'What do you want to be when you grow old?' focuses on finding meaning late in life

A man poses for a photo.
Richard Leider is an internationally known author and life coach.
Courtesy of Richard Leider

What does it mean to live a life with purpose? It’s a big question that one Minnesota author wants to help you answer.

Richard Leider has written 11 books, including his most recent titled “Who Do You Want to Be When You Grow Old?: The Path of Purposeful Aging.” He’s giving a talk Tuesday night at St. Catherine University on the power of purpose.

He talked to MPR News guest host Nina Moini about finding purpose later in life.

 Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation. 

Subscribe to the Minnesota Now podcast on Apple PodcastsGoogle PodcastsSpotify or wherever you get your podcasts.   

We attempt to make transcripts for Minnesota Now available the next business day after a broadcast. When ready they will appear here.

Grow the Future of Public Media

MPR News is supported by Members. Gifts from individuals power everything you find here. Make a gift of any amount today to become a Member!

Audio transcript

NINA MOINI: What does it mean to live a life with purpose? It's a big question that one Minnesota author wants to help you answer. Richard Leider has written 11 books, including his most recent titled Who Do You Want to be When You Grow Old? The Path of Purposeful Aging. He's giving a talk tonight at Saint Catherine University on the power of purpose, and he joins me now. Mr. Leider, I apologize. Thank you for being here.

RICHARD LEIDER: Well, Nina, thank you. Good afternoon.

NINA MOINI: Good afternoon. I ask myself this every day. What is my purpose? Who do you want to be when you grow old? It's sort of a play on, what do you want to be when you grow old?

That's the title of the book, and it seems to imply that we shouldn't just be thinking about growing up in terms of a young child or our careers. What do you think about that title? What was your thought there?

RICHARD LEIDER: Well, you're exactly right. It is a play on what did you want to do when you grew up. But now that you're grown up, who do you want to be in the next phases of your life? And we've added three decades to life, so life is a lot longer. And so answering the question about who do you want to be when you grow old is not a luxury anymore. It's fundamental.

NINA MOINI: Yeah, and so finding purpose, it's a word that gets thrown around a lot. And it's so daunting. So how do you approach that concept?

RICHARD LEIDER: Well, I talk about it with a big P and a little p in purpose. Kind of the big P purpose is the daunting one. I should have a cause. I should save the planet. Or I should do something really awesome.

And that's OK, and that's relevant for people. But the little p purpose is, what do I do this morning? Purpose is basically, why? Why do I get up in the morning? Why do I arise? And why do I rise in the morning?

And so every day, there are 1,440 purpose moments minutes when you can make a difference in that minute in someone's life. So the little p purpose is the everyday purpose. And often, when I talk about big P, little p, I get a [SIGH] sigh because people say, well, thankfully, I can do the little p, but the big P, I'm still working on.

NINA MOINI: Yeah, I often wake up, and I do think, who do I want to be today instead of what do I want to do today, because who you show up as is sort of what you do have control over. So I am curious why you focus on people later in life. What brought you to that group of people?

RICHARD LEIDER: Well, I've been exploring purpose for over five decades. And as I've lived my own life over that time and looked at-- purpose is basically age agnostic. There are as many younger people as midlife people as older people, and I've written about all of them over time.

But as we've lived longer now and are growing older, everybody's getting older. But are they growing older? Because what we need to do is to have a reason to get up in the morning as we-- in our second half of life in certain ways. And so I would say this in a simple way.

The core purpose is only to words-- to grow and give. And so the question is, how am I growing and giving throughout my life? And I often ask people, Nina, take a post-it out, and write grow and give on the post-it, and put that on your mirror, and ask yourself tomorrow morning, how am I going to grow and give today? And how am I going to-- and at night, before you go to sleep, how did I grow and give today?

And over time, even five days, trying it every day, there will be a felt sense. Purpose is fulfilling. It feels good to make a difference in the lives of others because giving or serving is-- purpose is always beyond the self, ultimately.

NINA MOINI: I think that's beautiful. I'm going to give that a try. Why do you think people don't think as much about their lives past retirement? Sometimes it seems hard to even picture.

RICHARD LEIDER: Well, it's true. There's a kind of an old model. It's like the three stages of life-- learn, earn, retire. Well, now, it's learn, earn and learn and earn and keep learning throughout a lifetime. And so as people are living longer-- and I say for retirees or anybody, there's money-- There's three Ms. There's money. There's medicine. And there's meaning.

And we all know people who have enough money and perhaps medicine, meaning health, but are not feeling so great about retirement. They may be feeling isolated, or alone, or bored, or a lot of different things. Or they may be very happy in retirement.

But we know people also who have meaning and don't have enough health or don't have enough money. And so meaning is the essential third M that comes with retirement. But it comes at any stage of life but even more so as we age.

NINA MOINI: Yeah. And something you mentioned is the u-curve of happiness. Can you explain that?

RICHARD LEIDER: Well, it used to be midlife crisis, and the u-curve of happiness is where, if you look at the arc of life, in midlife, there's a dip. It's usually about 45 to 55 or 60. There's a dip where there's a lot of pressures on us with work, and finance, and health, and transitions.

And that tends to be the most unhappy time of life is that midlife period or the most stressful, if you will. But then the new evidence is that as we go into the next phase of life, that can be the happiest time of our lives. The old models of aging were all about deficit or decline.

The new models of aging that are now research based are that there's an uptick, possibly, if we continue to grow and give in certain ways. I know I did a PBS special, and I got a chance to interview a lot of neurologists and neuroscientists. And one of them held up a pill. His name is Dr. Majid Fotuhi at Johns Hopkins, and he head up a pill, Nina.

And he said, would you buy this pill? And I said, yeah. What does it do? And he said, well, it'll reduce the effects of Alzheimer's and dementia. It'll reduce the effects of macroscopic stroke by 41%, will help with sleep and sleep apnea, and add seven to 10 years of your life. And I said, well, yeah, of course. But is there such a pill? And what would it cost?

And he said, it's free. It's what you write about. It's purpose. We now can measure purpose in the brain.

NINA MOINI: Wow.

RICHARD LEIDER: So it's not just about eating well and all of the other things that are essential as we age. It's also about the a pro-aging mindset. With a pro-aging mindset, we can add seven to 10 years to our lives as opposed to the old model was anti-aging, and a decline, and something to be avoided. Now many people are really engaged, and that's why we wrote the book.

How do we stay engaged? How do we wake up on purpose and really rise in the morning with that pro-aging mindset?

NINA MOINI: So important. And we've just about a minute left, and I wonder, when you find people who are stuck in finding their purpose, what advice do you give them? What are some tips? You mentioned the post-it note. Any other tips?

RICHARD LEIDER: Well, I call it mind over mattress, the two-minute practice when you wake up in the morning. First thing-- three steps-- first thing, don't turn on technology. Don't reach for your phone. Second, take three deep breaths to center yourself. And third, ask yourself, what's your intention for the day? How can I make a difference in someone's life this day and make an intentional commitment to do that?

So the post-it challenge I gave was one practice. The mind over mattress or two-minute purpose practice is another one.

NINA MOINI: All great.

RICHARD LEIDER: So I like to make-- I like to think about making a difference in just one person's life of the 1,440 minutes in a day, each day. And with that comes a felt sense of fulfillment.

NINA MOINI: Absolutely. Thank you so much for your time, Richard. I really appreciate it.

RICHARD LEIDER: Thank you, Nina.

NINA MOINI: Richard Leider is a Minneapolis author focused on finding purpose in life. Tickets are still available for his talk tonight at Saint Catherine University at 6:00 PM.

Download transcript (PDF)

Transcription services provided by 3Play Media.