Western culture is obsessed with purpose. With meaning. With some intangible idea called ‘success’. We don’t just live. We can’t just be. Everything we do has to mean something. Life has to mean something.
People search for meaning everywhere. Religion. Philosophy. Buddhism. Fortune tellers. Mysticism. Even power, money, or fame. They travel the world, they self-actualize, they change careers, they connect with their inner selves, they go to meditation retreats, they start a quest for enlightenment.
Why am I here? They ask.
Why do I exist? What am I meant to do?
‘The Purpose Driven Life’ has sold 60 million copies, making it one of the best-selling non-fiction books of all time.
But it’s all smoke and mirrors.
What people really want to know is: How can I be happy?
Our modern culture has come to associate happiness with purpose. If you are living without a purpose, then you have no reason to exist. You don’t matter. And people who don’t matter are unhappy.
Well, I have news for you. There are hundreds of millions of happy people on this planet who get up every morning without wondering why they are here. They live simple lives. They have jobs to go to, chores to take care of, families to feed and care for, friends and neighbours to chat with.
And it’s enough. They exist. They live, they die. They are happy.
Why? Because they don’t have a reason not to be.
The problem is, the rest of us have more than we need. More time, more money, more energy. And we need something to do with all this excess time, money, and energy. Something that makes us feel good. Something that makes us happy.
So we start searching for a purpose.
Maybe having a purpose will make you happy, maybe it won’t. But what happens when you fail at your purpose? You decide you were wrong and start searching again. You find another purpose and fail at that too.
You fail because you are relying on the universe to make things happen. If you are meant to do something, then it has to work out, right? You don’t need to put in the effort, you don’t need to make it happen. The universe will take care of that.
Let me tell you a story.
At the age of 19 I had life figured out. I knew the answer to that all-important but mystifying question: what is your purpose in life?
Mine was to write novels.
I was 19. I knew everything.
I had talent, vision, great story ideas, and important things to say. I was going to embed my valuable knowledge into novels that hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions, of people would read!
I knew it in my heart and my soul. Writing novels was what I was put on this earth to do. The revelation came to me suddenly, shortly after I got my first great idea for a novel. But I never questioned, never looked back. For the next 5 years, I never stopped to reconsider. I just knew.
I was 19. I knew everything.
I was wrong.
If you’ve read my bio or you know anything about me, then you’re probably thinking ‘hold on a minute. You’ve written a novel and you are trying to publish and make it as a writer. Doesn’t that mean you still believe it’s your purpose?’
That is a very reasonable question, but the answer is no. Let me explain.
I had my purpose. All I needed was a novel, and the universe (God, if you like) would take care of the rest. So I wrote a novel.
At least, I almost wrote a novel. About halfway through I started to realize that it wasn’t very good. The idea was great, the characters were interesting, but the plot was full of holes and the writing was…amateurish.
Well, what a shock! I was 19. I’d never taken a course in creative writing, never read a book on creative writing, never even spent time thinking about creative writing. I’d written a couple of half-decent short stories in high school. That was it. Basically I’d read a lot of novels, so I thought I knew what I was doing.
But my novel wasn’t going to be a bestseller and I knew it. When I looked at a bestseller and then looked at my novel, the difference was clear.
So I started over.
It didn’t occur to me to finish the story and edit later. It didn’t occur to me that first books are almost never bestsellers (in fact, neither are second books, or fifth books, or twenty-third books), so maybe I should aim a bit lower.
I was 19. I knew everything.
I rewrote the book from the beginning, with a completely different style. This time I put a lot more effort into it. I kept a thesaurus next to me. I agonized over every word choice, thought through the plot details, studied the novels of my favourite writers to see how they created atmosphere and suspense. I researched every little detail so I could be very specific in my descriptions and word choices. I even started to read books about writing.
My pace slowed from several pages an hour to less than one page a day. But the results were infinitely better.
I got about 50 pages in and realized that this writing thing could take a long time. In the meantime I had no career, no income. I hadn’t even begun to think about how I might get the book published when it was finished. I assumed I would submit to a few big publishers, one would accept and that would be that.
I took a college course to be an electronics technician. It was a two year course, with the expectation of specializing in the second year. I found it easy. A bit of homework, but nothing too time consuming or challenging. There was plenty of time to work on my novel. Or at least there should have been.
But I was 19 and I had a purpose. I had a destiny.
I hadn’t led a privileged life, but I knew nothing of real struggle.
So days went by. Weeks. Months. I did no work on my book. None at all. I had a life. I went out with friends, I watched movies, I went to church, I went to the gym. I went to youth activities. I lived.
Why not? I was 19.
I was getting exceptional grades in my electronics course. Top of my class.
Then I hit a snag.
I wanted to specialize in avionics. There was good money in it, and it sounded exciting and challenging. The problem was, my college didn’t offer that specialization. It was offered by another, rival college, and they had some kind of feud going on.
The other college refused to take me, even though I was top of my class. They said the curriculum from my first year was unacceptable. I would have to retake my first year with them. I talked to the dean of my college, but he said he couldn’t do anything.
So I quit. Why not? I was 19 and I had a purpose.
I did a number of mundane jobs that I hated, barely scraping by at minimum wage or less. I still had a life. I was still happy, for the most part. I still did no work on my book.
After quitting the jobs I hated and being laid off from the ones I liked, I finally got fed up with my lack of progress and went to live with my parents so I could get back to work on my book.
Time went by.
A lot of time. Way too much time. Years.
My philosophy on life changed. I started to rethink all my beliefs, decided they were wrong. I quit religion. And suddenly I had a serious crisis on my hands.
You see, I had carefully designed my book to deliver a religious message. And now I didn’t believe the message. And now I was even questioning my purpose.
What a mess.
I floundered. I struggled. I kept working on the book, trying to find a way forward with a new and different message. Very, very slowly. Years went by.
Then one day it was done.
I lent it out to friends and family and they loved it.
I put the finishing touches on, agonized for days trying to craft a good query letter, and finally started sending my query letter off to agents.
And then…rejection. Rejection. More rejection. No one was interested. No one even requested a sample.
I slaved over my query letter, rewriting and rewriting and rewriting. I sent out several different versions to different agents.
No agent or publisher ever read a single page of the book that I had spent years writing, that I had considered as the purpose of my existence. Not one.
Everyone was looking for high concept or genre fiction, and I’d written a complex book that didn’t quite fit into any genre and could not be easily described in a 2-paragraph query letter. Not an ideal first book.
I was in crisis mode again.
I didn’t give up. But I was finally beginning to truly realize that the universe was not going to help me out. My book was not going to be a hot property that every agent and publisher salivated over and tried to outbid each other to get their hands on. It was probably going to take years to get published, and when it did it might not make a lot of money at it.
If I wanted to make it as a novelist, I needed to write more books, preferably simpler books that would be easier to pitch. And unless I was willing to keep working mundane, minimum wage jobs for many more years, I needed a career.
I was almost 30 years old and just starting to think about a career.
And I’d gotten myself into that situation by believing in purpose.
After that I got my act together. I started two more novels, and this time I wrote mock query letters before I even started, to make sure they were easy enough to pitch. And I applied to colleges.
I got my BSc in biology. I loved it. I had to put my writing on hold again, but this time it was because I genuinely didn’t have time for it. And I didn’t have any guilt about it because I no longer felt like I was procrastinating on fulfilling my purpose.
I was finally taking charge of my life. I was doing what I wanted to do just because I wanted to do it. Sure, I had other reasons, thoughts of doing some good in the world. But nothing about purpose. I left my purpose behind and finally moved forward with my life.
It was liberating.
I made new friends, I went traveling the world, I met a woman from another country and married her. I had children. I completed an MSc in marine biology.
And now here I am. Back doing this writing thing. But this time with a plan. I’m trying to become a writer because it’s what I want. The universe is not helping me out. I’m responsible for my own success or failure. So I’m finding the time, I’m putting in the work, and I’m moving forward.
It’s liberating. It’s exhilarating. It’s exhausting. It’s fun. It’s rewarding. It’s awesome.
Because I’m in the driver’s seat, making my own decisions and steering my own course.
I don’t have control over everything. I accepted that long ago. But I do have responsibility. And that I gladly accept.
I have a beautiful and loving family. I’m moving forward in two interesting careers, and I know that I will be successful in at least one of them. I take meaning in the time spent with family and friends, the time spent doing what I love, and in just living day to day. I’m living the life I want, not the one I’m meant to.
So here’s my advice.
Stop making excuses.
Stop relying on the universe.
Stop looking for your purpose.
You don’t need one. Take responsibility. Forget about what you’re meant to do. Figure out what you want to do and do it.
I know it’s cliché, but we only get one life. Don’t waste it searching for your purpose. You can live a perfectly happy and meaningful life without one.
Happiness is not a mythical pot of gold that’s given as a reward for discovering your purpose in life. Happiness is something you create for yourself by learning to appreciate what you have and take pleasure in the moment. You won’t find happiness by dwelling on what ifs and if onlys, or by living in the dreamland of the future. And you won’t find it by searching for purpose.
Take control of your life. You don’t have a destiny. Choose a goal and pour your heart into it. Learn everything you can about it and put in the hard work and determination to make it happen.
Don’t give up and blame your failure on the universe. Forget about purpose.
Not because you were meant to.
Act because you want to. Act because it makes you happy. Act because it makes others happy. Act because it’s the right thing to do.
Get religion if you think it’ll improve your life. Study philosophy. Become a Buddhist. Go to a meditation retreat. Travel the world. Visit a fortune teller. Change your career.
But don’t do it to find a purpose. Do it because you want to.
Be who you want to be. Live and be happy.
This is an expanded version of an article I posted on Steemit.com, titled ‘You don’t need a purpose to live a fulfilling life’.
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