Purposefully Purposeless: My Non-Doing Life

I’ve written previously about living an ordinary life and how the thought of such terrified me when I was younger.

Terrified that I might look back over my life at some wizened stage and find I didn’t do enough, didn’t become enough, just plain wasn’t enough. That I wasted precious time when I should have been fulfilling my potential

Now, that worry seems light-years away as I find peace in non-doing, or wu wei.

Wu Who? Wu Wei!

In Chinese, wu wei means non-doing or doing nothing. But wu wei is not a concept that gives those with a penchant for slothfulness a pass (darn!). Wu wei, at the center of Taoism (and Confucianism, etc.) and the lifeblood of the Tao (Dao), or the way, is an ethical and wise means of living in accordance with nature. 

It’s effortless action, not inaction; least resistance or flow when facing the path laid out before you. It’s a state of moving through the world without pushing or striving, but instead using skillful activity to meet one’s daily obligations—and it’s the way I aspire to live whatever’s left of my life.

Lest you think I’m a scholar of Chinese philosophies and adept in the art of living in harmony with the natural flow of things, I’m not. Although I have more than a passing interest in Taoism, and the concept of wu wei stuck with me when I first learned about it many years ago, I will not pretend I know more than what I included above. I use the term in its most basic meaning to illustrate my position on purpose (and my lack of it). 

How Did That Happen?

Now, in the early autumn of life, I find myself thinking about how I got here (Portugal, my fifties, so very solo, etc.) and where life will take me next. I’ve no interest in driving white-knuckled toward an answer to the “what’s my purpose?” question. I prefer to sit by, attentive, and see what’s coming in the great unfolding of my rather average life. 

Put simply, I’m not ambitious, and I don’t aspire to acquire the outward presentations that would suggest that I have it together, that I’m successful, or that I’m where I should be in life. Yes I have things I want to do, a few loose plans, but where I am and whatever I’m doing is good enough. And that’s the wu wei of it—it’s much easier to accept life as it is instead of striving for all the things it’s not. 

Driven Back Then

When I was in my twenties, just starting out in my first career, I pursued a notion of success that was somewhat shaped by the outside world, but mostly in competition with myself as I pursued my goals. And although I fell into the trap that material possessions signaled making it, I got over that pretty quickly before I exited my early thirties, but not without the credit card debt that goes along with that mindset. 

I’ve always had a competitive streak, I suppose, but that was in response to what society, and certain people, said I could and couldn’t do. Fueled by the naysayers, I’d set out to prove to them, which was really prove to myself, that I could do and achieve. And I did, in a small way. 

Occasionally I get glimmers of that old competitiveness, but most days, I feel the exact opposite. I am so not interested in racing to some arbitrary finish line and I have nothing to prove—to anyone. 

I’ve never achieved anything conventionally noteworthy. I didn’t become the CEO of a Fortune 500 company (thank the gods) or famous (again, thanks) or any of that. Still, I did rise a bit above my socioeconomic station, mainly through stubborn determination to rewrite the familial script I had inherited. 

Without that stubbornness, I wouldn’t have gone from high school dropout to college graduate with high honors. I wouldn’t have built a business that supports me on my terms, and I certainly wouldn’t have made it to Portugal. 

Tell me I can’t do something, then stand back! I will do that very thing. At least that’s how I was before I entered my early autumn years and new-found ease with non-doing. 

Purpose = Happiness

Studies show that those who have a life purpose tend to be happiest (and live longer, too), but I’m wagering a bet that the people studied are of the western goal-oriented mindset. In philosophies like Taoism, the emphasis is on aimlessness, not in the shiftless drifter way, but in the stop exerting so damn much effort way. 

I’m not arguing that a sense of purpose doesn’t have benefits, but I am suggesting that in the all-consuming quest for one’s purpose, a hallmark of a goal-oriented society, that much beauty and joy get lost in the pursuit. 

Instead, if we take our foot off the gas and coast, we’ll get to where we’re going, anyway. Because however or whenever we get there, we’re all ending up with the same fate. No fancy salary or initials after your name can keep that final hour from happening, so maybe enjoying the journey with a bit of ease would make for a more fulfilling life. 

It’s at least worth giving a try, don’t you think? 


  • You must, must, must check out Window Swap! A view through windows around the world. “WindowSwap is here to fill that deep void in our wanderlust hearts by allowing us to look through someone else's window, somewhere in the world.”

  • Finger’s crossed! New network of European sleeper trains planned via The Guardian

  • Meet my new friend, LaDonna. She and her family just moved to Setúbal from San Francisco—Like me, she’s a writer and has a Substack newsletter, too.

Thank you Michelle, Mark, Janice, Bill, Jeanne, Bitsy, and anonymous “someones” for your support. If you’d like to support life: examined, this weekly love letter, you can do so though Buy Me a Coffee. I appreciate it!