In our earlier book, Repacking Your Bags, we reported that research shows that people's number one deadly fear is the fear of "having lived a meaningless life." Naming one's purpose can help us overcome this fear and, as such, is perhaps the most critical activity in which we can engage in the second half of life.
A purpose statement is, in essence, a written-down reason for being. As such, a purpose statement can be used to initiate, evaluate, and refine nearly all of our choices in life.
In John Gardner's book, The Art of Living, a character says, "The thing a person's gotta have—a human being—is some kind of center to his life, some one thing he's good at that other people need from him, like, for instance, shoemaking. I mean something ordinary, but at the same time holy, if you know what I mean."
What is at the center of your life? Did you discover "something ordinary but at the same time holy?" as a driving force in the first half of life? Do you have it to carry you forward in the second half of your life?
One of the first questions to ask yourself in naming your purpose is: When have I been willing to commit myself to something beyond the scope of my own self-interest? When, in other words, have I been at least as focused on the needs of others as my own? That willingness has to be there; it is a necessary condition of living on purpose. When we are acting with purpose, our life is never quite entirely our own. We are giving of it rather than getting for it. Acting purposefully, we find ourselves using our gifts in the service of something bigger than or outside of ourselves.
In spite of the power of living on purpose, most people find it rather difficult to craft a statement of personal purpose. Fortunately, a few techniques can help you render an initial purpose statement that then can be modified over time.
When Richard first developed his purpose statement, it was broad and encompassed many activities. Subsequently, it has become simpler and more straightforward, more of an affirmation that says, "This is what I am about."
We cannot fully name our purpose until we know ourselves—our spiritual nature, what we stand for, our emotional core. And yet this knowledge inevitably emerges as we put words to our purpose and refine them throughout our lives. Richard currently defines his purpose as "to uncover and inspire divine callings." Dave identifies his as "fostering understanding." Both of these have undergone a series of changes and we continue to look over, revise, and reclaim them as we age and grow.
As a spark for naming your own purpose, begin by looking over the following list of verbs. Pick the three that resonate most powerfully within you. These are the action verbs that will shape your purpose statement.
awaken ignite organize create teach support
empower develop accept encourage help
listen inspire seek design enhance
challenge act upon learn heal energize
Write down your three choices.
Now, in just a few words, write down the answer to these questions: "What do I stand for? What is my core?"
Combine that answer with one or more of the verbs you have chosen. This is your draft purpose statement for now.
How do you feel when you look at it? Say it aloud. Does it fit? Would others agree that it fits you? Are you enthusiastic about it?
Is there anything more important in the second half of life than directing ourselves in accordance with our true purpose? George Bernard Shaw wrote:
"This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of Nature instead of a feverish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy."
Ultimately, it is not so much a matter of finding a purpose that gives us such true joy as it is a matter of recognizing what our purpose already is and claiming it. And when we are able to claim it—and live it—we will have taken what is perhaps the most important step of all to growing whole, not old, in the second half of life.