Find your purpose” is another one of those amazing phrases that sounds so alluring, so profound. Yes, find my purpose and then I am transformed. I can live a more meaningful life. That makes for a powerful story. Alas when its only a story.
For many if not most of us, the purpose of life is to discover by trial and error what it is all about. If there is a purpose, it is one we fall into more as a groove than a goal. The quest is the thing, or as poet Kavafy wrote, the journey to Ithaca is what yields the goods, and when we get to Ithaca, its‘s usually a bit of a disappointment. The journey there was the point.
Humans are future-questing beings. They want to enjoy tomorrow and the next day, and the day after, but as for some overarching goal or purpose, how does anyone know that? The self-help gurus and the self-congratulatory autobiographies tell their story from the peak looking back down, or from the end looking back at the beginning.
Reaching their point of peak achievement, they retrospect, smoothing out the path, making the road coherent, leaving out the detours and the crashes and road blocks and the speeding tickets. It’s the story successful summiteers of Everest tell you about how to climb to the top, or the story the Olympic champion tells you how to win a gold medal. The core question our narrative mapping asks is- from WHERE are they telling their story? Am I in the same place?
The story of success that successful people tell tends to look back to see a seamless path, a purpose driven life, with all the uncertainly ironed out or only included for dramatic effect. Their story from their achieved end is being presented to us as the story we should assume NOW, at the beginning or the middle of our journey. Most of us are not there, as we look ahead into a swirling world of uncertainty.
Its easy to be told how to do it by those who have done it but mostly, the advice is self-serving. “ As an aspiring film maker, Mr. Cecil B De Mille, what advice can you give me?” “Be born in the USA first up and in the 2oth century. Whatever you do don’t be born in the 15th Century!”
‘Wow! — that’s the biggest speed bump I’ve ever seen!’
Find your purpose??? Don’t buy it. It reminds me of men who write songs about love that they get women to sing, so women come off as echoes of what men want. It is a deceit. We are being sold a story that is a false map.
Humans are inclined to pursue some greater purpose or sign on to some cause larger than their own singular existence. That makes sense. But that quest usually works by getting us lost, and coming up against failure and surprise, confronting our limits and our flaws, by which we get to know more clearly which way NOT to go.
Life wanted to teach you, “Don’t marry when you are too young.” Three divorces later, you might have matured enough to wait. “Don’t be a priest but I will let you discover that 30 years after you are ordained.” Life narrows down some of our choices but its not ever about finding our one unchanging, universal “written in the stars” purpose. That mirage might sell Netflix movies but the language is deadly to keeping life moving.
Static language gets us stuck. Don’t find your purpose, or go ahead and find it and then get lost on purpose, like a Bill Bryson travelogue. That way, you learn what you are NOT meant for, and you learn that purpose, as the cartoon says, is a porpoise. It loves to dive and jump and play.
What we are all meant to do is not find our purpose but find our path, by taking to the road. Life does not allow us to stand still. Imagine spending 20 years trying to find your purpose and discovering your purpose was not to waste 20 years!!! Too late. No, the path is that next step right in front of you. Step into it. As Yogi Berra says, ” and when you come to a fork in the road, take it.”