happy dr. martin luther king jr. day to our american friends. we’re taking some time today to reflect on the lessons of the civil rights movement, to appreciate how far we’ve come as a society, and to recognize how much we still have left to do!
we’re close to a year into this blog (blogiversary post coming next week!), and from the beginning of writing here, as well as the beginning of even thinking about early retirement, we knew that we didn’t just want to retire early to escape our jobs. we didn’t want to stop working just because we’re fundamentally incompatible with modern work, though we suspect we might be. and we didn’t want to reach financial independence just to say we did it, though we will say it here when the time comes. rather, we always felt, deep down, that we wanted to create a life with a different purpose than the traditional path allowed us to have. we wouldn’t say the purpose we have in mind is better or higher than any other purpose, just different. more in line with what we want to get out of life. what we want our tombstones to say.
we have felt for years that, if something tragic happened and we died unexpectedly, we wouldn’t have a whole lot to show for our lives, or at least not the things that we’d want to be remembered for. we’ve seen some countries, but we haven’t seen the world. we’ve climbed some mountains, but we haven’t really tested ourselves. we’ve written some things, but never created our life’s work. we’ve done some good in our community and the world, but not nearly enough. have we gotten plenty of promotions, and achieved career success? sure, but that would be just about the worst epitaph ever:
spent too much time working, not enough time living
actively defining our purpose
rather than lament whether or not our accomplishments match our aspirations at this point in our lives, we decided to be the empowered authors of our own purpose, asking ourselves:
- what do we want to look back on and be happy we did?
- what would we want to be remembered for?
- what do we want to contribute to the world?
we decided to make a game out of it, a type of mapping exercise that we might do at work with some of our clients when trying to define their project or organizational goals. and in an exercise like that, rather than start with the big question of purpose, we might start small, with the easier questions. for us, those could be: what do we want to do or accomplish when we have more time on our hands, post-retirement? what will make us excited to get out of bed every day? what do we think would make us happy? and not pie in the sky ideas — like what would we do if we won the powerball? — but what would we do tomorrow if we didn’t have to work, or what would we rather be doing right this second? the exercise begins… (hint: you can do this too!)
exercise 1: what do we want to do, be or accomplish in life?
(some clues for the ones that aren’t obvious to anyone but us: “local experts” means really getting to know our local mountains, trails and streams, so we know them like the back of our hands. “endless winter” means that we chase the snow for at least one full year, all around the planet, racking up as many ski days as possible. “coaching nonprofits” means putting our work skills to use, for free or cheap, for the benefit of local nonprofits that otherwise couldn’t afford those types of consultants.)
at first, the things we mapped out seemed a little random, a collection of everyday activities and long-term goals. and we’re actually happy about that. we never want to be single-minded in our interests or focus, and it was validating to remind ourselves that there’s a lot we want to do and accomplish in retirement. we won’t be bored! and even better that this list is realistic, because these are things we would be doing right this second if we could. these aren’t things that depend on us becoming different people or having a vastly greater level of wealth. every single thing on this list is something we’ve at least dabbled in.
but, just having a scattershot list doesn’t get us far enough. to get from the answers to the small questions to the answers to the big questions, we need to go deeper, and find the common threads.
exercise 2: group answers thematically
for us, three very clear clusters emerged immediately, though we’re guessing that there’s no magic about the number three. we could just as easily have had two clusters, or five. rather, the magic comes in when we identify what those three clusters represent, in the next step.
exercise 3: identify themes
as soon as we had those themes mapped out, it felt instantly true, instantly right.
of course our purpose in life is: adventure, creativity and service. those are the themes we care most about (outside of family and friends, which are baked into all of this), they’re what we want to spend our time focusing on, and they’re what we would want to be remembered for. we talk most about adventure here, but we feel just as strongly about helping those in need and contributing positivity to the world, and we are always inclined toward creative projects, from blogging and photography, to home renovation and visual art projects.
what’s amazing about this exercise is both how obvious the answers seem once they’re written there so clearly, and how powerful it is to see them mapped out like that. having our purpose identified provides a lens or a litmus test for making decisions about how to spend our time and money and how to shape what we send out into the world.
the best part of identifying our purpose this way — based on expanding upon what we already do with our time and money, instead of coming up with something purely aspirational — is that it’s authentic to us, and not something we’ll have to change our ways to achieve. this is how we’re already wired, and it was just a matter of translating that wiring into words, that predisposition into purpose.
just for fun, we decided to add one more exercise to the game, to map the activities and goals on top of the big purpose themes, to get a sense of overlaps.
exercise 4: map goals onto purpose
with only a few exceptions in the adventure category, almost every one of our goals truly spans across multiple themes, whether it’s using creativity to serve local nonprofits well, or taking inspiration from our adventures in our visual art projects or writing, to shaping our travels around service and volunteering opportunities. looking at it this way, it’s clear what activities we want to prioritize: those that tap into multiple themes within our greater purpose, ideally those that feed all three. (reminds us of our triple bottom line.)
now, when people ask us what we plan to do with ourselves in retirement, we’ll have a range of answers at the ready:
- we want to live out our life’s purpose of adventure, creativity and serving others.
- we’re excited to have more time for adventure, creative pursuits and service to make the world a better place.
- our retirement will be all about combining our passions: adventure, creativity and service.
as for our tombstones, we think it’s way too soon to know what they might say, but we’re hoping that our epitaph writer has a lot of material to work with, all of it non-work-related! :-)
what do you see as your life’s purpose? have you ever actively mapped it out, like we did here? or do you think all this purpose talk is overrated, and we should just relish the privilege of enjoying ourselves in early retirement? we’d love to know what you guys think!