The Purpose Myth

Purpose. It’s one of those concepts similar to finding a soul mate that can leave us doing a lot of aimless searching, often without the sequential finding. Barnes & Noble bookshelves are filled with titles that promise to help us find it. Articles designed to inspire and excite spread like wildfire across the internet with the hopes of finding it. And countless hours are passed thinking about what that elusive it is for our own lives.

But what if…it’s all a myth?

One of the most feared and adored animals on the planet, the lion sits atop the animal kingdom yet is perfectly satisfied with feeding herself and her family, resting, and roaming. There is no thought of purpose. There is simply being. The tree towers above civilization, peering down on life below it passing by, yet is satisfied soaking in enough water but not too much, absorbing enough sun but not too much, and enjoying the views along the way. There is no anxious quest to be a better tree. Now neither trees nor lions have this little thing called the prefrontal cortex that makes humans what we are – animals with the capacity to think about and prepare for future events yet realized. But what evolved in our brains to help us survive turns out to have a second side to its sword, one that can harm us.

Clearly when we look around the world, there are countless people that to the outside world have “found their purpose.” But most of those people didn’t actually find anything. They simply took something that they were moderately good at it, went an inch wide and a mile deep into that skill, and the resulting work is their craft, the thing we mistake for their purpose. When we view it like this, purpose becomes not a question to ask (“What is my purpose?”), but an action to take (building my craft). The problem that has arisen from that tiny little prefrontal cortex and the subsequent relentless pursuit of purpose is that it’s left many of us believing that we’re supposed to shine brighter than the others. And this is where nature all around us shows we’re wrong. The lion does not care to be the greatest lion. Just being a lion and playing its part is enough. The tree does not care to be the greatest tree. Just being a tree and playing its part is enough.

What if, as humans, we’re much closer to nature than we realized, and our time on earth has nothing to do with what the bookstore shelves tell us? What if the key to this whole thing is to socialize with our tribe, contribute to the greater good of the tribe, and simply pass through history like the rest of the living earth? This doesn’t remove purpose from our days. In fact it enhances them. It allows us to focus on the true purpose that we’re wired for – socialization, community, and contribution. Not as individual purposes, but the shared purpose of humanity. Two lions don’t have different purposes, and maybe neither do we?

The Fingerprint of Success

Fingerprints are utterly unique to each of us.

They represent the entirety of our individuality in a tiny frame of just a few centimeters. No matter how many billions of us continue to be born, we somehow seem to all share characteristics while at the same time remaining our own individual selves. It’s one of the most fascinating parts of being human. Common colors, brushes, and canvases combined together to create billions of unique masterpieces. We share in the components but we differ in the final products. While this may not be news to us, fingerprints represent a great lens to view the pursuit of success through.

Success, like many things in life, follows an existing pattern that we find in nature. Much like we are all unique, yet similar, success is found through piecemeal components found in other successful people, yet combined in only a way that we as individuals could combine them. We utilize this trait combined with that skill combined with these habits. And what we end up with is our own fingerprint for our success that happens to share commonalities with millions of others that have found their own success.

What this means for us in a practical application is that there is no actual roadmap we can follow to achieve success in our own lives. Instead, we need to pursue many interests over our lifetime, build various skills and habits that fit our personality and natural tendencies, and combine them in a coherent fashion over time that creates our own work of art. Much like we can’t replicate the fingerprint of someone else on our own fingers, we also can’t replicate their path and expect the same degree of success. What worked for them worked because it aligned with their specific skills, traits, and makeup. The uniqueness of our own DNA requires that we also uniquely combine our habits, skills, and pursuits in a manner that suits us best.

It can be discouraging at first when we realize there truly is no single roadmap we can follow to find our own success. Instead our journey looks more like trying this road and then that road and then that random road on the other side of the map, learning as we go, eventually putting together a path that leads to our own unique version of success.

Success does not require some unattainably high degree of skill or intelligence. Success is found through curiosity. It’s found by those that scratch their own itch, continually learn, piece together the path as they go, and continually strive to be a little bit better today than they were yesterday. Through that curiosity and intention, we create our own masterpiece – our own fingerprint of success that only we could have done.

Our Eyes are Closed

Have you ever held a penny in front of your face and closed one eye while looking at the sun?

If not recently, I’m sure you have at one point in your life. It’s one of those tricks you’d do as a kid to help grasp the concepts of perspective, distance, and focus. The sun would be so big and bright as to almost not be viewable. But with a squint, a penny, and a couple feet between your face and the coin, the tiny penny would magically cover the massive sun and you could look straight past it. Remove the penny and your perspective is once again restored.

This is a practical analogy to our own lives. The sun represents the things we have to be grateful for – the family, friends, events, weather, health, or even simply another day above ground. The penny represents the things that detract us from this gratitude – the issues at work, the frustrations of a relationship, the anxious feeling of not being where we feel we’re supposed to be. Like the penny, these things are infinitesimally small relative to the sun. But when we squint our eyes and focus our vision on them, the sunshine ceases to exist and all we can see are the problems in front of us.

The struggle is never with our actual circumstances. The struggle is always with our focus and our perspective. We choose whether or not to hold the penny up, ignoring the sun behind it. We all have our own issues in life, and things that we battle with. It’s a part of being human. Our penny will shrink or grow in size at different points in our life. But no matter how big that penny becomes, no matter how great our struggles are, they will never compare to the size of the sun sitting behind it. When our gratitudes outweigh our attitudes, we win. But to do that we have to put down the penny, open our eyes, and look at the sunshine.

Connecting the Dots

Life doesn’t make sense.

At least not at the time we’re living it. The majority of our days are spent working on this thing or that thing, this project or that project, dreaming this dream or that dream. And when we’re living it day to day oftentimes we can’t figure out if, or how, any of it connects. Many of our decisions are built upon an unspoken intuition that tells us “I think this is what I’m supposed to be doing.” Yet when we’re going through the motions of life we have no idea if  that intuition is correct or not.

But what if when this happens we’re simply looking at it wrong?

Connecting the dots of our life is not about leading and living a cohesive narrative. While some people certainly do follow a specific and predictable path, that’s not how most of our stories read. Instead they zig and zag more often than they stay on the straight and narrow, and it’s our jobs as the authors of our lives to connect the dots as we go. Our experiences shape us into new versions of ourselves, and these new versions wouldn’t have been possible without the previous experiences we have had.

A very simple example would be our work. If we ever have a job or a boss that we dislike, that job is not in vain if we allow it to nudge us closer to work that we’re made to do. But it’s on us to connect that dot and make sense of that experience. We have the ability to pull the positive from it if we choose. The same goes for relationships. We’ve all likely had a painful relationship in the past. Through that pain there are lessons to be learned, either about the person we are or about the person we want to be with in the future. If we view our experiences through the lens of connecting the dots, then we take those lessons and apply them to having a better and more fulfilling relationship in the future. But again the actual connecting of the dots is on us.

I said life doesn’t make sense. But that’s only true if we expect it to make sense of itself. By connecting the dots as we go, we take that task onto our plate and make sense of it ourselves.

Let it Go

In life there are two types of pain that we, as humans, experience. The first is physical pain from something that ails our body. A stubbed toe, a sore throat, a headache, so on and so forth. Physical pain is a part of our reality, and to a large degree it is out of our control.

The second type of pain is emotional pain. It’s disappointment in a friendship. It’s frustration with a coworker. It’s emotional distance with a significant other. This type of pain is less definable and less acute than physical pain, but happens to be much more in our control. How so?

By detaching ourselves from outcomes.

Let me explain. Emotional pain is fairly straightforward when we examine it. In life, we mentally construct an attachment to an expected outcome, and we create pain for ourselves when that expected outcome doesn’t occur. There are big, weighty examples like attaching ourselves to the expectation that our spouse won’t cheat on us, or attaching ourselves to the expectation that a pregnancy will go smoothly. But then there are the more subtle examples that we experience each and every day, whether we realize or not. We expect our car to start when we turn the ignition. We expect our significant other to be kind to us. We expect our boss to be grateful for our hard work. We expect our GPS to give us accurate directions. The list goes on and on. These are the attachments that we create each and every day.

We are continuously creating emotional pain by allowing our contentedness to lie in the outcome of something out of our control. If we can get rid of this attachment to outcomes, we can eliminate most of the emotional pain in our lives.

Emotional pain from the big things in life – loss, grief, change – are okay in my book. This is the price we pay to also receive joy from those same things that created the pain. But the small things that we attach ourselves to provide us an enormous opportunity to improve our happiness by simply letting them go. We do this by:

  • Working hard in our jobs without expectation of reward from it
  • Loving deeply in our relationships without expectation of reciprocated love
  • Letting the little things be little things*
  • (*hint: pretty much everything is a little thing)

“Let it go” is often the advice applied to situations that disrupt our happiness. Though trite, it’s incredibly accurate and applicable advice. When we have emotional pain from something in our life it is because we have not decided to let our attachment to it go. We are holding on to the very thing that’s hurting us. When we are disappointed by an outcome it is not the external that feels the wrath of our disappointment. It’s us. By letting it go, by removing our attachment to outcomes, we take the control of our happiness back into our own hands. Let the big things be big things. But don’t let the little things continually mask themselves as larger than they are. By letting them go, we let our emotional pain go with it.