When we plan for our retirement, it can be easy to get trapped in the financial side of things. Money is an important consideration as our primary careers draw to a close, but once we’ve worked with our financial planners and made the calculations, one question remains: what are we going to do with all that time?
This is a question of purpose. Purpose is the catalyst behind why we do what we do; it gives our lives, our work, and our leisure meaning. It gets us up in the morning and essentially becomes our mission in everything we do. In our careers, purpose is central to informing how we feel about our jobs and how we perform; losing sight of our purpose can feel debilitating and suck the passion right out of what we do.
Yet purpose is just as important to retirement as it is to work, though following that same purpose that helped you thrive during your primary career may not be what’s going to guide you in your next chapter. A significant part of the rewiring of retirement is realigning with your purpose, especially when it has shifted.
“The person without a purpose is like a ship without a rudder.”
“Purpose isn’t something we find at all,” a 2020 analysis by the University of California Berkeley says. “It’s something we can cultivate through deliberate action and reflection, and it will naturally wax and wane throughout our lives.” Finding purpose is an ongoing experience. As our lives change, our purpose changes, and it’s up to us to stay in tune with ourselves to see what we really want. When we try to hold ourselves to one standard our entire lives, we’re being incredibly unfair to ourselves and are bound to struggle with meeting our own expectations.
Finding purpose in retirement can be a slippery slope for some, especially if you made your career your purpose. Conflating these two things can lead to a phenomenon called career enmeshment, where you make your job your entire identity, thereby sacrificing your relationships with family and friends, your hobbies and passions, and your personal wellbeing. It also poses an issue in retirement. If your job became your purpose in your primary career, it can be difficult to separate these two things, potentially affecting how you view yourself and the world around you.
One of my friends, a veteran executive in the telecommunications industry, dealt with this in her retirement transition. In her career, she thrived thanks to her intensity and high standards, but she struggled with her decision to retire. She couldn’t shake the feeling that in leaving her career she was quitting at something. While her intensity was helpful throughout her career, this misguided purpose negatively impacted the way she viewed herself as she made her transition into retirement. Retirement no longer seemed desirable, but rather a marking of failure.
For those still in your primary careers, don’t let it become your purpose. Let your purpose guide your career, not the other way around. Another friend of mine left her job as CEO and founder of the branding and marketing company that she built from the ground up because the job wasn’t in line with her purpose anymore. She had lost her sense of meaning in a career she had once enjoyed and was struggling to figure out how to regain it. She made a massive shift from to her current career to one as a full time abstract artist. In this capacity, she became reacquainted with her purpose: her drive to create that she had lost even as her company had expanded. When she retires, she’ll have to reevaluate her purpose again and change her life around it, but for now, she can enjoy her new purpose for as long as she likes.
In all facets of life it’s necessary to cultivate our purpose, but retirement especially. Retirement is a freeing experience; we finally get to surrender our work worries and start spending time with family and friends. But sometimes, retirement can feel too free, like we’re going to get lost in all of the opportunities out there. Being in touch with your purpose provides you with a guide through which you can assess what you want to do and prioritize your goals. Here are some practices for cultivating your purpose in retirement.
- Discover your values. Values assessments as an individual or in a group are a great tool for understanding what’s important to you. When trying to identify your values, writing them down can be helpful in visualizing your goals and the steps you take to achieve them. This comprehensive guide about value-based strategy suggests looking for the gaps between the values you select and your current choices in order to identify actions you can take to more fully live those values. Knowing your values can inform your purpose and, in return, help you to prioritize your options.
- Practice intentionality. Determining purpose requires us to be really intentional about how we choose to spend our time. We will have to do some things in retirement out of obligation, perhaps like picking up a part-time job to make ends meet, while other things, like going on vacation and spending time with family, will be more about what we want to do. Either way, it’s important we know why we do each of these things and what we get out of them.
- Embrace change and challenge. Your purpose is going to evolve just as you evolve. As you take intentional steps towards your ideal life and use your values as a guide, it’s also important to recognize that things are going to change and possibly be challenging. Being purpose-driven doesn’t always mean day-to-day happiness and that is okay. It’s okay to change – it’s inevitable. Being aware of those changes in your purpose makes it easier to tailor your strategies for achieving your goals.
Research from The Avoka Group found that 64% of pre-retirees are concerned about finding purpose in retirement. With this being such a substantial anxiety among our generation, it’s time to go beyond devoting our attention to the financials alone. It’s our job to take care of ourselves and do some work cultivating our purpose. It’s never too early to start.
Rachel Walsh is an Associate with The Avoka Group in Washington, D.C. and a guest contributor for North of 52. In her free time, she enjoys reading, writing, running, and going on hikes with friends. She is passionate about helping others in big life decisions, hoping to make people feel less alone in these decisions.
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