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#178 Do You Need A Life of Purpose?

Big P or little p?


I came across a couple of things recently that my mind connected – hence this blog post.

One was Cassie Holmes telling us, in a talk, that for most of us the ideal number of discretionary hours in a day is in the 2 – 5 range. Less than that and we feel time poor, leading to too much stress. More than that and we feel we have too little purpose.

It occurred to me that this might be a particular problem for recent retirees, for whom the regularity of their days has been hugely disrupted, leading potentially to more than 5 hours of newly discretionary time a day. This “too little purpose” feeling can be greatly exacerbated if in fact the regular work that’s now in the past was enjoyable. And, to go further, it may be that that work, along with the social contacts and the feeling of importance that go with it, formed an important part of the retiree’s identity. “Too little purpose” could now be a fundamental gap in the retiree’s life.

It’s not only retirees, of course. These days it’s tough to avoid being told that your life needs a sense of purpose. In other words, some overriding purpose, that dominates your thoughts and actions, and governs your behavior. Robert Byrne says: “The purpose of life is a life of purpose.” Rick Warren’s book is titled “The Purpose Driven Life: What on Earth am I Here for?” and he says: “Without a purpose, life is motion without meaning, activity without direction and events without reason. Without a purpose life is trivial, petty and pointless.” Wow, powerful stuff!

Much of the psychological side of retirement advocates finding a purpose for this potentially long phase of life. Google “find a purpose in retirement” and you’ll come across “5 paths to finding your purpose and meaning in retirement life” and “prepare for life after retirement: 6 ways to find meaning and purpose for this stage of life.”

And of course you’ll find many invocations that deal with the negative side. Rick Warren goes further: “The greatest tragedy is not death, but life without purpose.”

I’m not trying to take issue with Rick Warren, whose book is not only a best-seller but also extremely highly rated. What I’m thinking, though, is that it isn’t necessary to have a life with Purpose, with a big P. It may be enough to have a life filled with many purposes, with a little p.

That distinction is the second connection I mentioned at the start of this piece, and it suddenly became clear to me when reader Cindy Deere made a comment on a recent blog post: “I wanted to comment on the point about purpose. I think all of us actually have one, we may just not recognize it clearly, and it could even be negative or wasteful. I do think it’s there though. What I’m finding helpful is the ‘little p’ purposes that I have in my life. It could be for today or even for the next hour, or it could be related to one aspect of life or even just a slice of that aspect.”

There it is: that’s the first time “little p purpose” came to my attention – thank you, Cindy.

I interpret Cindy’s “little p purpose” as being, not an over-arching sense of “my life’s Purpose” that gives fundamental meaning to one’s life, but the many small ways in which we contribute to the satisfaction of our lives and the benefit of society. For retirees this might be related to volunteering or enjoying family (grandchildren!) or helping the next generation of family or pursuing hobbies or travel or spirituality or self-improvement – the list is endless. None of these might constitute an overwhelming sense of life’s Purpose, but they can be endlessly satisfying.

And I suspect that, for most of us, we don’t have an overwhelming Purpose but do indeed have many little-p purposes – and those little-p purposes can evolve and change over time.

What are they, for you? If you haven’t identified them, there’s a reflection I do very happily each night that might help you too. I can’t remember where I read about it (it’s clearly not my own original idea). It’s to acknowledge, and be thankful for, three things that went well for you, or that you feel grateful for, that day. If there are things that crop up frequently, they may lead you to recognize things that you’re grateful for in life, that reflect the way your circumstances have evolved or the luck you’ve experienced or whatever. But these may be the sources of the little-p purposes that give joy to your life.

I heard an interview on the Rational Reminder podcast (I was honored to be interviewed there too) with Chris Hadfield, a retired Canadian astronaut (Commander of the International Space Station), engineer, fighter pilot – and musician. (You may recall him playing his guitar on the International Space Station!) Now he’s also an author. (I loved his thriller, “The Apollo Murders.”) As you can guess, he was pretty motivated, growing up, with a Purpose:

“I wanted to be an astronaut since I was a little kid. I mean, I made a conscious decision to turn myself into an astronaut when I was nine years old. I mean, that was ludicrous. But I watched those people going to the moon, and I thought: That is the coolest thing ever, I want to do that. How do I turn my little 9-year-old incompetent scrawny self into someone who can fly a spaceship? So that was a pretty Big Audacious Hairy Goal that allowed me then to choose a lot of the other things I chose to do. What am I going to study in school? What should I choose as a profession? I loved everything I did, but it was with the idea that these choices are continuing to move the big uncontrollable mix of things in the direction of maybe someday flying in space.”

What does someone like that do after he achieves his singular Purpose, which in his case was actually a goal (not necessarily the same as a Purpose)? What replaces it?

He continues: “A few years before I retired from being an astronaut, my wife and I were looking to: what are you going to do after you fly in space? And we started making up a list of: what is it about life that we love? What makes you feel worthy, what makes you feel proud? At the end of the day, when you look back, what gives you sort of a glow of satisfaction? And it’s a fun list to make up. And what surprised me was, nowhere on the list did it say: flying in space. That wasn’t one of the things – it was a cool sort of reward; but it was all of the process – it was teaching, and being taught, learning new skills, gaining new capabilities, seeing new things as a result of those changes, helping other people, working with a group of people that challenge you. And all of this other stuff – that’s what the list was. And then what we did was: OK, this is actually what we value in life, and what we love. So then how can we choose things where you can make a living, and make a life, doing the things that are on the list that you love? And I think no matter where you are in life – because life always goes in stages and steps, some of them planned, most of them uncontrollable – it’s really worth having lists like that that you’re constantly tinkering with, and being brutally honest with yourself about them, so that you’re optimizing your chances to enjoy your own life.”

He was asked: how do you define success in your life?

“Success is extremely personal, and I lower the bar of success as low as I possibly can. I would rather feel successful 20 times a day than once a year. And nobody else can really tell if I’m successful, and they don’t often really care. It’s up to me, whether I’m feeling successful or not.

“And so I can look at it this way. I have a bed to sleep in, and blankets. And an alarm goes off and I wake up. And great, I slept right until my alarm. And then I go to the bathroom, and the toilet works. And I go to the shower, and there’s hot water, and there’s soap, and there’s shampoo. I like the smell of the shampoo. And I have a reasonably sharp blade in my razor. And I brush my teeth, and I like the minty flavor of the toothpaste that I’m using. And when I come downstairs, in the fridge there’s the type of milk that I like, and there’s the type of cereal that I like, and then afterwards I like a certain type of tea. And it’s 7:30 in the morning and I am victorious. I have had a successful day already, at 7:30 in the morning. And it’s totally up to me, but to be thankful for what’s actually going on around you, and to celebrate the little parts of those victories. Because by my own definition I’m already a winner by 7:30 in the morning. Whereas I could have looked at it all completely in a different way.

“And so I try and lower the bar of victory as low as I possibly can, and notice when I make it over the bar, and congratulate myself. Because when I first got to space, on my very first flight, I had no idea that I could do all those things I trained for. I’d never been in weightlessness, you know, when the pressure’s really hitting. I tried to simulate, I tried to get myself ready, and I practised, I knew what I was going to do, and I had it pretty clear in my head. But when I got the first thing done, and the engine shut off, and I got the little handwritten checklist of stuff, 20 things I needed to do first, and I got through them all, I’m like ‘All right, I made it through the first 10 things, and things are going fine.’ I got my helmet off. OK, let’s do the next thing! I could almost feel a wave of success, supporting me, like when you catch a wave when you’re bodysurfing. And it’s because I had visualized what I was going to do, and I practised it, that I gained the skills, but also because I noticed that we’re only 10 minutes into this flight but already I’ve got my act together, and things are happening. And so there’s going to be stuff going wrong up ahead, but I’m gaining momentum.

“And so far I am victorious, and I’m going to celebrate that, and try and keep this way going for as long as I possibly can. And to me that is very much the measure of success and of victory in life, and I try and conduct my entire life, every single day, that way.”

Pretty inspiring, isn’t it?! And yet with an easy translation into the life of any one of us. It’s possible to be motivated by a Life Purpose. And it’s also possible to be happy with a series of little-p purposes.



It’s great to have a Purpose that motivates you and gives your life meaning. But it’s also possible to be very happy with little-p purposes.


I have written about retirement planning before and some of that material also relates to topics or issues that are being discussed here. Where relevant I draw on material from three sources: The Retirement Plan Solution (co-authored with Bob Collie and Matt Smith, published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2009), my foreword to Someday Rich (by Timothy Noonan and Matt Smith, also published by Wiley, 2012), and my occasional column The Art of Investment in the FT Money supplement of The Financial Times, published in the UK. I am grateful to the other authors and to The Financial Times for permission to use the material here.

4 Responses to “#178 Do You Need A Life of Purpose?”

  1. Ted Harris says:

    I absolutely agree. And it’s not because I went to the same elementary school as Chris Hadfield! Although, who knows ?

  2. Richard Austin says:

    Pretty inspiring stuff. I very much like Chris Hadfield’s comment, “And we started making up a list of: what is it about life that we love? What makes you feel worthy, what makes you feel proud? At the end of the day, when you look back, what gives you sort of a glow of satisfaction?” A lesson to live by.

    It is really the same thing as, a variation of, your habit of acknowledging and being thankful for three things that went well or that you feel grateful for that day. Here’s to the the p-Purpose!

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