Clarifying and Cultivating Purpose

Clarifying and Cultivating Purpose

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6.7 Not Purpose Disguised as Purpose

Sometimes we think we’re being purposeful, but we’re actually not. This is because Not Purpose can dress itself up to look like Purpose.

PurposeNot PurposeExamples
Doing goodTalking goodDoing good is planting a tree everyday. Talking good is complaining about climate change on social media.
GivingIndebting or serving obligationGiving is generosity without expectation of return e.g. working in a soup kitchen. Indebting causes you to be upset if people don’t reciprocate e.g. looking after older people hoping to gain an inheritance; serving public office with an expectation for fame and popularity. Serving obligation happens when your “giving” is taken for granted e.g. an employee who is expected to work weekends without compensation or recognition.
MasteringSatisfying curiosity*Mastering is taking up a course in data science or completing an apprenticeship. Satisfying curiosity is the need to find out what happens in the next episode of a TV show.
CreatingSponging or being over dependentBonding is working with the neighbours to build a common garden. It’s asking for help from others and reciprocating in kind. Sponging happens when people get a negative experience from spending time with you e.g. when we talk more than we listen; when we whine and complain; or when we burden people with too many favours. Over dependence sounds like, “My sweetheart is my only purpose for living.”
Caring for selfConsumingCaring for self is eating a nutritious meal. Consuming is a 10-course meal. Caring for self is rewarding yourself by playing video games for an hour after achieving a work milestone. Consuming is playing video games all day, everyday.
InvestingGreed or acting on financial insecurity^Investing is being a guest speaker or saving for a deposit on a house. Acting on financial insecurity is watching the share market every few hours. Greed is when wealthy people obsess over making even more money.

*Curiosity is one of the best characteristics we can have in life. Healthy curiosity keeps our minds engaged, enables us to discover new possibilities, and to embrace change. However, as we all know too well our curiosity can be hijacked by companies trying to sell us goods and services. They hook our curiosity with click-bait and cliffhangers. They seize our attention with “news” and comments from our friends on social media (using those red dots). I think of curiosity as being a core value, an important one, but not a purpose in itself.

^Research shows that our emotional well-being rises with income, but only up to an annual income of about US$75,0001. Beyond that, rises in income have little effect on our happiness. We do however get a momentary sense of fulfillment from achieving a number e.g. share portfolio rose 50%.

That the difference isn’t black-and-white is part of the problem, and part of the benefit. We get to decide for ourselves what is right for us and what isn’t.

6.8 Watch out for these signs

At some point of our lives we’ll lose our sense of purpose. We’re often the last to realise this. Here are some signs to look out for2:

  • Boredom disguised in its many forms such as bored-eating/snacking, watching online videos, and other pick-me-ups;
  • Self-esteem issues disguised in its many forms e.g. the need to belittle others in order to feel better about ourselves, obsession with exercise and self-image, obsession to be better than the Jones’, being overly eager to please or being subservient;
  • Preoccupation with the immaterial or with the things that are outside of our control e.g. getting unnecessarily upset by how the cupboards are organised, getting easily upset by tabloid news;
  • Discontent / hyper negativity e.g. complaining about everybody and everything; and
  • The need to build up our importance in the eyes of others e.g. demanding to be heard, being over-controlling, talking over other people, refusal to admit fault, boastfulness, and meddling in the affairs of others.

If you’ve lived with people who are behaving this way, you’ll know that telling them to relax or to stop what they’re doing is rarely effective (even if we have their best interests at heart).

And unfortunately, telling people that they need to find their purpose in life is likely to be met with defensiveness, or worse, hopelessness.

6.9 What Clouds Our Judgement

Psychological factors cause us to stray from purposes that are good for us in the long run. Momentary insecurity, low self-esteem, greed or fear ‒ none of us are immune to these.

Consider these statements:

  1. My purpose in life is to follow my football team everywhere they play, and be at their games wherever they are around the world.
  2. My husband is the CEO of a company he founded. His company is going global. He works crazy hours. The kids and I hardly see him. He says he is doing this for “us”. I am trying to be supportive of his career, but what about me? He says, “This is my one shot at it. I owe it to my employees and shareholders to make my company my sole purpose in life. Can’t you understand that?” He said something similar three years ago. The goals change, but he hasn’t. He says my sole purpose in life ought to be supporting him.
  3. I want to gain a million followers on social media.

On close inspection, none of these three statements reflect the purposes that help us age well. They hint at greed, over-inflated ego, the need for status, fear and insecurity. Once you get a million followers on social media, then what? Go for 10 million? And once you’ve accomplished that, then what? Just as emotional eating can’t be solved by eating, we should be careful about chasing purposes that are driven by our emotions.

Let’s reword “I want to gain a million followers on social media” into “I will travel to the most remote places on earth (Mastery) and share them on social media to raise money to protect these areas (Giving, Doing Good).” This pursuit now reads like something that can keep us fulfilled over many years, to help us age gracefully.

It takes a lot of self-knowledge to recognise our emotional drivers. Often we are the last to see how they’re affecting us. Thankfully, we don’t have to do it alone, we can recruit others to help us stay true to our purpose.

6.10 Cultivating Purpose

To grow vegetables in our garden, we have to mark a sunny spot, prepare the soil, and guard against pests such as snails and weeds.

In this age of infinite options, I believe we have to do the same to cultivate our purpose. Here are three things we can do:

  1. Block time in our daily or weekly schedule. This isn’t time to be consumed by leisure or completing things on your To-Do lists. It’s “Purpose” time. Time to think, reflect on our motivations and review our Purpose Doughnut. You can do this on a walk in nature or lying on a couch, staring at the ceiling.
  2. Dedicate physical space for our purpose. This might be an art studio, a nice environment conducive for people to relax together, or just a white board. I have a dedicated work space at home. My wife guards it from distractions and intruders such as storage boxes, toys, noisy televisions, and anything that might distract me from my purpose. When I am working, I’m often found lying on a couch staring at the ceiling for long periods of time. Do this in the living room, and someone might think I am free to play with them or help them carry heavy boxes up to the attic3. People have learnt not to bother me in this space: “I know it looks like I’m just lying here, but I’m actually doing some heavy lifting…in my head.”
  3. Involve the people closest to us to help us fulfill our purpose e.g. our partner, our best friends and our children. They know us best, have our best interest at heart and can give us love and encouragement when we become distracted. What does your partner’s Purpose Doughnut look like? Do they know what yours looks like?

Partners who look after their other half have a lot to gain. There have been times in my life when I’ve been unbearable to live with because I misplaced my sense of purpose. Like the time I was made redundant. I was bored and looked for short-lived pick-me-ups (like watching TV). During this period I bought two concert tickets for my wife, and I was hurt when she took someone else instead of me. I was too fragile to say anything at the time. It wasn’t good enough that she was happy, what about me? I was temperamental, and I found myself belittling my children for no good reason. I needed to feel engaged and relevant, I followed news and current affairs (too closely), and I was overly active on social media.

The people closest to us have a stake in our long term happiness. Sharing your purpose and helping them with theirs – isn’t that the definition of Bonding?

6.11 To Gain Freedom

We Gen Xers have so much to do, so many people to see, and so many places to be.  We can take on too much and still feel like we haven’t accomplished everything we want or are supposed to.  

I always have a list of “jobs” hanging over me, such as painting the deck and clearing the gutters.   My elderly parents and my kids always want more of my time no matter how much I give them.  Will I suffer guilt later in life if I don’t dedicate even more time to them?  How much is enough?  

Given this, who needs the extra pressure of needing to Do Good, Master new things and Creating?  Who has time to create their masterpiece or work at a soup kitchen?

You might think that people with a strong sense of purpose are unbearable, highly strung overachievers.  I find the opposite to be true.  Having a Purpose Doughnut clearly defined in my head, enables me to put everything in perspective.  I recognise more easily what is Purpose and what is Not Purpose.  I feel less guilty about not having enough time to fulfill all the demands on my time.  It helps me avoid overworking.  It tells me when to be generous, and when not to be.  It liberates me from the anxiety of “what else should I be doing and who am I letting down?”  To live in the moment.

It’s a paradox, a purpose paradox.  The more tied down you are to a set of purposes, the more freedom it gives you.

When I lie in bed at the end of each day, I am free from thoughts such as “I wish I had time to do X, Y and Z”.  Even if I’ve spent long periods of time lying on my couch, staring at the ceiling, not writing a single word.  Instead, I’ll lie in bed, think:  “I’ve done everything I am supposed to do today.  The only job left to do is sleep.”  And that is exactly what I do.  Sleep.

Thank you

Thanks to Jane Weir and Dr Jocelyn Rikard-Bell for guiding my thinking on this topic. And thanks to Penelope Terry and Jermir Punthakey for reviewing early drafts.

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© James Lau  August 5, 2020

  1. Kahneman, D. & Deaton, A.. 2010.
  2. There are other factors that may cause these symptoms, obviously.
  3. I’ve pinched this line from one of my favourite writers, Clive James.

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