Knowing your purpose of life is essential, but makes no difference without knowing how to live practically according to the purpose.
Sustainable survival may sound quite abstract, hard to grasp. How can you translate the higher purpose of life into something actionable to live with?
Firstly, identify your life goals stemming from your purpose.
Then make a plan to fulfill your goals and purpose.
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Whatever your goals are, now the question is what should you do to get there?
Backtrack to find the next steps
Like in a project or an expedition, it is best to start planning backwards from the end1. Even if you don’t know what first step to take, you can often identify a sequence of last steps you need to take to get to the final state. You can thus set milestone that is closer to the origin and therefore the way to reach it is easier to spot. If not, you work your way back from the milestone through other milestones all the way to the origin. The next steps and the path to take are then very well defined.
For example, if the target of an expedition is to see eclipse of the Sun from summit of a high peak, what should you do now in order to get there on time? First, you can easily determine when you need to be in the base camp in order to be ready for the final ascend on time. You may add some buffer in case of bad weather. Now you can derive when you should start going up the mountain. By knowing this, you can finally determine when you should leave home. You may also backtrack a bit and answer what you need to prepare now to be ready to set off at the given date. This way you know what to do now in order to achieve your goal later.
Similarly, when sustainability is the purpose of your life then for example minimizing waste of resources can be your goal. Specifically, you would like to be remembered as the person who basically eliminated PET bottles from your community. To achieve that on a large scale, it will help you to first set the precedent in one place. So you choose to start eliminating PET bottles in your company. You figure out that if people are asked to stop buying bottled water, an alternative must first exist and it should be more convenient than PET bottles. So you first decide to convince management to install drinking fountains and remove bottled water vending machines. In order to convince management, you first decide to make a poll amongst employees to show they care that their employer acts responsible to the environment and that they would like to have such example in recruiting presentations to attract new talent. By backtracking you formulated a concrete action plan that you can start working on right now and it will eventually lead you towards the broad goal and the purpose of your life. You will live a meaningful, fulfilling life and you can answer with confidence when somebody asks you why you do what you do.
Life is unpredictable so even perfect plans may fail, but if you know what you are really after, you can focus on it and greatly increase the chance that it will come true. Remember Christopher Columbus who actually failed to achieve his goal of discovering faster way to India, but achieved something even more important, because he set himself on the right path. Lying on you deathbed, you will be happy knowing that you did all to make your dream come true and most likely it also worked out.
Derive principles and values form your goals
On top of next steps and actions, from your goals you can also derive universal principles that guide your behavior. In the previous example, you might decide to always carry a water bottle to avoid the need for PET bottles. You could also set a principle to turn off all lights and electronics whenever you leave home.
Sometimes a goal does not have any particular steps that precede it or the exact steps are hard to identify. Then setting principles and values will help you maximize the chance of achieving it. For example, if your goal is to have everyone remember you as a just man of honor, you can set a principle never to lie to anybody and always keep your word. You can set your own values and principles of conduct that will help you achieve your specific life goal better than the general set of principles offered by the society.
Even if a way towards achieving the purpose of your life seems hazy and you cannot clearly see in ahead of you, values and principles that are in line with your purpose will provide your moral compass to set you in the right direction.
- This is also similar to method known as dynamic programming in optimization ↩
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 ↩
Many people have various goals in life that they call “purpose”, but purpose is higher level than goals.
Goals are specific attainable objectives, often time bound.
Purpose or mission is broader and deeper1, it lasts without an end.
Goal is a place that we want to reach, purpose is the direction we want to go.
Goals are what we do, purpose is why we do it.
Leading a successful company, winning an Nobel Price, building a family all are goals in life, but not really the purpose. Goals stem from a purpose. Living for God can be purpose for a religious person, sustainable survival can be a purpose for a rational person.
If you ask rational people what their purpose of life is, those who have an answer at all will often speak of family, of making positive contribution to the world and to other people. Some take the very naturalistic view of spreading of our genes as the ultimate purpose of our existence. But if we go a level higher in abstraction, to identify the underlying purpose of many of their goals, we can find surprising consistency in the many of these rational theories… they ultimately aim towards sustainable survival.
- More on the difference between purpose and goal ↩
Children ask why all the time to understand the world. Adults ask why far less often, partly because we already know a lot, but partly because we suppose we should already know a lot. Asking “why” might sound silly. But we have a lot to learn from the purity of children, especially because some questions we can only answer when we gain the adult perspective on life.
If someone asks you why you are doing any particular action, you can usually give a reason. You are making a call because you want to arrange a work meeting. You are taking on running shoes because you go to do sport. There are clear short-term reasons behind immediate actions. Most likely you will be able to explain why you are doing most of the regular activities that occupy most of your time. You work to earn money and recognition, you do sports to keep fit and have fun. You clearly have some mid-term goals.
Now connect the dots. You are making a call to arrange a work meeting to earn money and recognition. You take on the running shoes to do sport in order to keep fit and have fun. To succeed, we choose appropriate short-term actions to achieve our mid-term goals. In the same fashion, the mid-term goals should be based on our long-term goals and those are derived from our purpose of life. But in case we don’t know our purpose of life, we can hardly choose the right goals and subsequently the correct actions. Without clear direction, we waste energy going back and forth but don’t arrive anywhere. Without a purpose we lack focus and get bogged down in unimportant activities. We then struggle to find out why the joys from fulfilling our goals still do not make us feel entirely happy about our life. Living without a meaning indeed is quite meaningless.
Purpose makes life so much easier. Knowing purpose helps you prioritize. Having purpose keeps you alive when times are tough1. Achieving purpose makes you happy. As Nietzsche said, “He who has a why to live for can bare almost any how”.
- For example Viktor Frankl in his famous book Man’s Search for Meaning points out that jews who had some purpose in life were much more likely to survive concentration camps than those without a purpose ↩