But how does one find a new mission at age 50 or 60 or 80? A growing array of books, courses, programs and now Web sites exist to provide suggestions, and many of them offer valuable detailed guidance, worksheets and resources. Working your way through them all can be a chore. But identifying your new purpose doesn't have to be so major an undertaking that you never do it.
There are core ideas and principles you can use to find your purpose after 50.
Here are five tools.
Get Into Neutral
This is crucial when you leave a career. Resist the temptation to leap into the next phase of your life. Sit still. Take a timeout. Give yourself permission to decompress. The neutral zone is kind of a moratorium on old habits and thoughts. Experiencing such a "white space" can be scary. If we submit to it, however, new thoughts and fresh possibilities will emerge. It will help you redefine who you are now, not what you were. Neutral also helps give you closure on the end of your primary career, and the purposes and relationships they held for you.
Retell Your Life Story
Stories reveal things your rational minds (and resumes) can miss. If writing is hard for you, imagine you're writing a letter to a friend or speak into a recording device. Recap in brief, or in outline style, the story of your life. As you organize the "facts" of your life, hundreds of images, thoughts, recollections and memories will begin to cross your mind. Sift and distill these for central themes, interests, activities and relationships that matter most and express who you are. Use old photos or letters. Pull out your report cards. Read what your teacher wrote about you, and not just your grades. Don't judge. Generate data. There are clues in your past.
Use Your Verbs
This technique works throughout the assessment process. The pressures of social status make you think about yourself in nouns -- the titles, labels, roles and affiliations, usually of your career. But nouns close doors. They peg people. Strip them away and get to your verbs. The challenge now is to dream not about what you want to be but what you want to do. Verbs are active and dynamic. What were you doing when you felt excited or fulfilled? Find several examples and then look for patterns in your skills and experience. That will help you redefine what you want to do now.
Write a Personal Mission Statement
Companies and organizations have these. Why not individuals? Consider writing a statement reflecting your life vision or mission. Skip tangible goals or specific projects and make a list of the values, beliefs and interests you care about the most -- the motivators that guide you, fire you up and draw out your best contribution. Only when you have a strong interior sense of these broader life goals can you find the real-time contexts, life opportunities and markets in which to apply them.
A trusted circle of advisers can be of immense help as you seek new paths. Put friends, present or former work colleagues and family members on these personal sounding boards. Those who know you well and who are stakeholders in your success can hold up mirrors to reflect back things about you that you can't see yourself. Such groups know collectively of more possibilities than any one person could summon. It can be a formal or highly informal group. To get a sense of how a personal board can help, gather three to four friends for personal brainstorming sessions. Open the floor to insights and possibilities with no judgments allowed. The goal is simply to turn up opportunities and use the feedback to improve your exploration of new directions in your life.
These steps are only a beginning. But they may put you on a path to a post-career life purpose that can dramatically reduce the chance of being bored in retirement.
David Corbett is the founder of New Directions, Inc., in Boston, and author of "Portfolio Life: the New Path to Work, Purpose, and Passion After 50" (Jossey Bass). Visit him online at www.portfoliolifebook.com or www.newdirections.com.