“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation… A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work. But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.” Henry David Thoreau (1)
Are you leading a life of “quiet desperation?” The phrase aptly captures the often uninspired experience of life in the developed pockets of the world. We don’t suffer from outright despair; our survival, barring illness and old age, is not in question. Instead, we passively accept the life handed to us by convention and its exceeding mediocrity subtly haunts us. Not only do we fail to heed the deep yearnings of our souls, we suppress them so thoroughly we are no longer aware of them. To find your purpose is to uncover a personal mission that uses that which is most uniquely powerful, motivated and moral in you for the service of others. It is to honor your particular strengths, to unapologetically pursue what you love and to demand a higher standard of yourself. Committing to continuously uncovering your purpose is the most important thing you will ever do.
Why do we fall into the trap of “quiet desperation?”
We are trained from a very young age to live uncreatively according to convention. This life path is so pervasive, we’re not even aware of another way. From the time we’re five or six, we head off to school, the first of many “offices,” where, by and large, we sit quietly all day doing work that we find neither particularly meaningful nor the best use of our talent. Our elders offer advice about what will get us into the best colleges, result in the highest paying job and ensure our retirement accounts are sufficiently padded sixty years down the line. Such advice is of course well-meaning, but is the equivalent of playing not to lose in life. Are the “best” universities and jobs the right ones for us, or are they just not the wrong ones? Those who play not to lose grow up and ask, “is this all there is?”
Occasionally we find those rare mentors who wisely encourage us to play to win. These counselors know they cannot protect us from making mistakes, but trust us to be able to handle them and to strengthen ourselves when we do. They embolden us to pursue burning passions and to develop the talents that beat strongest within us. Rather than tell us what to do or how to live, they ask us these powerful questions: “What will you do? How will you live?” These teachers call us to uncover our purpose.
However, even when we want to heed this call to purpose, we are often unsure of how to do it. The risks – financial, personal and professional – seem too great and anyhow we have trouble envisioning a compelling personal mission. But, finding a purpose is not luck. It is a process, a series of questions we must continuously ask ourselves. As we refine our answers over the course of our lives, we become ever more fully ourselves and step from the shadow of the one-size-fits-all approach.
What do we want from life?
The first step is to understand what we want from life. Although the answer is unique for each of us, there is a general answer underlying our responses, a common canvas and palette awaiting our brush strokes. At the most basic level, we all want:
- To be happy. Also described as “fulfillment,” “life satisfaction” or “feeling good.” A happy life is built with experiences of pleasant mood, meaning and engagement.
- To have an impact. People sometimes call this “success” or “making the world a better place.” When one asks “Do I matter?” he is asking whether he affects the world in a meaningful way. A simple way of thinking about impact is “helping others.” While “helping others” is typically associated with non-profit work, we can view all work through the lens of service. On a long enough time scale, products, services and roles must be valuable to someone or they will not last. It should be noted that the rewards associated with impact (compensation, recognition, etc) are only worthwhile in so far as they lead to our happiness or service to others (such as providing for our family).
Your Personal Purpose
The purpose process, then, is a series of questions you ask yourselves throughout your life. Day by day, you affirm your worthiness to lead a happy life and your ability to make a positive impact on the world. You endeavor to discover what is most powerful, most motivated and most moral in you and seek to use that to serve the needs of others.
When you are on the path of purpose, you continuously ask:
- What are my strengths? When you can honestly assess your talents, you can harness that which is most powerful in you in the service of your purpose.
- What are my passions? When you really know what you love, you can focus on those activities that are intrinsically motivating, freeing a psychological energy within you that will lead not to burnout, but ever increasing excitement for your work.
- What are my values? When you’ve carefully reflected on the type of person you hope to become by thinking through your moral standard or guidelines for life, you can call on that standard in times of decision and thereby continuously live into your vision of your ideal self.
The intersection of these three elements is the very best of you. It is also equivalent to the three elements of happiness since (i) pleasant mood comes from your passions, (ii) engagement or flow comes from using your strengths against a comparable challenge and (iii) experiences of meaning must necessarily be aligned with your values.
- How can I be of service? By viewing the world with eyes wide open and asking how you can apply what is best in you to the needs of others, you have a bigger impact than you would if you brought something less than that to the table.
A Necessary Part of A Full Life
“In examining self-actualizing people directly, I find that in all cases…they are dedicated people, devoted to some task ‘outside themselves,’ some vocation or duty, or beloved job. Generally the devotion and dedication is so marked that one can fairly use the old words vocation, calling, or mission to describe their passionate, selfless, and profound feelings for their work. We could even use the words destiny or fate.” Abraham Maslow (2)
Finding your purpose is more than just a way to get what you want from life. Just as navigation is an essential element of exploring the open seas, purpose is a necessary part of a living life fully. The alternative is to labor at something less than your best, to relegate the things you care about to nights and weekends, and to resign yourself to the doldrums of “pretty good” or worse. Purpose is a triumphant embrace of the one life we get. It is a declaration that we matter, other people matter and that we all deserve happiness.
Abraham Maslow, a psychologist who studied individuals who achieved optimal psychological health, saw that those of us who really embrace life and live it in its beauty and fullness put ourselves through a process of understanding what we do best, what we love, how we think the world should be and who we can help. You don’t have to figure out your purpose by tomorrow and the answer will continue to evolve throughout your life, but it’s time to start asking the question: what is your purpose? Let’s listen to quiet voices of the wise counselors who call us to discover the meaning of life rather than those who try to tell us what it is. Let’s play to win, rather than not to lose.
(1) Henry David Thoreau, Walden
(2) Abraham Maslow, The Farther Reaches of Human Nature