When we get our first job in our late teens or early 20s, we know very little about ourselves. We may be aware of our dreams and ambitions; we may have a sense of what we like best to do and what we do best—our gifts and talents—and we may know something about how to express those gifts insofar as our schooling has revealed them. But in terms of vocation—of what we are really called to do in the world—most of us are basically clueless. We have very little idea of what we're really here for, of what sort of work truly fulfills us, of what we're doing with our lives beyond earning a living, as opposed to making a life.
Unless we're one of the lucky ones, like architect Mike McGuire.
Right after his 50th birthday, Richard and his wife, Sally, spent about a year restoring a house on a river they loved, the St. Croix. At times, the restoration was far from restorative—at least to their mental and emotional health. All the detail—windows, floors, the knobs on the cabinets in the kitchen—had to be considered and reconsidered. At times, Richard and Sally felt more like contractors than coaches. And yet—and in no small part thanks to their architect, Mike McGuire, it turned out to be worth it. Thanks to Mike's help, the end result is a place where Sally and Richard feel they belong and where they feel a sense of belonging.
By the time most of us reach the second half of life, we are quite experienced with the world of work. We know what it means to have a job and to fulfill our responsibilities quite capably and even creatively. But by the time we reach the second half, just as many of us feel a stronger-than-ever-before need to express ourselves more fully through our work. It's no longer enough to simply have a job, even a good one, or even a career; we want something that enables us to express what we feel most strongly needs doing in the world and to have that expression touch people's lives. A vital part of vital aging is passion—doing what we care about.
Mike McGuire thrives on the passion he has found his entire professional life as an architect. "I can't remember a time when I wasn't creatively challenged," he says. "Oddly, I never set out to be an architect; I was interested in painting. But architecture was a way to survive in society without having to have a routine life. Even today I get excited about designing a simple two-car garage."
Mike is someone who is responding to a powerful calling within him; he is living his vocation. The word vocation comes from the Latin root vox meaning "voice," or vocare—"to call." In the second half of life, many people are still seeking work that does more than pays the bills: work that allows them to speak from this voice deep within. Many such people—those who despair at finding their calling—feel abandoned. "Abandonment" literally means "to be uncalled," to be without a clear destiny. This feeling happens even to the most thoughtful, self-aware people.
At age 74, Mike plays tennis with people in their 50s and 60s. "They can't understand why I'm not retired. I can't fathom retiring. My definition of hell is living in some retirement community in Phoenix with people who all look like me! I'm still trying to create buildings that change lives. That's still my passion."
Mike brings a painter's passion to his life and work. In fact, painting has been one of his passions his entire life. "Most of my friends are younger than me," he says, "and I serve as some kind of mentor for many younger artisttypes. I always ask them, 'Where would you go, anywhere in the world, to see art that moves you?' And I'm always startled when they come up empty; they can't think of any place! It's amazing to me. When I was a young architect, I drove clear across the country to visit a well-known architect I didn't know but whom I admired. I parked in front of his mailbox and waited for him to show up. He didn't have a clue who I was or what I was doing in front of his house. But within five minutes of sharing my passion with him, he realized I was a brother! That's the passion I look for in young painters today".
Community—a real sense of belonging—comes through shared passions. "I used to think of my place as my town," Mike explains. "Now I'm more concerned with my country. I'm more interested now, than ever, what makes a place 'the place.' Painting is like putting a message in a bottle—I'm trying to express my sense of place in the world."
Living on purpose in the second half of our lives presents a unique opportunity and a great challenge. It's an opportunity because, for many of us, the second half of life represents the first real chance we've had to define ourselves and to live in a manner of our own choosing. The challenge that comes along with this is that it's up to us to decide what we really want to do with the rest of our life.
And that means it's up to us to figure out what we really care about.
Most of us, for most of our lives, have our days pretty well mapped out in advance. From the time we were little kids, except perhaps for summer vacations, nearly every day has an agenda of some sort. We get up, go to school, take part in our extracurricular activities, come home, eat dinner, study, and go to bed. As adults, it's pretty much the same, just with work replacing school. But suddenly, if we retire, everything changes. Our days stretch out before us, a vast and uncharted territory. Nobody's telling us when to get up, when to go to bed, or what to do in the meantime.
At first, this can be very liberating. Sleeping late, outdoor recreation, gardening, travel—all the things we've been putting off for years, these are the activities we look forward to filling our days with. Soon, however, many people come to the realization that 24 hours is a long time. "I can only play so much golf," is how one older gentleman we know put it.
Human beings are essentially herd animals. We need to be part of something; we need to be needed. Unless we feel useful—somehow, some way—we find it extremely difficult to carry on. Statistics bear this out. An inordinate percentage of older adults die within 24 to 36 months of retirement. People come to feel they have nothing to live for and pretty soon, they don't. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy that prophesies doom.
In the hit movie, About Schmidt, Jack Nicholson plays Warren Schmidt, a 66-year-old man who, after retiring from a lifetime in the insurance business and subsequently losing his wife of 42 years, comes to see his life as totally meaningless. Near the end of the movie, he reflects, "I am weak. And I am a failure. There's just no getting around it. Relatively soon, I will die ... maybe in 20 years, maybe tomorrow. It doesn't matter. Once I am dead, and everyone who knew me dies, it will be as though I never even existed. What difference has my life made to anyone? None that I can think of. None at all."
Tragic sentiments indeed. And yet feelings that are not at all uncommon to many people in the second half, especially as we transition into the post-work phase of our lives. Without the daily structure of the workaday world, we lose our bearings and feel lost. Suddenly finding ourselves with all-too-much time for reflection, we look back on our lives and wonder what was the point. Not surprisingly, many of us, like Schmidt, conclude that there wasn't any point, that our entire existence has made no difference to anyone at all.
It doesn't have to be this way, though. There's no reason we can't live on purpose during the second half of our lives. This gives rise, however to one of the most basic of all questions: Why do I get up in the morning?
Sri K. Pattabhi Jois
Not very many 88-year-old men are up at six in the morning to lead a class of some 300 people in a vigorous 90-minute series of yoga poses. Even fewer do so after traveling halfway around the world from their home in India to major cities in the Western hemisphere, including London, New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. And even fewer do this in addition to maintaining a year-round schedule of daily teaching at a world-class center that welcomes students from all four corners of the globe. All of which makes Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, the founder of Mysore, India's Ashtanga Research Center, and longtime teacher of Ashtanga Yoga, even more unique and amazing. His work has touched the lives of thousands for well over half a century and continues to do so in profound ways even as the beloved "Guruji" comes closer to his ninth decade on the planet.
How is it that some people, like Pattabhi Jois, maintain a vibrant and vital life well into their latest years whereas other people pretty much give up and die soon after retirement? Health, of course, has something to do with it; Pattabhi Jois, as a result of his many years of intense physical training, is extremely fit for a man of his age. But that's not all: Many healthy people are pretty miserable in their later years, and many people suffering all sorts of physical afflictions retain a positive attitude all their days.
The real key to aliveness in our later years is to touch the lives of others, especially those younger than us. But while the older we get, the more of those younger people there are, it's not always easy to find avenues for connecting. It takes courage, flexibility, and probably a bit of luck. But those who do make the connections usually experience a heightened sense of energy and passion. And that's not so bad for an old guy.