Nothing in life is as important as defining what the purpose of your life is. This is not some abstract “ultimate meaning of life” question but a very practical reality – what are you going to do with the rest of your thirty two thousand days of life? A purpose is like the root system of a tree or the foundation of a building – it provides a basis for everything that you build on top of it. Without a specific and defined purpose, everything in your life is separate and disconnected. You go to work, you spend time with family and friends, you practice hobbies and leisure activities, but these are not necessarily grounded by any overall direction. (In fact, they almost certainly aren’t.) A lack of integration between the different aspects of your life can create fear, doubt and existential crises – potentially unknowable, big picture questions like “what’s it all about?” or “what is the meaning of life?”
With a specific and well-defined purpose, life has a lot more clarity. With a purpose, you can instantly determine whether your day-to-day actions are taking you toward the fulfillment of your purpose or away from it. It’s kind of like a motivational and spiritual GPS in that respect – something that you can always check to see whether you’re walking on the path that’s the right one for you.
With purpose, life is no longer about getting to some externally-defined “place” – reaching a peak in your career, earning a certain amount of money, having the perfect family, retiring and riding an RV to Arizona. Instead, life becomes anchored in expressing your purpose in every moment. The key is knowing what this purpose is. If you don’t know it, then your purpose can be a very simple one: find it.
Service comes first
Your purpose will work best for you when it has some element of service and interaction with others, no matter how self-oriented your goals. For example, if you decide or discover that your purpose is to earn 100 million dollars, in order to make this happen you could create a business or other organization that provides enough value to others that your clients or customers want collectively to give you this sum of money. Similarly, if your purpose is to become an actor and star in Hollywood movies, you could do this by convincing enough people (or the right specific people) that investing large sums of money in films where you are the lead, will provide good financial returns.
That being said, I’ll go out on a limb here and say that even with the connection to other people, these still aren’t very good life purposes. First, they are highly dependent on a lot of factors that you don’t control; second, they are centered on satisfying your ego’s demands for security, attention, and uniqueness. When your purpose is outcome-oriented rather than input-oriented, then you make yourself powerless. When your purpose calls for external investors, or a famous director, to discover you and decide that you’re worthy of investment, you’ve just placed a lot of power over your life purpose into the hands of people you don’t know and have never met. And when your purpose is self-oriented and aligned primarily with getting “more” for yourself – whether that be dollars, fans, prizes, academic degrees, awards – then it’s not really very interesting to others.
This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t try to build a business or an acting career – these could be worthy goals after all. However, if you’re interested in these things for inauthentic reasons – that is, to serve your ego and build yourself up – rather than due to a genuine expression of the gift that you seek to give to the world, then you will ultimately become disconnected from your true identity, disconnected from the joy that is already within your grasp, and disconnected from the quest to discover or create your real purpose.
Sex and cash
Nevertheless, the practical reality of earning a living always brings these abstract discussions of purpose down to earth. Hugh MacLeod writes about the sex and cash theory – sometimes you work for fun and excitement (“sex”) and sometimes you work to earn the means necessary to do what really inspires you (“cash”). There is always a tension between expression of the perfect artistic vision, unconstrained by budget, labor, and social norms or popularity, and actually expressing that artistic vision in a way that will provide value that others are willing to pay for.
Some artists and other creative workers often talk about selling out in a contemptuous way, creating a false divide between the “elite” who hold a pure vision, and the “dumb, uncreative masses” who are unable or unwilling to understand the (presumed) intrinsic greatness of the creative work in question. This kind of attitude is also seen in academia, where career, ego, and identity are often based on extreme specialization in a very narrow area, of minimal interest to the rest of the world. If this describes the nature of your purpose, be careful. Expressing your unique artistic or academic vision in isolation can be very intrinsically rewarding, but if you expect the rest of the world to care as deeply as you do about your area of focus, you are likely to be disappointed.
At the other extreme, other creative professionals focus entirely on what will appeal to the greatest market and shape the product in order to attract the most attention. The danger of making this a basis of your purpose is that if your product is unpopular, then you may be disappointed at not receiving the attention, popularity, and financial benefits that you desire.
In both cases, the mistake is that the artist makes their purpose dependent on others, whether that is expressed through a desire for artistic integrity or monetary results. Again, outcome orientation leads to the potential disappointment. While other people will undoubtedly be involved in the fulfillment of your purpose in many ways, never let your inner purpose depend on the behavior or reactions of others. To do so moves power out of your hands and into the hands of others, and creates fear and doubt.
So what does work?
A purpose that is based on something that you can start working on right away is best. Conversely, a purpose that depends on complex factors such as many years of education, large amounts of financial investment, or the participation of hundreds of people, will be a much greater challenge. If possible, let these external things flow naturally, rather than making them conditions of fulfilling your life purpose. It can be a very subtle distinction – for example, if your purpose is to heal sick people, then your years of medical school will be perfectly aligned with that purpose; however, if your purpose is to be a doctor in a prestigious speciality and earn money and awards, then medical school is only a necessary stepping-stone. It may be a clichÃ©, but when you focus on the end goal rather than the journey, you externalize your purpose and trade present-day happiness for a distant future that may not live up to expectations.
In general, looking deeply within yourself and exploring the goals and experiences that really call out to you is a great way to find your purpose. Some of the exercises I mentioned in my “Go to your edge” post can apply to finding your purpose – for example, journaling, the bookstore experiment, and talking with trusted friends. Small experiments and “baby steps” are the best approach when in the stage of exploration, rather than radical changes that involve large and non-refundable investments of time, money, and emotional energy. When it’s really time for a radical change or a giant commitment – and these are sometimes necessary – you’ll probably already know it. Furthermore, it will likely be the culmination of a period of intense exploration.
Two resources from Steve Pavlina’s blog archive are very relevant to this question. His post on “How to Discover Your Life Purpose in About 20 Minutes” can be highly effective if you take the exercise seriously. There’s no guarantee that it will take you only 20 minutes, but even if you don’t quite get there the first time through, it’s still likely to generate a lot of interesting insight into potential areas where you might find your purpose, and into your most important life goals. He also presented a podcast on this subject that can be a valuable resource in your explorations.
The death of fear
When you are working in alignment with your purpose, you’ll know it. Obstacles and barriers that would previously have seemed daunting are no more than minor inconveniences, because you know where you’re headed. Fear and doubt dissolve in the face of the conviction and focus that arise when you are working in alignment with your highest goals. Your priorities shift around and life seems to flow more easily. With a well-defined purpose guiding you like a distant star, low-level frustrations associated with day to day living seem to be no more than noise, rather than the grim challenges that they might have appeared to be in the past.
With a purpose, you see everything differently.
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