Beyond the Self

Purpose over pleasure.

February 17, 2019

Wynnifred Franklin retired decades ago. For three years, she sat at home, free to do whatever she wanted with her time. 

Then, at age 72, she learned the local supermarket was hiring. Soon she found herself on the morning shift at the supermarket bakery, waking at 3:30 a.m. and arriving on the job well before dawn, six days a week.

Now 94 years old, Franklin hasn’t missed a day of work in 22 years.

A self-described “people person,” she says that working with and for others keeps her young. Coming out of retirement “changed my life. Now I’m part of a team that makes something happen.”

The motivation to help other people is fundamental to human nature. Beyond our needs for food, drink, and shelter, and for status and competence and the freedom to do what we want, beyond even our desire to exercise our talents to the fullest, there is the need to look beyond our own needs altogether and, instead, focus on loftier goals.

Abraham Maslow put it this way: “The fully developed (and very fortunate) human being working under the best conditions tends to be motivated by values which transcend his self.”

In my research, I’ve found that gritty adults are minimally motivated by all-about-me pleasure and maximally motivated by beyond-the-self purpose.

Take your pulse on your current sense of purpose. How many of the following statements are true for you?

  • I look for ways to have positive effects on others’ lives.
  • I often reflect on my life goals and the kind of person I want to be.
  • When I plan out my day, I consider how my activities connect to what I want to accomplish with my life.
  • I often think about what I can offer the world, taking into account what the world needs as well as my personal strengths and interests.
  • I often think about what matters most to me and why it matters.

Don’t chase pleasure and expect to find happiness. No matter your age, you surely ache for the gratifications that no amount of money or free time can buy.

Do find a way to work for other people. Wynnifred Franklin recently gave this advice: “Just volunteer for maybe two days a week.” Soon enough, she predicts, you’ll feel different. Why? Because you’d “be helping somebody…”

With grit and gratitude,

About the author

Angela Duckworth is a co-founder of Character Lab, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, and the author of Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.