Updated: Jan 3, 2021
“We are all here on earth to help others; what on earth the others are here for I don’t know.”
The terrain surrounding the question of one’s true purpose in life is full of traps and slippery slopes.
This article is dedicated to illuminating six of the trickiest of those traps.
Trap #1: Ignoring the question
Deliberately ignoring the question “what is my life purpose” makes sense. It indicates the well-grounded disposition that living life is more important than asking academic questions about it.
And, you can’t actually avoid the question by not asking it, because how you live each moment answers it.
If you’re just going around living common-sensically, trying to be a good person while having a good time without asking too many hypothetical questions, then you’re treating “being a good person” and “having a good time” as the two main elements of your life purpose. That definition of purpose might be a good one. It might not. The point is that you’re still living out a definition.
Since we’re constantly answering the question in action, it’s an urgent question—sort of like the question “is the air I’m breathing right now poisonous.”
And since the question’s subject matter is extremely significant, it qualifies as both urgent and important, so it lives in the top-left corner of the Eisenhower Matrix, and we should address it immediately.
Trap #2: Numbing natural wonder
If you have considered the question of purpose before, and you found a clear answer, rock on.
Asking it indicates the good kind of seriousness, and finding an answer provides clarity and direction to life.
Unfortunately, having a clear answer also disconnects you from the vital pulse of existential wonder that should accompany the question, because wonder is impossible without a recognition of ignorance.
Unless we’re prophets with incontrovertible access to divine truth, or sages who’ve spent our lives plumbing the depths of human existence while staying connected enough to life itself to avoid deluding ourselves with abstraction, the fact that so many different wise people have said such drastically different things about the purpose of life should indicate that we probably don’t know our true purpose, even if we have some plausible guesses.
Look at the following pair of quotes:
“The meaning of life is just to be alive.”
“Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.”
And this pair:
“Our prime purpose in this life is to help others.”
—Tenzin Gyatso, 14th Dailai Lama
“The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.”
And these (slightly stranger) ones:
“Hiding is the hidden purpose of creation.”
“I am the goal of life.”
—Krishna, the Bhagavad Gita
These quotes don’t suggest some universal answer that every good and thoughtful person arrives at. They indicate fundamental disagreements between pretty respectable sources about the most important question in the game.
It’s sort of electrifying to know that we can’t trust a single safety net of authority at the outset. It means we get to confront life’s most important question head-on, personally, intimately. It means—if we stay connected to our sense of wonder—that we get to live life animated by a kind of deeply vibrant curiosity.
But curiosity is actually quite an intense sensation to feel, like any form of love, so it’s tempting to collapse in the face of so many contradictory answers. This collapse consists in accepting that you may never know your true purpose.
Accepting permanent ignorance of your purpose proves to be a nearly identical mistake to believing that you already know your purpose. Both involve a deadly disconnection from the natural yearning to know that lives in the center of the human heart.
Perhaps the hardest scenario is to have believed at some point, very deeply, that you knew your purpose in life with clarity… and then to have walked face-first into some sharp and unignorable reason that it was not your true purpose.
(I know ex-Mormons who suffered from major depression when they left their church, largely on account of discovering that the purpose they had poured their life into—worshipping a particular god and living out their church-assigned vocation—was not everything they’d thought. And I know entrepreneurs who had similar experiences after their startups failed.)
Romantic heartbreak often causes people to seek refuge in numb independence. After having your world shattered to a million pieces in a breakup, risking the vulnerability of open-hearted love again doesn’t usually seem like the most prudent choice.
This is similarly true in the realm of purpose. When you’ve entwined yourself in the thrilling security of some specific teleology and it’s suddenly torn away from you, it seems insane to dive back into the pursuit of a new one.
But, clearly, doing so is the only thing that gives us a shot at a truly meaningful life.
Trap #3: Waiting to find it
It’s reasonable to hold off on committing to any single path—a specific career, or a specific meditative tradition, for instance—until you arrive at some sort of clarity about your true purpose.
It’s also a devastating plan. Putting off trying to live your purpose until you “know it” means holding your own fulfillment hostage for a ransom that may never come.
It also means ignoring the cries for help in the world around you in the hopes of attaining greater abstract clarity.
And, perhaps most importantly: it means you guarantee that progress towards knowledge of your purpose will be both dubious and painfully slow. Knowledge deepens through two channels, reflection and action, and an imbalance in the direction of reflection dooms you to ever-more brittle conceptual guesswork.
Wholeheartedly pursuing knowledge of your purpose means devoting yourself to living from your best guess, knowing that your guess is probably not quite true, and allowing the discomfort of that recognition to pull you into deeper intimacy with the question.
In this sense the path of pursuing purpose makes a kind of spiral, moving ever-closer to a center we may never quite touch; and pushing pause on commitment until we “know our true purpose” slows our movement along that spiral to a stop. One of the main ways we discover our true purpose is by doing things that are not it.
Trap #4: Running from purposelessness
It’s possible that life has no purpose.
Most people (hopefully) have considered this possibility at some point.
Purposelessness can look or feel different ways:
“Everything I love is doomed to dissolve to dust”
“Nothing I do will ever change anything important in the world”
“I am a tiny speck on a speck in a speck-sized cloud of specks”
If we try to snap back toward cheerier metaphysical options every time these possibilities arise, or anesthetize ourselves with entertainment, we shut out a massively important psychic nutrient. Regularly imbibing some form of purposelessness as an adult is a prerequisite for play. You can tell when someone is malnourished for it because they take everything very seriously. (They often also get very angry as a result.)
Some people consume too much purposelessness, and get drunk, and some even become addicted to it. The relief it provides is potent, and in that sense it carries the same type of danger as literal liquor.
But considering purposelessness in moderation serves as a critical catharsis. Tragedy is a prerequisite to comedy, comedy is our main means to a light touch, and a light touch is required to access the nuance that serious matters deserve.
Trap #5: Equating purpose with business
Many modern conversations about purpose gravitate around a tacit definition of purpose as business or work, particularly as contrasted with relationship or love.
A connotation between purpose and business does exist naturally, for these reasons:
it’s hard for a business to flourish without giving people something they want
giving people something they want is a form of service
we intuit that service and purpose are probably intertwined
everyone has to survive while living their purpose
surviving today usually means making money
making money usually takes a lot of time
if purpose is the most important thing, it should take up a lot of time also
there is only so much time
But if we treat this connotation of purpose and business as a denotation, we encounter devastating problems.
If your purpose is your work, that means that anything and everything you do outside of work is a distraction from your purpose, or at best an auxiliary tool to improve your performance at what “really matters.”
That includes time with your partner or family. And if you treat your partner as a distraction, or time with them as an unfortunately necessary respite from the much more meaningful activity of your work, they will notice, and you’ll make the most important person in your life miserable in the pursuit of feeling accomplished. If you’re working on whatever currently feels like your most important reason for being alive, and your partner interrupts you, “clarity of purpose” is not an excuse to snap at them.
Even if you don’t care about partnership or family, you’ll still be making yourself miserable if you hold onto the idea that purpose=business—because whether we like it or not, humans have to spend time doing things other than work. And we will pollute all of that time with the malaise of contempt and resentment if we hold onto this paradigm.
To put it compactly, there are two reasons why it’s a terrible idea to treat your work as your purpose:
in trying to make strangers happy, you’ll make your loved ones unhappy
you’ll only be fulfilled for a portion of each day
If your purpose does involve giving your greatest gifts to the world, the world includes—and starts with—the people around you; and if you want to live a fulfilled life, your purpose had better somehow include every moment of every day, or you’re doomed to perpetually fractional fulfillment at best.
Trap #6: Believing true purpose requires changing the world
If you believe your purpose involves helping people, it’s natural to want to help as many people as possible. This generally means aiming to somehow “change the world.”
This is an incredibly beautiful impulse that should never be repressed or constricted.
But when the impulse calcifies into a belief that your purpose has to involve changing the world on a global scale, things start to get real rough.
For one, it means only a handful of people (like, 10) will ever have the chance to live purposeful lives. It takes a crazy confluence of luck, skill, and privilege to change the world in a major way. If purpose means changing the world, then the vast majority of people are relegated to lives of purposelessness.
Secondly, just as with believing that purpose=business, the abstract grandness of “changing the world” will inevitably tempt us to neglect the people and places immediately around us that could truly benefit from our care.
And thirdly, if you do believe you have a real chance at changing the world in a big way, it’s incredibly hard to stay humble, and at that scale the opposite of humility isn’t pride, it’s schizophrenia. I had a friend once who was working on developing a software system to improve quality of life globally. He developed extremely clear and plausible plans for the product and the business surrounding it.
Then one day, a couple of years into working on it, he sent me the following text:
“You were Caesar and I was Alexander. We have become the Gods we sought… let us unite the world.”
Receiving this kind of text isn’t actually surprising, given the scope of its author’s goals. Over 10% of the population experiences delusions of grandeur. Half of schizophrenia cases and two-thirds of bipolar cases involve serious forms of it. Staying centered, moderate, and grounded in reality while actively trying to change the world poses an incredible challenge.
Of course, if everyone just dedicated themselves to staying “grounded in reality,” very little would likely change in the world. A drop of mania is critical to progress.
But this makes it all the more important to realize that aiming to change the world is playing with egoic fire, and that your own sanity carries the risk of burning down in a blaze of imagined glory without the humbling influence of caring for your own home, and loved ones, and community.
If we can dance our way between these many traps, and carefully extract ourselves any time we do fall prey to one, we get to experience something very beautiful each day.
We don’t get to experience the safety of blind certainty, or the detached relief of cynicism, or the elation of a messianic identity.
But we do get to feel the gentle and dynamic fulfillment of progressing toward the embodied knowledge that matters most, with our journey grounded by our loved ones and graced by the wonder that is our birthright.
Life’s purpose may be to experience something. It may be to accomplish something. It may be to become something.
It may be to enjoy life to the utmost, or to awaken to the nature of existence. It may be to relieve suffering, or to create the most beautiful art you’re capable of.
It may be fulfilled inevitably, simply through living; or it may risk remaining unfulfilled in this lifetime.
And, of course, there may in fact be no ultimate purpose at all.
We don’t know. Yet.
And in the meantime—prior to enlightenment, or death—the clearest purpose we have is the pursuit of a beautiful relationship with that ignorance.