Having a higher life purpose would be nice. Just like it would have been nice to think up a unique and scientifically meaningful project for the 7th grade science fair. But I hate to tell you – more kids pick a science project by Googling “science project due tomorrow” than through their own original scientific insight.* In the same vein, I think it is safe to assume that many adults (including myself) have not developed a unique or particularly refined life purpose.
My perspective is, if you haven’t been able to settle on a purpose, then boogie on anyway. Sure, it would be great – fantastic even – to have the beacon of “curing cancer” or “building wells in Africa” or “enlightening the world through gritty urban photography” to guide the use of one’s limited hours on this planet. Because that’s what a “purpose” really is, right? It’s a commitment to a priority ranking of all of the various ways you could spend your time – in other words, if you have the “purpose” of creating great art, then you will give a consistently greater weight to activities, travels, events and people that further your artistic vision and product. That’s not to say that everything and everyone else necessarily gets thrown by the wayside – just that your capital-p Purpose gets an extra couple of fingers on the scale. And I would love to have that signpost. It would be such a relief to know which way my feet should point each morning.
But what if you simply can’t figure out your purpose? What if you are unable to commit to placing any one issue at the apex of the priority list? Are you doomed to mediocrity in all directions – never the best in any respect, never to accomplish the fullness of your potential anywhere? Um, probably. From that angle, prospects are bleak.
Perhaps there’s another way to look at it. Perhaps us purposeless sorts should shift our focus away from a lack of singular accomplishments and our total failure to resolve any global problem whatsoever and towards the unknown opportunities to be found by walking a meandering path. We might not make it into the history books. But by being open to many paths, and allowing ourselves to make sudden turns (or even reversals), maybe in the end we’ll look back at a life where the patterns and flows do make sense, where they build upon each other to take us somewhere both unexpected and potentially amazing. In other words, perhaps by taking a purposeless path, we’ll end up with an accidental purpose. There’s always hope.
What I am absolutely certain of is that we can’t let the lack of a purpose stop us from moving forward in life. So much energy and attention is focused these days on finding and fulfilling our purpose (almost as if the Fates are playing games with us by hiding those darn purposes under a rock somewhere), that I think we sometimes forget that a purpose is a nice-to-have whereas a short life is what we have.
Therefore, sure, seek out, define, fulfill a purpose for your life, if you can. But don’t let the lack of a purpose paralyze you. Don’t waste your days while you ponder what your effing purpose may be. Move forward, write the first chapter of your book. See if it sucks as much as you’re afraid it will. Sign up for a salsa/scuba/Spanish class. Find a way around those elements — pointless jobs, empty people, draining substances — that subtract from your life. Move forward even if you have no plan or are following a lame derivative path forged by someone else. The road ahead may give you the experiences and insight to start defining a purpose. Or it may not. That’s a risk – but less of a risk than missing out on life by sitting still.
* I just completely made up this statistic. If you can disprove it, please do. Until that day I will remain convinced that most school children do not independently develop original scientific experiments.
See The Atlantic for an interesting article about the follies of science fairs.
For further reading on finding purpose through action, see Creators 2.0: How to Find Your Purpose, Build Sustainable Growth and Change the World by Sean Howard.