“The whole law of human existence consists in nothing other than a man’s always being able to bow before the immeasurably great. If people are deprived of the immeasurably great, they will not live and will die in despair. The immeasurable and infinite are as necessary for man as the small planet he inhabits.”Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821 – 1881)
It seems as if having a definitive purpose can have tremendous benefits, but how do we know what our purpose even is?
The following are three strategies that I have used to develop a strong and authentic purpose that serve as my foundational context:
Reflecting on My Interests
I try to pay attention to the things that I’m interested in. Our interests are often unique and the origins of their magnetic pull are hard to explain. I believe that our life purpose – the mission we take on to offset the inherent suffering of life – is hidden within our unique interests. Robert Greene refers to these unique interests as inclinations in his book Mastery.
When we are young this mysterious force is strongest, but as we get older we tend to drown out this force with practical nonsense and delude ourselves into thinking that something else is our purpose. I try to pay attention to the times when I lose myself in an activity or lose track of time because these are the things that are connected to my life’s purpose. I love learning. I love helping people learn. I love being creative. I love helping others be creative. I wouldn’t have known these things about myself if I never paid attention to what specifically I am interested in.
Letting Myself Get Lost
It may be cheesy when people say they have to “find themselves,” but I believe there’s some truth to that. Once we find ourselves and our purpose, life becomes easier and pursuing goals becomes exciting, especially with clarity. But in order to find ourselves, we must first get lost. People tend to hate relinquishing control, but I suggest to aim to lose control and pay keen attention to the kinds of things you think about. Get lost with the intention of finding something new within yourself.
Letting yourself get lost could also play a double meaning. Whenever I notice that I’m losing myself in my work, I keep riding that momentum. Nothing is more important than doing the work that we feel we are made to do, and losing ourselves in our work is a sign that we are doing that.
Seek Out Resistance
Training myself in many different skills was one of the best ways to finding my purpose because once I was competent in these skills, I was able to use them in creative and unique ways. I believe that this uniquely expressed creativity is where purpose is found. The only problem is…
it’s painful to learn something new.
We love to avoid pain and discomfort, but on the flipside we can find great accomplishment and fresh perspectives when we are learning. Where we find resistance is where we can learn something new, and where we learn something new is where we can create something amazing for the world.
“Man would rather have the void as purpose than be void of purpose.”Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900)
With our frantic need for purpose, it’s easy to align ourselves with a purpose that would cause more harm than good. I like to refer to these as false purposes. False purposes are incredible attractive but centering our lives around these things tend to create more problems than their worth. Chasing false purpose will drag you down. Not only will your goals not be accomplished, you will have a much harder time trying to bring these “purposes” into fruition. In my own experience, whenever I chased down a false purpose, I never got what I was after and I was often left feeling insatiable. Here’s a few examples of false purposes that I’ve chased and determined are not worth the trouble:
Money: whenever I chase money, I end up feeling more broke. Plus, if I do reach my financial goal, I have a bad habit of moving the goal post. Money comes and goes, chasing money is like chasing the wind. It’s always relative and you will always want more. I promise.
Unjust reward: this takes the form of gaining something for nothing, or gaining more than the work put in. I’d be lying if I said I never tried to do this. It’s simple, you reap what you sow. Rarely do we ever receive more than we give and it would be foolish to center our lives around this uncommon exchange.
Vanity & Egotism: the more I make myself the center of attention, the more pressure I feel to achieve at a high level. At first, this doesn’t seem like a bad thing, but the trouble starts when I don’t achieve at the level I expect. My identity gets tied up with how I perform and that’s a slippery slope to Hell. This also goes for looks too. Chasing good looks is fleeting and futile, I never feel good about myself when my main objective is to look good.
Absolute Power Over Others: chasing absolute power makes me hyper aware of the power imbalances in all my relationships. Sometimes I have more power and sometimes someone else does. The problem arises from when the other person has power over me – if absolute power over others were my main purpose, then this person is a direct obstacle to my goals. Rather than trying to shoot for absolute power, I found it better to recognize my position in each relationship and finding the ways I can leverage someone else’s power to my benefit.
Intoxicants and Other Drugs: you can chase a high for a lifetime. They really do feel that good. Pursuing intoxicants or other drugs is like applying a compressor to your emotional state. It brings the both lows up and the highs down to a middle hum that isn’t too bad or too good either. Chasing the high makes the low feel better, but it’s a short term strategy. Plus it makes the highs feel like any other day. Chase intoxicants and watch everything start becoming a 7/10. Finally got that dream job. Eh. Got married. Eh. Birth of your first child. Eh. The choice is yours.
Immortality: the fear of death is natural, but for me the fear of being forgotten haunts me more. The idea that the universe will move on as if I never existed really messes me up sometimes, but to deny this fact and chase it away is a denial of life itself. Life is finite and that’s what makes it beautiful. Instead of chasing immortality, I’ve chosen to make as much of an impact with my creative endeavours instead. By focusing on being creative, I create something that takes on a life of its own and can live on once I’m gone and that new living being gets to influence others (hopefully in a positive way).
Being the Hero/Heroine: “I would have been totally screwed if it wasn’t for you” is a phrase I secretly love to hear. Being a hero is a fantastic feeling but I wouldn’t recommend trying to be a hero all the time. By focusing on saving humanity, I found myself focusing on problems and no solutions. Additionally, when other people ended up playing a pivotal role in solving problems, I wasn’t happy with the outcome because I wasn’t the one who fixed everything. I should have been happy that the problem was solved and everyone is moving forward, but instead I was bitter and resentful that I wasn’t the hero. How narcissistic. Making this your purpose is perfect for developing a messiah complex.
Pleasure: Hedonism. I was a devout hedonist in college. It’s easy to believe that life is for pleasure. It’s easy to believe that there are only peak moments and the moments you spend in pursuit of the pleasure. In Pinocchio, Pinocchio was in the pursuit of being a real boy, but in the process he lost sight of his goals and found himself on pleasure island. On pleasure island, Pinocchio ends up getting sold to the salt mines where him and the other misfit toys are subject to misery and sacrifice with no payoff. I believe that life works a lot like that. We pursue something and in that pursuit we seek short-term pleasure to get us by. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying life, but losing the ability to sacrifice the present for the future and prioritizing present pleasure over future benefit is a perfect way to end up in the salt mines of life. Seeking pleasure first will drag you down. It took me years to reverse my hedonistic tendencies.
Attention: Focusing on getting the attention of others is fleeting and it’s something that we would always have to be striving for. When this was my main focus, I never had a chance to look inwards. I was never able to see the things within myself that no one could take away, the things that I could cultivate, the things that I could bring wherever I went regardless of circumstance. When I decided to let go of attention as a main goal, I had the beautiful opportunity to get to know myself and as a result, I ended up getting more attention from people because I was interesting. Everyone loves people that can bring something to the table.
This is not a list of things to stay away from. These are just some things that can be mistaken for our main purpose in life. All of the desirables on this list can be obtained as a byproduct of aiming at our true purpose.
Take the time to find why getting up in the morning is worthwhile. The world is not short of reasons to live, it is up to us to find them.