Purpose and meaning

I’ve been having several conversations recently about purpose and meaning, so I thought it was time for me to write a blog post to try to sort out my own fuzzy thoughts on the subject.

What does it mean to have a purpose? Do we all have to have a purpose? Do people with a high-minded purpose live better lives? Isn’t it enough to just get through the day, and take care of oneself and one’s family?

Part of the reason these questions are so fraught is that we inevitably compare ourselves to the best people we know of and wonder why we can’t be more like them. When we see others with declared purposes such as curing cancer or ending racism or helping the downtrodden, our own lives can seem paltry and meaningless in comparison.

And yet I feel that people have a need to create meaning for their lives. The quarter- and mid-life crises are a result of grappling with different forms of the question of “What is my purpose? Is this enough?” Once we have taken care of our basic needs such as food, shelter and community (c.f. Maslow’s hierarchy), we start to seek purpose and meaning. The classic mid-life crisis is the person who got educated, got a good job, started raising a family, and then once the kids started getting older, wonders “Now what am I supposed to do with myself?”

Why do many of us struggle with these issues of purpose and meaning? In my view, it’s because we know we will die. We have a limited amount of time to live, and we want our life to have meaning not only during that limited time, but also after we are gone. And since I don’t believe in an afterlife or an eternal soul, the only impact I will have after I die is the imprint I have made on other people that continue living. So my life’s impact (or purpose or meaning) will be created by using my limited time to make others’ lives better.

  • Some people create that impact by becoming parents, so that part of them will live on through their children.
  • Others do so by devoting their life to service, either as a teacher or mentor or helper to others, such that they create their life’s meaning by helping others.
  • If one is religious, one might devote one’s life to serving God’s will.
  • Some people create meaning by creating works of art that will evoke reactions by those that experience the art in the future.
  • Others do so by contributing to science or engineering, creating theorems or technology that will continue to have impact on people’s lives after they are gone.

The common factor of all of these approaches is that we find a way to imprint ourselves on others such that we are having an impact beyond our own limited lives. We are finding a way to serve others.

But how much service is enough? What if I don’t have it in me to have a profound impact like creating art or inventing new technology or starting a social movement or curing a disease? What if I’m just little old me, trying to get through the day? How big does my purpose have to be to be “enough”?

What I’ve come to realize is that nobody can answer that question for you except you. Only you can define “enough”. For some people, “enough” is making enough money at their job such that they can go home and drink a few beers with their friends after work. For others, “enough” is being able to pay for their children’s expenses, including college tuition. For others, “enough” is becoming a CEO or entrepreneur, setting the direction for their own business.

One of the problems I see with our networked and social-media-enmeshed society is that as humans, we compare ourselves to those we “see” around us, and think that what we are doing is not “enough”. For instance, reading about Dr. Paul Farmer in Mountains beyond Mountains is intimidating because his “enough” is putting every penny he earns and every day he has into building medical clinics for Haiti. Most of us can’t or won’t reach that level of dedication. Does that mean he wins, and we are losers? Not necessarily. If we believe in our own wholeness and esteem ourselves, then we will not feel threatened by the accomplishments of others. By paying careful attention to our own internal compass, we can live congruently with the purpose we create for ourselves. Another way of putting it is that we each find our own communities to serve.

  • For Farmer, it was those in medical need in Haiti.
  • For those who are religious, it may be their church community.
  • For others, it may be their families.
  • For artists, it may be their muse, etc.

Maybe it will help if I share my own recent realization of how my various pursuits tied together into a purpose. A friend of mine asked the question of software engineers on a mailing list I’m on: “What motivates you at work? What makes you feel so good that you’d be willing to get paid less if you got more of this?” I quickly answered that I loved the feeling of helping people do something new – I was most proud of the moments when a client turned to me after I delivered a software prototype and said “I could never do this before!” And I looked at that answer, and realized that’s why my current passion of coaching appeals to me so much – it’s helping people to learn to behave in new ways, helping people do something new.

I don’t know if most people would dignify that formulation as a “purpose”, but it was helpful to me in reframing my life. I’ve been calling myself the Unrepentant Generalist for over a decade, but in recent years, I’ve started to realize that I have been inadvertently specializing in helping people and organizations be more effective. In other words, even though my career appears to be a mishmash of physics, software, product management, biotech, finance and business strategy, there’s a throughline of developing my skills to help others do something new, either as an individual or as an organization. And having the different domain experiences allows me to see the patterns that are common to people and organizations, which makes me even more effective in being able to apply patterns from one domain to another.

Is it as noble a purpose as Mother Teresa, Dr. Paul Farmer, or a scientist curing cancer? No. Should that be the basis by which I judge it? I don’t think so.

The idea of helping other people develop new capabilities energizes me and excites me in a way that those other purposes do not. I can see myself spending years or decades on this passion, because I already have in several different domains e.g. tutoring other students when I was a physics student, building new solutions as a software consultant, developing product requirements docs to create new product possibilities, building business models as a financial analyst to unlock investment funding by showing potential opportunities, and now developing business strategy possibilities for Google’s search ads team.

Recognizing a throughline purpose gives one a metric to more effectively evaluate new opportunities. When I have a career coaching conversation, or even when I’m interviewing somebody, one of the questions I like to ask is “Tell me about a project that you were proud of, one where you felt really good about what you accomplished.” And I ask probing questions to figure out what, exactly, “it” was that made them passionate and proud about that project. And I ask about other times they felt that way. It’s a great way to help sift through their experience to find the throughline purpose that is their passion. It doesn’t always work – people haven’t always had the opportunities to shine and do their best work. But I love it when I see the light in their eyes shine out, and they start waving their arms and talk faster as they describe what they did. Then it’s “just” a matter of figuring out what else will give them that feeling, and how to get them there – we now have an idea of what their “destination” or “purpose” is.

Do you have a sense of your own purpose and meaning? Does it fill you with determination and an excitement to get out of bed in the morning? Or do you think the idea of purpose and meaning is a fool’s game designed by capitalists to make us feel inadequate and unhappy with our own lives so that we comfort ourselves by buying things? I’d love to get your perspective.

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