Do I need a purpose in life?
Many of us wrestle with finding our purpose in life. Gerontologist and author Karl Pillemer says there’s a simple way to ease our anxiety: Ask an older person.
We read a weekly publication called “The Week”. It’s a contemporary version of US News and World Report. What I love about it is that I can ignore the newspapers, nightly news, and even radio by staying current with this magazine. It offers you the best articles of the week around the USA and the world. It will give you a synopsis of articles written on a featured topic from the conservative, liberal, and international viewpoints. Plus, you get to see what is happening in the arts, books, films, travel, and real estate.
The Week is concluded with a two page article that their editor found compelling. This past week, it was about the wisdom of the aged. Do you need a purpose in your life to be successful? How do you find it? What was compelling is that the author suggested that you find the oldest successful person that you know in a field you find interesting and talk with them. Ask them your questions. Odds are that they will have an opinion and advise that you would never have thought on your own. We found this article so compelling that we are going to make sure each of our adult/young adult children read it. I thought you might want to share it also.
Ten years ago, I reached a point in my career that felt either like a dead-end or a turning point – I wasn’t sure which. By then, I had spent 25 years as a gerontologist, professionally occupied with everything to do with aging. I conducted research using longitudinal data sets and sophisticated statistical analyses. I developed and evaluated programs to improve older people’s lives. I taught courses and gave lectures on aging. I opined on policy issues affecting our aging society. So what was the revelation?
I never talked to old people.
My research kept me at more than an arm’s length from the living, breathing individuals who were its subject. At best, hired interviewers spoke with my respondents. Elsewhere, I used even more distant secondary data sets. My ‘engagement’ with real people involved checking codes and running statistics. The living, breathing humans who reported buoyant life satisfaction or high levels of caregiver stress were equally distant from me. And so I suddenly felt an urge to go out into the world of people in the eighth decade of life and beyond, and listen to what they had to say. What I heard changed my whole approach to life. Perhaps it will do the same for you.
In a seminar room on an Ivy League campus, I sat across from hopeful, earnest, and anxious college seniors. In a few months, they would leave the classic tree-lined campus, the football games, and the near-gourmet meals that US dining halls now serve. I had arranged the meeting to find out what these ‘emerging adults’ wanted to learn about work and careers from their elders.
Sitting with these students on a bright spring morning, I anticipated that they would want to hear about success strategies, tips for getting ahead, and suggestions for landing a high-paying dream job. So I was taken aback by the first question. It came from Josh, a future money manager dressed in a jacket and tie. He asked:
I’d like you to ask them about something that really worries me. Do I need a purpose in life? That’s what all the books say, but I guess I don’t have one. Is there something wrong with me? And how do I get a purpose if I need one?
There was furious nodding from the other participants. Because these students were driven to excel, they had devoured books about career strategies and success, many of which emphasized purpose. They had heard motivational speakers exhort them to find a single life passion, without which they were sure to drift, rudderless, through a disappointing career. But as we talked, it became clear that it just didn’t feel that way to them. They might have an interest, an inclination, an inkling for something they would enjoy – but one all-consuming life goal eluded them. They feared that this lack of a unique and compelling purpose might doom them to a life of failure and futility.
And yet, from the other end of life’s voyage, our elders give us a very different view of a life purpose – and a tip for finding one. Basically, the oldest Americans (most of whom also struggled with the question) tell you to relax. They say that you are likely to have a number of purposes, which will shift as you progress through life.
Marjorie Wilcox, aged 87, brought this lesson home to me. Marjorie is tall, fit and active. She captures a certain casual elegance – there’s a bit of Lauren Bacall in both her appearance and the tone of her voice. Marjorie devoted her career to developing affordable housing, travelling to the worst parts of industrial cities throughout the US. With this passion to make things right in the world and her own history of adversity, I expected a strong endorsement of purpose as the first condition for a good life.
In fact, I heard something different from Marjorie and many of the other elders: namely, that our focus should not be on a purpose, but on purposes. She reported that the ‘purposes’ in her life changed as her life situation, interests, and priorities shifted. She warned specifically against being railroaded in the direction of a single purpose:
You will do several different things. Do not be on one train track because the train will change. Widen your mind. That’s what you should have as your priorities as a young person. Make sure you keep flexible. Lead with your strengths, and they will get you where you want to go.
The elders recommend that we re-shape the quest for a purpose, thinking instead of looking for a general direction and pursuing it energetically and courageously. Determining a direction in life is easier, more spontaneous, more flexible, and less laden with overtones of a mystical revelation that sets you on an immutable life path. Times change, circumstances change – indeed, change itself is the norm rather than the exception. A grand purpose, in their view, is not only unnecessary – it can also get in the way of a fulfilling career. Instead, they have offered the idea of finding an orientation, a ‘working model’ if you will, that guides you through each phase of life.
But how should you go about finding a direction? How to settle on a purpose that fits your current life stage? One technique turns out to be immensely valuable – and yet most people ignore it. If you are searching for a direction or purpose, interview your future self.
There are in fact a host of benefits to doing this. Experiments have shown that when people are made to think in detail about their future selves, they are more likely to make better financial planning decisions, show altruistic behavior, and make more ethical choices. But it’s hard to do. A good deal of social science research over the past decade has shown that most people feel disconnected from their future selves. It takes work to imagine oneself a decade or two from now – let alone a half-century or more. Researchers have gone so far as to invent software that ‘morphs’ the reflection of a young subject to age 70 or 80.
But this is as far as time-travel technology seems to have got, so it’s sadly not possible to meet your real future self. Yet it’s astonishing how few people do the next best thing: interview an older person who embodies the ‘self’ you would like to be. This idea came to me from Barry Fine, a highly successful serial entrepreneur who still manages a business at 89. In fact, he didn’t use the term ‘future self’. He used a word he’d learned growing up on New York’s Lower East Side. His advice was to ‘find a maven’.
You don’t want a 40-year-old if you are 20; you want someone in his or her 80s, 90s, or a centenarian if you can find one
Like many Yiddish expressions, ‘maven’ defies a single definition. It’s derived from a Hebrew word meaning ‘one who knows’, or ‘one who understands’. Mavens are trusted experts, reliable sources of accumulated wisdom. That’s who we need to guide us, according to Barry:
In whatever business I’ve been in, and I’ve been in about eight businesses – some successful, some not successful – the most important thing is to have is a maven. Somebody who can really guide you. Where I’ve done this, where I’ve had a wonderful maven, I’ve always been successful. Where I went by myself, on my own, I’ve always failed. When I haven’t listened, I’ve lost a lot of money. Younger people may not be so aware of this. They don’t really understand that there are so many aspects of business you don’t get taught in school. They have to see long-term into the future. They need to think three years, six years, 20 years out. That is what the maven is for, steering them in the right direction, based on his or her experiences.