Seven Purposes That Help Us Age Well

Seven Purposes
That Help Us
Age Well

8-minute read

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6.1 Our Masterpiece

Born in 1936, my Mother didn’t have the opportunity to finish primary school. “Education is wasted on a girl” ‒ that’s what people thought back then (and sadly they still do in some parts of the world).

fortyonwards sense of purpose - mum and sistersThat’s her, second from the right, with her sisters doing their best impression of Diana Ross and the Supremes.

I came to appreciate what it was like to not have full command of the local language when I lived in Tokyo for a year. It’s like you’re a second-class citizen, sometimes looked down upon, and often treated like an outsider (a gaijin).

Mum didn’t let society’s discrimination hold her down. She taught herself to read and write Chinese fluently, she made famous our chilli crab restaurant, and accumulated enough wealth to not have to depend on her children. She sewed all the dresses in the picture, which is remarkable to me because she never had any formal training.

Why do some people transcend disadvantage?

For as long as I can remember, Mum has always tinkered, rather than sit around watching television. She’d be trying a new recipe in the kitchen, experimenting on herself with medicinal herbs, or working in the garden, to name a few examples.

Why do some people seem to have the drive to tinker, experiment and discover?

Mum was careful with money. Nothing was ever wasted, not a grain of rice or a drop of oil. She could make a dollar go further than anyone. Yet she was tremendously generous in the areas that mattered to her, like overseas travel or helping her children with a deposit for their first home. She was that way with her time too: miserly with time wasters and generous with the important things in life like time with her friends.

Why do some people appear to have the wisdom to know when to be tight-fisted and when to be generous? To tell apart what is a good use of time versus what is not; to know who to invest in and who to avoid?

I think the answer to all these questions is Purpose.

If the purpose of your life could be depicted as an oil painting, then what would it show? Would it look more like a “Where’s Wally?” picture, or a masterpiece?

When I pose this question about purpose to leaders at workshops, I often get vague responses, like, “to inspire everyone around me to greatness”. Some fumble with their words, whilst others deflect: “My purpose is to get to the last doughnut before everyone else does!”

The point of having a purpose is to keep us motivated, be our guide to decide what to prioritise, get us through tough times, give our lives a sense of meaning, and a sense of satisfaction when we make progress. This is true no matter how grand (e.g. replace fossil fuels) or humble (e.g. look after my family) our purpose is.

Given this, is it OK to be vague about our purpose, or do we need to be crystal clear?

Here’s a trivia question: which movie contains the following lines?*

Curly:    Do you know what the secret of life is? One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and the rest don’t mean sh*t.
Mitch:    But, what is the “one thing?”
Curly:    That’s what you have to find out.

From cheesy 80s movies to the latest management books, Gen Xers have been led to believe that we’re meant to have one purpose, and only one. To paraphrase a best-selling management book: “What is the one thing — not two, three or four, but the one big thing?”

If we’re meant to focus on one thing only, won’t it come at the expense of everything else? For example, say I decided at the age of forty to become an endurance athlete. I’d be away from home nine months of the year, leaving my wife and children to fend for themselves. We’d be racking up credit card debts whilst I pursue my “purpose” in life. Is this single-minded focus going to set me up well in later life?

The lives of us Gen Xers have become chock full of obligations, distractions and self-imposed missions. To name a few: the need to give our children the best possible start in life; to stay on top of work; to improve our health; to take care of our aging parents; to build up a capital reserve etc.. And then there are less material, but seemingly important things like responding to emails, taking the kids to birthday parties, cleaning out the gutter etc..

Like a fridge that has too much in it, we might find ourselves standing at the door, staring in, wondering where our purpose is. What can be done to avoid discovering later in life something lurking at the back of the fridge smelling of discontent?

Some pursuits help us age well whilst others are detrimental. But determining which is which is not always clear cut – the line between good and bad isn’t always obvious. For example, say I decided that my purpose over the next few years is to invent an imaginary language. This would likely seem pointless to most, including me, but this is what J.R.R.Tolkien did before he wrote The Hobbit and Lord of The Rings1. Is there a way to work out which pursuit gives us the best chance of aging gracefully?

These are the questions we will tackle in this chapter.

Not everyone wants to, nor can they write like JRR Tolkien, but we owe it to ourselves to be mindful of the masterpiece we’re working on, whatever that may be.

*Trivia answer: City Slickers starring Billy Crystal and Jack Palance.

6.2 Which Pursuits Help Us Age Well?

Old age can be brutal. It can turn sunny into gloomy, and vivacious into bitter.

Some pursuits help us age well ‒ they protect us from loneliness, depression and physical deterioration. For example, compare the ambition, “I will eat ten doughnuts a day for the rest of my life,” versus, “I will try different doughnut recipes each week and write about it in a blog”. Neither of these ambitions fits my personal purpose, but that is besides the point. One purpose has a better chance of helping us age more gracefully than the other.

As I see it, there are seven types of pursuits that help us age well.

fortyonwards sense of purpose - seven purposes

These endeavours give us the best chance of aging well because they create future “wealth”. By “wealth” I mean more than the monetary sense, I mean physical, psychological and social wealth.

Why Giving and Bonding? A study conducted by Harvard followed the lives of 268 men for over 80 years found that:

“Close relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy throughout their lives…. Those ties protect people from life’s discontents, help to delay mental and physical decline, and are better predictors of long and happy lives than social class, IQ, or even genes.”2

If we’ve lived a life filled with generosity and caring for others, we’re more likely to be surrounded by the love and support of others (as opposed to loneliness).

If we’ve done a lot of good for humanity and created a wealth of things we’re proud of, we’re more likely to feel a sense of contentment (as opposed to regret or jealousy). If we’ve looked after our health and have accumulated a wealth of skills, we’re more likely to remain productive, engaged and interested (as opposed to redundant, isolated and bored). If we’ve lived a purposeful life, we’re more likely to be Sunny Susan (as opposed to Crabby Karl).

Activities that meet more than one of The Seven Purposes have the potential to give us even more benefit. Notice how it is more satisfying to exercise with a close friend as opposed to exercising by ourselves? That’s because we’re satisfying two purposes at once: Bonding and Self-Care. Whilst having a coffee with a friend is nice (Bonding); volunteering with a group of friends at a soup kitchen might be even better (Bonding, Giving and Doing Good). There are limits to this. If you find yourself talking to Mum on the phone (Giving), whilst on a kayaking expedition Antarctica (Mastery) with a group of friends (Bonding) charting unknown waters (Creating) to save baby seals (Doing Good), whilst working out your five-year plan (Caring for Self)then I’d suggest you might be better off having a doughnut in the comfort of your living room couch!

6.3 The Purpose Doughnut

Your purpose in life can be represented by a doughnut, where each wedge represents a purpose. Here’s what mine looks like:

Now imagine that the hollow centre of the doughnut is Attention i.e. what we focus on at any given time, such as Work or Family.

The more Attention you give to a Purpose, the larger that wedge of the doughnut becomes. For example, in my early 30’s I was focussed on everything but family, but when my kids arrived, Family dominated my Purpose Doughnut.

As we tackle the second half of our lives, it is useful to think about what we want our Purpose Doughnut to look like. What are the main wedges? How large should each wedge be (roughly)?3

The Purpose Doughnut helps us balance trade-offs and maintain perspective. As I am writing this sentence, my family has started watching a documentary on kayaking in Bhutan. Do I join them or keep writing? It’s a choice between Family or Work. Although I hate to miss out, I’ve decided to keep working because I’ve already spent enough time with my family today, and this book needs my attention.

Some choices in life aren’t as easy to make. For example: should I take my family to Japan for a holiday or stay home and save the money? Should I take on projects that don’t pay well but help me build a reputation? Should I go see my parents or my friends this weekend?

When these questions pop-up, I’ll think of my Purpose Doughnut and test for alignment. For example, would it enable me to learn (Mastery)? Would it help me build a reputation (Invest)? Would it help others (Giving)?

Take for example the question: “Should I play video games with my cousin?” I like my cousin a lot and I love video games. The problem is that I have the potential to waste nine lives playing them. In my early twenties, I once stayed up all night to play Super Mario on Nintendo 64. Mum discovered me in the wee hours. Trying to sound insulted, I said, “Of course, I went to bed!” My bloodshot eyes gave me away for sure.

I’ve decided to play with my cousin in spite of the danger. My rationale? It’s quality time with my cousin (Bonding); I’ll be pushing my brain to adapt to new things (Self-Care); and if I can keep it to an hour a day, then it serves as respite from my otherwise purposeful day.

Am I telling myself a big fat lie? We’ll see.

If you take one thing away from this reading I hope it’s this: we ought to be mindful of where we place our Attention because over time our Attention becomes our Purpose, and our Purpose determines who we become in later life.

Thank you

Thanks to Jane Weir and Dr Jocelyn Rikard-Bell for guiding my thinking on this topic. And thanks to Penelope Terry and Jermir Punthakey for reviewing early drafts.

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© James Lau  July 8, 2020

  1. I learnt of this from Paul Graham http://paulgraham.com/genius.html. Verified elsewhere e.g. Dimitra Fimi in TLS https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/how-to-invent-a-language-tolkien-burgess/
  2. https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2017/04/over-nearly-80-years-harvard-study-has-been-showing-how-to-live-a-healthy-and-happy-life/
  3. This isn’t meant to be a precise mathematical exercise. A frequently asked question: “Do you mean in terms of time or mental effort?” Answer: both, but time is an easier proxy for mental energy. I wouldn’t get too hung about precision.

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