Not One Thing


November 6, 2015 by Jean

imageRecently, I got into a conversation about retirement with an old acquaintance I ran into at the Sunday farmers’ market. She is contemplating retirement and was curious about my experience. As we talked, she asked me what the “one thing” is that I am focusing my energy on now that I am no longer working. Her question contained an assumption, that retirees need a central focus to take the place once filled by paid work. This assumption is not unusual; some writers on retirement advise new retirees to identify the “one thing” that will give purpose to their lives in retirement.

But a little over one year into my own retirement, I am not feeling a need for a central focus. The truth is that my life is not centered on “one thing,” nor do I want it to be. But as I tried to explain to my friend how I am spending my time, I realized that my answer sounded lame. I could not clearly articulate how I can live an engaged, fulfilling, purposeful life without a central focus. This post is my attempt to explain.

I loved my work as a college professor (well, most of it – not grading), but I was frustrated by how time-consuming it was. Yes, there were school breaks when the pace was more relaxed, but during semesters when I was teaching three different courses (most of the semesters I taught), my work week was never less than 60 hours long and was often more like 80-90 hours. This left no time for anything else in my life; just keeping one day free to get grocery shopping and cooking and house cleaning done was a major effort. Forget about having time for recreation or relaxation or civic engagement or learning about things outside my area of expertise. I didn’t want to live without time for those things; thus the all-consuming demands of the work provided the biggest push out of work and into retirement for me.

Recently, I’ve been reading Jimmy Carter’s The Virtues of Aging (Ballantine 1998), written when he was in his mid-seventies. This sentence particularly resonated for me: “We should consider our life as expanding, not contracting….” (p. 51). I have powerfully felt that sense of life expanding since my retirement, and a big part of that feeling is the expansion of possibilities created when I was freed from the need to focus on just one thing.

To say that my life in retirement does not have a single central focus or a big overriding purpose is not to say that it is without focus or is purposeless. I tend to organize my day and week so that I focus on one thing at a time, shifting sequentially through the range of interests and activities that currently engage me. I love having the time and energy to devote weekday mornings to challenging intellectual reading and to writing. Much of my reading takes me outside my area of expertise and provides an exhilarating sense that my brain is expanding almost to the point of bursting. In offering a course at the local Senior College, I am also drawing on the expertise I developed during my long academic career and continuing to hone my teaching skills. In the afternoons, I often spend time focused on homeowner chores (e.g., getting my firewood stacked and my garden prepared for winter). And I have projects waiting in the wings that will require focused attention when I get to them. These include getting my old study cleaned out and transformed into my new guest room and sewing room. And once that is done, I am looking forward to taking up the creative work of sewing clothes, something that I loved when I was young but had to give up in the 1980s when the demands of my work left me without time and energy for the kind of intense focus sewing requires.

Having interests and activities that focus my attention and energy is one thing; having a purpose in life is something different. Perhaps because my spirituality is centered in natural cycles and in the circle of life, I don’t think of my life as having a purpose “out there.” Instead, I feel that living every day is its own purpose. By this, I mean that the purpose of my life is made up of myriad small daily things – being engaged with and attentive to the world around me. Taking time to walk slowly around my garden each morning, breathing in the changing scents of the seasons and marveling at the beautiful coppery color of beech leaves in November provides joy in being part of this natural world and gives my life meaning. Part of my sense of purpose also involves trying to leave the world a bit better in some way. Opening up young people’s minds to new ways of seeing and understanding the world was certainly a big part of what I found meaningful about teaching. But I can also participate in making the world a better place by doing small things that make life easier for those around me and by being intentionally climate-friendly in my lifestyle and gardening choices.

I may find some day that I need a single focus or a single purpose for my retirement living, but that is not true now. I am very happy to be living an expansive life that includes a variety of foci and purposes.

29 thoughts on “Not One Thing

  1. Charlie Emmons says:

    This is another great one, Jean. Thank you. It resonates with me in several ways. For one it connects to the work/life balance literature. For another it reminds me of the holistic body/mind/spirit themes in the New Age. I know that we academics are privileged in getting to do what we love and even get paid for it, but like other professionals we tend to become overspecialized and insanely drained by our work (excessive division of labor, Durkheim). I’m still (over)working, but I seek out quiet treasures like nuts and leaves on my nature walks.

  2. Melanie says:


  3. Jean R says:

    My favorite line in this entire essay is: “I don’t think of my life as having a purpose ‘out there.’ Instead, I feel that living every day is its own purpose.” To me it’s a better way of saying you’re striving to live in the moment and make each day count. And that’s a goal I hope to achieve someday.

    Before my husband died my “retirement”—if you want to call it that—I did have one thing to focus on, being his caregiver. It took center stage and all else fell by the wayside. The transition to not having a single purpose anymore has been hard. I struggle not to confuse living in the moment with drifting. I see book titles like, “How to Live Purpose Driven Life” and wonder why my purpose can’t be to just to make myself happy. LOL

    • Jean says:

      Jean, I thought of you today when I came to this passage in Jimmy Carter’s book: “What should be our major goals as we prepare for our later years? You may be surprised to learn that I think one of the most important should be our own happiness.” (p. 87)

  4. Kim says:

    This was a lovely post (explanation). Thank you, Jean. Just yesterday, I read an essay written by Rebecca Solnit on Daily Good, and I thought of it after I read your piece. She talks about the concepts of time, “productivity,” “production,” etc. in our culture and how she sees slowing down as an act of rebellion of sorts. She also writes, in this essay (called “Finding Time”), about missing descriptions in our nation when it comes to describing so-called “unproductive” activities (e.g., taking a walk). I bet we just don’t have nice role models, yet, of soulful folks in retirement! You are blazing the trail for many, including for me, and the words to describe what one doesn’t do or chooses to do when not working… these words will eventually roll off our tongues with ease. Or, hmm, maybe people won’t ask and we won’t feel a need to explain that we’re still learning, even in retirement, to juggle the gifts of each day.

    • Jean says:

      Kim, Thanks for pointing me to the Rebecca Solnit essay. I really like her point about how difficult it is to appreciate things we don’t have language for — which helps me to understand why I struggled so long with this post before I found language to express what I have been experiencing.

  5. Diana Studer says:

    with so many opportunities and possibilities, doors opening where they had slammed shut in busier earlier years – it seems sad to narrow and confine life down to one thing. But then I haven’t come across that attitude yet.

    • Jean says:

      Diana, Nice to know this attitude is a peculiarity of American culture and not widespread in other countries, like South Africa. I agree that narrowing life to one thing is unnecessarily confining and robs this stage of life of its richness.

  6. Dawn says:

    Retirement is such a lovely ‘gift’ of time! Three years after retiring from my wonderful teaching career, I have found that each year my life expands in new, exciting ways. I continue to follow the same intentions that I followed in my classroom ~ be creative, learn something new every day, and make a difference. Jean, your retirement sounds so wonderful, too. Celebrate each day!

    • Jean says:

      Dawn, I like the way you’ve articulated your intentions for your retirement life and how these are continuous with your pre-retirement intentions. Yes!! This really resonates for me.

  7. pagedogs says:

    Beautifully put. I view retirement as an enticing smorgasbord of opportunities and experiences that were sadly out of reach for years because work was so all-consuming. We had so many pent up interests, that it’s been hard to decide what to explore first (I’ve been gorging a bit at the smorgasbord). It’s such a sweet, sweet feeling to finally have the luxury of TIME.

    • Jean says:

      Brenda, Because I was living in the middle of a major construction project last year, I didn’t really feel that luxury of time; but this year I am enjoying it thoroughly.

  8. Roslyn Berg says:

    Jean, I’ve begun following your blog and thoroughly enjoy your insights. I’m hoping to retire in a year or so but currently work long hours, so my dream for retirement is to find time for all the things I wish I could be doing now that I don’t have time for. I enjoy drawing so started a visual journal with a page for each “dream” and filled the book before I ran out. Maybe I’m being unrealistic but I imagine a wide variety of interests, never a single focus, consuming my days.

    • Jean says:

      Roslyn, Welcome to my blog, and I’m happy that you’re finding it useful as you plan your own retirement. Like you, I had a long list of saved-up dreams and interests that I wanted to pursue in retirement. Once I was retired, however, I had an experience that I think many retirees have — that there wasn’t enough time to pursue all of them at once without feeling as stressed out as I did when I was working 80-hour weeks. I quickly learned that I didn’t have to do everything at once and that I needed to prioritize. In the first year and a half, I’ve given priority to relaxing and to getting my house in order. Some goals like taking the Master Gardener certification course and getting back to sewing have been deferred for another year.

  9. Diane Cooney says:

    Jean, that was very well put. I, too, have found that retirement is about “expanding possibilities.” It’s wonderful to have the opportunity to pursue many interests and activities.

    • Jean says:

      Diane, I completely agree. I don’t want to give up that delicious feeling of expanding possibilities by focusing on a narrower range of interests.

  10. Sue Tibs says:

    Fascinating post, Jean! Thank you.

    I’ve been reading and enjoying your blog for most of this year. We share some common interests, especially in the area of education and life-long learning. For me, that’s the most difficult “interest” to explain to other people.

    I have been semi-retired for almost a year. The reason that I say “semi” is because I am not yet old enough to collect retirement benefits, but also because I resigned from my corporate job to pursue other interests, namely NOT DOING ONE THING. 🙂

    There’s a great little book called “The One Thing” by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan. It’s mostly suited to entrepreneurs. But the book may appeal to people (like me) who write personal Life Vision and Life Mission statements. Mine are very general and basically reduce to value statements that free me to explore the world in endless ways, constrained only by my values.

    In the end, for me, it’s all about Mind & Body health. I blog about it here:

    Your blog offers lots of great example and stories. I smile whenever I read your posts (always a good thing!) Keep ’em coming! And thank you!


  11. Like you Jean I do not have a single purpose…it flows with the weather, the seasons, my interests. But I have a purpose each day…and some day my purpose is to just relax with a good book.

  12. […] understand why I have not wanted to replace work with one all-consuming interest or activity (see Not One Thing). For me, retirement provides an opportunity to create a rich, meaningful life through multiple […]

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I am Jean Potuchek, a professional sociologist who has just stepped into the next phase of my life, retirement, after more than thirty years of college teaching. This blog is about my experience of that new phase of life.

Please join me as I step into my future.

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