“To live without purpose,” wrote Nathaniel Branden, “is to live at the mercy of chance–the chance event, the chance phone call, the chance encounter–because we have no standard by which to judge what is or is not worth doing. Outside forces bounce us along, like a cork floating on the water, with no initiative of our own to set a specific course. Our orientation to life is reactive rather than proactive. We are drifters.”
It took me a long, long time to find my purpose. It took even longer for me to find the courage to take myself out of the chaotic stream of life and begin to set my own course. The greatest fear that I had was that I would die without having taken the step out of the boat, in faith, to begin to walk towards the kind of person I want to become.
It used to be the case that the cultures of the world defined the end goal for a human life. Although they differed in the particulars, all ancient cultures taught the development of virtues, the building up of a noble character, as the way to the ‘good life.’ To be like the gods–our ideals, anthropomorphized–was our North Star. Religion, philosophy, myth–these provided the purpose and meaning to human existence.
In our post-industrial, post-myth culture, we’ve lost a sense of shared purpose; we’ve lost any inherited sense of human meaning and value. At the same time, we’ve opened up the avenues of human potential and have relatively more freedom, more luxury, and more opportunity than ever before in recorded history.
These two forces–more freedom coupled with no existential compass or map–have undoubtedly taken a major toll on our civilization. With no higher connection to the cosmos at large, without any sense of purpose, we’ve ended up treating our planet like a lifeless resource to be mined. And we’ve traded our time foraging for things to eat for hours whittled away in front of a screen, watching OTHER stories unfold, but not our own stories.
We are perpetual spectators, voyuers in an increasingly alienating and pointless existence. Depression rates today are higher than they were in the 1960s! This, despite the ENORMOUS advancements made in many domains of civilization. Despite the constant bombardment of bad news, incidents of violence and war have actually decreased, as well as a whole host of negative aspects of being human. Steven Pinker’s book Enlightenment Now does a great job of presenting the case for optismism, not pessimism. The facts are clear.
So, why the depression? why do we feel lost and lonely?
What is missing from our society is direction, purpose, existential meaning. We need to know that we fit in to existence, have a place as a citizen in the giant Cosmopolis that is the Universe.
In a post-Traditional culture, perhaps it really is up to each individual to find a purpose for him or herself. Apotheosis is, in part, an attempt to give individuals some of the tools they need to do this, as I myself am learning them and leveraging them for my own purpose.
There are literally hundreds of fantastic teachers all around us who are leveraging human potential to do something truly meaningful! We can find purpose, if we are willing to be honest withourselves, accept that we may never have the whole picture of who we are, and just start walking the path–aware that we may stumble and change course as we get ever closer to whatever motivating force is within us.
We face real challenges as a culture and species, despite the positive innovations and decreasing threats to our survival: global warming, coming economic volitility due to optimized automation and AI in a growing number fields, and the political fragmentation of the West.
The World needs you! It is imperative that you get real about your purpose, even while accepting that you probably will not just ‘know’ it. Gordon White said it best in his book The Chaos Protocols: “Make peace with the cognitive reality that you both probably do not really know what you want and definitely do not know the correct way to achieve it from the outset, so re-examine your options at each step and be open to the hitherto-unanticipated route.”
In my experience, the best way to find your purpose, even if its a tentative, vaguely formed approximation of a purpose, is to set out time each day to think about what you want, why you want it, and to go over the goals you have set for yourself. Do you still want them? What are the steps you can take today to accomplish them? I’ve spoken a bit about this in my review of Michael Hyatt’s excellent book, Your Best Year Ever, which you can read here.
I make a ritual out of this, and consider it to be a real spiritual practice. Regardless of your metaphysical views, getting in touch with your deepest desires and goals, shaping a life purpose and strategically planning it out is a highly spiritual act. I advise you treat it so. Ritual and a sense of sacred profundity are something missing in our lives, and we desperately need to creatively figure out how to get it back.
The importance of living with a purpose is spelled out beautifully in Branden’s The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem: “To live purposefully is to use our powers for the attainment of goals we have selected,” and “It is our goals that lead us forward, that call on the exercise of our faculties, that energize our existence.”
The fact is, as Branden notes, “If we don’t do something, nothing is going to change.” You have to act, and you have to try to act with a higher purpose in mind. Goals are like the spokes of a chariot wheel, themselves emanating out of the central axle, which is our higher purpose.
In his classic work The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, which you can read more about here, Stephen Covey wrote passionately about the importance of having an end goal with which to orient all your other goals and actions: “By keeping that end in mind, you can make certain that whatever you do on any particular day does not violate the criteria you have defined as supremely important, and that each day of your life contributes in a meaningful way to the vision you have of your life as a whole.”
He continues: “To begin with the end in mind means to start with a clear understanding of your destination. It means to now where you’re going so that you better understand where you are now and so that the steps you take are always in the right direction.”
Covey teaches that the best way to clarify what your purpose is, or at least to begin clarifying it, is “to develop a personal mision statement or philosophy or creed. It focuses on what you want to be (character) and do (contributions and achievements) and on the values or principles upon which being and doing are based.”
Covey recommends taking a few weeks to really mull this mission statement over, because it will act as a near-changeless core of your being. “People can’t live with change if there’s not a changeless core inside them. The key to the ability to change in a changeless sense of who you are, what you are about and what you value.”
Here are some methods I have found useful in formulating my personal creed:
1. Ask yourself who you want to become. List the qualities you want to develop, and think about any personal heros who embody these qualities. For example, I love the absolute assurance in Seth Godin’s voice, because he truly believes what he says, lives it, and believes that it can help others, so I make a point to watch him in interviews and try to digest his mindset so that I can assimilate it into my own character.
2. Ask yourself what you value. If you had unlimited power and wealth unimaginable, how would you change the world? You have to scale it down to reality, but performing thought-experiments like this helps you to discover your own inner desires for the world. For example, I would create a world in which we treat each other compassionately and as members of an extended family; this then shows me somewhat the direction that my life projects should take.
3. Ask yourself what kind of an impression you want others to have of you. Covey has this fantastic exercise in his book in which he asks the reader to imagine their funeral. What do the attendees say about you? What do they think about you? Of course, you shouldn’t let others dictate your goals, but the point is to get clearer about what kind of person you want to be, and to authentically communicate that to others through your life actions.
What other methods can you think of to get closer to your life’s purpose? Do you have a purpose you’d be willing to share?
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Thanks, and namaste!