The Shortcut to Finding Your Purpose in Life

The key is interviewing your future self.

Posted Apr 04, 2016

In a seminar room on an Ivy League campus, I sat across from earnest, and anxious college seniors. In a few months, they would leave the classic tree-lined campus, the football games, and the overflowing cafeterias where food magically appears three times a day. I had arranged the meeting to find out what these “emerging adults” desperately wanted to learn about work and career from their elders (as I was about to embark on interviews of the advice for living of hundreds of these “oldest and wisest Americans”).

Sitting with these students on a bright spring morning, I anticipated that they would want to hear about the elders’ success strategies, tips for getting ahead, and suggestions for landing a high-paying, dream job. So I was taken aback by the first question. It came from Josh, a future money manager. He asked:

I’d like you to ask them about something that really worries me. Do I need a purpose in life? That’s what all the books say, but I guess I don’t have one. Is there something wrong with me? And how do I get a purpose if I need one?

There was furious nodding from the other participants. Because these students were driven to excel, they had voraciously consumed books about career strategies and success, many of which emphasized purpose.  They had listened to motivational speakers exhort them to find a single life passion, without which they were sure to drift rudderless through a disappointing career. But as we talked, it became clear that it just didn’t feel that way to them. They had an interest, an inclination, an inkling for something they would enjoy – but one all-consuming life goal eluded them. They feared that this lack of a unique and compelling purpose might doom them to a life of failure and futility.

But how should you go about finding a direction? How to settle on a purpose that fits your current life stage? There is a technique you can use that is immensely valuable – but astonishingly most people ignore it. I learned this secret from interviewing around 2000 of the oldest Americans about their advice for living. They offered one priceless tip for finding a purpose in life.

If you are searching for a direction or calling, the elders offer you this step you should take right away:

Interview your future self

This suggestion seems at face value to be an intriguing fantasy. Indeed, a recurring theme in film and television is when a time-traveler meets his or her older self. Sometimes such encounters lead to life-changing wisdom, as when Spock meets his aged version in Star Trek. But equally often they wind up in disaster. I’m thinking about Back to the Future II, where 2015 Jennifer meets 1985 Jennifer face to face. They yell simultaneously: “I’m old!” and “I’m young” – and faint dead away. 

Social psychologists have gotten into the act, too. Studies over the past decade have shown that most people feel disconnected from their future selves. Indeed, it takes work to imagine oneself a decade or two from now – let alone a half century or more. And that, according to the researchers, is a problem. Experiments have shown that when people are made to think in detail about their future selves, they are more likely to make better financial planning decisions, show altruistic behavior, and make more ethical choices. Researchers have gone so far as to invent software that “morphs” the reflection of a young subject to age 70 or 80. The effects on seeing yourself on the screen as an old person helps people to make better decisions.

It’s of course not possible to meet your future self (with our disappointing lack of time-travel technology), but it’s astonishing how few people do the next best thing: Interview an older person who embodies the “self” you would like to be. This idea came to me from Barry Fine, a highly successful serial entrepreneur who still manages a business at age eight-nine. He didn’t use the term “future self,” but fell back on a word he’d learned growing up on New York’s Lower East Side. His lesson for guidance in setting a direction in your career is to “find a maven.”

Like many Yiddish expressions, “maven” defies a single definition. It’s derived from a Hebrew word meaning “one who knows,” or “one who understands.” Mavens are trusted experts, reliable sources of accumulated wisdom. That’s who we need to guide us, according to Barry:

In whatever business I’ve been in, and I’ve been in about eight businesses – some successful, some not successful – the most important thing is to have is a maven. Somebody who can really guide you. Where I’ve done this, where I’ve had a wonderful maven, I’ve always been successful. Where I went by myself, on my own, I’ve always failed. When I haven’t listened, I’ve lost a lot of money. Younger people may not be so aware of this. They don’t really understand that there are so many aspects of business you don’t get taught in school. They have to see long-term into the future. They need to think three years, six years, twenty years out. That is what the maven is for, steering them in the right direction, based on his or her experiences.

In any period where you feel directionless, wavering, stuck with one foot in two different worlds, and hearing in the back of your mind the song lyrics “should I stay or should I go?” – find your future self. He or she should be old – and preferably really old. You don’t want a forty-year old if you are twenty; you want someone in his or her eighties, nineties, or a centenarian if you can find one. You need your future self to have the truly long view, as well as the detachment that comes from a very long life.

This person also needs to be as close as possible to your imagined future self. Debating a career in medicine? Find a doctor who loved what she did. Worried if you can balance your values with a career in the financial services industry? Find an older person who struck that balance and made it to the end of life without regrets. Planning to work at non-demanding day job so you have the energy to paint/write/act in your spare time? Some very old people did just that (and can tell stories of bohemian life that will sound very familiar today).

And I speak from experience. Ten years ago, I had reached a point in my career that felt either like a dead-end or a turning point – I wasn’t sure which. By then, I had spent 25 years as a gerontologist. I was professionally occupied with all things aging. I conducted research using longitudinal data sets and sophisticated statistical analyses. I developed and evaluated programs to improve older people’s lives. I taught courses and gave lectures on aging. I opined on policy issues affecting our aging society. So what was the revelation?

I never talked to old people.

My research kept me at more than an arm’s length from living, breathing individuals in their seventies and beyond. Hired interviewers spoke with my respondents (or I used even more distant secondary data sets), and my “engagement” with real people involved checking codes and running statistics. Distant from me was the living, breathing human who reported her buoyant life satisfaction or his high level of caregiver stress. I suddenly felt an urge to go out into the world of people in the eighth decade of life and beyond, and listen to what they had to say.

I couldn’t decide what to do, so I sought out Henry. Standing just a little over five feet tall and equipped with two hearing aids, Henry might not have seemed an imposing figure. But he was one of the leading developmental psychologists of his era, and he still came into the office every day to conduct research. Henry was cagey about his age, but I knew from talking with his wife that he had recently turned 93. On a whim, I asked him if we could have lunch. While he ate a green salad and I a cheeseburger, I let it all come out. Could I embrace this kind of risk, move from writing scientific articles in turgid academic prose, and take the step of writing a book? And a non-academic book, at that? And if I didn’t, would I regret it when I was his age?

He stopped me with the single word “yes.” Yes, he said, I would regret it if I did not take this leap, just as he regretted opportunities in his life that he had let slip by. He assured me that at his age, I would be much more likely to regret something that I had not done than something I had. And so I stepped away from the computer and the statistical software packages and went on a search for the practical wisdom of older people. Ten years, 2000 interviews, and two books later, I was not disappointed.

Sometimes things turn out to be less complicated than they seem. In preparation for my research, I plowed through books that promised to help me find my life purpose in a short six or eight weeks; books that offered to show me my purpose in a set of steps or exercises; and more books that simply exhorted me to find that purpose and do it now! Along the way, I have learned that I would be helped by synchronicities, purpose boot camps, life portfolios, and in a number of books by divine inspiration. Maybe, I realized, it can be much simpler than that.

Why not begin with an activity as old as the human race: Asking the advice of the oldest people you know? Because older people have one thing that the rest of us do not: They have lived their lives. They have been where we haven’t. Indeed, people who have experienced most of a long life are in an ideal position to assess what “works” and what doesn’t for finding a direction. It is impossible for a younger person to know about the entire course of life as deeply and intimately as an older person does. They bring to our contemporary problems and choices perspectives from a different time. These insights can make a world of difference to us. So find someone who mirrors your image of your future self and ask about your direction – you won’t regret it.

And if you go ahead and try it - leave a comment here about how it went!

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