How to Find Your Life’s Purpose
Today we have a guest post by David from CityFrugal who tackles the challenging question of how to find purpose in life once you’ve reached financial independence and acquiring more money is no longer a top priority in life.
Your savings rate is impressive.
You’ve started a side hustle.
You’ve optimized your spending so that every dollar brings maximum happiness.
For you, reaching financial independence is a foregone conclusion. It’s a matter of when you’ll be financially free, not if you’ll be financially free.
Everything that led up to this point felt challenging and difficult, and I’m not here to tell you it wasn’t. Increasing your savings rate to 50% or more is no small feat, and keeping it there requires constant vigilance against lifestyle inflation and marketing BS.
But this doesn’t automatically set you up for success in your FI life. All of your actions up to this point have been in pursuit of financial freedom, so what happens when you’ve achieved the goal?
Once the money is no longer the guiding factor in your decision-making, you might start to feel like a rudderless ship.
You don’t need more money, so continuing to chase it is inefficient. But you don’t have anything else to replace it with, so you’ll continue to make decisions for money beyond the point where you genuinely need to (often in the name of “security”).
To avoid the “money for money’s sake” abyss, you’ll need to replace it with a well-defined life purpose.
Your purpose can be a lifelong pursuit, helping you navigate the next 60+ years of your existence with a sense of direction and the calming knowledge that you are not mis-living.
A few caveats before we continue.
First, I think that the search for an overarching meaning of human life is overblown. It’s devolved from a real philosophical pursuit into a semi-rhetorical question that college kids ask each other after they’ve ingested recreational substances.
As such, the term “meaning of life” now sounds banal to the point of meaninglessness.
Beyond the obvious practical observations, I don’t think there’s one unifying “meaning of life” in the philosophical sense. It seems natural that each person has a unique meaning of life, synonymous with a vocation, a calling, or a purpose.
If we accept this definition, we get to choose the purpose of our existence.
Luminary Viktor Frankl would have agreed with this:
“Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.”
That sounds simple, but those of us who didn’t grow up with a calling know it’s anything but.
The good news is that finding your purpose isn’t done in one shot. You discover your purpose gradually, through sustained effort. As James Clear wrote, “Rome wasn’t built in a day, but they were laying bricks every hour.”
Finding Your Purpose
It sounds daunting when you put it that way, right? The key is to avoid taking the word “purpose” too seriously.
You can test and optimize it just like you have with everything else. In that way, the skills you used to achieve financial independence are highly relevant in finding a purpose.
If you find that your purpose simply isn’t working for you anymore, you can use the flexibility you cultivated in the pursuit of FI to adjust it, incorporating that new information.
Observe Your Effort
What do you enjoy spending your time on right now? What are the components of the activity that make it fulfilling?
For example, I enjoy writing in part because I like communicating complex ideas in simple, compelling ways (which I only achieve occasionally). I like writing publicly because it provides an avenue to help people via knowledge sharing.
If you haven’t examined your hobbies too closely for a while, a helpful start is to think about something you like to do and ask yourself, “Why?” until you can’t answer anymore.
After answering it two or three times, you should have a good idea of what’s driving your interest.
Do this for each of your hobbies or interests, looking for common threads connecting multiple things that you do*.
Identify and Examine the Connections Between Your Hobbies
It’s likely you’ll find a couple of through-lines running between the various activities and parts of your work that you enjoy.
If you volunteer at a soup kitchen and teach music lessons as a side hustle, it could be because you enjoy brightening the lives of those around you.
If you like your work as a programmer and volunteering on the board of a local non-profit, it’s likely that you get a kick out of solving complex problems.
If you have a few different ways in which you can use your skills and interests to improve your life or the lives of those around you, you’ve got a good starting point.
Again, don’t take this too seriously. Not everyone will find fulfillment from environmental, political, or social causes and that’s totally fine.
You don’t have to be “saving the world” – a painter makes people’s lives better by providing them with beautiful, interesting art.
Iterate on Your Activities
Once you’ve noticed where you’re able to provide value and generate the most happiness, test out new activities with similar characteristics.
You might have noticed that watching your friend’s dog is infinitely entertaining, so you could spend more time volunteering at your local shelter or become a dog walker.
In evaluating these new activities, follow the same process of noticing where your effort is providing the most value or bringing you the most happiness.
Over time, you’ll naturally start to hone in on the things that sustain you.
For most people, this isn’t a creation process per se. You’re not building something from scratch. Rather, you’re revealing something that already exists.
Finding your purpose is like an archaeological dig; as you uncover the specimen, you’ll learn more about its characteristics.
Write it Down
Once you’ve come to a reasonable understanding of your purpose, I recommend writing it on a sheet of paper.
You can always update it as your perspective changes. I recommend returning to this statement in times of struggle (or in times of success beyond your expectations) to recalibrate on who you are and what’s important to you.
As an example, here’s my purpose:
To be useful to the world in some small way and to leave the part of the world that I can influence slightly better than I found it. More concretely:
- Build strong relationships and help those who are important to me
- Contribute to the good of society, however indirectly, via my day job
- Find scalable ways to help people in developed countries have better lives (e.g. via CityFrugal)
- Use my privilege and position to help a lot of people I’ll likely never meet in developing countries via charitable giving
Over time, you’ll undoubtedly receive many offers to take on more responsibility in your chosen areas. Those who are interested and capable are always in high demand.
These offers could take the form of volunteer opportunities, jobs, or even offers to start new businesses capitalizing on your skillset.
Your pursuit-of-FI mind will naturally want to seize any opportunities to make money. Now that you don’t need to optimize for money, though, pause before you respond.
Instead of evaluating based on earning potential, ask yourself how closely the offer aligns with your life’s purpose. If it doesn’t, you can kindly decline, safe in the knowledge that you’re still on the right path.
*If you can’t think of anything you do that brings you happiness, your challenge is different: go out and try doing some stuff. It doesn’t matter what it is. Just pick anything you have a passing interest in and try doing it for several weeks. If you find that you don’t like doing whatever it is, pick something else and try again. Repeat until satisfactory results are achieved.
Find more articles by David over at CityFrugal.