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.
What else you do in life would matter if human was about to go extinct?
- More on the difference between purpose and goal ↩
As we observe any living organisms, primitive or complex, plants or animals, we find out that ultimately they all share the same fundamental goal, the same underlying reason for most of their activity: to survive and replicate.
All that lives wants to survive in the first place. Whether it is protecting itself, getting nutrition or space for living, it strives to survive. Even though not all the activities of living organisms are because of survival, organisms quickly drop other activities should survival be threatened. The long years of evolution from individuals who wanted to survive are encoded deep in us and our instincts. Some other organisms might have evolved in the past that had different purpose of life, but pure logic reveals that if survival was not their top priority in life, they died when times were tough and went extinct. We all are descendants of living organisms that lived to survive and our purpose of life is no different.
By definition, everything that lives is also mortal and therefore all the living organisms try to reproduce in order to maintain new “copies” of self after own death. To promote adaptability that enhances survival, nature evolved to mix the genes of two parents and introduce a bit of random changes so we are not the exact copy of our parents, but we are very similar. It is rational that survival without reproduction makes little sense because any organism behaving in this way would soon become extinct. Not trying to survive and reproduce is simply not an evolutionary stable strategy and the reason we are now here is because all our ancestors struggled to and managed to both survive and reproduce.
All that lives tries to survive and reproduce, even though the weight of these two factors naturally changes during one’s lifespan. In a life-threatening situation a youngster will fight for own survival with the greatest strength. On the other hand, an older adult may even choose to sacrifice himself in order to protect own children. This is reasonable, because youngsters are those who have the responsibility to survive and maintain the species, whereas elders already fulfilled their purpose by having their children. Having children that do not survive equals having no children at all. Therefore it is natural for elders to put the survival of their offspring ahead of their own.
The more sophisticated organisms (such as higher animals) not only survive and reproduce, but also protect their offspring so that it can reproduce and the perpetuity of their life is maintained. We all want to make a difference, leave a legacy, but what would that be good for if there were no next generations to appreciate it? If our children could not survive, our survival and reproduction would make no difference and thus our life would make no difference – it would be meaningless. Only if our children1 can survive, our own life has purpose.
As our life is meaningless if survival of our children is not ensured, so is survival of our children meaningless if their children die. Our life is therefore meaningless if we cannot ensure the sustainability of mankind2.
Amongst living organisms, only people have the powerful ability of abstraction and thus can extend the concern about survival of descendants beyond own lifespan and plan ahead to ensure sustainability, yet our civilization is currently acting exactly in the opposite direction and threatens our own survival. Long-term sustainability is the most important, yet underestimated element of survival, that we should focus on.
Darwin and his followers discovered that at the beginning there was a genome that wanted to survive and it started building increasingly sophisticated shells around itself that would help the survival. This certainly holds true for simpler organisms that have no other way of passing information than through genes. More complex animals not only pass on their genes, but also teach their children. We humans have the unique power to form physical and abstract creations that live beyond our lifespan and therefore pass on non-genetic information, known as memes. Just remember Cheops (Khufu), the pharaoh whose fame survived for millennia thanks to his creation of the Great Pyramid of Giza. Or think of Plato who left behind ideas that survived until today. Even though these men physically died thousands of years ago, their thinking is what characterized them more than their body. Our physical body (the hardware) is represented in our genes and survives by having children. Our thoughts (the software) are captured as memes and survive for example by teaching others or by writing a book.
The very basic instincts fight for our own survival at every moment. In the mid-term, we also quite naturally build family and have children, to keep our bloodline alive and we pass on our culture and ideas. In the long-term, we should care for the sustainability of mankind, its culture and knowledge. That is the pure, natural purpose of our life. The short and mid-term components are easy for us, because they are embedded in our instincts. However we need to use our brain to realize what is really important in the long run and ensure our sustainability.
- By our children I mean broadly the next generation of humans, not necessarily our own genetic descendants, because all of us humans share about 99.9% of DNA in common, whether tall or short, black or white. Your child will have 50% of your genes and 50% of your spouse genes. Similarly, your grandchildren will have 25% of your genes. Grand-grand children only 12.5%. In just a couple of generations the proportion of your genes in your descendants will be just marginal and it is likely that there will be other “stranger” with a gene-set more similar to yours than your direct descendants. In the long term, by having own children you only marginally increase the frequency of your genes in the gene-pool. For that reason a life can naturally have perfect meaning even without having own children – as long help the next generations to survive. ↩
- We can assume it is reasonable to limit our long-term thinking to millions of years into the future in order not to enter discussions whether anything makes sense at all should the universe once collapse. In fact, we still need to gain better understanding of universe to really justify such theories. ↩
Unfortunately many people realize that something went wrong way too late. Take John for example. He was a smart kid and studied well. Right after graduation he found a sales job and started to earn decent salary. He could then easily get a mortgage to buy his own apartment. He was popular with girls but after a few years of wild parties he settled down, got married and had a son. He has been good at work and eventually got promoted to head the department. Except for his recent divorce he always thought he has been successful in life. Does this sound familiar?
Now all of a sudden, at the age of 56, John has been diagnosed with an advanced-stage cancer. It might have been caused by his smoking, stress at work or simply bad luck. Realizing he might have just a couple of months left finally makes John think seriously about what he wants from life. Only now when he is left all alone he realizes how important family is for him and he feels ashamed for the affair that brought him couple nights of pleasure in exchange for ruined relationship with his wife. He now regrets missing his son’s concerts because of work. But what work, was all that pushing products to people who did not really need them something that could make him proud of himself? He always wanted to travel around the world but it was impossible with all the commitments. Why on Earth did he take the mortgage right after school in the first place? Wait, and why did he study commerce just because most of his classmates did. Didn’t he actually want to be a scientist? He now wonders why he never talked seriously about the purpose of life with his buddies when they spent those hundreds of hours together and could name each other’s top ten favorite football players by heart…
Now, could not John have been some of your close friends in the future?
Couldn’t he have been you?
Do you want to take this wake up call or rather wait for a deadly illness to make you think?
Unfortunately, we can’t turn back time1 and we can’t just push restart and start afresh. We are in a one way-street so we had better think how we want to live our live before we actually live it.
Thinking about the purpose of life is painful. It makes us uncomfortable and therefore is often avoided. A big mistake is to postpone thinking about the purpose of life for later, believing that we still have lots of time to figure it out. We are all mortal and our time for life is quite limited. If you ask the elders, they will always say that the time goes by quickly and you don’t even realize before you become old. Time we have indeed is very limited, especially given the infinite amount of options for spending it. Some new possibilities appear for us only later in life with increasing wealth and experience, but more options vanish as you become older, because of the limitations of your body, your previous commitments and less time left. In other words you can accomplish more if you start working towards it now rather than 10 years later.
Whatever stage of life you are at, you would be foolish to waste more time doing something that might make no sense in the end. Rather you can be better off when you invest some time into figuring out your purpose of life. Even if you are still young and lack the experience to make a perfect decision, choosing a rough direction will be better for you in the end than having no direction at all. When you start moving in the right direction your goal will be closer and easier to spot. You may always fine-tune your bearings but at least you don’t waste time going left if you actually want to go right.
- Traveling back in time will never be possible, because if it was about to become possible many people would surely already have came back to benefit from their knowledge of the future. Either it is not possible because of the laws of physics or our civilization will get destroyed before we figure out the technology. Either way, you can forget about traveling back in time. ↩
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 ↩