We All Need a Sense of Purpose
Without a purpose we are drifters, floating in the wind of change amidst the ebb and flow of chaos. A sense of chronic emptiness roils up inside as we try to fill it with Netflix, video games, alcohol, sex and drugs; and other forms of escapism. Thomas Carlyle once said that “a person without a purpose is like a ship without a rudder.” Without a sense of purpose we not only lose sight of our core values, we often don’t even know what those values are.
Having a purpose doesn’t mean we’re required to accomplish great feats, just feats that we deem important — whether that’s creating a garden, writing a poem, or surfing a swell. A sense of purpose is about what you connect with. It’s more than something you are good at, or a talent, it’s something that resonates deep within.
Yet, finding one’s purpose can often be a lifelong pursuit. Some people go their entire lives without discovering their true purpose; bouncing from job to job, hobby to hobby. I’ve met people in their sixties who are still looking for the meaning of their lives. I’ve also met those rare creatures who figured it out while they were young and have been going hard at it ever since, often with successful results. They are the consistent types; the ones who appear to have figured it all out.
But if you’re like me then chances are your life has been a series of trials and errors as you’ve struggled to find your place in the universe.
Your purpose can be a journey of a thousand steps
We can’t discover our true purpose without experimenting. The fact is, many people are “content” with what they’re given so they never look for something else. They spend their nights glued to the TV, each day they turn up to a job they don’t enjoy, and they never rock the boat — rinse and repeat.
For those who simply don’t have a clue as to what their purpose is… finding your purpose requires you to try new things, take risks and move outside of your comfort zone. Sometimes it takes a while to work out your talents, strengths and weaknesses. We aren’t restricted to a single vocation either, especially nowadays — many people work three jobs or juggle different careers.
Your life’s purpose can be multifaceted. Throughout your life you might experiment with purpose like trying on different clothes. You may pick up the cello, may even be quite talented, only to discover some years later that you feel a deep connection to psychology. You won’t ever lose that connection you have with music, and in your spare time you may play simply because it relaxes you. But helping others is now your calling.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky once said:
“The mystery of human existence lies not in just staying alive, but in finding something to live for.”
If our human existence lies not in just staying alive, but in finding something to live for then we need to become voyagers, even pioneers of the enormous canvas that is life. Our purpose in life may change, but as long as we are striving to understand our place in the world then we are never merely existing. We can move from purpose to purpose as we outgrow one and embrace another. Imagine it like an apartment building where each level is a different purpose and every few years you stop in at a party to see if it’s for you. Each level holds something unique for you, but as you continue to outgrow old purposes and discover new ones you draw one step closer to your life’s true purpose.
Having a purpose isn’t about success
There is this concept in society that success equates to purpose, but this is a misconception. Success equates to status, and status and purpose are two very different things. For one thing, status is egocentric, focusing on your profession and material value rather than what you attribute creatively. A typical example is a successful musician as apposed to an “unsuccessful” musician. The successful musician or band is often popular, has been signed to a record label, has enjoyed plenty of exposure, and the popular radio stations play their music. They are deemed successful on the basis of their status in society at the time. The “unsuccessful” musician may be extremely talented — they just haven’t had the commercial break needed to be deemed successful in the eyes of the general public. Their status is low, but they love what they do.
This “success” pigeon holing is the killer of true purpose since it makes the focus about public validation and status rather than pure talent. The artist Nick Drake was deemed unsuccessful during his lifetime, he even felt like a great failure—yet gradually, Drake became extremely popular years after his death. It’s a reminder that in life it takes courage to pursue your dream when nobody else believes in you.
It’s true that we need to be prepared to fail in order to succeed. Then again, it’s also important to know when something isn’t working for you. The main question you should be asking is: Does this make me happy? If the answer is no then you seriously need to rethink your priorities. For many, their only priority is to make lots of money. However, there is always a tradeoff. While money can afford material possessions and pay for expensive holidays, high paying jobs also steal a lot of time. I’ve never understood the concept of working long hours for a large income that you barely have the time to spend.
The point being, will you grow old feeling regret at not following your true passion, or will you grow old content that you spent your life pursuing something that touched your soul? The passionate person may not die rich, but will know they followed their dreams. The Futurist, Nicola Tesla is a perfect example of a man who was a genius who dreamed large, but was restricted by a status driven, industrialist society. In a capitalist driven world it’s often hard to see the forest from the trees.
I feel I have a sense of purpose artistically as a writer, a teacher, and a human being. There are of course days when I feel lost, adrift and discontent. But I know this is simply fear surfacing. I’m reminded that fear works in many ways. For instance, fear can push us to pursue a greater life—a kid from the slums can still find a way to push through the pitfalls of their class system for fear of ending up poor and destitute. At the same time, a privileged individual may not pursue their dreams for fear of failure, and so, they remain in their comfort zone, perhaps in a job they dislike, and instead of applying for the job they truly desire, they surrender to apathy. In short, they give up.
You may not know what your purpose is at this point in your life, and that’s OK. It is there somewhere, it needs to be there otherwise we are nothing but consumers. If you sit alone and let yourself be quiet for a while. Sit, breathe, and dig deep, you’ll eventually hear it. But remember, having a sense of purpose is one thing — going after it will take some work.