Thursday, May 10, 2012

Mistaking Busy-ness For Purpose

I remarked recently to my friend Tom Lane about how many of my newly retired friends struggle to find direction in their lives. Tom is a guy that is something of an expert in helping people find direction, he is a partner and is one of the primary consultants at The Center For Intentional Leadership.  I told Tom my observation; how for 30 or 40 years people run the “hamster wheel” in the workplace or at home; making decisions, porting kids from one activity to another, rushing from meeting to meeting, fielding complaints from customers, making sure that orders got out the door on time; and then suddenly, it was over. One day they pass magically into the ranks of the “retired” and emails stop arriving, the phone stops ringing, kids leave the nest and now nobody looks to them for any decisions, big or small.

I heard a story years ago about a recent retiree that began micro-managing his wife’s every decision, treating her as he had treated his direct reports in the workplace. After about a month of this behavior, it became insufferable for her and as he was giving her a tip on how to do some job she had done daily for their entire marriage she broke and exclaimed, “You know we did just fine without you here for 40 years! Don’t you have something better to do?”

Recently I became aware of the fact that many retirees unwittingly fall into alcohol addiction. A 2004 article in the New York Times quoted one recent retiree as saying, “There was nothing to do except read and drink and gradually the drinking took precedence over the reading. I got completely out of control.”

I was relating all of this to Tom and told him I thought this pointed-up how important it was to live with purpose in life. “All these people had purpose when they were working, but when they left the workplace or when the kids left the home, they lost their purpose.”

With insight, Tom corrected me. Wagging an index finger in a knowing and friendly way he said, “Nah, they never had purpose. They were just busy. They were just busy from the time they were in their 20’s and 30’s and they mistook busy-ness for purpose.”

When someone makes a stunning observation like Tom did, there is only one rational thing you can do: let it sink deeply into the cracks of your own life by asking a few tough questions of yourself.  Here are a few you can ask, but also take time to think of your own:
  • Am I masking a lack of purpose in my life with busy-ness?
  • Why am I busy? Does it provide a false sense of security? Does it make me feel important?
  • What lessons am I teaching my children by scheduling every minute of their young lives and then serving as a frantic porter who moves them from activity to activity?
  •  If I removed 60% of the activities in my life, would I experience a sense of loss or confusion? With what would I most likely anesthetize that sense of loss or confusion? 
  • What will I leave and who will truly be grieved when I am gone? How much of my time is given to that legacy and to those people in my calendar this week?
Lose some busy-ness and find some purpose in your life!

“Being successful and fulfilling your life’s purpose are not necessarily the same thing. You can reach all your personal goals, become a raving success by the world’s standard and still miss your purpose in this life.” – Rick Warren


  1. Wow, Kurt - I feel as if this is written just for me today. I'm an expert at being busy. I will be pondering those questions in the days to come and hope and pray I find freedom from my busy-ness.

    1. Joanna - I am glad that this hit the target of your heart! Let me know if you need help working through the questions. - K