A recent chat with Debra Hickok, a certified and highly experienced personal and professional coach here in Harvard, got me thinking about “passion and purpose,” especially for people already in the second half of life.
If our lives are well in tune, the goals and passions that energize our lives reflect the deepest parts of our selves: our beliefs, life histories, personalities, etc. And the actual day-to-day conduct of our lives in turn reflects our goals and passions. The result is a life that is meaningful, one where our successes are fulfilling rather than anti-climactic, and even our failures are noble rather than pathetic.
Without passion and purpose, by contrast, or with life goals that are out of sync with our deeper understandings and needs, none of this works. We are unfulfilled, even when things go as we planned, and the future is frightening not for what it contains, but for it lacks. It’s a void that we are inexorably being drawn into, rather than a beckoning opportunity to become our truest selves.
People of all ages – from adolescence to old age – face these issues, and seek answers to them. But clearly, not all self-examination is the same. Debra makes the interesting observation that many people who are already in, say, their fifties or sixties, tend to look at their issues in a more “circumspect and philosophical” fashion, as she puts it, compared to younger ones. Younger folks tend to have more specific challenges they are grappling with, often related to more practical, immediate goals that involve success and fulfillment in career, relationships, time/energy management, and balancing the different domains of their lives.
I must pause here to note that Debra was reluctant to categorize people by age, and did so only when specifically asked. She emphasized that her professional experience is that each client has a uniquely individual process to work through.
But when pressed to reflect on age differences, she highlighted a distinction between seeking a specific solution or strategy versus developing a new perspective, a distinction that sometimes is age-related. One is an external approach while the other requires an internal shift. One is more brain-based, one more heart-based. She believes a balance is what is called for. Many of Debra’s clients spend most of their time living from their intellect and as she says “if what they seek could be found through the intellect alone, most would be figuring it out on their own.”
The implication here (and it strikes me as true) is that the issues that take hold of us as we age into the second half of life tend to be more “heart-centered.” They are more likely to pertain to how we relate to other people in general rather than a specific relationship situation, or to how we achieve joy, peace, and “spaciousness” in our lives, rather than how we are going to make certain results occur.
Or the problem is the apparently simple but often devilishly complicated one of just “not being connected with purpose,” in Debra’s nifty phrase.
Even when the foremost concerns are financial, they are more likely to be general rather than specific at this age: how to make sure one has enough to be comfortable in retirement, more so than how to buy a house or pay for college for one’s children or some other fixed financial goal.
Perhaps it’s a matter of finally getting off the mid-life superhighway, with its implicit goal of seeing who can get farthest fastest, and out onto the country lanes, where we can finally let ourselves enjoy the scenery – and also ask the really important questions: Who am I, really? Have I become who I wanted to be? Has my life so far moved me closer to or further from, farther along or stuck upon, the path that I really feel called to follow? What can I do now, and what can I do in the coming years, to turn what I have learned about the world and about myself to good account – to cash in my “investment” of education and experience and dues-paying over the years and make it all into something I can be proud of, for myself, my family, my community – while I am still here, and still capable of doing so?
In short: What is my purpose now? And where does my passion lie?
And only then, the practical questions: How do I get there from where I am?
Of course, not everyone wants to dive right into these depths. Some may need to grapple first with problems that lie closer to the surface. But then, those surface problems themselves often have deeper roots, and along the way (but only with the client’s permission, Debra emphasizes) it becomes time to expose some of these roots – which can lead us to live life “on purpose” and in alignment with our deepest values.
As a believer in “integrative” planning, which covers all aspects of life, both financial and non-financial, I also believe in digging down at times. But Debra deals with issues of passion and purpose every day, and her insights are especially valuable. (She deals with people by telephone and via Skype, as well as in person, but there is nothing like working together on such issues face-to-face, and given the uniqueness of her service in our rural town, you should consider getting in touch with her if this is where you sense that your issues lie. And yes, guys, this means you, too. We need the same kind of insight – sometimes all the more so, since, arguably, we are more likely to have neglected it as we struggled through middle age. Debra does coach both men and women.)
In any case, this will not be the last time I address passion and purpose in this blog, since it is such a centrally important topic. All sorts of experts talk about having a “successful” retirement, but as Debra makes clear, the very meaning of “successful” tends to change as we approach this stage of life – and if we do not deal with that re-definition sooner or later, we are almost certain not to find the “success” that, individually, is what most of us crave.
Debra Hickok is the coach behind Featherstone Coaching, in Harvard. To find out more about her and her work, go to www.FeatherstoneCoaching.com.
Chuck Yanikoski is a retirement adviser who lives and works in Harvard. For more about him, visit www.ChuckYRetirement.com.