Life Purpose: Catching the Slippery Beast

life purpose mountain

“You know, some countries don’t have a problem with whiplash?”, said my physiotherapy educator.

We’d just seen a patient who’d suffered a minor road traffic accident and months later still complained of symptoms…

Despite evidence to the contrary. 

I mean, this person seemed fine during the assessment. 

They passed all the tests in the clinic but still complained of severe pain. 

I couldn’t figure it out. 

“What do you mean?”, I asked. 

I was a physiotherapy student learning the ropes and didn’t understand at the time. 

But sometimes I think back to that conversation in the hospital when I read a listicle on life purpose. 

We’ll explore why in a moment.

The purpose of this article

Life’s a funny little business.

Here we are, unchoosing in our existence and expected to simply figure it out as we go.

Despite the vapid seven-step promises and blueprints for kittens and ice creams, we soon realise the ineffectiveness of such hacks.

So why am I writing an article on life purpose I hear ye cry?

To get my thoughts in order and shuffle my mental papers.

Take what you will and leave the rest. Now for a story. 

Want individual help with this? Click here.

My story 

Some people grow up knowing exactly what they want to do, the lucky scoundrels.

It seems they’re destined to follow in the family tradition and become a doctor or enter the Third Sector to do charitable deeds.

I was not one of those emerging from the womb with a spotlight guiding the way.

Instead, when it came time to choose my school subjects leading to an eventual career, I was utterly confused.  

I mean, how are you seriously expected to make life-defining decisions when you’re still 15?

I knew what subjects I hated, namely maths and physics, and

I knew what I liked – sport and literature.

Enjoying reading and English classes, I thought journalism could be a good option. 

However, after attending a private physiotherapist regularly in my tennis days, physiotherapy emerged victorious, especially because, at that time, there was a national shortage of qualified professionals and therefore, guaranteed jobs.

Even then though, the future seemed uncertain and I wouldn’t have stated that it was my life purpose.

What is life purpose?

Is life purpose even a real thing or more of a societal myth?
 
If you buy into the theory that we’re just animals, living in a cruel or at best indifferent world, enduring our grimy existence on a little ball hurtling through space, then it’s probably the latter. 

Now many of us have attained a certain standard of living, is it just a first world problem to feel bereft of purpose, the extra time to question life simply the result of transcending subsistence and survival? 

Even if it is a conjured phenomenon, by writing an article on life purpose, I suppose the subject requires some sort of definition, so here goes:

Life purpose is the feeling that you’re living a life that’s congruent with your values while working on things that hold personal significance. 

The theory

Ask a child working in a mine about life purpose and they’d probably look at you like an alien.

After all, for centuries, we’ve merely done what was expected of us.

Born into a farming family? Hate to break it to you, but your life purpose was likely to be a farmer.

It’s only recently that with more prosperous times in certain corners of the world that we’ve had any choice at all and the social mobility that comes with it.

Naturally, the corollary of choice is confusion. Put too many types of baked beans before me on a supermarket shelf and I freeze.

Without the weight of generational need to feed a family defining one’s purpose, we’ve become paralysed by options, questioning what we’re ‘put here’ to do.

To an extent, this seems like a religious hangover, a tension born of a general movement from traditional religions to humanist philosophy.

You see, back in our believing days, it was fine to defer the most uncomfortable existential questions to that bearded fellow in the sky.

After all, if we were toiling away for 12 hours in a field, He knew our purpose even if it wasn’t clear to us at the time.

As we’ve crept away from theology however, towards a philosophy that places humans in ultimate control, we’ve assumed personal responsibility for our own destiny.

That’s quite a weight to carry. No wonder we’re getting sweaty palms.

On the one hand, we’ve taken back control of our existence, but on the other, we’re still waiting for a god-like sign from the universe to show us the way.

And all the while our years are slip silently by and we still haven’t discovered our God-given life purpose.

Ah, the dilemma. 

The modern myth

Back to the earlier story. Did you know that some countries don’t have a word for whiplash?

Interestingly, when you analyse the number of people suffering from neck pain after a road traffic accident in such countries, their numbers are significantly lower than in the West. 

In this way, the condition may have actually been exacerbated by naming it, the expectation of symptoms and the promise of reward through our claimant culture – 

So, has the combination of extra thinking time in an increasingly comfortable society, plus popular media’s promise of reward for finding our true calling, exacerbated similar complaints about life purpose?

13 ways to find your life purpose

Hang on a minute Joely ol’ boy.

I know what you’re going to say. If there’s no life purpose, why are you writing a blog about all things personal development?

Good question and very perceptive of you.

It’s not that I take umbrage so much with the concept of life purpose.

We just have to be careful not to create a new kind of chronic whiplash and keep things simples.

I do think we have natural affiliations that when ignored, can lead to psychic constipation. 

What we do in life certainly has an impact on our emotional wellbeing. 

Therefore, it’s worth taking time to identify what we want to do with our short time on this little space rock.
 
So let’s get stuck in. 

1. Create a life plan

Don’t worry, this doesn’t have to be accurate.

You could simply create some toddler-style scribbles on a page.

However, get some thoughts down on paper, whether that be a list or journal format.

It will help to cauterise your thoughts and at least provide some initial direction.

You certainly don’t have to stick to the plan, and you’re actively encouraged to update it, in response to the organic, ever-changing beast of life.

Going through the rest of this humble list will (hopefully) help you create a draft life plan.

2. Forget your passion

There are certainly things in life we’re naturally drawn to.

Give a child a bunch of different options, and they’ll choose something that interests them.

Now, because I don’t buy into the concept of free will, I think this desire to pursue particular paths emerges from a deeper, darker place, where all the goblins live.

Frankly, we have no idea where these preferences form, but they’re there.

If you call this attraction life purpose, then fine. Let’s not get bogged down in semantics.

The problem is that people assume they have to find their passion to uncover their life purpose, which has become so overused as to become a cultural cliche.

Much like happiness, passion becomes a by-product of doing good work.

3. Identify your abilities

Secondly, say I have a natural predilection for playing sport and I happen to be 6 foot 9.

In an otherwise conducive environment, those factors might well facilitate a professional basketball career.

Now if I’m more bookish on the other hand, constantly trip over my feet, but can solve equations like no-one’s business, maths might be where it’s at.

Natural ability, therefore, plays a rather large part of life purpose, and so it could be argued that we should simply do what a) interests us and b) what we’re naturally good at.

Problem solved.

4. The one thing fallacy

Another popular notion is that we only have a single, unified passion, and like a sacred flower, it will morph spectacularly into life purpose.

We’d better find it, lest we tempt the devils of missed opportunity to come and sacrifice baby lambs on our deathbeds to make us feel bad. 

But the pressure of finding the one thing can be anxiety-inducing and paralysing.

And even then, do we all have a single, unified purpose to discover like an archaeologist uncovering the remains of a long-buried calling?

I’m not so sure.
 
As an advocate of the growth mindset, I believe that we can expand our areas of interest and ability into multiple domains, much like the renaissance polymath.

While natural inclinations may exist, developing new channels of purpose is possible and even probable at different stages of life.

In this way, perhaps you have numerous potential purposes you must explore.

5. Get good at something

Like we said with the passion trap, simply getting good at whatever’s in front of us can create purpose.

Humans are progress machines and where there is positive change there are positive feelings.

After picking a few interests, stop star gazing and narrow your focus to skill acquisition.

Become a craftsman of the topic and master the pursuit. 

6. Leverage success

Continuing on from this, I think it’s important to recognise that success can foster purpose.

Let’s assume we have a natural interest in learning to code.

Someone who’s predisposed to that pursuit will gain a far greater sense of fulfilment and purpose than someone who stumbles over ever line and apostrophe.

Cal Newport, in his book ‘So Good They Can’t Ignore You’ argues that passion is usually born from accomplishment and success as opposed to a shiny jewel waiting to be found.

This too is true of life purpose.

When you experience success, you develop passion. When you develop passion, you foster purpose.

7. Be careful when chasing money

A rather large elephant in the room is conflating monetary success and life purpose.

Lifestyle influencers and YouTube gurus abound who prance around in their underwear, surreptitiously indicating that financial freedom = living our bliss.

Now, the two are by no means mutually exclusive and it’s certainly possible to make a living from doing what you love, but this presumption can heap a whole lotta’ of pressure onto activities we find genuinely rewarding, but don’t generate cash value.

Money muddies the psychological waters and the notion that purpose should yield a material reward can encourage us to preemptively abandon many projects that could eventually constitute a life well lived.

8. Pick something greater than yourself

Humans, by our nature, are social animals and generally want to see people we like doing well.

If we can choose an area of interest which benefits more people and has an impact for the greater good, it’s more inspiring than wallowing in shallow desires and narcissistic wants.

Maybe this is why we (anecdotally) see so many ex-bankers and the like embarking on the philanthropic life after realising that money isn’t the answer.

Purpose is more inspiring when shared and attached to a grander goal. 

9. Go big or go home

Playing small is all very well on a daily, task level, but when talking life purpose, expand the possibility zone.

Go crazy and think about the most unrealistic possibilities.

Play on the edges of reason and see what ideas emerge. 

You don’t really know your limits until you’ve tested them and even then, like David Goggins 40% rule, you’ll probably be capable of more than you imagine.

10. Happiness is only real when shared

If you’re flying solo and struggling to find your way, how about recruiting some homies?

Working on a project with others can help us get stuck into a purposeful pursuit, bouncing intellect and energy off each other to build momentum.

Look at some of the most iconic companies today and you find friends starting software companies from their garages or sleeping on blow-up mattresses to make initial progress.

Such visions were commonly forged in concert, with multiple sources of energy poured into a dream or ambition. 

11. Stop consuming information!

After you’ve read this little primer that is 😉

It’s all too easy to fall at the information gathering hurdle, especially when you can go and swim in an ocean of digital delight.

Consumption should not be mistaken for progress.

Once you’ve read a couple of resources that resonate, it’s time to put the advice into action and get to work.

Uncovering purposeful activities is not a passive process.

It involves getting muddy in the trenches, trying a bunch of new things, failing and then trying again.

All before iterating and attempting a different approach.

12. Document your findings

It’s always good to approach our endeavours with a more critical eye and charting our progress like an intrepid anthropologist is a great approach.

This achieves two things.

It keeps us accountable in our new experimental mentality and it preserves our rickety memory, so we can review our progress impartially and make more accurate iterations as needed.

It also makes for a good account for others.

That was largely the reason I started writing on this blog. So I could throw some paint at the wall and make some pictures, sharing my childlike creations with the world. 

13. Create your own meaning

Part of the problem with the self-help industry is that it encourages the search for external solutions to internal problems.

We feel like we have to embark on a spiritual Easter egg hunt rather than do the deep work necessary to investigate our weird little minds.

Here’s the take-home point of this article:

There is no life purpose aside from the purpose you assign to it

Some of you may find this disheartening when it’s actually liberating. It’s all made up!

We’re the creators of our own worlds, with nothing holding us down or holding us back.

There’s no external force governing our interests or delight. You get to choose.

There is nothing to really find, only attention to assign.

So pick a pursuit and assign yourself to it. Purpose will emerge. 

Finding your why (shudder)

Yes, this is for those who like the short and sweet version and can’t be bothered to read my preliminary rambles for context.

Implement the following steps, although your mileage may vary.

  • Write down all the things you’re interested in
  • Write down all the things you’re good at
  • (Optional – if you want to make it financially viable, which can be dangerous, write down things that could provide income)
  • Create a sexy Venn diagram of the two and see what’s in the middle
  • Pick one of those things and do it
  • Keep doing it repeatedly, for longer than you think you need to, even if it’s uncomfortable
  • Doesn’t feel right? To spice things up for some extra experimentation, try out another idea
  • There is no life purpose apart from that which we assign it. Pick something and commit to making it your purpose. 
true calling man

Is this the most boring, obvious list of instructions? Probably.

But then again, the best advice is often the most simple, despite reams of self-help books on the subject.

Just getting started and taking action blows information gathering out of the water.

Linked to this is our culture of instant gratification and the expectation that we deserve good things and we deserve them now.  

Perhaps I just haven’t found my one true calling yet. Who knows?

If I do, I’m going to have to come back and re-edit this little stream of consciousness 🙂


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