On having a purpose or goal in life
The Cheshire cat from “Alice in Wonderland” says it well. If you don’t know where you are going, your choices do not matter. All choices are equal when we are indifferent to the outcome.
Living with goals and a purpose is a choice. We can choose to live with intention; to have goals and a purpose. Or we can let life unfold through whims and instinctive reactions to random events in life. These are fundamentally different approaches to living. There is a continuum between these extremes. Most people fall in between where they pursue some goals but leave the rest to fate. The choice is how much emphasis to place on intention and goals versus fate.
Living without a sense of purpose and goals can work. We can wing it – make it up as we go along. Go with our gut. Hope it all turns out alright. People can wander through life without intention and be happy. But do we want to trust our life to what we don’t control?
My experience is that thoughtful choice about life goals and purpose increases the chances of having a happy and successful life. However we may define success, it is more likely to be achieved if we pursue it. Purpose and goals provide a structure and guidance for making life’s important choices.
The Value of Goals
I always believed in goals. Perhaps it is my nature. I like setting goals and getting things done. Working through a to-do list feels good. While I may be unusual in liking goals, the logic of using goals to guide action is compelling. “Start with the end in mind,”[i] is one of Steven Covey’s seven habits of successful people. It always made sense to me and is good advice for everyone.
There are many advantages to goals. Once a goal is set the steps to achieve it can be mapped out. We can figure out what we need to do. Then we can focus on acting knowing there is a connection between actions and the desired outcome. The steps may be difficult. Adjustments will be needed. But at least there is a path forward.
Plans to achieve goals are dynamic and need to adapt to learning. Poor assumptions, failures, and other problems often occur. Having a goal allows you to change your plan when the unexpected occurs. The process of adjusting to events maintains momentum and progress toward your goal. The inevitable setbacks can stop progress without a goal to provide focus.
Goals can and sometimes should change as we learn. We may set unrealistic goals. Goal mistakes can happen. We may select a goal we believe is important to our happiness and then realize it isn’t. This is all natural and part of gaining wisdom. Mistakes are learning opportunities and should be preferred to doing nothing.
Having goals makes it easier to see and benefit from opportunities. I have experienced many random events which ended up improving my life. Yet I easily could have missed opportunities had I not had a longer-term goal I was pursuing. I was better prepared to recognize and take advantage of random opportunities that came my way. We cannot control those random events, but we can prime ourselves to benefit from them.
Goal setting is important for achieving nearly anything. It is an important skill to develop regardless of where you want to go. The more difficult question is whether your goals are the right goals.
Purpose and Goals (One Ring to Rule them All)
It is common to have short and intermediate goals. These are normal and necessary. Practical goals such as graduating from school, getting a job, and buying a car all help achieve the foundations of a happy life. We can spend much of our life on these goals.
We may have other goals related to our higher human needs and desires. We may want to find a life partner. Perhaps we want to pursue a rewarding hobby or sport. Or learn more about topics that interest us.
Setting life goals without the context of a primary goal or purpose in life can cause problems. Without the focus of purpose, there is little to assure the right or best goals are selected. Goals may not fit together and can pull us in opposite directions. Time and resources are scarce and setting priorities among goals are necessary. A primary goal helps with that and resolving conflicts among goals.
A problem with not having an overriding life purpose is that intermediate goals can evolve into our primary purpose. A goal to achieve basic financial security can start as an intermediate goal but can evolve into something much more important to us. Pursuing basic financial security can slide into to wanting to become well off and from there becoming rich. We may realize too late we have spent a lifetime pursuing something that doesn’t produce the result we desire. We see people who successfully pursued wealth, fame, and power only to find misery, not happiness. It is not that wealth, fame, and power are inherently bad. They just don’t work well as our life’s purpose.
My experience is having an overriding purpose in life, even if vague and poorly defined, brings order and coherence to setting the key goals in my life. Purpose helped determine which goals are worth having. I could ask myself whether a particular goal is aligned with my ultimate outcome. Having a primary life goal helps decide when to stop pursuing a goal and how much effort to put into achieving a goal. Priority setting was easier. Many times, I have changed and reordered my goals after realizing that my current plans were less likely to get me to where I wanted to go.
I believe each person must arrive on their own at their definition of purpose. It is not an easy question and takes time. I will make a strong case for my conception of purpose. I hope my ideas are well-reasoned and persuasive. But I could be wrong. People should think critically about this and reflect on their own life experiences.
Finding a Purpose in Life
My journey in finding purpose is just one. It may not be typical, but it may expose some of the issues involved.
Finding my purpose for living was not a simple one-time decision. Meeting basic needs, especially early in life, left little time for considering big-picture issues such as purpose. The big picture was not clear to me. There are many perspectives on life’s purpose. Understanding and sorting through the conflicting advice on how to live was hard and took time. Finding and refining purpose has been a lifelong commitment. My early simplistic ideas evolved, in fits and starts, to something more complex, rich, and useful.
I started with a simple life goal. My life would be successful if I was happy and making productive and positive contributions to society. I cannot pinpoint when it reached my consciousness. I recall having those thoughts as a teenager. I remember discussing with my wife our hopes for the future of our baby. We agreed that being happy and productive was our desired outcome.
I am not certain where this view of purpose came from. My father certainly was an influence. The view was common in the environment I grew up in. I suspect it was simply a cultural norm at the time. The pursuit of happiness, after all, is in the Declaration of Independence and a foundation of western culture. And work — being productive – was a given for nearly everyone. The idea stuck even if it wasn’t a conscious well-considered decision on my part.
I had no idea what happiness meant except perhaps feeling good. My concept of productive member of society meant having a job and not being in jail. Later I realized the need to think more deeply about purpose.
In retrospect, it was not a bad place to start, as simplistic as it was. My simple ideas touched on two fundamental ideas about purpose – the individual and the community. Happiness tends to be viewed internally. It deals with feelings of well-being, outlooks, and basic needs. The idea of being a productive, contributing member of society is community focused. It encompasses how we relate and interact with others. There is a tension between the two that turns out to be important. Too much focus on our feelings and needs and we may neglect our commitment to others. The opposite can happen as well. Live a life of complete selflessness and we may neglect essential personal needs.
I was handicapped in examining and understanding purpose because I did not have a religious upbringing. I went to Sunday school for a while. My mother was more spiritual than traditionally religious. My father had stronger religious beliefs, but they were unknown to me until very late in his life. God, the Bible, and prayer were not part of my childhood.
I envy in some way those who have a strong religious upbringing. It can provide an environment where purpose is a common topic of discussion. Purpose is fundamental to most religions. Religions may differ on purpose but each has a purpose that is taught and reinforced. I know many people where religious belief and teachings are their north star for living.
I am aware of my severe limitations in perceiving and understanding the complexity of the world. It is entirely plausible that the purpose of life taught by the major religions is right. That approach doesn’t work for me for many reasons. I can be stubborn about learning something on my own rather than accepting what I am told. Consequently, I’ve had to stumble through on my own aided by books, life experience, and, hopefully, reason. In the end, I suspect I arrived at roughly the same place in terms of purpose and the basic guidelines for living. I just got there taking a different path.
I struggled with the purpose question for decades. My views evolved and became more refined. There were years when I was distracted by my intermediate goals such as getting through school, making a living, finding a life partner, and staying healthy. That was all fine and worked. It was all directionally correct. But they seemed too narrow for an entire life. What happens when those goals get checked off the list?
There were times when I doubted my original purpose of being happy and a productive member of society. Maybe I was missing something. Should I retreat from the world and focus on cosmic consciousness? That direction was popular with some friends. Should devote my life wholeheartedly to a particular cause such as wilderness preservation. Sometimes personal achievement (professional or otherwise) seemed like it should be my primary goal. Forget happiness, just accomplish something big.
Exploring these alternatives was important. It forced me to think more deeply about life goals. But I found none had the power and the depth I wanted for a life I hoped would be long and satisfying.
I found my “happiness” purpose too vague. My efforts to explain it in detail only revealed the shallowness of my understanding. If I couldn’t define it, then how was I going to use the idea to guide my development?
I learned that life’s purpose needs to be actionable. The desired ends must be clear enough to allow a logical and realistic connection between actions and results. Otherwise, it is just some nice-sounding words. This realization meant my ideas on purpose had to become more complex. Simple just left too many questions when I tried to put them into action.
In time, through learning and experiences, I settled on a purpose that works for me. Vague concepts adopted when I was young evolved into something richer, and more nuanced. Importantly, they became more practical.
I recognized I had no definitive answer and perhaps there is none. Anyone certain they know what life is about simply hasn’t thought enough about it or lived long enough. The world is complex beyond imagination and our ability to understand it is limited. Much is simply beyond us.
To sum up, life goals are important to achievement. Goals help us avoid wandering through life and hoping for the best. They help us live with intention. But goals without an overriding purpose can mislead us. Our chance of selecting the right goals is much better if we have a clear idea of our overall purpose in life.
The essay on thriving explains where I ended up on life’s purpose. It is just one person’s view. It is what works for me.
[i] Add reference to Steven Covey’s book on Seven Habits of Successful People