Discover more from The Takeaway
Getting Frustrated Trying to Figure Out Your Life's Purpose?
The answer may be simpler than you think
We’ve gone overboard on purpose.
Eat with purpose. Work with purpose. Communicate with purpose.
I wouldn’t be surprised to see a four pack of Downy Toilet Tissue promoting their product with the promise to absorb and clean with purpose.
Whether being touted by a life coach or a management consultant, identifying your purpose is supposedly the first step in moving toward what’s personally important, and ultimately, living a life full of meaning and satisfaction.
Some even go so far as to promote the concept that you must first “discover” your life’s purpose before you can truly find happiness in the decisions you make and the path you choose to take.
Were we all born to fulfill a higher, grandiose life mission?
Is there really some magnificent part for each of us to play in the plodding machine of life - once we determine what it is?
I took a hard look at the idea of purpose. I really did. And what I found was another attempt to repackage previously popular life-planning concepts — intention, mission, passion, life theme, and Life Management by Objective (LMBO) — into an improved method of discriminating between the activities that contribute to an overall sense of well-being and those that do not.
Essentially, declaring your purpose is simply another process to establish priorities for how you spend your time and resources.
And that’s all fine and good . . . on paper
But how does the concept of purpose stand up under the harsh reality of house payments, car repairs, crabgrass, overbearing bosses, crabby co-workers, and the unemployed brother-in-law who’s taken up residence in your garage?
“If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.” - Woody Allen
The idea of pursuing your purpose may be a well-intended attempt to gain direction in life. But it can easily become the weak link in achieving real meaning and satisfaction from how you spend your time.
Even worse, constantly defaulting to what you believe is your one and only purpose can create a breeding ground for confusion and frustration.
Need an example? Here are five:
1. You’ve “discovered” that what you’re currently doing is so far removed from fulfilling your purpose that you end up feeling like a failure. This is especially difficult to deal with when you’re precluded from pursuing your purpose because you’re physically incapable, or the educational prerequisites are beyond your reach, or your appearance doesn’t meet the expectations of gatekeepers, or the biggest deterrent — age bias and discrimination.
The Takeaway: Purpose is only of value when it arrives on schedule. Discover your purpose too late, and there’s no way to make up for lost time — and lost opportunity.
2. Your purpose has been hijacked. Mark Manson famously challenged his readers with the question, “What can I do with my time that is important?” I’ll counter with a question of my own: Important to whom?
The obvious answer is you, right? But so much of our lives are influenced by others. Family, friends, business associates, our boss — they all have something to say about how we should spend our time. It’s an easy trap to fall into — believing you’re following a self-chosen path to create your best life, when in reality, your efforts are directed toward pleasing others, toward receiving their approval.
If any part of your “purpose” depends upon receiving the recognition, endorsement, or admiration of others, your end-game is going to leave you disappointed.
The Takeaway: Public acknowledgment may come as a result of what you do, but it should not be the ultimate payoff, nor should it be a requirement to validate your success.
3. Your purpose is overly restrictive. Purpose can tie you down, forcing you to eliminate additional and otherwise feasible options because they don’t meet your purpose-defined criteria. As a result, new opportunities that are not “purpose worthy” are eliminated, even though they could have been the very thing you needed to bring the fulfillment and satisfaction you seek. Sure, you can incorporate some flexibility in defining your purpose. But if it isn’t specific — and that means saying “no” a lot more than saying “yes” — what good is it?
The Takeaway: Defining the direction of your life with a highly-specific purpose often forces you to eliminate other opportunities — some of which could have been even more rewarding than you’d originally hoped to achieve.
4. When purpose is confused with or considered interchangeable with status. Prioritizing your wants and needs to establish a priority for your time and resources is fine. But presuming your purpose is more important than someone else’s will set you up for failure — and a needed ego expungement. Avoid being that greedy bastard who rationalizes their selfish motives by claiming superior intentions.
Getting what you want out of life typically requires the cooperation of others. And laying siege to whatever you need or want — without regard to the needs of others — is another version of manifest destiny. And while it might be on a much smaller scale, it’s just as ugly. Do your best to be reasonable and fair. Tailor your actions with the other person in mind, knowing the day will come when you’ll no doubt need their support, recommendation, or introduction to a decision-maker.
The Takeaway: Having a purpose with a prestigious, charitable, benevolent, or religious endorsement does not justify illegal or unethical conduct or the right to engage in strong-arm tactics. Unless you’re fighting for your life, the end never justifies the means.
5. Purpose is situational. Things change. The interest you had in a specific cause or theme wanes, and you find yourself ready to move on, wanting to try a different direction in life. That often means your purpose must also change — if you want to retain the distinction of living a purpose-driven life. And that’s when you realize that’s all it is: A distinction — a way of rationalizing your allocation of time and resources based on your current interests, attention, and focus.
The Takeaway: Yes, you can live a purpose-driven life, but only for as long as life cooperates. Be open and ready for change. Look for new opportunities. And when your “purpose” is no longer appropriate for the next phase of your life, let it go. It may have served you in the past, but when the future calls, don’t let an outdated and obsolete directive keep you from experiencing even greater levels of satisfaction and meaning.
I’ll leave you with this …
Giving yourself the freedom to explore, to try different lifestyles, work situations, and locations is often the first step in finding satisfaction in how you spend your time.
If you feel you MUST define a purpose for your life — to provide a sense of order and direction in your journey — make sure it’s one that can be met without restricting how you arrive at your destination.
Above all, keep it simple, without the need for external validation. A worthwhile purpose is not about achievement or financial success. It’s simply to live a happy, meaningful life — whatever that means to you.
Thanks for reading,
Roger A. Reid, Ph.D. is a certified NLP trainer with degrees in engineering and business. Roger is the author of Better Mondays and Speak Up, and host of Success Point 360 Podcast, offering tips and strategies for achieving higher levels of career success and personal fulfillment in the real world.
Subscribe today to get updates from Roger Reid in The Takeaway.