It’s the existential question of modern humanity. People struggle with it every day. For men in their mid-years, it's a constant companion – always lurking in the shadows; tapping them on the shoulder during breakfast, while they work, during a commercial break; even while they sleep.
It's insidious and it won't go away till you're too old to care, or you answer it.
I recommend you answer it because life is too short to run around keeping busy without knowing why you're here in the first place. Otherwise, you're like a leaf growing on a huge tree – hanging there, flapping in the breeze, only to dry out, fall to the ground and dissolve back into the earth.
Knowing your purpose or rather, deciding your purpose is one of the most powerful allies you can have in life, especially when you begin to blaze your trail towards a new and better life.
Without it, you'll spend your whole life looking for others to decide it for you. You'll be a man of circumstance rather than conviction.
Simon and Garfunkel's timeless ‘Kathy's Song' describes this metaphor beautifully.
And as I watch the drops of rain
Weave their weary paths and die
I know that I am like the rain
There but for the grace of you go I
A Contemporary Problem
The struggle to define one's purpose is a modern one. Go back a few thousand years and man's purpose was obvious to him. It's doubtful he ever question it:
- Don't get killed by wild animals or enemy tribes
- Hunt for food every day
- Protect your family
Just a few hundred years ago, it probably looked something like this:
- Don't contract influenza or typhus. Otherwise, you'll die.
- Work hard to earn money
- Aspire to own a business
- Build status and social standing for your family
It's only in the last century that the question of purpose (“Why am I here?”) – for the common man, at least – has taken hold.
I asked my father, who's going to be 80 this year, what he believed his purpose was. He said that 50 years ago it was simple. His purpose, every waking hour, was devoted to providing for his family. His times of greatest stress were when something threatened that paradigm.
He told me there was a particularly low point where he was unable to secure work in a new town. Having uprooted his family in the search for a fresh start, he felt he had failed as a father and a husband. On this particular day, he decided there was no way out of the quagmire and standing on a bridge in rural Tasmania; he resolved to leap off it and end the suffering. I'm so grateful he didn't.
Such is the power of purpose. When it's threatened, the results can be dramatic. Yet without purpose, we squander our lives; wandering from one distraction to the next. A slow death but death nonetheless.
We waste our time, our money and our energy on things that don't matter. Consumerism is the new Black Death (the great plague that killed up to 200 million people in the 1300's). It causes people to buy stuff they don't need with money they don't have to impress people they don't even like. They surrender their intellect, their sense of reason and their freedom for it. And they wonder why they're unfulfilled, why they fight with their spouse; why they're empty inside.
Purpose is what's lacking. With purpose comes clarity. You immediately see distractions like consumerism for what they are – the enemy. They are the antithesis of purpose.
Finding your Purpose
Now that his kids have both grown up, my dad has had to find his purpose all over again. So has my mum, since the two of them parted ways almost 20 years ago.
It's pleasing to see they've both succeeded. My mum is very settled in a beachside village with her dog, her tribe of lovely old ladies and her daily routines. She's always had a grateful attitude and manages to find joy in the smallest things. Her purpose is simple – to take each day as it comes and enjoy her life, her friends and her picturesque surroundings.
My dad has only recently found his groove again; a different purpose to the one he lived in his 30's. He realises now that he is here to do three things:
1. Revel in the beautiful bushland setting where he lives.
2. Enjoy as much time as possible with his family.
3. Be good to himself for once.
These guiding principles have manifested in many ways. He goes for long walks in the bush almost every day, he grows and prepares all of his own food (he's a hell of a cook, now); he frequently travels throughout the country and he spends a lot of time with our family. He also volunteers for a couple of charities in his local community.
Both of my parents have rediscovered their purpose. They know exactly why they're here.
But what about you? Is your purpose linked to your work? It took almost a decade for my dad to feel comfortable with retirement. Is it linked to your family? How about money or fame? Or does your purpose stand alone – independent, mobile and unaffected by fashion, your peers or your environment?
The best answer, I believe, lies somewhere in this simple fact. You're a one in 400 trillion chance. You're a fluke. Moreover, you're living on a ball, floating in a galaxy amongst billions of stars. And it's a single galaxy amongst billions of other galaxies.
So, perhaps you'll cure cancer or rid the world of hunger or maybe you'll create the next viral iPhone app but in the end, your purpose needs to be more personal than that. It needs to resonate with you today and every day after that, whether you succeed in your various quests or not.
In other words, like that elusive word ‘success', it cannot be tied to an outcome. Otherwise, you'll simply defer its accomplishment till the outcome is reached (if indeed it is). Also, hitching your purpose to a result implies that once you reach it, your purpose is extinguished as it now needs a new destination to pursue. So the cycle continues – always striving yet always losing the very feeling you sought. The feeling of purpose.
Your goals, while important for tracking progress towards things you want to get or do, are similar. If they're not a reflection of your purpose or they diminish it some way, you need to reconsider them.
Remember, the fact you even exist is a bloody miracle! But you won't be here for long. In the blink of an eye, it'll all be over. Thousands, perhaps millions of generations will follow.
Even if you set out to rule the country one day, would your purpose resonate beyond your lifetime? Would it sustain you in your twilight years? How about your family – would it enrich their lives? Maybe.
What if you recognised and accepted the improbable fortune bestowed upon you just to participate in this fleeting experience called Life? What if you treated it like any other incredible gift? Think about this. When you were young and you received a gift that you loved, something amazing, what did you do? Did you try to analyse it? Did you try to uncover its meaning? No. You enjoyed it. You used it; you cherished it and took care of it. You appreciated it for what it was.
Your life's purpose should be the same. Yes, strive for your goals, embark on your quests and slay your dragons if you really must. But understand that your life is an almost impossible fluke of luck.
Your purpose; your mission is to embrace it, enjoy it and live it. Start today.
As a primer for developing your purpose, I offer you mine:
My purpose is to live authentically, to do work that truly matters to me and to help others along their journey. It is to serve my family and create the resources I need to live fully and experience the magic of my brief time on Earth – and critically, to pass these values onto my children so that they too can live with purpose, on purpose.
Is this something you've struggled with or is it that you've managed to answer? I'd love to hear from you and if there's something else you're dealing with right now, please feel free to share it with me at email@example.com.
Also published on Medium.