifts and talents.

We started with these steps because the most powerful way to create a meaningful life in early retirement is by building on a solid foundation. That requires understanding the challenges ahead of you, interrogating your limiting beliefs, and knowing who you are at your core.

For some people, the answers to these questions are self-evident. But if your job was a large part of your personal identity (like me), going through a step-by-step process can help you get clear.

As a quick reminder, I argued that you will know who you are if you hold together: 1) an analysis of the chapters of your life (inner data), 2) an assessment of your gifts and talents (external data), and 3) your intuitive discernment. Right there in the center is a version 1.0 answer to the question “who am I?”.

When I’ve done this exercise with groups, I’ve noticed that people come up with a wide range of ways to describe who they are. It may be an image, a single word, a phrase, or a short paragraph. So whatever you come up with doesn’t have to be perfect and it is doesn’t have to define you for the rest of your life. For example, when I went through this process, I came up with “a generous mentor” to describe who I am. It represents both my internal and external data, and it sat well with my intuition.

What Does Purpose Mean?

This week, I want to introduce you to a simple model that I use to answer the big question that stumps most people: what is my purpose?

I love visual aids and models because they provide concrete ways of thinking about the big questions of life. Instead of trying to find the “correct” or “perfect” answer, a model helps me find a good enough answer to start working with. And I trust that as I get into action with my good enough answer, I will continue to iterate my way into an increasingly refined and accurate articulation of my purpose. For me, this is a far better approach than getting stuck in overwhelm, spending long periods of time in an existential funk, or finding myself in paralysis by analysis while trying to figure out my purpose.

Here’s a simple equation I use for “purpose” that will allow us to brainstorm possibilities about what we can do with all of our free time in early retirement:

Purpose =
knowing who you are +
using your gifts and talents +
in service of what you love.

The point of this simple equation is that it allows us to take the pieces that we’ve discovered about ourselves over the past four weeks and put them together in a way that suggests future possibilities for our life in early retirement. In other words, it serves as a bridge from the big questions to concrete activities that are likely to bring us joy.

You may disagree with my equation for purpose and that’s okay. If you do, it’s important to articulate why so you’ll have your own definition that works for you. But if you’re willing to try out this model, I can assure you that it’s produced a powerful starting point for various groups I’ve worked with in my career ranging from undergraduate students (trying to figure out what they want to do with their lives) to mid-career professors (trying to figure out what they want to do as leaders on their campuses) to entrepreneurs (trying to generate initial ideas for their business).

And the great news is that you only need to know three things to start generating possibilities: 1) who you are, 2) what gifts you have to use, and 3) what you love. We’ve covered the first two already, so let’s focus on identifying what you love and generating possible expressions of your purpose in the world.

What Do You Love?

This is such an important question because what we love gives direction to our gifts and it helps us narrow down the endless possible activities we can pursue. Often people say to me: “I want to help people!” or “I want to make the world a better place!” These are lovely sentiments, but they are too vague to provide a specific direction for your energy. And the possibilities for “helping people” and “making the world better” are endless (which typically leads to overwhelm and zero forward motion).

Step 1: Get Specific About What You Love

You may already know exactly what you love. Congratulations! head to the next step. If not, asking yourself a few questions will help you get to a workable answer. I’ll suggest a few ways to circle around it and I recommend you go with whatever resonates with you.

I once attended a retreat with Barbara Sher. At the time, I was a professor so she asked me: if you imagine your perfect classroom, who are the students sitting in it and what are you teaching them? For me, it was an ideal way to get me to identify WHO and WHAT I love.

Other people approach what they love from the back door by asking themselves: what do I hate? what gets under my skin? what should not exist in this world that I want to work to eradicate? This works best for people whose purpose leads them to working on social problems or political causes. For example, one person I worked with drew a blank when asked “what do you love?” So instead, I asked her: “what do you hate?” And without hesitation she said: sexism! Then she went on to delineate (in extraordinary detail) everything she hated about interpersonal and institutional sexism. Finally, I asked her to flip that upside down. If she hates sexism, what does she love? As it turns out, what she loves is working for gender equity. And when she got more specific, she realized that what she loved most was working to eradicate barriers for women in undergraduate STEM education.

There are many variations of this questions:

  • what do you love?
  • who do you want to serve?
  • what change do you want to make in the world in your lifetime?
  • what do you hate and want to see eradicated?
  • if you had a magic wand and could change one thing to make the world a better place, what would it be?
  • what do you want to leave as your legacy on earth?

The point of answering this question is to give specificity and direction to the use of your gifts and talents. For that reason, try to be as specific as possible about what you love. For example, I love to help people succeed who are one step behind me. When I was a new professor, I loved to help graduate students finish their dissertations. And when I became a tenured professor, I loved to help new faculty win tenure. When I became a successful entrepreneur, I loved to help start-up founders get their businesses up and running. But saying that I love “helping people succeed who are one step behind me” is too general. Instead I want to be specific: as a happy retiree, I love helping people planning for retirement create a meaningful life.

So I encourage you to get as specific as you can in articulating who and what you love.

Step 2: Visually Map Your Responses

Let’s start getting your answers on paper because that’s where the brainstorming magic occurs. Once you have a preliminary answer to “who am I?” and “what do I love?”, you can start to fill out the “purpose map” below.

Let me walk you through my own example:

  • who am I: A generous mentor
  • what do I love: helping retirees create a meaningful life
Purpose Map

I hope you can see how much easier it is to get concrete about possibilities from this point of departure than the generic starting point of “I want to help people” or “I want to make the world a better place”.

Step 3: Brainstorm Possibilities

This is the fun part! I want you to brainstorm at least 8 possibilities about how a person who is __________ [insert your answer to “Who Am I”] can ________________ [insert your answer to what you love].

For example, I asked myself the question: how does a generous mentor help retirees create a meaningful life? Below you can see the 8 possibilities I brainstormed for exactly this purpose.

I love two things about this exercise. First and foremost, putting this map together and brainstorming possibilities visually eradicates the notion that there is one — and only one — way to live your purpose. The reality is that there are many ways we can use our gifts and talents in service of what we love. Secondly, it creates a clear direction for us to target role models (for informational conversations) and start designing experiments (so we can test-drive the possibilities and see if we actually enjoy them). Hint: that’s what we’ll be doing in future installments of this series!

The Weekly Challenge

This week, I challenge you to:

  • Continue starting each day with journal writing and ending it with gratitude.
  • Pull out your answer to the question “who am I?”
  • Spend your journaling time focusing on the question: what do I love? Feel free to use any of the variations on that question listed (or come up with your own).
  • In your journal, draw your own purpose map and brainstorm at least 8 possible ways that you can use your gifts and talents in service of what you love.
  • If you get stuck in your brainstorming, ask people in the Facebook Group to help you.
  • Do another one of the 25 things you love and notice how you feel while you’re doing it.

I can’t wait to read about all the possibilities that you come up with!


Kerry Ann

p.s. – if you missed any of previous parts of the series, here are the links:

  1. Life After FIRE: Now What?
  2. The Inner Work of Early Retirement
  3. Who Am I?
  4. What Are My Gifts and Talents?
  5. Finding Your Purpose
  6. Who Are Your Retirement Role Models?
  7. How to Design Early Retirement Experiments
  8. Creating A Full And Meaningful Life
  9. Mastering Life Transitions


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