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Do You Have a Pre-Encoded Purpose?
Many books I’ve read seem to assume that we’re either genetically or divinely encoded with some sort of built-in purpose, and all we need to do is take the time to discover it through private introspection. You just sit down one day and write a mission statement and trust that what comes out of you will be the guiding force for the rest of your life. Perhaps every 6-12 months you update it.
Personally I think that’s nonsense. I see no evidence that there’s any pre-encoded purpose in any of us. You may have experienced strong social conditioning towards a particular purpose, such as if you’re born a prince or princess, and certainly your DNA will control some aspects of your life, but that isn’t sufficient evidence of any sort of divine will at work. I think in most cases you’ll just end up with a wishy-washy mission statement that doesn’t mean much.
If you begin with the assumption that you have a pre-encoded purpose and attempt to discover it merely by sitting down and writing a mission statement, I think you’ll end up building a house of straw for yourself. You won’t have a rational foundation for trusting your purpose. In most cases you’ll feel like you’re just guessing, and you might look back on your mission statement a week later and find that it’s not so interesting as you thought it was when you wrote it. You’ll always have doubts about what you’ve written.
When people try to sit down and write out a purpose or mission statement, they usually lack sufficient clarity to do so intelligently. How exactly are you supposed to define your purpose? Are you simply supposed to know it and squeeze it out of your brain like a sponge? What if you can imagine several different missions that might fit you, but you have no idea which is better? What if you can’t think of anything at all that seems meaningful to you? What then?
Just because you may not have a pre-encoded purpose doesn’t mean you don’t have a purpose though. It simply means that it will take more work to define your purpose. Your purpose isn’t really something you discover. It would be more accurate to say that your purpose is something you co-create based on your relationship to reality. I wouldn’t exactly call it a free choice though. There may be multiple choices for you, but all choices are not equally valid.
What is needed is an intelligent method for developing your purpose, a process that makes sense, such that when you arrive at your final answer, you have high trust that it’s correct.
If you’re wondering why defining a purpose for your life matters at all, read this:
Why Does Purpose Matter?
How to Intelligently Define Your Purpose
I’m going to suggest two different methods for defining your purpose. Ideally you should use both of them, since each will help you understand different aspects of your purpose. This is going to be a lot of work, but the end result will be worth it because you’ll reach a point of tremendous clarity. In the end it will be far easier to make decisions and take action, and you’ll find that your life just seems to work once you know your purpose.
Method 1: Emotional Intelligence
The first method is to consult your emotional intelligence. Passion and purpose go hand in hand. When you discover your purpose, you will normally find it’s something you’re tremendously passionate about. Emotionally you will feel that it is correct.I’ve already written up this method here: How to Discover
How shall we live? What shall we live for, if anything? How we can decide right from wrong? Is there any reasonable way to answer these questions that doesn’t require us to fall back on blind faith?
Let’s Ask the Old Greeks About It
People have been striving to answer these questions literally for thousands of years. One who attempted it was Socrates (469-399 BC). One of his most powerful breakthroughs was the idea of scrutinizing one’s beliefs through a type of cross-examination which became known as the dialectic. This involved asking and answering probing questions in order to arrive at something that could be considered true. Essentially he played devil’s advocate and challenged people to justify what they claimed to know.
For example, there’s a story where Socrates met a young man who was going to court to charge his father with impiety. When Socrates learned of this, he acknowledged the man as a presumed expert in piety, stating that one must be an expert in piety in order to charge his own father with impiety. Then Socrates humbly asked the man to define piety for him, a concept of which Socrates claimed ignorance. The man repeatedly tried in vain to define it, with Socrates offering a simple and undeniable explanation why each answer offered couldn’t be valid. It’s easy to see that Socrates would ultimately piss off the establishment and get himself sentenced to death. He could have escaped, but he chose to stay in Athens and take the poison. Socrates had tremendous respect for the law, even when it meant sacrificing his life to remain true to his principles. As I read about his life, I couldn’t help but develop a tremendous respect for him and his philosophy of life.
Another philosopher who made a significant dent in the question of how to live was Aristotle (384-322 BC), who studied under Plato (Plato studied under Socrates). A young Aristotle expanded on Plato’s ideas regarding the nature of reality (the world of forms), but eventually Aristotle began moving in a new direction and tackled the problem of how one should live.
Aristotle’s best answer for how one should live was the concept of eudaimonia. Unfortunately this word has been tough to translate to English, so there are two favored translations I’m aware of. The first is “happiness,” and the second is “human flourishing.” Most other translations I’ve seen are variations on one of these. Personally I might translate this term as “fulfillment,” although that’s not perfectly accurate either. Eudaimonia is a process of living virtuously, not a fixed state of being. It’s not really an emotion like “happiness” suggests. Aristotle came up with this answer because he found that eudaimonia was the only potential goal of life that could be considered an end in itself rather than a means to another end. I think this is the reason that happiness is perhaps the most popular translation because happiness is an end in itself, not a means to anything else.
Aristotle was interested in finding a right way to live, if such a thing could be said to exist. His answer of eudaimonia consists of two main components: virtuous action and contemplation. The main problem is that the means to discover the virtues was to look at people who seemed to be flourishing and living virtuously and take note of how they lived. As it turned out, such people would usually behave with some degree of integrity, honor, courage, honesty, rationality, fairness, etc. This is not merely an internal observation that one assesses in oneself — such values can be witnessed from the outside in, so Aristotle makes some progress here in attempting to create a semi-objective standard for right living. Like Socrates, Aristotle was also sentenced to death, but he chose to flee Athens and live in exile. (I tell you I’m immensely grateful to live in a society where philosophizing doesn’t currently carry the death penalty.)
The main problem I see in Aristotle’s insightful attempt to answer this question is that his solution is somewhat circular. In order to live well, we need to live virtuously and spend time on self-reflection and study, but how do we know what criteria to use in selecting the virtues or in choosing what to study? We basically have to find people that seem to be living well and flourishing — or in Aristotle’s time, it was suggested that we might also strive to emulate the gods, since they certainly seemed to be doing well. This isn’t unlike certain religions today that provide a model of virtue to attempt to emulate. Aristotle doesn’t answer one key question though: What is the best life one could possibly live? Eudaimonia suggests a way to go about finding the answer to this question, but it still leaves some gaping holes.
After Aristotle many others addressed the question of how to live. Every religion has its own answer. Some people say there’s no answer, that the answer doesn’t matter, that the answer is impossible for us to know, or that the answer is purely a matter of personal choice. The worst answer of all though is what most people do — to ignore the question entirely.
Choosing Your Own Context
What should you live for? Wealth? Power? Service? Longevity? Reason? Love? Faith? Family? God? Virtue? Happiness? Fulfillment? Comfort? Contentment? Integrity? Take a look at this list of values. There are hundreds to choose from.
It is important to make a global choice about how to live our lives, since this decision sets the context for everything else we do. If you don’t choose your context, you get the default/average context, which means you’re essentially letting others dictate your context. To make a gross generalization, in the USA this is a largely commercial/materialist context. It says to get a job, have a family, save some money, and retire. Be a good citizen and don’t get into too much trouble. But don’t really matter either. Be a good cog. Other cultures have their own default contexts. Most people simply subscribe to the default context of their culture with minor individual variations.
Sticking to your culture’s default context is among the worst of your options. Let’s consider the simple cases of a democracy vs. a dictatorship. In a democracy no one is really in charge of the cultural context as a whole, so the most common contexts end up as a mish-mash of bits and pieces that lack overall congruency. This will generally lead to confusion and mediocrity. Such a society will only provide a very fuzzy notion of how you should live, like getting a job, having a family, staying out of trouble, and retiring quietly. Ask an American what it means to live the best possible life, and you’ll get a lot of different answers, and most of them will be fairly fuzzy and unfocused — the kinds of answers that Socrates would shoot full of holes.
Now if you happen to live under a culture where the context is consciously directed, then you have to worry about who’s directing it and what their motives are and whether or not you can trust them. Where you find a strong dictatorship, you’ll usually see a more focused context than in a democracy. If you were to have asked someone from Nazi Germany what it means to live the best possible life, I’d bet the answers would have been more homogeneous and focused. But the problem of course is that such contexts are often designed to keep the context maintainers in power. There’s more pressure to conform to such a context. In the long run this type of context will usually lead to disillusionment, numbness, or fanaticism.
So if you let society dictate your context (which is what will happen by default in the absence of conscious choice), you’ll most likely wind up with a very fuzzy and unfocused context or one that’s focused on the wrong spot. Not a great choice either way. Certainly not the optimal choice. Such a context won’t provide you with enough guidance for how to live properly. You’ll spend a lot of time guessing your way through life or making a lot of mistakes that come back to haunt you later.
Ultimately if you want to get closer to the “best possible life” for you, you have to pick your own context. You can’t merely inherit the default context of your society and live up to what others expect of you. If you try to conform, you’re going to waste your life compared to what you might have done with it if you chose a better context.
So how the heck are we supposed to figure out how to live? Do we simply guess and hope for the best? Is there any rational, sane way to make such a hefty decision?
I can’t make this decision for you, but I can explain how I made this decision for myself, ultimately providing me with an answer that I found very satisfying. I think part of my answer is personal, but I also see part of it as being universal to all of us.
Living the Virtues
After I reached adulthood and began seriously pondering the question of how to live, the first major stopping point was essentially where Aristotle left off. In my early and mid-20s, I spent a lot of time working on living virtuously. I saw living the best possible life as becoming a person of virtue: to live with honor, integrity, courage, compassion, etc. I listed out the virtues I wanted to attain and even set about inventing exercises to help myself develop them. Benjamin Franklin did something very similar, as I read in his autobiography, and each week he chose to focus on one particular virtue in order to develop his character.Oddly, there was a particular computer game I absolutely fell in love with during this time — Ultima IV. To date I would have to say it is still my favorite game of all time. In this role-playing game you are the Avatar, a seeker of
What is the meaning of life? Why are we here? Is there a God or isn’t there, and if there is a God, what is its nature? Of all the world’s religions, which one is the most correct? Is there an afterlife? Are we primarily physical beings or spiritual beings?
People have struggled for millennia to tackle these questions. Wars have been fought over them. But as much as these questions cause people to lose their heads (sometimes figuratively, sometimes literally), the bottom line is that these are very practical questions.
Behind the Wheel
The way we answer these questions will provide the ultimate context for everything else we do with our lives. If we place any value on our lives at all, we must give some consideration to these questions.
Let’s say you have your life organized around goals, projects, and actions. You set a goal like starting a new internet business. You break it down into projects like writing a business plan and launching your web site. And then you break those projects down into actions like going to the bank to open a business account and registering your domain name. Fair enough.
But why start the business in the first place? What’s the point? Why pick this goal vs. any other goal? Why even set goals at all?
What determines the goals you set (or don’t set) is your context. Your context is your collection of beliefs and values. So if the values of money and freedom are part of your context, you might be inclined to set a goal to start a new business. But with different kinds of values — a different context — you may be disinclined to set goals at all.
The most significant part of your context is your collection of beliefs about the nature of reality, which includes your religious, spiritual, and philosophical beliefs. Your overall beliefs about the universe will largely determine your results. Context dictates goals. Goals dictate projects. Projects dictate actions. Actions dictate results.
Within a certain context, it will be virtually impossible for you to achieve certain results because you’ll never set the required goals that will lead to those results.
Your context works like a filter. When you are inside a particular context, you lose access to the potential goals, projects, and actions that lie outside that context. For example, if your context includes the belief that criminal behavior is very bad, then you aren’t likely to work towards becoming a future leader in organized crime.
Walking in My Shoes
This is a long personal story, but I think you’ll find it interesting. If you take the time to read it, I want you to notice how my beliefs (my context) shifted over time and how dramatically they changed my results.
For half of my life, I’ve been searching for the context that would give me the best possible life. Of course, this is a strange pursuit because it requires searching for a context while at the same time always being stuck inside of one. In other words, the definition of “best possible life” is also part of any context, so I have to find a context that both defines that term AND provides a means to fulfill it.
This pursuit began almost accidentally for me, but eventually I began pursuing it consciously.
For the first half of my life, until the age of 17, I was Catholic/Christian, baptized and confirmed. I went through eight years of Catholic grammar school followed by four years of Catholic high school. I was a boy scout for several years and earned the Ad Altare Dei award. I prayed every day and accepted all that I was taught as true. I went to Church every Sunday with my family. All of my friends and family were Christian, so I knew nothing of other belief systems. My father was an altar boy when he was young, and his brother (my uncle) is a Catholic priest. One of my cousins is a member of Campus Crusade for Christ. In high school I went to optional religious retreats and did community service, both at a convalescent home and at a preschool for children with disabilities. I expected to be Catholic for life.
But near the end of my junior year of high school, I went through an experience that I’d have to describe as an awakening. It was as if a new part of my brain suddenly switched on, popping me into a higher state of awareness. Perhaps it was just a side effect of the maturation process. I began to openly question the beliefs that had been conditioned into me since childhood. Blind acceptance of what I was taught wasn’t enough for me anymore. I wanted to go behind the scenes, uproot any incongruencies, and see if these beliefs actually made sense to me. I started raising a lot of questions but found few people would honestly discuss them. Most simply dismissed me or became defensive. But I was intensely curious, not hostile about it. My family was closed to discussing the whole thing, but I did find a few open-minded teachers. My high school (Loyola High in Los Angeles) was a Jesuit school, and the Jesuits are very liberal as far as priests go.
I was disappointed though. What I found was that regardless of their education and their much greater life experience, very few of my friends and teachers ever bothered to question their beliefs openly. And that really gave me a huge shot of doubt. I thought, “If everyone is just accepting all of this blindly and no one is even questioning it, why should I believe it?” Over a period of months the doubt only grew stronger, and I transferred more of my faith from my Catholic upbringing to my own intelligence and senses. Eventually I just dropped the whole context entirely, and in the absence of any other viable contexts to choose from, I became an atheist.
I entered my senior year of Catholic high school as a 17-year old atheist. Oh, the irony. Initially I wasn’t sure what to expect, but soon I found the context of atheism to be incredibly empowering. Having shed all my old beliefs, I felt like my brain had gotten an intelligence upgrade. I could think so much more clearly, and my mind seemed to work much better. I also felt more in control of my life than ever before. Without a belief in God, I assumed total responsibility for my results in life. School was easier than ever for me, even though I was taking all the school’s most challenging classes, most of them AP courses. I was so good at calculus that my teacher actually gave me a special test, different from the rest of the class. And one time my AP physics teacher came to me before school to have me show him how to solve a difficult physics problem. I especially found math and science classes so easy that I began looking for new ways to challenge myself. So I’d try to do my entire homework assignment on a 1″ by 1″ square of paper, or I’d do it in crayon on the back of a cereal box cover, or I’d color in my polar graphs with colored pencil and turn it into artwork. People thought I was wacky, but I mainly did these things to keep it interesting because the problems themselves posed no challenge. You haven’t really lived until you’ve done calculus in crayon.
I made no secret of the fact that I was an atheist, so when taking religion classes, I’d regurgitate all the raw data needed to ace a test, but whenever there were open-ended essay questions, I’d address them from an atheistic perspective. I’m grateful the Jesuits were as liberal as they were and tolerated my behavior. I have to give them a lot of credit for that.
My family was not happy about all this, especially when my subscription to American Atheist magazine started coming in the mail (I got good at intercepting the mail early). But I was doing so well in school that it was hard for them to complain, and they didn’t want to openly address any of my questions, even though I’d have been happy to do so. They did force me to keep going to church though, which I tolerated for a while because I knew I’d be moving out in a year anyway. But eventually I started sitting in a different part of the church and would sneak out the back and go for a walk and return just before it ended. But one time the mass ended earlier than expected, and I got back too late. My family was already at the car and saw me walking down the street. Whoops! They drove off without me. But instead of walking the two miles home, I stayed out the entire day and didn’t return until midnight. Aside from weddings and funerals, that was the last time I ever went to church.
Despite these conflicts, my senior year in high school was by far my best ever. I aced all my classes and was accepted into six colleges as a computer science major: Cal Tech, UCLA (partial scholarship), UC San Diego (full scholarship), UC Berkeley, Carnegie Mellon, and Harvey Mudd.
I opted to go to UC Berkeley because at the time, its computer science program was the highest rated in the country. I was very happy to move out and finally be on my own. In the fall of 1989 I moved to Berkeley and lived in the freshman dorms.
Then things got weird.
While at Berkeley my atheism context was further molded. No longer surrounded by Catholics, I met a lot of interesting people there with a wide variety of belief systems. I quickly made a lot of new friends who were very intelligent, and some were open to discussing the nature of reality. I think my Catholic upbringing was like a coiled spring — as soon as I left behind the environment that kept the spring coiled, I immediately shot to the other end of the spectrum. But I went way too far with it. I not only shed my old religious beliefs, but along with it went my whole concept of morality. I was like the guy in Mark Twain’s short story “The Facts Concerning the Recent Carnival of Crime in Connecticut,” a story about a guy who kills his conscience.
I started embracing all the stuff that was basically the opposite of my upbringing. I completely lost all interest in school and hardly ever went to class. I really didn’t care at all about getting my degree. I went to parties almost every week and drank a lot, one time doing about 14 drinks in a row and waking up with no memory of how I got to bed. I had to ask friends to piece together pieces of the previous night. To this day I’m certain I drank more alcohol before the age of 21 than after (and I’m 34 now).I also started shoplifting — a lot. The first time
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