The Purpose of Purpose

There’s a lot of talk about purpose and the importance of “having a purpose” for a sense of well-being, but in all that purpose-talk, we don’t have a lot of clarity about what having a purpose actually means. So, let’s dig into the notion of purpose and see what we can find.

Many people seem to mean something about goals, as if setting and achieving goals just is having a purpose. But try this little trick from linguistic philosophy: My purpose is to set and achieve goals. Does that actually clarify anything?

Even so, there does seem to be a deep connection between goals and purpose, so let’s try a thought experiment to see what that connection might be. Picture yourself at 16 or 18. Someone asks you, “What is your purpose?” You assume that this question means something “big” about your life, so you jot down your goals: Finish school, get this or that job, etc. Now scroll forward to 30 or 40: You’ve achieved every goal on your 16-year-old self’s list. Now what?

You may want to object that we continuously refine our goals and develop new goals, and you’re right — but that’s a different thought experiment. Let’s stick with my parameters for a moment: At 40, you’ve achieved your goals. Now what?

A simple and natural response might be: Set more goals. So you do, and at 50, you’ve crossed off those goals. So you set more, and at 60, at 70, at 80 — you dutifully cross off all the goals for each decade. Now what? Is “having a purpose” reducible to continually setting and crossing off goals, right up to the moment you’re crawling into the Box? Or is something missing, something that suggests that purpose isn’t completely reducible to cycles of goals?

We can reveal some of what’s missing by asking a question that is rarely asked — in fact, it’s the question: Why set goals at all? Reflection on this question reveals two ingredients in a sense of purpose.

I suggest that, hidden beneath all the instrumental reasons we could give for setting and pursuing goals in the first place (like “So I can earn money”), the reason for pursuing goals is the stories we harvest (and tell) in the process. This first ingredient in a sense of purpose isn’t obvious early in life, because at that stage, you’re “supposed” to be pursuing goals and “making something” of yourself. The question, obviously, is what are you making? Most teens know that the injunction to “make something of yourself” is hollow and requires a lot of work to fill in — which we easily forget as we move into independence and self-sufficiency, largely because we’re busy achieving goals (or languishing because we aren’t).

These observations lead to the second component of a sense purpose: Weaving those stories into a coherent, meaningful life narrative — a narrative that not only captures your experiences and how they express your sense of self, but also provides a sense of direction to your life. It doesn’t matter that the audience of your story might just be you: The point is that pursuing goals only takes you so far toward a meaningful life. You have to make up the difference yourself, and that difference is meaning-making.

By the way, I think this is the real reason Plato cautioned against the study of philosophy until the age of 40. It’s not that younger people can’t learn the thinking skills or ask Big Questions or even “get a degree” in philosophy (which in any case is only loosely connected with actual philosophy!). Rather, the early adult stage of life is focused on goal-achieving, so we tend to view everything as instrumental to crossing off whatever we’ve put on the list. It’s only after we’ve crossed some things off — and start to tell those stories and weave them together — that we’re prepared for the real challenge of life: Making meaning.

This, I suggest is the difference between purpose-talk and a sense of purpose. (I have in mind here Frank Kermode’s interesting attempt to understand The Sense of an Ending in literature.) Purpose is often intertwined (and confused) with the cycle of goal-setting, but the sense of purpose that we want for living our lives only emerges as we weave stories together to produce whole cloth — which isn’t reducible to single threads.

Meaning-making can be daunting, even frightening; it’s no wonder so many of us outsource the challenge and adopt pre-existing schemas. But even outsourcing only goes so far: Most of us, in my experience, come to a point in our lives at which we ask, What’s the point of all this? A pre-existing meaning-schema is only really meaningful when we make it our own, and that requires intention. This kind of meaning-making is an act on behalf of the whole self. Is that what we really mean when we encourage people to “make something of yourself”?

While I have reservations about reducing purpose to an endless cycle of goal-setting, it should be clear that setting and pursuing goals is essential. After all, we can’t make whole cloth from nothing. But for making meaning in our lives, we also need to learn how to weave.


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