Purposeful Life Keeps Old Man Out

I’m standing in front of our home, speaking with a friend. His large dog nudges gently against my hand for attention. She’s beautiful and knows it.

“You have to be careful and not let the old man in,” he says.

He’s talking about retirement – how the destination is different from what many tend to think.

“I’ve retired and unretired twice,” he says. “Played golf, took walks and filled my time. Always found something to do.”

But in retirement, something important was lacking, he says.

“You’ve got to have a purpose in life, a reason to get up in the morning. Filling time becomes simply filling time. One day you ask what the purpose of living each day.”

My friend is upbeat, healthy, and looks years younger than the date on his driver’s license. He is always with a wave and kind things to say.

His dog yawns as if trying to speak. She is growing bored with the conversation and wants to get going.

“Don’t get me wrong,” he says. “I enjoyed my regular tee-time with friends, but after a while, I began to miss the sense of accomplishment. So I unretired and went and did something new.”

His words run against the grain of society’s prepackaged definition of retirement – work long, save your money, and find ways to fill the hours of your days. One doesn’t have to stretch too far to see this as a twist on the putting one out to pasture formula. My friend would have none of this.

“As I said, you’ve got to keep the old man from getting in. You’ve got to have a purpose to your days, keep learning new things, and stay healthy.”

His dog rubs her white coat against my leg, asserting her wishes to get moving.

My friend pauses and then changes my life.

“Happiness is simply enjoying the passing of time. You’ve got to do what you enjoy – and that includes having a purpose of how you use your time.”

My dad’s generation defined retirement as a destination – a predetermined mark in time complete with a finish line where you effectively exited the interstate of a purposeful life.

Filling time, my friend says does not offer one the sense of making a difference in the world with each sunrise. We are not one-act plays, but rather should view life as a journey, one where we always have something to give or contribute to the world. And in the end, our happiness is driven by the purposeful reward we receive by actively investing our time and attention in others.

Forcefully tugging on the leash, my friend’s dog is ready to go. Her purpose apparently awaits down the street.

My friend is not afraid of life or the passing of time. He also knows he alone controls his true happiness. With each day he embraces the opportunity to continue to learn, grow, and find purpose in how he chooses to use his time.

That – and keeping the old man out.


Pizza Includes Special Ingredient

I am sitting in a deep-dish pizza shop in downtown Chicago. The smell of the three-inch deep pies competes with the excited voices of customers for owning the room. Red and white table clothes, accents from around the world, and energy you can almost reach out and touch in the air. Americana is on full display.

But near the door is another piece of what is sometimes undervalued as an Americana trait – hard work.

A man, probably my age, is standing at a nearby work station. His English is broken, but his commitment to doing a good job at the task in front of him is as solid as the foundation of nearby skyscrapers.

Drying plates and wrapping silverware into a white napkin is not sexy work. But to him, his head leaning forward and his hands moving as fast as possible, this is the most important work in the world.

I lean over and clue my wife into what I’m seeing.

“Look how fast he works,” I say.

For a few moments, we watch as he takes a stack of white serving plates, fresh from the dishwasher, and prepares them for being placed on tables. His hands move so fast I can hardly keep up – as if someone were slight speeding up a video for emphasis. With each plate, he used a pattern to wipe, flip, and stack. And remarkably, the deeper he got into the stack, the fast his hands moved – as if he were playing a game against the clock.

When it came to sorting the clean silverware, he used the same urgency and self-competitiveness. Reach, bunch, wrap, and stack.

Again, this is not sexy work – but what I was seeing was a man taking extreme pride in the work that touched his fingertips, taking full responsibility to do the best job possible regardless of anyone else’s measure of value. It was nothing short of moving to me.

And this was not his only task. Throughout the night I watched him bus tables, carefully replacing plates and silverware on each for the next customers all with the same urgency and attention to detail. Whatever he touched, he signed his name to, so to speak.

I wanted to take the lightning in a bottle he carried and share it with the world.

Too often people feel defined by their perspective of what they believe the world places value on the tasks they perform. And unfortunately, this leads to potentially undermine the effort and pride they take away from a job well done. The truth is, one does not need to look any further than across the street at the skyscraper to prove this wrong.

Hard work and pride in our accomplishments built this country. And while our society is filled with casting out judgments, I will always remember the man tasked with setting and creating the right environment for me to indulge in a sinful experience of cheese and crust. He is a critical element of the pie as the crust and America.