When Your Purpose Is Actually Meaningless
Nothing you do is valuable. Prove me wrong on that, but for just a short while, I want you to entertain the idea that everything you work so hard at and believe so strongly in simply carries the illusion of value. I want you to challenge yourself to that end because, like all preposterous statements, my words carry with them a grain of truth. And it is only by acknowledging your wrongdoings, however insignificant, that you can permit yourself the freedom to do what is right – to find your value.
I used to tell myself that I wanted to change the world, that I could affect a billion lives. Now I’m beginning to realize that all I really need are a few grinning faces. I used to tell myself that I wanted to disrupt the status quo and rewrite the course of technological history. Now I’m starting to think that I just want to feel clever, unique, and special. I used to tell myself that I was going to invent the next best thing since sliced bread. Now it seems that I’d be happy with a couple of pieces of sliced bread.
While I’ve crafted these adorable little comments for your every chuckle and chortle, at the core, my true issue isn’t the fact that I’ve lost sight of my values – it’s that I am fundamentally beginning to question the underlying principles upon which these values were founded. In the immortal words of Chuck Palahniuk, “We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.” Still, I’ve stopped blaming my upbringing for giving me false hopes, and instead have started blaming myself for believing them. Fool me once, shame on you, but fool me for over 30 years? Good god, what is my problem?
My desire to change the world is the same one that has been shoved into the head of every overachieving kid with big potential. “With your skills,” we were all told, “if you work hard, you could change the world.” They forgot to add the part about needing to also have the luck of a survivor of multiple lightning strikes, a network greater than Kevin Bacon’s, and enough sleepless nights to make medical professionals diagnose a new type of insomnia.
With my need to overachieve, I became the ultimate underdog, determined to disrupt. In my quest to change the world, I was met with hurdles so frequently that jumping simply became a natural way of living. To this day, I’m weary of any task that is too easy to accomplish. My upbringing didn’t create a winner, it created a fighter – a man who can become so caught up in the struggle that he misses sight of the true objective.
My desire to create something new came from a childhood of idolizing inventors like Edison, Bell, Tesla, Brunel, Turing, and da Vinci. However, nearly all of these men lived during a time when it was possible for a single polymath to create something drastically new, thereby changing the course of history. To create something revolutionary in this day and age, it seems one needs a platoon of highly specialized individuals from a plethora of disciplines, each of which would take half a lifetime to master.
These are my own strange, Lisa Simpson-esque intellectual obsessions and shortcomings. Some of them may sound familiar, but if they don’t, you likely have your own equally ridiculous, convoluted, and self-destructive motivations and beliefs pushing you forward – not necessarily toward greatness or success, just forward. If this sounds disheartening, it should. You should question everything you know about yourself and your definitions of value and success. You may be one of those lucky savants who simply falls into place with their life’s work and meaning, but it’s much more likely that you’re another confused, ambition-filled human gun: capable of powerful and incredible acts, but only as useful as the last agent to grab hold of you, take aim, and pull the trigger.
Your purpose is likely not your own. It is something that has been beaten into you through some combination of influences that include your family, friends, and the media. If you’re fine with subconsciously fulfilling someone else’s goals and dreams, this may not be a problem for you; however, if you start to peel back the layers and question your own intent, you may not like what you find at the core. You may start to see the huge divide that exists between the dream you’ve been chasing and the things that truly make you happy. This isn’t a fun discovery to make, and dragging yourself through this self-reflective mud can be a difficult slog – but coming out on the other side can be more rewarding than anything you’ve spent decades chasing.
We hear feel-good stories along this line: former Wall Street trader turned brewer, former legal council starts adventure tour guide business, former accountant begins building affordable homes. Granted, these people are fortunate enough to have built up the funds to make these kinds of shifts, yet all too often, we sit back and watch them, green with envy about our perceived inability to overhaul our own lives. In many cases, their decisions and shifts sound easy, but in reality, they came with sleepless nights and all kinds of self-doubt and questioning. However, the key to these individuals’ success is that they were open to trying something new.
What have you done to challenge yourself lately? As drastic as my words are, your actions need not be. Finding your true purpose could be miles away, but it could also be around the corner; the key is that you’ll never know until you question yourself and are willing to experiment and potentially fail. This could mean leaving your job, but it also could just mean bringing a different mindset and personal objective to your current job; spending time with new people that inspire you in different ways; picking up new hobbies that explore different parts of your mind; or dropping old habits. By shedding yourself of the historical beliefs that limit you, you empower yourself to do something truly different and, ideally, something that aligns more with what you really want.
Personally, I’m still somewhere in the mud. However, I’m trying to experiment and with each arduous step forward, I’m rewarded for my masochism by gaining some glimmer of an understanding of true happiness. With only a few steps behind me, I have already started to understand that my visions of grandeur are, in fact, delusions. I love the idea of the big picture, but the reality is that I often get lost in it and become anxious trying to define such an all-encompassing vision in this increasingly large, complex, and interconnected world.
Lately, I find myself taking greater pleasure and finding my purpose in small acts that, when they come together, create larger meaning. I’ve begun to see my fool’s errand of attempting to rewrite history when so much of the writing is out of my hands. Instead, I am seeing the value in using my energy to plant thousands of tiny seeds into the topsoil of history to see which may take root. In the end, it is possible that none of them will – but at least this way I get to enjoy the process of planning and sharing with others. I no longer need to plan for months, or even years, before my vision manifests as little more than disappointment and exhaustion.
Forget your original purpose; you likely don’t believe in it anyway. Find a new one – one that you actually care about. Be selfish, and challenge your own motivations. Question whether your intent is your own or whether it is based on someone else’s needs or wants. It won’t be easy to confront these things, and it won’t be easy to decide what to do next. You’ll fail a lot, you’ll get worse before you get better, and you won’t immediately see the value in your actions. But keep going. Start small. You never know what things can grow into.