What is your purpose in life?

Aug 23, 2010 Published under Introspection, Life

You’d think that the most important question in our lives would get sufficient attention and introspection by us all.  Alas, as we live every day with little distractions, many people never ask themselves, “why am I here?”, “what is my purpose?”

People follow career paths and spend decades working without every asking themselves, “is this truly what makes me the happiest?” “Is this how I can best change the world and make it a little bit better?”

When asked for career advice, my only two pieces I tend to give is, “whatever you do, give it your best and your everything”, and “make sure you ask yourself what is your passion, what moves you, and then try to find a way for your work to be your passion.”

Think about it.  Beyond sleeping, your work life may be what you dedicate the most hours to in your life.  Why not make it something you truly enjoy and are passionate about?

The only problem with the above advice is that you may become so passionate that sometimes you become a workaholic and do not sufficiently appreciate the need to balance your life with other enjoyments like family and friends.  But may that be the problem you’ll have – that you enjoy your job so much that doing it is a hobby, a passion – your favorite thing to do.

More often, when I ask applicants about what is important to them, what gives them meaning, they draw blanks.

This column from David Brooks can be very useful for people who want to think about this issue.

David Brooks maintains that 24-year olds may not be capable of answering the big questions about their purpose in life.  I find that is often not true, that even far younger people can find some level of passion when they take the time to think about it. It doesn’t mean that every college graduate must know whether solving the Arab-Israeli conflict, or reversing global warming, or eradicating poverty is what most gives them a sense of fulfillment and what they most consider to be a priority.  For some it may just be directional – helping people feel better, giving structure to thoughts, organizing people, creating things, etc.  And each of these can give one a sense of the direction where they want to start discovering opportunities. 

Certainly when evaluating options, peoples’ circumstances will determine at least some of their vantage points and realistic options, as Brooks suggests.  But I think everyone has the right to take a couple hours to do some hard thinking and go BEYOND what may seem like limiting circumstances or options.  For it is in deep introspection that some will find purpose outside of their common circles, and, once they find it, will move mountains to journey in that direction.

For, just like purpose gives us fulfillment and satisfaction, it also gives us the drive and energy for maximum impact and accomplishment.

Purpose, then, is not about the world we live in, or about the person we are, but about the intersection between them and the energy that pours out when we find ours.

The New York Times

August 2, 2010

The Summoned Self


This is a column about two ways of thinking about your life. The first is what you might call the Well-Planned Life. It was nicely described by Clayton Christensen in the current issue of the Harvard Business Review, in an essay based on a recent commencement talk.

Christensen advised the students to invest a lot of time when they are young in finding a clear purpose for their lives. “When I was a Rhodes scholar,” he recalls, “I was in a very demanding academic program, trying to cram an extra year’s worth of work into my time at Oxford. I decided to spend an hour every night reading, thinking, and praying about why God put me on this earth.

“That was a very challenging commitment to keep, because every hour I spent doing that, I wasn’t studying applied econometrics. I was conflicted about whether I could really afford to take that time away from my studies, but I stuck with it — and ultimately figured out the purpose of my life.”

Once you have come up with an overall purpose, he continues, you have to make decisions about allocating your time, energy and talent. Christensen, who is a professor at the Harvard Business School and the author of several widely admired books, notes that people with a high need for achievement commonly misallocate their resources.

If they have a spare half-hour, they devote it to things that will yield tangible and near-term accomplishments. These almost invariably involve something at work — closing a sale, finishing a paper.

“In contrast,” he adds, “investing time and energy in your relationship with your spouse and children typically doesn’t offer that same immediate sense of achievement. … It’s not until 20 years down the road that you can put your hands on your hips and say, ‘I raised a good son or a good daughter.’ ” As a result, the things that are most important often get short shrift.

Christensen is a serious Christian. At university, he was the starting center on his basketball team and refused to play in the championship game of an important tournament because it was scheduled for a Sunday. But he combines a Christian spirit with business methodology. In plotting out a personal and spiritual life, he applies the models and theories he developed as a strategist. He emphasizes finding the right metrics, efficiently allocating resources and thinking about marginal costs.

When he is done, life comes to appear as a well-designed project, carefully conceived in the beginning, reviewed and adjusted along the way and brought toward a well-rounded fruition.

The second way of thinking about your life might be called the Summoned Life. This mode of thinking starts from an entirely different perspective. Life isn’t a project to be completed; it is an unknowable landscape to be explored. A 24-year-old can’t sit down and define the purpose of life in the manner of a school exercise because she is not yet deep enough into the landscape to know herself or her purpose. That young person — or any person — can’t see into the future to know what wars, loves, diseases and chances may loom. She may know concepts, like parenthood or old age, but she doesn’t really understand their meanings until she is engaged in them.

Moreover, people who think in this mode are skeptical that business models can be applied to other realms of life. Business is about making choices that maximize utility. But the most important features of the human landscape are commitments that precede choice — commitments to family, nation, faith or some cause. These commitments defy the logic of cost and benefit, investment and return.

The person leading the Well-Planned Life emphasizes individual agency, and asks, “What should I do?” The person leading the Summoned Life emphasizes the context, and asks, “What are my circumstances asking me to do?”

The person leading the Summoned Life starts with a very concrete situation: I’m living in a specific year in a specific place facing specific problems and needs. At this moment in my life, I am confronted with specific job opportunities and specific options. The important questions are: What are these circumstances summoning me to do? What is needed in this place? What is the most useful social role before me?

These are questions answered primarily by sensitive observation and situational awareness, not calculation and long-range planning.

In America, we have been taught to admire the lone free agent who creates new worlds. But for the person leading the Summoned Life, the individual is small and the context is large. Life comes to a point not when the individual project is complete but when the self dissolves into a larger purpose and cause.

The first vision is more American. The second vision is more common elsewhere. But they are both probably useful for a person trying to live a well-considered life.

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  1. That energy guy said:

    First, sorry for the long answer: everyone wants a short answer – but not a short life.

    Here’s what a recent survey found:
    • a quarter (27%) of people think the meaning of life is to lovingly help others and make the world better
    • 20% think it is to reproduce and continue your genes and the human race
    • 20% say it is to seek truth and create meaning for ourself
    • 10% believe it is to learn how to serve and worship God
    • 10% say it is to find happiness, while
    • 10% cite there is no meaning
    Source: ongoing survey at http://www.meaningoflifebook.com

    While it seems there are several possible meanings, science is beginning to reveal that there is one fundamental purpose to all life.

    It shows that at its most fundamental level, everything – yes absolutely everything you see and experience – is made of energy. Everything, including life, is the result of this energy, its flow and interaction. Scientists such as Schneider and Sagan have shown how the flow of energy created life.

    Still not sure – consider how you are physically composed of 25 or so chemicals – just like everyone else. So how are you different? While all our chemicals might be the same, the energy mixed with them is different in each of us. For example, while we all have bodies with similar brains with a similar number of nerves in each, the way those nerves are connected is different in each of us. The experiences, learnings and resulting nerve connections are unique and are what makes you whom you are, makes your character and personality. Science can’t specifically tell us precisely how your character and personality works, but you know you have one that stares at us from the mirror each day. Your character cannot be easily seen, even described or its location pinpointed in scientific terms, but it exists – through the interaction of energy. As such, a major part of you is energy, in particular how your energy flows and balances.

    While the purpose of all life might be to help energy flow, the same laws of energy indicate that a meaning of your own life is to find and convey information and then use it to bring about change through some sort of work.

    Is this science echoing those scriptures that suggest you have your own unique ‘gift’ that you should use? What does your energy enable you to do best? This can be as simple as determining what you are truly passionate about or what you do better than anyone else. Unfortunately, many of us are not. As such, the individual meaning of your life is for you to discover what makes your energy flow best within you.

    How you use energy best varies for everyone. Therefore, everyone has a slightly different meaning to someone else.

    In short, while the purpose of all life is about helping energy flow, spread and balance, your individual meaning is about determining how you do this best, what you do that helps your energies flow best.

    Ignoring this means your energy will be all mixed up and life just chaotic. This is what most scriptures and spiritual writings are trying to tell us – but just didn’t understand energy well enough.

    Find more – and vote on what you think the meaning of life is – at http://www.meaningoflifebook.com.

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