Clarifying Your Purpose in the Third Third of Life, Part 6

By Mark D. Roberts

July 15, 2023

Article, De Pree Journal, Third Third

Clarity of purpose is essential for third third flourishing. That’s what the research says. And that’s what I keep hearing from people, again and again.

In my work at the De Pree Center, I have the opportunity to meet dozens and dozens of “third thirders.” After I preach in worship services, or as I lead conferences, retreats, and classes, I regularly listen to people’s stories. I learn so much from them. Sometimes it feels as if I’m receiving more than I’m giving when I spread the good news of third third flourishing.

One of the things I consistently hear from older adults has to do with finding purpose in life. Those who have found a strong sense of purpose for their third third emphasize how important this is. Many, however, share that they’re having a hard time discovering their third third purpose. For example, they may have imagined that the freedoms and pleasures of retirement would be enough to fulfill them. But, after enjoying such things for a season, they have come to realize that they need more. They need to make a difference that matters in the world. They need a clear sense of purpose, something besides an alarm clock to get them out of bed in the morning.

This article is the sixth in a series I’ve been writing on “Clarifying Your Purpose in the Third Third of Life.” My purpose (pun intended) is to give you a variety of suggestions that may help you get clear on your purpose. In the first article of this series, I proposed that there isn’t one magic process by which everyone can find their purpose. I’m not claiming that my suggestions are the only beneficial ones. But I do believe that this series will help just about anyone come to greater clarity about their third third purpose. Given my theological orientation, my suggestions will be most valuable to Christians who are eager to live their lives with God and for God’s glory.

To this point, I have offered seven suggestions to help you identify and live into your third third purpose:

Suggestion 1: Be committed to God’s purpose for all things, including your life.

Suggestion 2: Seek the Lord in prayer and surrender to God’s will.

Suggestion 3: Pay attention to how God has made and gifted you.

Suggestion 4: Pay attention to what God is putting on your heart.

Suggestion 5: Pay attention to where you are bearing fruit.

Suggestion 6: Look for continuity but be open to surprises.

Suggestion 7: Get in touch with and act upon your generativity.

In this article, I’ll offer one additional suggestion for how you can clarify your purpose in the third third of life.

Suggestion 8: Experiment your way forward.

Sometimes we think we need to have our purpose all figured out before we can begin to live into it. To be sure, this is how it works for some folks. But many of us get stuck because our expectations are out to sync with reality. We keep waiting for a kind of clarity that just doesn’t seem to come.

In fact, you don’t need to fully clarify your purpose before you begin to live into it. It’s often better to try out different possibilities on the way to clarifying your purpose. Dave Evans and Bill Burnett, co-authors of the bestselling book Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life, write: “Life design is an iterative [that is, frequently repetitive] process of prototypes and experimentation” (p. 25). You try something new – a prototype – and see what happens. You learn from this experiment and then try something a little different, to see how that goes. And so on, and so on. Therefore, rather than sitting around trying to design your perfect life with a crystal-clear purpose, you may be better off taking small steps and experimenting with things to see what happens. In time, you’ll get more clarity about your third third purpose.

You may be interested to know that Dave Evans and Bill Burnett wrote Designing Your Lifebased on a famously-popular course they taught undergrads at Stanford. Surprisingly, the principles of a book based on the experience of young adults are actually quite relevant to those of us in or entering the third third of life. Designing Your Life is a great book to read if you’re wondering what’s next for you. Dave Evans, who is a thoughtful Christian, by the way, has written a Christian Companion to Designing Your Life, which I also highly recommend. In addition to Designing Your Life and the Christian Companion, you might find helpful the book by Peter Sims called Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries.

When it comes to experimenting your way forward, I’d encourage you to try relatively modest experiments, ones that don’t require giant investments of time, money, energy, or life disruption. You’re looking for experiments that can fail without major consequences for your life. For example, I’ve known third third folk who decide to move from their lifelong home to live near their grandchildren or to enjoy warmer weather. They go through the hugely disruptive process of selling their home, downsizing, and moving hundreds of miles away from where they have lived for decades. They leave behind their church and long-time friends. Now, sometimes the new life they’ve chosen works out wonderfully. But not always. It’s not unusual for folks to discover that their move might not have been the best choice. Unfortunately, however, their “experiment” has been such a costly one that it’s hard to imagine not sticking with it.

I’ve known others, however, whose approach to a major third third move was more experimental (in the mode of Designing Your Life or Little Bets). Rather than selling their house and moving permanently, they found a way to live for several months in the place they were considering for their future. In some cases, this short experiment affirmed the wisdom of a long-term move. In other cases, the experiment helped folks discover how much they valued what they had in their previous home, especially the relationships they had built over a lifetime. So they decided not to move permanently, but rather to remain in their home and make short-term visits to warmer spots or places where their grandchildren lived.

If you feel like you’re stuck when it comes to discovering and living out your third third purpose, I would suggest you try something relatively small, something that intrigues you and/or to which you feel drawn. Even if this experiment turns out to be a flop, you will have gained valuable wisdom along the way, wisdom that will help you clarify your purpose with greater precision in the future.

In the next article in this series, I’ll propose yet another suggestion for how you can clarify your purpose in the third third of life.

You can read all of the articles in this series by visiting this page of our website.

Banner image by Getty Images on Unsplash.

Mark D. Roberts

Senior Strategist

Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders,...

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