Busy but still missing a purpose

Nancy Pelosi is 79, Bernie Sanders 77, Joe Biden 76, and Donald Trump almost 73 — all older than I. There has been plenty of commentary already about whether they’re too old for the jobs they have or want, and this isn’t going to be another one.

If seventysomethings have the energy, more power to them. But their examples make me feel that I’m not doing enough. I retired around the same time Hillary Clinton launched her presidential run. Thirteen months my senior, she wanted to take on the most demanding job in the world, while I was winding down.

It’s not as though I’ve spent 3½ years of retirement on the couch. I get out to see friends, give tours, play Scrabble, usher plays, and go to book group discussions, museums, and movies. At home, I maintain this blog and the website Positively Good Reads and read quite a lot. I enjoy all these things, don’t want to give up any, and love not having the same schedule five days a week.

If I’m so satisfied, though, why do I feel unproductive compared with these older politicians? Maybe the problem is that everything I do feels self-indulgent. It’s all for my own satisfaction and doesn’t serve a needy population. In contrast, the politicians are ostensibly motivated by a desire to serve the public. (Let’s be generous and give most of them the benefit of the doubt.)

I don’t mean that we should not seek satisfaction in what we do for others. Indeed, my experience has been that if I don’t get satisfaction, I can’t sustain motivation. In a post last July, “Fortunate are those who find a purpose,” I lamented not finding a cause that lights my fire.

In an online article on PBS's Next Avenue, retirement planning coach Larry Jacobson confirmed that other active retirees often feel they need more even though they’re busy. Jacobson said that people nearing retirement usually talk about looking forward to having time for traveling, playing golf or whatever their favorite sport is, pursuing hobbies, and spending time with grandchildren. These are all fine activities, he wrote, but they are pleasures rather than purpose. Sooner or later, many of the retirees he’s coached have felt something was missing. The missing part was purpose, which is what brings fulfillment.

“I frequently hear, ‘I’ve had purpose my whole life. I’ve worked hard and earned my time to do nothing. Hasn’t that been enough purpose in my life?’ Jacobson wrote. “In a word, no.”

But wishing for purpose doesn’t produce it automatically, as I regretfully know.

“Fulfillment and purpose are harder to come by than pleasures,” Jacobson acknowledged. “Finding fulfillment is a process more than an event, and is often elusive.” He suggested mentoring, teaching, and volunteering. “Retirees who do these things are achieving their own personal dreams, discovering new passions, and sharing their legacy,” he said. “They are frequently part-time employed with work that benefits the social good.”

Ten months ago, I said that I was putting the search for a purpose on hold for a while because past attempts hadn’t yielded results. Maybe it’s now time to take a small step and look around for a service stint to add to my life. It might or might not lead to more; the only way to find out is to give it a try.



How wonderful it was to check the weather forecast and decide it was finally safe to plant my balcony containers.

This year I’m trying wax begonias for the first time, one per railing planter, along with marigolds and creeping charlie. The begonias will provide color until the marigold seeds that a neighbor gave me grow and produce flowers in a couple of months. Along the edges of the planters is the so-called weed creeping charlie, a success last year and worth bringing back. (In case you’re wondering where to find a weed not sold in garden centers, you might check vacant lots. It worked for me.)

On the balcony floor are two pots I had indoors for the winter — one with a fern and the other with grasses. A vegetable box has lettuce seedlings from a farmers market. Two other pots have 4 o’clock seeds collected last year from plants that bloomed prolifically. The same neighbor who supplied the marigold seeds gave me last year’s 4 o’clock seeds.

Three-quarters of the pots look barren right now as I wait for seeds to germinate. A friend commented that growing from seed “is really gardening,” but when our growing season is so short, the immediate payoff of full-grown plants might be a better idea. Still, I’m excited about watching for the sprouts to poke through the soil and nurturing them to mature size. That’s the plan at least. I’ll report back in the fall about how it played out.



”When the ‘extremely stable genius’ starts acting more presidential, I'll be happy to work with him on infrastructure, trade, and other issues.”
— House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi


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  • I love your distinction between pleasures and purpose.

    For the time being, I am finding my purpose in a paid, part-time job. It feels really right for me to be paid for my contribution to society. An hour or two of volunteer time per week is OK, but more than that should be paid for those of us who are not wealthy.

  • After I posted this, I thought of a friend who started a volunteer position that turned into a part-time, paid job that she likes a lot. I think hers and yours is a very nice arrangement.

  • I identified with your excellent column. I've been writing about the subject for three-plus years (chicagonow.com/cheating-death) with my book coming out next week. It's helped me to think of the therapeutic process as it applies to "purpose." I started with a question from the present, "why am I here and how do I want to live the rest of my life?" Next I searched the past, to see - as an adult - the events that were influential. From there I determined what ill-served me and re-set my life style going forward. And finally I committed to the new plan. What emerged was the purpose you are seeking.
    I have a website that talks further about the challenge of growing older. Check it out and we can talk further if you like (www.howardenglander.com). It's not easy!

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    I am honored I was able to be part of the spark in your thinking. Finding purpose in our senior years is one of life's big challenges and you pulled the exact quotes I feel are key in the article. If I can help in a small way to help all of us enjoy the rest of our lives, then I feel I've found my purpose.
    All the best,
    Larry Jacobson

  • Larry, I am honored that a well-known author and coach took the time to comment. I am going to investigate more of your advice — perhaps it will spark new thinking about purpose.


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