Purpose of our life can be more tangible when thinking about the goals of our life. Many people confuse purpose and goals: you can think of purpose or mission as a direction. Goals are then actual points lying in the direction of the purpose.
Which goals one can achieve in life to fulfill the purpose really depends on predispositions. No single person is capable of guaranteeing our sustainable survival, we all have to contribute our bit. You can choose from many meaningful goals based on your circumstances. For example, if you are a politician, your goal can be setting sustainable long-term policies. If you are a scientist, you can choose to research more efficient use of resources. If you are a teacher, you can educate children about sustainability. If you are a manager, you can make your department carbon neutral. If you are a parent, you can send children to scout so that they learn essential survival skills.
Start with the end
Similarly, like an expedition or a project, our life has a beginning and an end. Whether we think about the target of an expedition or goal of a project, we always first envision the goal and then plan the optimal way that leads to it. Even though expeditions and projects without a clear goal can sometimes bring unexpected results, they are very risky and mostly fail. On the contrary, expeditions and projects with a clear goal are typically much more successful and rewarding. Applying this analogy, a powerful way of determining purpose of life used by many psychologists1 is by envisioning the end…
For the following exercise, find at least an hour of time at a calm place free of distractions. Prepare to go through some painful thinking, but the results will be well worth that investment.
To get started, close your eyes and imagine the time flying by until you are very old. Imagine yourself lying on your deathbed knowing that this is the end of your days. Think about the life you have lived before reading this article. Did you use the time of your youth wisely or was there lots of waste? Do you regret something? Do you wish you had been doing something differently?
Now think about the years to come after reading this article? How would you like them to be? What would you have to do to make you feel proud of yourself, to make your dying easier knowing that you have spent your life well, that you have lived with purpose? Imagine the full past life that really makes you happy both for what you did and what you leave behind.
Don’t hurry to read on, just think about it for a while.
Now, when your final day has passed and it is your funeral, imagine a very close person – best friend, child or a spouse – giving the eulogy memorial speech about you. What would you like them to say?
If you took enough time to think about and answer these questions then you are probably closer to knowing the target, the goal, the desired end state of your life that would make you satisfied. -- Maybe you wanted to be a recognized doctor who saved many lives? Perhaps you wanted to be a caring parent who brought up children that love you and prosper in their lives? Everyone is unique and thus everyone will desire to achieve something else.-->
But even if you don’t have any specific achievements in mind you might think at least roughly about some of the personality traits and values that you want people to value about you. These values will guide you in the right direction towards your purpose. When you once figure out where exactly you want to get, you will be at least closer.
Similarly, it might be a good idea to set a goal even if you know you will most likely never accomplish that exact goal, because going towards that goal can at least bring you closer. If you figure out what the purpose of you life is in ten years from now, you will at least have walked in the right direction. For example, a biologist may see own purpose of life in helping the mankind overcome illnesses. She does not know how exactly to do it, but she sets goal to shorten the period antibiotics need to take effect. Even if she never actually reaches the goal, she is at least spending time on meaningful research and as a side effect she identifies what food inhibits the effect of antibiotics. She might not have reached her exact goal so far, but she is still content about life, because she has lived with a purpose and actually helped mankind with overcoming illnesses.
Knowing the goal of your life will provide you with guidance to accomplishing it. It will increase the chance that you will feel good about yourself on the deathbed instead of regretting and wanting to turn back time.
- For example S. Covey: 7 habits of highly efficient people ↩