The Importance of Purpose

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David Wolfe, Connie Goldman, Dick Ambrosius (l-r)

Connie Goldman, a former National Public Radio reporter now closing in on her ninth decade, has devoted the better part of the last three decades to examining the role of purpose in later life. Connie’s campaign against the idea that the good life after family-raising and career years is mostly about leisure and play helped give birth to the positive aging movement. 

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Connie Goldman

Some years ago, Connie taped a series of interviews with older folks who talked about how they found meaning and purpose in their later years. One had written and published her first novel in her 70s, winning a National Book Award. A retired State Department careerist cured his hypertension and arthritis with hard work restoring a rundown farm. Another talking about the busyness of her life said, “You better not let the do-nothing get a hold of you, because if you do, you’re gone.” She was talking about the health benefits of having purpose in life.

Without purpose, a person experiences acceleration toward disorder (entropy), collapse and finally the stillness of death. Purpose promotes order because it focuses the application of energy renewing the individual. Without purpose, a person can decay, like an engine wearing out.

Connie Goldman interviews and writes about older people who export entropy while maintaining their self-renewal capabilities and living lives charged with purpose. We’ve all have heard of or even known people who died within months of retirement. Usually, this happens because there is no new set of purposes to replace those that expired with the job. All too often, our positions become our identity.  Purpose gives us something to look forward to, a reason to get out of bed, inspiration to overcome aches, pains and lethargy. Purpose is the gold standard of self-worth, and without purpose we lose self-esteem.

In the first half of life, purpose is primarily egocentric. Our energy is focused more on self than on others because healthy development of the self improves our prospect for an individual’s replication of his or her genes through offspring. Although some choose not to or cannot reproduce, the need to do so is unquenchable; but it can be diverted to other actions.

In life’s second half, purpose takes on a more altruistic character and is more concerned with the group’s welfare in contrast to personal survival in the first half of life. 

Altruism is not defined by the act, but by the motivation behind the act. When young people take some action that appears altruistic, it is more likely an action that springs from their developmental task to establish and define their identities in society as part of their efforts to become someone. This is neither cynical nor does it detract from the value of their doing “good works.” It is simply a recognition that the young are more deeply linked to social recognition needs than are older people.

In the second half of life, the influence of the external world ebbs and identities are fully formed. Therefore, a person’s “good works” are more likely to fit the classical definition of altruism – activity benefitting others from which personal gain is subordinate to social gain. Psychologist Erik Erikson call this generativity or “tending to the welfare of the next generation.”

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David Wolfe

Still, regardless of whether or not one agrees with this view of altruism, it appears that concern for others is growing in the collective unconscious of society. In some cases, this concern might be viewed as enlightened self-interest. For example, companies such as Costco, Commerce Bank, IDEO, IKEA, Trader Joes and Whole Foods believe that taking authentic interest in the well-being of employees and customers has a bigger payoff than the old command and control ethos in which workers and customers were objects to be manipulated. Southwest Airlines is an excellent example of a company that believes a purpose driven culture is the key to their success. Southwest has a ‘Culture Committee’ comprised of 96 elected employees who are charged with nurturing the company’s culture.

In his third book, Firms of Endearment, the late David B. Wolfe went into great detail and provided multiple examples and case studies of companies doing well by doing good – pursuing purpose. The book is about gaining “share of heart,” not just share of wallet. It’s about aligning stakeholders’ interests, not just judging them. The book makes a powerful case as to why companies should do this or be left in the dust.

See more at:  Boomer Living Plus