What is one’s passion? What is one’s purpose in life, and how do we find it?
A human being without purpose is like a leaf, tossed and turned about on the winds, going wherever fortune wants to take it. What can it do? Go east, says the wind, and so the leaf goes. Go west, says the wind, and the leaf follows. And there’s nothing wrong with that, I believe, if that is the way you want to live your life. Let the wind take you on a grand romantic adventure, never knowing what the new day will bring you.
Still, for many – a passion, a purpose in life, is something they search for. For many, a purpose brings power and confidence. The leaf is now an arrow – the rain and the storms might knock it off course, but it is still flying.
A recent trend in emails and comments come from readers who wanted to know – how do I find my purpose in life? And the simple answer is: you know the answer better than I do. I can’t tell anyone how to live life; all I can offer is a few random, perhaps contradicting or unconnected, thoughts. Are these thoughts right or wrong? Please decide for yourself, all I can hope for is for them to stimulate your own thoughts and search.
This post is deeply entwined with an old series on Aristotle; updated with new information and perspectives.
First, find strength
A quote, by Alexander Hamilton, springs to mind immediately:
“Those who stand for nothing fall for anything.”
I don’t know how it was intended to be read; but I have seen this in my own life: without a purpose, I was a follower. I followed the path of fear, the path of least resistance. Whatever others did, I followed. When I found purpose, I found courage.
Be a follower; there is nothing wrong with that – if it makes you happy. But being a follower made me weak and unhappy. And it was a vicious cycle, for I felt so weak I could not find the courage to break out of it.
Find courage to make your own path. It might not come immediately, but seek it. Your life is your own. Your purpose is defined by you. Society sees success as being rich, young, attractive, and famous – and so we think our purpose has to revolve around achieving all that. But is it?
Whatever you think it is, seek it, but make it your own. This is not to say, do not take the counsel of the wise, or to ignore those who depend on you. But purpose and happiness has to be your own. They are not you; they do not have your past, your skills, your uniqueness – no one can tell you what it is.
Courage can come in many ways. My favourite method comes from emotional work, purging your fears and insecurities; another powerful method comes from mental work, modern cognitive behavioural therapy, a series that will resume after this one.
And you’ll find that a journey into courage is another cycle, this time in an upwards direction. As you work on yourself, you naturally begin to take steps in the direction you want to go. And the steps you take will raise your courage even further. When you meet an obstruction, do you let it weaken you, or do you take it as an opportunity to rise even higher?
Obstacles are part of the play. Enjoy the hunt; enjoy the process; enjoy the striving. Take both the ups and the downs, for both are inextricably tied together, in the same way that day and night are part of one totality. There will be nothing worthwhile that will not be met with adversity; an inner acceptance of this fact will allow you to meet it calmly and powerfully. Thinking otherwise – believing that your path will always be unobstructed – causes unnecessary suffering.
Further reading: Surrender and Joy in the Pursuit of Excellence.
Purpose and Happiness
For many, their purpose eventually leads back to one thing. What is behind all that we seek? Finding riches, helping others, even the desire to have a purpose itself – what is the driving force behind that? Happiness.
It can be hard to see how happiness is behind much if not all of our urges. Follow this train of thought for your own goals; I’ll use riches as an example: I want lots of money. Why? Because I was denied it in my childhood. So once you get it, what will you do? Buy lots of things. Why? What will you feel? Content. Happiness.
This is why I believe that no discussion of purpose can be complete without touching on the topic of happiness.
Undesirable Archetypes for Purpose and Happiness
It is possible that a man without a purpose, a woman without a passion, can nonetheless live a happy life. But it is equally likely that the same person will fall into unhappiness and purposelessness; buffeted by conflicting advice, role models, demands, wants, and needs.
Your parents want you to be this, your lover wants you to be that, yet you need something else, and you don’t have enough time or money. You look at the billionaires or the Hollywood stars and think that they have success; perhaps if you were more like them you would finally be content. So many directions you are being pulled in – which do you choose? How do you achieve anything when your resources are scattered?
Without a definite purpose, you will be dragged into many false beliefs, models of living life, often given by those who have not found their own.
In Happier, based on positive psychology, author Tal Ben-Shahar noted the four archetypes of purpose, three of which are undesirable: The Rat Racer, the Hedonist, and the Nihilist. It was interesting to read through his descriptions; I saw periods of my life where I conformed strongly to each one of them, and I suspect almost everyone will too.
The Rat Racer
Eternal delayed gratification: work now, and perhaps, just perhaps, enjoy later. The rat racer is eternally looking forward to something in the future to make him happy. He is always gritting his teeth, putting up with unhappiness, in search of something in the future. Always, he thinks – I will be happy once I get something. Just wait.
But the wait never ends. From the first grade, to high school, to college, to the job, to the promotion; it is an endless waiting.
There are times delayed gratification is important – sometimes we just have to sit down and do the taxes instead of spending time with our loved ones – but taken to an extreme, the danger is clear.
The hedonist is always seeking pleasure now, at the expense of everything else. She would prefer to spend her last dollars on a good night out, leaving the overdue electricity bill unpaid. Let the dishes pile up; leave the house dirty – she would rather watch television. Smoke now, and worry about the cancer when it comes.
There is nothing wrong with the occasional spell of self-indulgence – in fact it is revitalising – but again the problems are clear if taken to an extreme. I spent much of my younger days chasing pleasure above everything else, and in many ways I’m still paying the price for it.
Having thought about – or tried – the previous two ways of life and finding they don’t hold up for long, a nihilist is one who has given up. She thinks there is no path towards joy and so falls into helplessness and despair. At more extreme levels, this will probably lead to depression and other such conditions.
The final archetype
“Find a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.”
The final archetype, then, is what Ben-Shahar calls the happiness archetype. Transcending the either/or mindset of the first three, this archetype focuses on finding something you can do meaningfully and enjoy at the same time.
This model seems so simple, so basic, that many readers will scoff. “Who doesn’t know this?” they might ask. And yet I didn’t, or perhaps I didn’t have the courage to follow this model, until I began all my inner work. Until that time, I had followed what everyone else had said: work and toil – unhappily, if you must – to gain resources for play. A work and a purpose I loved seemed like a distant dream, a remnant from my childhood; no different from the costumed superheroes and fantastic adventures.
Just like the others, this archetype can be itself hurtful if taken too far. Believing in a purpose that will always bring you joy is unrealistic, and makes the tough times harder to get by. There will always be tasks you dislike; there will always be times you need to get away from it all. But for the overall purpose – find the courage to live a purpose that is both happy and fulfilling. It is definitely possible; Ben-Shahar goes as far as to call it the only way to happiness.
Further viewing: A video based on the teaching of Alan Watts, found at the end of A Touch of Greatness and Success.
No more waiting
If you are a rat racer, the basic structure of your thinking will be similar to this:
Once I have this, I will be content. Once I have done that, I will be satisfied. Once this person has done this, I will be happy.
But tomorrow never comes, for when it does, it will be now. I heard a story once: it told of a bar owner who came up with a brilliant marketing trick – he put up a poster on his walls, and it read: “Free beer tomorrow!”
But no one can ever collect on that offer, for tomorrow never comes. If we are waiting for something in the future to make us happy, then that is all we will get – a life of waiting.
Find happiness now and your dreams are likelier to be achieved. Angry, sad, anxious – how can you perform your tasks to your best ability?
Further reading: Surrender and Joy in the Pursuit of Excellence.
A Purpose that is Alive
A similar aspect: a static purpose is another means of setting yourself up for failure. It is the rat race all over again: something that is dead, just another object to be gotten, to fill a bottomless pit – it will never satisfy you. If your purpose is to make a million dollars, and one day you get it, what then? The search, the unease, continues.
Many people have told me the same thing: They’ve gotten their perfect lover, they’ve gotten their fancy car, and they’ve gotten to the top of their company. But where is the promised land? Wasn’t that supposed to make them happy?
I had a reader once who didn’t believe that riches were not the end goal; so perhaps this could be easier explained on a smaller scale.
“What a hard day!” you think. “I need a beer.”
After a beer, you feel like a cigarette, after a cigarette, sex, after sex another cigarette, after the cigarette some food, then time runs out and you have to go to sleep, only to do it all again the next day. A brief period of this will be satisfying; an endless cycle will be meaningless. I have lived this life for a few years; it felt like a golden prison.
Always there is a background unease – What next? What next? What next? The want is endless; it is structural – what you want changes, but the want is always there.
Make your purpose dynamic: seek to write rather than be a famous writer, seek to sing rather than be a famous singer.
Further reading: Dynamic Goals, Aristotle Part 4.
What is your purpose?
The question remains, then. How do we find our purpose? I believe we already know, somewhere in the back of our heads. It has just been obscured by our fears, our wanting of approval, the conflicting advice from society, our teachers, parents, television – all these forces, pulling us in all these directions!
Once we find our purpose, everything else begins to into place. Find your purpose, and create burning desire for it. Not just any desire – one that overwhelms you and consumes you. Everything else will come. Once you find it – you will find that courage will develop. Assertiveness will come. This fire will give a reason to stand up when you are knocked to the ground; when you suffer setbacks, it allows you to persist and hold to your faith.
Without purpose, how easy it is to simply stay fallen!
What is your purpose? Only you know.