How Discovering Your Purpose in Your 20s Is the Secret to a Lifetime of Happiness

“... Retirement—that really ultimate goal of being able to sit back and enjoy the fruits of all your labors. But when that day comes, your anxieties and exertions will have left you with a weak heart, false teeth, prostate trouble, sexual impotence, fuzzy eyesight, and a vile digestion.”  

—Alan Watts, The Book

Unless life has other plans for you, one day, your hair will start changing color (or start falling out). Soft lines, called crow’s feet, will radiate outward from the corners of your eyes. Your bones will begin to shrink, and your muscles will go stiff. Welcome to your golden years.

In 40 years, I’ll be 68 and approaching retirement. My wife and I joke about what we’ll do when we’re old, and the hobbies we’ll have time to explore. When we talk about being old, we begin with the morning; the way old people wake up before sunrise, even during the long days of summer.

If we’re still living in our current home, the sun will begin to poke its way above our tiny herb garden and shine through our kitchen window. By then, I’ll already be on my second cup of black coffee and we’ll sit together, playing on our kitchen table surface computer (no doubt, all surfaces will be smart devices), not saying anything, because we will be at that very special time when we are beyond words, in sync with the knowledge of knowing the movement of our bodies.

In my imaginary morning, it’s two months after our retirement. We made it. We spun the wheel, rolled the dice, and played the game. Though we very well may have a few more decades left in our bodies, we are looking forward to a slower pace of life.

We consider ourselves lucky. In our 20’s, we began putting aside money and investing for this time in our lives. We have enough saved up in our retirement accounts to travel and continue being doting grandparents, having had a close eye on our finances earlier in life. Eating our fair share of peanut butter sandwiches in our early years and passing on some luxuries we could have afforded but chose to save instead, our 40+ years of financial planning paid off and we are able to live carefree the rest of our lives. Even though we aren’t “rich,” we were smart with our choices and are now in a statistical category that will allow us the freedom to not work if we so choose.

With the demands of life and work behind us, the birds are nice to watch outside of our window. Imagining our new freedom, I’m starting to wonder if retirement is all it’s cracked up to be.

Most of us are planning financially for retirement (start NOW if you haven’t already), but very few are planning for a fulfilling and meaningful life after retirement: what we will do with that freedom once we obtain it? Like financial planning, a lot of the groundwork for a lifetime of success and happiness begins now.

Asking “how am I going to find meaning in my life post-work” tells us a lot about the question many of us are trying to answer now: “What do I consider a meaningful job? A meaningful life?”

Based on conversations with the retired folks I’ve spoken with who meet at 6 a.m. at the local coffee shop every morning, the working retired I see every day, and the memoirs, books of philosophy, and case studies I’ve read, I’m going to show you how planning for retirement can help you define your present values, goals, and even your life’s purpose. Whether you’re still in school, freshly out of school, or going through a mid-life transition, planning for your last job might land you on the right path to your next job.

Success ≠ Happiness

“Success isn't the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success.”

― Gautama Buddha

I’m told that a fulfilling life involves taking reasonable risks (so you don’t regret NOT taking them when you’re older), letting yourself have fun (so long as it is within your means; too much debt causes more stress later that could have been avoided), and a lot of laughter with the people you love. But that’s not all. There’s another conversation I sometimes have, specifically with the seniors who appear to be unhappy. At first, it struck me as odd because many of the frustrations they have bear a resemblance to the young people I work with who are struggling to find their place in the world. It was as if these seniors had lost something, or maybe, they never had it in the first place?

At the root of the conversation is how each of us views success. As a culture, we measure success with concrete goals like winning awards, forward mobility in our careers, getting tenure, writing a book, or making a million dollars. The problem with concrete goals is, they lose their meaning once you achieve them. The climb to the top is more enjoyable than standing on top of the mountain, because once you climb to the top, where else is there to go?

Some of the disengaged seniors I spoke with were very successful. They set out to rise to the top and they did. They climbed the mountain and when they retired, they were sitting in a nice homemade chair of their own. So, why are they so bitter?

When I’m talking to someone who is looking to make a change in their career or find their first career after school, I ask: What do you need right now that will make your life more fulfilling? When the answer is money, I think about the unhappy seniors I’ve met who have enough money to live comfortably for several lifetimes. To those looking to make a career transition, money might ease the tension in the short term, but it’s not going to fix what’s making them toss and turn in bed at night.

My thoughts fall back to a former manager who recently came out of retirement when I was hired. I remember him describing his time at home: “...sitting on the couch, the day drags on. I could feel myself getting weaker, I could literally feel myself dying. The will to wake up in the morning was gone.”

He had lost his purpose.

If everything you were working towards fell into place with a snap of the fingers, would you be happy? It’s an interesting philosophical question that high school career counselors ask and some of our nation’s seniors live: if you didn’t need to work for financial reasons, what would you do? Many of us complain about having to go to work, but maybe the backbreaking and soul-bending thing we like to complain about most is the very thing that gives our lives meaning. It might be why one study found that 85.5 percent of American lottery winners continued working after their big win (Source). It begs the question: what causes happiness, engagement, and overall life fulfillment? And could it be linked to something besides success?


Your Life, Your Mission, Your Purpose

“I want to discuss why a company exists in the first place. In other words, why are we here? I think many people assume, wrongly, that a company exists simply to make money. While this is an important result of a company’s existence, we have to go deeper and find the real reasons for our being. . . . Purpose (which should last at least 100 years) should not be confused with specific goals or business strategies (which should change many times in 100 years). Whereas you might achieve a goal or complete a strategy, you cannot fulfill a purpose; it’s like a guiding star on the horizon—forever pursued but never reached. Yet although purpose itself does not change, it does inspire change. The very fact that purpose can never be fully realized means that an organization can never stop stimulating change and progress.”

- David Packard, in a 1960 speech to Hewlett-Packard’s training group

Oprah Winfrey doesn't need to work another day in her life, but she continues to produce and star in award-winning media productions. Stephen King doesn’t need to write any more books, but he does, and he’s published at least one book a year for over 40 years. Warren Buffett doesn’t need to play the stock market, but he does, and starts his morning by reading the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and Forbes. Sheryl Sandberg doesn’t need to keep her day job at Facebook, but she does, and continues to inspire millions around the important topic of women-led leadership in an equitable workplace. These four celebrities have been successful because they have found two things that lead to a happy and fulfilling life: a lifelong mission and a well-defined purpose.

Mission and purpose sound interchangeable, but they work together in a unique way, representing two very different questions.

A mission is what you do—it is the role you have or want to have in your career. In a company, it is what they intend their product or service to do in the marketplace. Often, a personal mission leans on hard skills like programming, welding, or creating spreadsheets, because this is what you do. As an entrepreneur, you build companies; as a teacher, you build students; as an engineer, you build structures that keep people safe; as a coder, you build apps. 

A mission is informative because it is what you do and how you do it, but this only represents half of the equation. Your purpose is one layer deeper; your purpose is why you do it.

In his groundbreaking TED talk, Simon Sinek summarized purpose by saying: "People don't buy what you do. They buy why you do it." Sinek isn’t only talking about companies, he’s talking about you and me. Companies don’t only want to hire you for what you do (there are a lot people with your same skillset), they want to hire you for your passion, integrity, and dedication.

Tesla Inc.'s mission begins with a statement of purpose: “to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy.” This isn’t what they do, it’s why they do it.

Your purpose is rooted in your beliefs and personal values. The result of your mission and your purpose working together is your own personal style of executing your hard skill.

The trap my unhappy retired friends fell into was they made their mission their purpose, and when the mission leaves or is completed, so does your purpose, because you never really had a purpose in the first place. True, your mission may lead you to accolades, but if you don’t enjoy the process, your joy can only last so long. When the excitement wears off (and it will), your purpose keeps you excited and engaged, no matter what comes your way.

Viktor Frankl was a neurologist and psychiatrist who survived the Holocaust in the Auschwitz concentration camp. In his book Man's Search for Meaning, he writes about the temperament of his fellow prisoners and why so many of them found the will to live under unimaginable soul-crushing conditions, with the alternative being an easy escape from the constant suffering. He writes: “Those who have a 'why' to live, can bear with almost any 'how.'” It’s not the same as a career choice, but his fellow prisoners didn’t give up hope because they had a purpose.

I opened the section with a David Packard quote. After reading the last few paragraphs, here’s what stands out to me: “you cannot fulfill a purpose.” That might sound depressing, but it’s actually a great thing—your purpose continuously drives you, so you keep busy doing the things you value and love. When you retire, you may lose your current mission, but you will always have your purpose. And with purpose, you will find new missions. If you are just starting out, following your purpose will give you the energy and resources to find a career that is engaging and stimulating.

You might be asking: I understand why I need a purpose, but how do I know if I’ve found mine yet? We’ll cover that next week, as well as how to avoid getting stuck in the “purpose trap.”

Key Takeaways:

  • Thinking about the end of your career will help you identify your purpose. With this knowledge, you can live a meaningful life.

  • Your mission is what you hope to accomplish. Your purpose is why you want to accomplish it.

  • Success isn’t about awards or how much money you can make. Success is living according to your life’s purpose.

<3 AjW

Andrew J. Wilt is the author of Age of Agility, a book that addresses the skill gap between school and work. He can be reached at and on Twitter @andrewjwilt

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