For a moment, I want you to think of the word purpose. It is something that every single object has. A screwdriver’s purpose is to simply drive screws, a computer’s is to compute data. With these simple inanimate objects we have created over our existence on this planet it is quite easy to prescribe a purpose.
But there is certainly a difference between the singular purpose of a screwdriver and that of human life. When it comes to a life’s purpose, things are less cut and dry. If I were to ask you what you believed your purpose in life to be, would you be able to provide a concrete answer?
For most people, the answer is likely no. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that, however, as I hope to share with you in this article. Philosophers have spent millenia debating the meaning of life and whether or not any meaningful purpose can be derived from it. These are big questions that no one will likely ever have a firm answer to. Instead, I want you to think more about the screwdriver from earlier.
While yes, its intended purpose is to drive screws, most people have definitely used them for more than just that. I, for one, don’t believe I have ever not opened a can of paint with a flat head screwdriver. Now, did the first person to create a screwdriver have that in mind? Likely not, but that doesn’t mean that this additional purpose I created for it is any less valid.
Growing up, you are heavily influenced by your parents. Like the inventor of the screwdriver, you may have been prescribed purpose from your own creators. Go to law school, get a good job, make a lot of money, do what we did, buy a house, get married, have kids, tell them all these things. Cycle, repeat.
And sure, this type of prescribed purpose is incredibly simple. It likely would still give you a meaningful life, and hell, perhaps that is even the purpose that you would have chosen for yourself. But what if it isn't? What if instead of driving the same screws all day, what you actually want to do is open a can of paint?
What I am trying to impart on you is a bit of a thought experiment. If you were to take away all of the influences that have told you what your purpose is or should be and allowed yourself to prescribe your own purpose, would it be any different than today? Perhaps a better question would be “what is important to you?”
And while I often dip into rhetorical questions, that one is real. I want you to take some time to write a list of what is important to you. To make it easier, try to break it down into these two categories. Positive things you find important in your life and the negative things you believe are important to address. And while orange juice is definitely a positive influence on my breakfast, it isn’t quite the kind of thing I’d want to see on your list.
Instead, only write down the things that make you feel passionate. The touch of your lover’s hand on the back of your neck, the sensation you get when you finish a painting, the sounds of your child’s laughter when you tell them a cheesy joke.
On the flip side, let’s talk about negatives. Mark Manson wrote in the article 7 Strange Questions That Help You Find Your Life Purpose some incredibly intriguing questions that should help guide you towards the most important negative influences on your life. My favorite, that I would like to adapt for this section was what’s true about you today that would make your 8-year-old self cry?
I’d like to take that question in a slightly different direction. Ask yourself this, what aspects of your day to day life would your younger self be embarrassed, ashamed, or downright pissed off about if they met you today? We all have these issues. If my younger self found out he still didn’t have the hoverboard from Back To The Future he would be absolutely furious. Also probably about the amount of time I spent working 4 PM until 1 AM at a call center in my early 20s.
Now, you should have a pretty interesting list of things that are important to you, and things that you deem important enough that you would like to change. I want you to study this list until you can find a way that you can use your positives to counteract the negatives or even ways that you could turn your negative into a positive.
For example, perhaps one of your negatives is that on your daily commute you see a homelessness issue in your city and feel helpless to change it. And while I won’t try to tell you that you can single-handedly solve the homelessness crisis, I will say that there are things you could do to counteract that negative feeling. In this scenario, perhaps you need to find some more time to give back to your community. Even if you don’t have an incredible amount of money yourself, maybe just stopping to say hi and have a conversation with someone less fortunate could help improve both of your days in some way.
What I am getting at is that the things we feel passionate about, for good or bad, are inherently connected. The common link between them is that we feel bad when we believe ourselves to be helpless in doing anything about them. While there is no map that will lead you to your own feeling of purpose in life, it seems likely that it can be found in the intersectionality of these things that we feel passionate enough to get our hearts working overtime.
The next few questions I believe can help further illuminate a path to your purpose are a little grimmer. If you were to die today, would you be content with the way you have spent your life up until now? What type of regrets would you be left with? How would the people, close to you and less connected, remember you? Is that really the way you want to be remembered?
I, for one, have never felt ready to die and I don’t believe I ever will. That said, I think I would be content knowing one simple truth; I tried my best, each and every day of my life, to continue improving. When I was younger, I never truly considered the implication of my actions. I figured that I would live for the now and deal with whatever ended up coming my way. Had I died back then, sure, people would have been sad. My family would have been devastated. But for the most part, I’m pretty sure most of the people in my circle would have thought “well, guess we are going to need to find a new place to drink on weekends.”
I was aimless, filling my time with short term pleasure instead of focusing on the things I actually found important. It was easier, but it would have been far harder to accept that death. Unfortunately, outside of thought experiments, we don’t really get a choice in that matter. When I first considered these questions it made me deeply uncomfortable. I hope they do the same for you. Change is one of the most uncomfortable things that you can do, but it is also vital to you growing as a person.
If I died today I think I would be remembered as someone that people can count on, that was loyal to a fault at times, but always open to love and as someone who tried to make a positive impact in any way that he could. To me, this is a much more positive outlook than I ever had in the past. And it was all because I found my own purpose in life instead of taking it day by day.
Instead of driving screws all day, I open cans of paint. I still drive screws from time to time, because lets be honest, sometimes you still have to. It is just part of life. It truly is just about finding that balance between the good and the bad, the purpose is given to you, and the one that you choose. You don’t need to have the same purpose throughout your life. You can find new purposes as often as you desire, as long as you maintain that balance and feel happy with what that will mean once you are gone.