Wanna Know the Purpose of Your Life?

Of Course You Do.  

You are human.  (If you don't have an interest in discovering or inventing a purpose for your existence, you may want to feel around your scalp for the panel that opens up to reveal your motherboard -- it is possible that you are actually a cyborg.  Go ahead, check.  The rest of us will go over and click the play button on Dionne Warwick's beautiful face to hum along with a chorus of "What's it All About Alife" while we wait.)

Wanting to know - NEEDING to know - the purpose of our lives is a built-in feature of our humanness.  Unlike other living beings on the earth, we humans seem designed not only to BE, but to grapple with what our being-ness is FOR. 

These days, though, the idea of "finding your purpose" is not only an individual quest, it a massive preoccupation of our culture.  

I think we can safely say that when Justin Beiber names his new album "Purpose" and wishes us all a "Happy Purpose Day!" - the concept is in the zeitgeist.  

"So, OK," we say to ourselves, "If the Beibs has gotten clear on the purpose of his life, surely this is a thing I should also do."  

At this point, being the social creatures that we are, many of us start looking to society - the same society that is demanding that we state our purpose - for some guidance.  I mean, you would think something or someone out there could throw us a bone and offer some direction, wouldn't you?  Isn't there some consensus we could reach about what makes for a "good life" or a "normal life" or a "life well-lived"?  Even if we can't agree on WHY we live, maybe we could come to some agreements on HOW we should live?  Is that too much to ask?

And, we pretty much hear crickets.  (Or Justin Beiber's Sorry which is pretty much the same thing.)

If you have a sneaking suspicion that our culture isn't offering a very clear or helpful set of directions about what you should do with your life, and why, you are absolutely right. 

The big challenge at the heart of all this social pressure to declare our purpose, is that our culture is simultaneously offering less help than ever before in KNOWING our purpose.  


Well, to understand why we are all in such a simultaneous purpose-frenzy and purpose-pickle (so that we can better grapple with the real questions at the core of our humanness), we're going to have take a quick look back at where we've been.

A Brief Trip through a Small Historical Wormhole

To get a sense of just how much the social context for our sense of life-purpose have changed in a VERY short amount of time, come with me, if you will, for an exceedingly brief journey through a small historical wormhole.  Oh look, there it is!

We don't have to travel very far through the wormhole, because it was not all that long ago that society had some pretty clear direction to offer regarding the meaning and shape of your life.  Not all that long ago, when most work was organized in either factories or large bureaucracies, like this:

...society also offered a pretty set way of thinking about life purpose and life design. 

The standard-issue life for middle class people included - in precisely this order -

  1. go to college (to get an education if you were a young man, and to find a man to marry if you were a young woman),
  2. get married to an appropriately-colored person of the opposite sex (obviously),
  3. get a good stable job with benefits and a pension (if you were a man), or setting up a household and having babies (if you were a woman) 
  4. set about producing things (if you were a man) or set about caring for children and consuming things (if you were a woman).  
  5. Then, after roughly 40 years of that, you settled into the golden years of retirement with a golden watch on your wrist (men) and a nagging sense of somehow having missed out on something important (women and men).

The old life plan, in other words, looked something like this:

Sure, there were outliers who intentionally designed life-patterns that fell outside of these lines, or who fell outside the lines through no fault of their own - like women who were unable to have children, or men who loved other men, or women who loved other women, or people too poor to afford college, or people too dark-skinned to be considered for jobs with status and good salaries, or women who were determined to be intellectuals or artists, or even just everyday white men who, like the Lloyd Dobbler's of their time, were willing to say something like those immortal words:

 "I don't want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career. I don't want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed, or repair anything sold, bought, or processed. You know, as a career, I don't want to do that."  

(Extra points if you know who Lloyd Dobbler is and can name the movie this quote is from!)

These outliers paid very dear consequences for their non-conformity.  

And, while for some people, the "norm" felt perfectly meaningful and enjoyable, for many, it felt more like living every day, all day, in a very tight, very uncomfortable straight-jacket, while being shown horrific footage of nearby lynchings and far-away wars and told to simmer down and take another sip of a nice cold martini, or slip another pill under your tongue.  (See The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit; The Feminine Mystique, etc. etc.).  

And more and more people began to HOWL for something less constricting,

something less oppressive,

something more self-directed,

something MORE...

And in a VERY short period of time, everything changed.  

Through a series of intense, rapid, struggles to redefine social norms, create new technologies, and re-invent the economy, we left behind the industrial age and entered what some people now call the "Creativity Economy," a world in which prosperity hinges less on obedience, conformity, and hierarchy and more on creativity, diversity, and empathy.  

(Yes, that's a big leap I just took!  Check out Daniel Pink's wonderful book A Whole New Mind:  Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future and Richard Florida's The Rise of The Creative Class if you'd appreciate a few details...)

Suddenly, the things that only human beings can offer, like creativity, empathy, and story are running the economic show in developed nations, since work that can be routinized can be done by robots or outsourced to developing nations. (Yes, this is icky in many ways!  There are real costs to these shifts - but that's not our topic today.)  

Our topic, if you recall, is:

What does this all mean for our human quest for purpose and meaning?

Ah, there's the rub.  Well, now that the work world looks less like this:

...and more like this:

...our society no longer has a set life-purpose script for us to follow.  

We have collectively ditched the script, and replaced it with a smorgasbord of possibilities which we can approach in almost any order.  (Of course there are still pockets of society that insist on the Old Plan, but their ideas aren't faring very well these days...)

In the Smorgasbord World, 

We can go to college right out of high school, or we can do other stuff first and then go back to school later.  

We can get married to the person of our choosing, or we can live together without marriage, or we can stay single.  

And, we can also get divorced or break up and start over.  

We expect to test out a bunch of different jobs to see what fits best.  If we feel unfulfilled at work, we can start over.  

We can have children in our teens, our twenties, our thirties and our forties, and we can do it alone or with a partner.  We can also combine families with new partners who had children with other partners, and together we can start over.  

Men can take care of children, and it turns out they can also cook and wash dishes and do laundry without having their genitals fall off.  It also turns out that women can run businesses and enter politics without growing penises and beards.  

Who knew?

We can insist on work that is connected to our values, or we can settle for work we can stand by day and use it to support the Ska band we play in at night.  We can try on different ways of doing business - ways that acknowledge the consequences of what we do for human beings and the imperiled planet we live on.

We can retire at 25 after making our first millions (okay, not many of us, but it happens), we can "retire" from one career mid-way through and embark on something completely different, or we can eliminate the notion of "retirement" all together and just keep contributing what we can contribute for as long as we can contribute it.

In the smorgasboard world, the bottom line is this:

In the "new plan" there is no plan.  

Our lives are no longer organized around a set of stages, but instead around a continual process of choice-making.  

In fact, the most consistently predictable feature of today's life patterns is an ongoing series of "starting over" moments.

The exhilarating, exhausting truth is this:

So the question we face in this new world is not only the age-old "What is the meaning of my existence?" but also, "On what basis am I supposed to make the continual parade of choices that are now mine to make? and "Where can I look for guidance?"

In my last post, I already hinted that the "Follow your passion" chestnut isn't going to cut it as the answer for many of us...

...so what is it that can help us embrace this responsibility for our own life-invention?  How can we come to feel like more confident, purpose-full, designers of our own lives?  

And that, my friends, is a question we'll take up in the next post - coming your way on Dec. 22nd!  (oooooh, cliffhanger!)