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Is Your Life's Purpose For Sale?

By Craig Nathanson

Meet Joe. He's a middle-aged bridge toll-taker in the San Francisco Bay Area. In a recent interview, Joe said he loves the role he has filled for the last 12 years. The job suits his purpose. He said: "If I can help someone start their day off right in the few seconds when they are handing me the toll, I feel I have made a difference in the day and life of another person."

Meet Mel. He's a veteran New York City street sweeper who works through the night clearing away the previous day's debris. I ran into Mel one morning after my run in Central Park. Mel said: "Nothing makes me happier than making sure no one has to step on garbage when they start out their day on my street." He has been sweeping the same four square city blocks for 30 years.

Meet Minna Valentine, a.k.a. The Reading Doctor. A past client of mine, she's a former marketing executive who ditched the corporate world to teach English as a second language. This is her take on the changes she made in her vocational path: "Teaching others makes me feel like I am contributing to something worthwhile."

Joe, Mel, and Minna each go to work every day knowing they will make a difference to someone. They are grateful to be able to do so. There are many so-called high achievers earning six-figure salaries that cannot make that claim.

Why is living with purpose critical in mid-life? In mid-life, many people find themselves suddenly questioning everything: careers, lifestyles, and priorities. Nothing is spared from this examination, although few will discuss their fears. Often it takes a personal crisis, a layoff, a death, or a divorce to move people from introspection to action. When these events occur, they open up a small window of opportunity to challenge everything and consider a new course.

Inner questioning is critical in mid-life. If a person hopes to achieve greater meaning and self-fulfillment, things are never easy. It requires courage and a leap of faith. I speak from experience. A few years ago, I came home from my six-figure job and announced to my family that I was quitting. I no longer found meaning and fulfillment in what I was doing. That was my first leap of faith.

How do you find and live with purpose? Finding the meaning of life is not self-indulgent or clich . It is the essence of why we are here. If there is no meaning, then what is the point of existence? In order to create a path toward meaning, in our jobs and in our lives, we need to begin with an evaluation process that challenges...

  1. Fill in the blank: "The purpose of my life is ____________."
    Keep saying it until you find an answer. Then write it down.

  2. Make an honest self-assessment of your current state. Exclude external input or validation. Are you driven? A procrastinator? Happy? Sad? Energetic? Lethargic? Generous? Selfish? Adventurous? Conservative? Etc.

  3. Define the experiences you need now to feel fully alive. Then, develop a plan to have those experiences. Do you want to travel to China before you turn 50? Have you always wanted to sing in front of a large audience? Have you always wanted to study to become a chef? Have you always wanted to run a marathon? Etc.

  4. Define exactly what you re passionate about and where you want to make a contribution. Is it music? Teaching? Sports? Photography? Cooking? Academics? Etc.

  5. Define what is most important to you. Then, set short- and long-term goals that are aligned with these priorities. Without a clear path, goals are mere daydreams. Set up a process to monitor your progress.

  6. Define the new experiences that you must have to add a greater sense of meaning and fulfillment to your life. Do you need to start cooking more? Traveling? Taking classes? Skydiving? Etc.

  7. Define your beliefs about yourself. Then, change the ones that are no longer useful. Do you believe you are deserving of doing what you love? Or do you believe that work is not meant to be fun and meaningful?
Dr. James Hollis, a scholar of psychologist Carl Jung and a writer on mid-life issues, said that as we grow older, both meaning and purpose become equal. Both are needed to thrive. Also, Jung wrote that early in life, meaning is derived through preparation for living. In later years, meaning is derived through an examination of the inner self.

What are the results of living with purpose in mid-life? Victor Frankl, a Nazi death camp survivor, believed that the urge of human beings to search for meaning is inborn. Researcher Martin Bolt said that having meaning and a defined purpose in a person's life makes it possible to accept one's own mortality with less fear of death and a greater sense of life's plans and their meaning.

Mid-life adults with purpose can experience:

  • A greater sense of integrity and authenticity;
  • An experience of being more alive;
  • An increased feeling of contribution;
  • Stronger health and psychological wellbeing;
  • A life that's more congruent;
  • An acceptance of their own mortality and, as a result, less fear of death and a greater sense of their life plans and their meaning;
  • A feeling of greater control over their lives and a feeling that their life matters;
  • An increased sense of self-esteem and happiness.

Is this enough incentive for you? You can discover and live a more purposeful life now. Don't simply surrender to a world that will continue to rent your skills to suit its purposes. A greater second half is possible if you take action now!

Remember Mel, Joe, and Minna? What connects them is that neither fits into a conventional definition of success. Yet pursuing conventionally defined success has led so many people on a journey that ends with disappointment and a crisis of introspection that Mel and Joe probably haven't experienced. Minna, in contrast, is a good and unfortunately rare example of someone who pursued conventional success, found it wanting, and then had the courage to make a change that didn't lead to material riches. But her life itself was made richer.

Craig Nathanson works with those over 40 to help them discover and do the work they love. He is the author of "P Is For Perfect: Your Perfect Vocational Day," by Book Coach Press. He publishes the free monthly e-zine, "Vocational Passion in Mid-life." Craig believes the world works a little better when we do the work we love. Visit his online community at The Vocational Coach where you can sign up for his monthly Tele-class.

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