How I Think About My Life Purpose in Early Retirement
They say it’s not enough to retire from something, you need to retire to something.
Examples abound of people in the early retirement community finding out that early retirement didn’t, by itself, make them happy.
If you’re too focused on leaving the rat race behind that you fail to think about what comes next, you’re going to have a hard time in retirement.
I took this admonishment seriously before I retired at 31 and I spent a lot of time imagining what I would do with my time once I no longer had to work for eight+ hours a day.
The result of my daydreaming was a laundry list of projects I wanted to do, goals I wanted to accomplish, and things I wanted to learn (36 items, to be exact, ranging from writing a sequel to my military sci-fi novel, to learning German because I bet cursing in that language just feels so much more satisfying).
And while it was nice to have so much stuff I was excited about to fill my time, it was also a bit overwhelming.
Because while I had some great, worthy, creative projects on there like writing a series of novels, even starting a blog (*ahem*), there was nothing uniting them into something greater.
It wasn’t financial success, because though having enough money to buy my own island would be nice, I don’t really need it. And while the joy of creation can certainly be an end in itself, I wanted to make sure I was creating the right things, for the right reasons. Otherwise I could get stuck creating one-off things, filling my life with pleasant but meaningless hobbies. While that might be fulfilling to a point, for me, at least, it wouldn’t be enough.
I’m a firm believer in Naval Ravikant’s idea that, “All returns in life, whether in wealth, relationships, or knowledge come from compound interest.”
Meaning diligent work in specific, focused areas over time leads to outsize returns beyond what a strict 1+1=2 accounting would predict.
I didn’t want to pursue a bunch of disconnected projects because then I wouldn’t be able to take advantage of the “compound interest” provided by pursuing projects which are unified by a central goal (or goals) and that can influence and build on each other.
So I needed something besides just a list of random projects.
I needed purpose.
What Purpose Isn’t
Let me just say ahead of time, not everyone thinks like this. There are plenty of people who are perfectly content to spend their time working on whatever strikes their fancy, without feeling it needs to serve some wider purpose or personal goal.
And that’s just fine. I think ambition takes different guises with different people, and not everything you do needs to fit into your own personal, billion bullet-pointed Life Plan™.
Purpose is not a rigid to-do list you should feel guilty about deviating from (or I wouldn’t spend so much time playing with army men). Many people don’t need an explicit, spelled-out life purpose to be fulfilled.
But for people like me, who’ve maybe read too much Ayn Rand to feel fulfilled working on small problems, or on no problems at all, here’s how I thought through my life’s purpose(s).
My Life Purpose
I’m a big sci-fi reader (just finished book eight of The Expanse series: great, if technologically unrealistic, space opera) and so this exercise may come more naturally to me than others, but my process started with something Stephen Covey fans will be familiar with:
Begin with the end in mind.
What this means when applied to figuring out your life’s purpose is: start by envisioning the future world you want to live in.
Then work backwards.
Again, probably because I devour sci-fi, and have since before I could pronounce “Bene Gesserit,” this first part was not particularly taxing for me.
The key though, was not to imagine every little thing I wanted from the future (jetpacks, jetpacks, more jetpacks), but just the first things that came to mind; what I subconsciously thought of as the most important.
The world I want to see in the future has:
- No disease, and no limit on human lifespan so everyone is free to explore and learn about and experience the vast, fascinating universe we inhabit.
- No poverty, oppression, or tyranny. I think some of the most insidious things keeping many people poor and from realizing true self-fulfillment are the unseen costs of runaway regulation, overbearing bureaucracies, and central authorities with too much power.
- A multi-planetary human species. I agree with Elon Musk that for the survival of the species, we can’t keep all our eggs in one basket, and I also think for humanity to reach its full potential, and understand ourselves and our universe, we need to go to the stars, and stay there.
Other people will definitely have different versions of the future they want to see. Maybe you most want a world with more beautiful art, or more educated people, or fewer mosquitoes (I’d donate to that one).
The point is, when envisioning a future utopia, what most/first sticks out to you as characterizing that utopia?
My hunch is that thing, or things, are what you’re most interested in, deep down, contributing to during your life.
Once you have those ends in mind, you can work backwards to figure out what projects you can do now that will contribute, even if in a small way, to building the future you want.
For me it also helped to further refine those end goals with easy labels so, for instance, “No disease, and no limit on human lifespan” becomes “life extension,” “No poverty, oppression, or tyranny” becomes “a more libertarian society,” and “A multi-planetary human species” becomes “space colonization.”
And so those are my big three life purposes:
- Help extend the healthy human lifespan.
- Help build a more just, libertarian society.
- Help colonize space.
Of course, there are a bajillion ways I could contribute to each of these main goals and plenty of ways I can’t/don’t want to (for instance I have zero interest in studying to become a doctor, so my contribution to extending lifespan won’t involve treating patients), but that’s not the point.
The point is, now I have a few guiding stars to help direct my choice of projects into something more unified, where I can take advantage of compound interest from related efforts.
And I don’t have to start big just because those goals are big. In fact, I’ve already made a small start on one of them, and taken some preliminary steps on another.
I don’t know where each of these specific projects will lead; whether they’ll succeed or fail in their own right, but I do know that by situating them firmly in the wider context of my life purpose, the time I spend on them won’t be wasted. Even if they fail, other projects will follow, and because they’ll be unified in aim, I’ll be able to take lessons and connections from one to help build the next ones faster, bigger, better.
Now I no longer feel overwhelmed looking at my new list of projects for early retirement. I feel excited and anxious to get started.
Because, as good ol’ Ayn said, “Anyone who fights for the future, lives in it today.”
J.P. Medved is a former content marketing director and current novelist, wargamer, and bacon-recipe-tinkerer.
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