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How to Discover Your Purpose in Retirement

Insights from Richard J. Leider, co-author of 'Who Do You Want to Be When You Grow Old?'

By Nancy Collamer

According to a 2020 Edward Jones/Age Wave study, one in three new retirees struggles with finding purpose after leaving their job. In many ways, that's not surprising. Like author and motivational speaker Wayne Dyer used to say, "If you are what you do, then when you don't, you aren't."

Richard Leider author of "Who Do You Want To Be When You Grow Old". Next Avenue, finding purpose, retirement
Author Richard Leider says purpose can't be 'found'  |  Credit: Richard Leider

Yet according to a new book, "Who Do You Want to Be When You Grow Old? The Path of Purposeful Aging," by Richard J. Leider and David A. Shapiro, finding purpose in retirement isn't just a nice-to-have — it's a necessity. (Next Avenue recently published an excerpt, "Are You Having a Late-Life Crisis?")

"Purpose isn't waiting to be found. Everyone has a purpose, but it rarely just reveals itself."

"The data is clear," Leider recently told me. "Purpose is fundamental. It is critical to your health, healing, happiness and ultimately, your longevity."

Leider knows of what he speaks. He's been studying the topic for over four decades, is the founder of Inventure: The Purpose Company and has written nine books about purpose, six of which he co-authored with Shapiro.

In his latest book, you'll find tools, insights, questions and exercises like the following ones that can help unlock your purpose as you age:

  1. Describe the finest chapter in your life thus far. What made it the finest? How can you manifest those qualities in your next chapter?
  2. Ask yourself, “How can I grow and give?” Review your calendar. Make regular appointments with yourself to grow and to give.
  3. Who is your aging exemplar and why do you admire this person? What qualities of growing old does he or she embody?

Last month, I spoke with Leider by Zoom to learn more about his research and the new book. Highlights of our interview follow:

Next Avenue: Purpose means different things to different people. How do you define purpose?

Richard Leider: My definition of purpose has evolved over time. But there are a few defining characteristics that have remained constant.

Book cover of "Who Do You Want To Be When You Grow Old" by Richard Leider. Next Avenue, finding purpose, retirement

Purpose is a verb; it is action oriented and dynamic. It is the answer to the question, "Why do you get up in the morning?"

If there's something you love to do — write, solve technical problems or cook — that is likely one of the gifts you need for your purpose. When you combine that gift with your passions and values, that can be an indicator of your purpose. 

Is it really possible to 'find' your purpose?

That's a misconception. In practice, purpose isn't waiting to be found. Everyone has a purpose, but it rarely just reveals itself.

You have to make a choice to discover your purpose, be curious and make connections with others. It's an iterative process that unfolds over time and changes with age, so it's important to reassess your purpose on a regular basis.

In my work as a retirement coach, I've found people can feel burdened by the concept of purpose. Does having purpose mean you must do something monumental or life-changing? 

This is such an important point. While I do believe purpose involves making a difference in the lives of others, it does not mean that you have to pursue purpose with a capital P, like finding a cure for cancer.


I like to say that there are fourteen hundred and forty purpose opportunities (minutes) in a day. Each minute is an opportunity to step into a purposeful moment — you give someone a hug, offer a kind word, or maybe call someone who you don't normally speak with. It feels good to make a difference and be connected, even if you just do it in small ways.

The book includes a three-step framework for unlocking purpose: Find out how you want to help; Find out who you want to help and Find out what energizes you (and what drains you). Can you elaborate on those three steps?

If you are going to continue to grow as you age, you need to reexamine your gifts. Ask yourself: What do I really love to do? What do I want my legacy to be? Then, think about how you can best use those gifts to solve a pressing problem, help someone out or make a contribution to others.

"Post a sticky note on your mirror that says 'Grow and Give,' as a daily reminder."

When you do that, you'll place yourself along the path to purposeful aging.

Any final tips you care to share?

A very simple, but effective step is to post a sticky note on your mirror that says 'Grow and Give,' as a daily reminder to ask, 'What can I do today to grow or make a difference in someone's life?'

By reflecting and acting on that question consistently, you'll slowly develop a felt sense of purpose.

Finally, be intentional about the people you surround yourself with in this next chapter. We know from the Harvard Study of Adult Development that having close relationships figures more in keeping you happy throughout life than any other single factor, including IQ, genes or social class. Having meaningful conversations with close friends can help you gain clarity about your purpose and the motivation to act on it.

Photograph of Nancy Collamer
Nancy Collamer, M.S., is a semi-retirement coach, speaker and author of Second-Act Careers: 50+ Ways to Profit From Your Passions During Semi-Retirement. You can now download her free workbook called 25 Ways to Help You Identify Your Ideal Second Act on her website at (and you'll also receive her free bi-monthly newsletter). Read More
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