“What’s my purpose in life?” is a question that burdens many, but mostly the young. This is because age brings a varied combination of disillusionment and humility which renders the idea of “purpose” as almost absurd. But for the moment, I am writing to anyone struggling for their purpose, for meaning, or for a place in this world, be it the young, or young at heart.
When I was a young man, my mind was flooded with thoughts around “purpose.” Adults in religious, political, or educational institutions love to throw around questions like, “What are you going to do with your life?” or “What’s your life plan?”. The most toxic of these came from my religious circles, “Do you know what God’s will is for your life?” Damn, what a question…
I write this now to my own children, to my friends, to the generation to follow, and to you, my dear reader: purpose is a toxic delusion that robs you of joy, and life itself. However, I understand the desire for it, and the needs we all share which drive us to seek a purpose for our life. Please, allow me to provide you with an alternative.
What do we mean when we say “Purpose”?
The idea of finding a purpose is so alluring because a lot of very real and very important psychological needs get bundled up inside it. We all need to feel accepted. We all need to feel our work has a positive effect on the world around us. We need to know we have a place among others.
It’s hard for us to identify and verbalize these needs, especially when we are young. Having a need, but struggling to define it or figure out what can satisfy it makes us vulnerable to others. Since we don’t know how to address our needs, we look to others to help us. Sadly, in this world, there seems to be more people who take advantage of others at this stage in their lives than those who offer genuine help.
This brings us to the evolution of the word “Purpose” in modern culture. The word first entered common use in late 14th century France, and meant “by design.” For example, “I made it that way on purpose.” Which, I imagine, was a sentence first spoken by a French fashion designer explaining his tighter collars (which haunt us to this day).
For centuries, the word “Purpose” remained a practical term, referring to the intentional function of something. From the best I can tell, the word started expanding in use through military and religious contexts during the late 1800s. The military needed a word more expansive than the word “objective”, as its missions became broader and longer-term. Also, the rise of Spiritualism also needed a new word to address the existential questions of life itself. As in, “What was the intended function of life?”
These uses of “Purpose” rose around the same time, but I can’t find which came first. What I do know is that the reason we use “Purpose” the way we do in a today is because of the famous evangelist Billy Graham. If you don’t already know, Billy Graham was probably the most influential preacher of all time, with his evangelism campaign running from 1947–2005. He was the first, and most prolific, public figure to frequently use the word “Purpose” in a religious and philosophical context in his speeches and writings.
“… when we are hurt it is important to remember that God Himself has allowed it for a purpose.” — Billy Graham
“My one purpose in life is to help people find a personal relationship with God, which, I believe, comes through knowing Christ.” — Billy Graham
“We believe that when we are in evangelism, winning people to the Lord Jesus Christ, we are in step with God’s purpose, His priority.” — Billy Graham
Billy Graham’s influence on American evangelical culture was profound. People were inspired by the efficacy of his message, and so they learned to imitate it, sincerely or manipulatively. Modern authors, like John Maxwell, integrated “Purpose” into his books on leadership. This in turn, helped the word bleed into the business world and corporate culture we know today of “mission statements.”
Finally, Rick Warren, pastor at the mega church, Saddleback, wrote the massively best-selling book “The Purpose Driven Life” in 2002. The popularity of which turned the word “Purpose” from a commonly used expression, into a required code-word for integration into evangelical or even many Judeo-Christian communities. From Rick Warren’s perspective, it’s not enough to have Jesus in your heart. Now, you need a five-year plan and a list of life goals.
“If you have felt hopeless, hold on! Wonderful changes are going to happen in your life as you begin to live it on purpose.”
― Rick Warren
But why does the history of “Purpose” matter? Well, there are two big reasons. The first is to reveal the worldview behind it’s most common uses. When people like John Maxwell or Rick Warren use this word, they start with a religious assumption that everything in your life is “by design” and that God is waiting for some action on your part to fulfill or complete that design.
Secondly, we learn that humanity has existed for quite some time without the word “Purpose” at all. It’s current use is indeed quite new, barely a couple generations old. This should provoke a question in any curious individual: Why are we only now so suddenly and keenly interested in finding our purpose in life?
The difference between life today compared to the vast majority of human history is the variety of choices that we have. For most of human history, the majority of us were slaves, peasants, or part of a strict class system. Our minds were less concerned with “Purpose” and more concerned with survival, fulfilling our assigned duties, and making sure we don’t make anyone ruling over us angry. So, if you find yourself struggling with your “Purpose” in life, at least start by being thankful for having the privilege of asking.
Bringing this all back full-circle, the word “Purpose” encompasses all these needs we have combined with the reality that modern life provides us (or some of us) with an abundance of choices as to what to do without lives. To manage this, our minds look for a compass to help us navigate all these decisions we need to make over the course of our lives and having a purpose sounds like a pretty good start.
In the market for a good purpose? Come on in, we got the best purpose money can buy!
A big part of Billy Graham’s success was that he was “first to market” with the whole “Purpose” thing. John Maxwell succeeded by opening up a new market with business leaders. Today the market is saturated with people, organizations, institutions, and political groups offering a “higher purpose”.
To be clear, I believe Billy Graham and John Maxwell were sincere in their use of the word “Purpose.” Whether or not you or I agree with how they used it, it is clear they believe in the kind of purpose they described. Sadly, for every genuine person that achieves observable success, a dozen bad-faith imitators emerge.
Televangelist rose to prominence through the 1960’s, reaching untold audiences with “God’s purpose”, which mostly involved sending them money. Jerry Fallwell used the desire for purpose to build “The Moral Majority” which told young evangelical Christians they need to “take back the country for God.” And even today, Joel Osteen makes in millions by telling people to embrace their “anointing.”
Not all “purpose-driven” manipulations are so obvious. Most just exist to get your loyalty. There are few resources in this world so valuable, so powerful, and so desired as the time, energy, and passion of young people. Just about every major social change or cultural shift (good and bad) was driven by large unified groups of young, passionate people. This included the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, and the rise of the Nazi party in Germany.
Everyone wants YOUR PURPOSE to be THEIR PURPOSE. They might say it’s what “God wants”, but it’s really what they want. And this, in the end, is the entire problem with “Purpose”.
A Bad Social Contract
“Purpose” has come to be less a term that implies intent or design, and more of an ambiguous social contract. When preachers, politicians, influencers, and overreaching sales coaches talk about “Purpose”, they imply that all the important things you need in life (acceptance, relevance, validation, etc.) can be yours if only you act, believe, and do what they tell you…. Oh yeah, and give them money.
The idea of “Purpose” is probably the greatest propaganda invention of all time. It is a product that requires you to give time, money, and energy to the desires of someone else and get nothing in return. Unless, of course, the “Purpose” you are giving your time, energy, and money to is truly your own.
So how do you get all the voices, influences, cultural expectations, and social pressures out of your head to think clearly enough to find a purpose of your own? Well, I propose you don’t need one.
Purpose is a Dangerous Delusion
If this article is your first encounter with my work, let me establish that I am a Christian myself. Not that there are many Christians left in America who would award me such a label (or should I say “right in America”). While I have spent a hearty few paragraphs tracing the origins of our confusion around “Purpose” to Christians, they truth is, that it was never a part of Scripture or Jesus’s teachings.
The Bible makes two things abundantly clear about the idea of “Purpose” we have today:
- God has a purpose, but you never know what it is.
“Many are the plans in a person’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails” Proverbs 19:21
2. Any plans or purpose you try to make for your life are foolish.
Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit” — yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.
But even from a secular viewpoint, no one sets out in life on a single path from beginning to end. Even the lives of celebrities and athletes, whom we admire so much, are cleaned up by marketing to make their stories seem like tidy inevitable successes.
Christian or not, there is a very simple reason that trying to pin-down a purpose for your life is harmful: Life is crazy. There are just too many things that happen, and will happen, over the course of anyone’s life that cannot be controlled. War, disease, natural disasters, economic changes, and large-scale cultural shifts greatly affect the course of your life. On a smaller scale, injury, health issues, crime, and ultimately death (yours or someone close to you) will disrupt your “Purpose” pretty effectively as well.
Obsessing over a purpose can greatly contribute to depression, anxiety, and bi-polar conditions. Studies have shown that a major reason Millennials have struggled so much with mental health is because they have unrealistic expectations, leading to over-work and stress about accomplishments. They think that they are “missing out” on a greater purpose.
“So, is it all hopeless? Is there no point in trying to accomplish anything?” Of course not, but like any great work, the process of creation is concealed in the finished product. The way people achieve great things is counter-intuitive to the way we are told to achieve them. In reality, accomplishments are life-long habits which look like finite moments because of how we observe them.
Living Today Beats Living for Tomorrow, Any Day.
“Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” Matthew 6:24
“Yesterday is history,
tomorrow is a mystery,
and today is a gift…
that’s why they call it present”
― Master Oogway (Kung Fu Panda)
One of the greatest lessons I have learned over the years is that life is so infinitely diverse, unpredictable, and stuffed full of opportunities to learn, grow, and connect with others that my main regret is ever burdening myself with any “Purpose” at all. Too often, I have missed a chance to connect with a new soul, try a new experience, or practice an act of kindness, and consideration because I was too distracted by my own arrogant plans.
The false prophets of “Purpose” tell you that it will focus your mind. What it really does is blind you to life and the world around you. You are told that once you accomplish a great purpose, it will bring fulfillment to all the needs that you have. In reality, it causes you to miss out on opportunities for love, acceptance, validation, and belonging that present themselves daily.
Each of us is born into different circumstances. Some of us are poor, and some of us are rich. Some of us have experienced great tragedy and trauma, some of us have yet to experience their first storm. Some of us have loving families, while some of us have yet to experience love. Some of us have skills and resources we can use to help others, while some of us need help.
In the cornucopia of life, there is abundant opportunity for interaction. Within these interactions, we connect with others. When we connect with others, we find fulfillment for our shared human needs. But alas, we too often focus our attention on seeking better circumstances rather than becoming a better person in the circumstances we have.
Those who get the most out of life are those who strive to grow and mature, rather than achieve. An achievement is an illusion, as there is nothing to do at the top of the mountain other than to come down. So often, we spend our lives going from one goal to the next, or devoting our lives to one big goal. We think that joy and satisfaction come after the goal, and we miss the full experience of the journey there.
The Greatest Obstacle to Getting What You Need, is Chasing After What You Want
You can’t always get what you want
But if you try sometime you find
You get what you need
- The Rolling Stones
The magic tale of the modern workaholic is that they put off the daily joys and pleasures of life for the elusive and ever-moving grand accomplishments they think will make everything better. “If only I could get to X, then I can live happily ever after.” But X seldom arrives and, if it does, it is never as good as they thought it was.
In our youth, we are always looking to the freedoms and privileges of age. Our ambitions and hopes for the future are often grand or glorious, leading us to miss the joys at hand or opportunities to use our health and energy to bring joy to others. Young people don’t realize they won’t be young when they meet up with their accompaniments later in life.
When we are suffering, we too often wait to be rescued from that suffering. We endure bad situations for too long, hoping they will magically improve, rather than facing the hard choices which require us to act. In fact, this might be the worst side-effect of “Purpose” which imprisons our minds.
In all these things, we make the same mistake: we miss the opportunity for life to be a little better today in the hopes it will be completely different tomorrow. We are gamblers of fate, betting away our happiness today in hopes the gods will reward our sacrifice with a life other than the one we were given.
Purpose Comes Like a Thief and Can Only Be Seen in Hindsight
As I finish this article, John Lewis, the life long civil rights activist and congressional representative has recently passed away. No one can question that John lived a life with purpose. It was not because he lived in pursuit of purpose, but rather because he lived ON purpose.
John Lewis lived one step at a time He did what was right when the opportunity to do right ever presented itself. He gave no thought to the outcome, nor did he let his mind be burdened with thoughts of “the long-game.” He made intentional moral steps, one after another, until they took him to the national stage. He was willing to die, if that was the outcome, and he was willing to live without conditions or expectations of tomorrow.
“I say to people today, ‘You must be prepared if you believe in something. If you believe in something, you have to go for it. As individuals, we may not live to see the end.”
— John Lewis
….You don’t know what your life can be, or what impact it will have, or how it will be remembered. All you can know is what choices you have today. Make good choices and leave “Purpose” to reveal itself in your obituary.