The Path to Purpose

14 July 2014 · 8 comments

You can improve the quality of your daily life by learning to focus your attention and choosing to filter your experiences through a lens of positivity. But while it might be simple to find happiness in a single day, it can be much more difficult to link a series of days into a meaningful whole. Still, just as we must be active agents in creating our own happiness, we must also take an active role to create meaning in our lives.

“Creating meaning involves bringing order to the contents of the mind by integrating one’s actions into a unified flow experience,” writes Mihály Csíkszentmihályi in Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. To give meaning to life, to achieve this “unified flow experience”, you need a purpose — an overall goal around which your lesser goals are clustered.

The path to purpose is different for each of us. Exercises like those I’ve shared over the past month — the big rocks, the three questions, and the lifeline — can help you identify your personal purpose, but often this process requires many years of experience and soul-searching. Don’t feel bad if you haven’t found your purpose.

And be aware that it takes more than cultivating purpose to make meaning out of life. To make meaning, you must also forge resolve. You must take your goals seriously. If you’re not willing to accept the consequences of the goals you set, or to put in the effort required to achieve them, those goals become meaningless.

Curiously, it can often be easier to find meaning and purpose by limiting your options. The more choices we have, the more difficult it is to maintain our resolve. “Commitment to a goal and to the rules it entails is much easier when the choices are few and clear,” notes Csíkszentmihályi. “When we can imagine only few opportunities and few possibilities, it is relatively easy to achieve harmony. Desires are simple, choices are clear. There is little room for conflict and no need to compromise.”

Because life is complex (and becoming more so every day), it’s vital to keep your psychic energy focused on the things that matter most. Exercising personal restraint and preferring simplicity can help you stay glued to your purpose, on your goals both big and small. Restraint and simplicity reduce the possibility of distraction.

But restraint and simplicity aren’t enough. When life gets busy and you feel overwhelmed, you must do more than just simplify your environment. At these times, action and intensity become your allies. “Harmony is restored to conscious indirectly — not by facing up to contradictions and trying to resolve conflicting goals and desires, but by pursuing chosen goals with such intensity that all competition is preempted,” writes Csíkszentmihályi. “Action helps create inner order.”

Action cures fear; apparently, it also imparts purpose.

The final piece to the making of meaning is self-knowledge, the process by which you sort through conflicting choices. Based on your personal history, preferences, and passions, you must filter the available options to select the goals that truly reflect who you are and what you mean to the world.

Example: At any given moment, I have many options available to me. Do I want to write another book? Do I want to speak at a conference in India? Do I want to continue to write about money? Do I want to study Spanish? Do I want to travel more? Less? And so on. Most of these options are good (by which I mean they’re positive, both for me and for the world). Who I am and what my life means is a product of the opportunities I choose to pursue.

Ultimately, it’s up to each of us to discover our life’s purpose though a combination of simplification, action, and self-reflection, be being true to who we are and what we believe, and be setting goals we find worthy of pursuing for their own sake. Short-term goals provide pleasure and enjoyment. By stringing a series of short-term goals together, life takes on form and structure. We make meaning and purpose.

Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote in Twilight of the Idols, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” Later in the year, our discussion of Financial Independence will explore this notion in depth.

Before we can talk about financial freedom, however, we have more philosophy to cover. Over the next few months, the next portion of our journey will travel the trail of personal freedom. We’ll learn more about creating a life you love so that you die without regrets, so that you don’t reach your final day on earth feeling like something is missing.

1 Martin July 14, 2014 at 23:29

I agree with the “why.” This is always the best place to start. The how, what, where, always work themselves out.

This is what inspired me to begin pro wrestling. I had my why. I just had to figure out the how (how to get in shape/learn the craft).

2 Edward July 16, 2014 at 11:40

“Restraint and simplicity reduce the possibility of distraction.” <– Love this! I'm in a strange place. I've actually accomplished every single goal I've ever set out to do. …Except for those that involve too heavily on other people or my own childhood imagination. (e.g., get a cute sidekick and go travelling through time in a TARDIS.)
I'm currently working on the Early Retirement Extreme goal. That one's a long-haul, but I'm sure I'll make it. I just need to fill in the blank between now and then with more goals and purposes, and that's not an easy task. When I went hot air ballooning, my sister laughed in my face, "Oh, now you've run out of things to do and you're just making stuff up!"
Death tomorrow would bring few regrets because I've done all I ever wanted. Travelled to about 40 countries, been in a popular punk band which even got radio play, been in a TV show, had writing published, learned how to horseback ride, been on a swampboat, made childhood fantasies realities my dressing up at sci-fi conventions, kissed lots of pretty girls, found true love, lost true love, made lots of close friends. The only things missing are having kids (no way in hell I'm rushing out to do that unless I meet the right person) and visit Ireland. Heck, if I went to Ireland I'd be scraping the last out of the bottom of the bucket list. …Meh, I'm sure something else will come up before retirement. But even the difficult goals prove too easy when you apply yourself properly.

3 val July 16, 2014 at 23:29

i like all this thoughts and inspirations.
but as long we are going for achieving, improving, we are caged in the world of our existence. being is. is perfect at every moment and cant be done or looked for.
val paris

4 Free To Pursue July 17, 2014 at 13:18

I appreciate that you touched on simplicity in this post. It’s a good reminder and it also brought B. Schwartz‘s book “The Paradox of Choice” to mind.

Keeping options down to no more than 2 to 4 has been helping me get clear about what it is that I want in the short, medium and longer term. A reduced number of options make me happier, more focused and, ultimately, helps me lead a more fulfilling life because I don’t often get stuck in a sort of analysis paralysis like I used to.

5 Matt Kruza September 30, 2014 at 05:52

GREAT point! (you stole my thunder.. like 2 months in advance). But yes, paradox of choice is one of the key principles in how I view the world now. I had a vague notion of it, but formally learned about it 4-5 months ago and it is amazing how powerful of a framework it can be for you to take control of a seemingly endless number of choices.

6 Elvie July 20, 2014 at 05:41

Thanks for the post. i, somehow, don’t see purpose quite the same as fulfilling a bucket list necessarily. ‘Doing things’ is okay, and yes, something I’d hopefully get a lot of those things done, but they just don’t give me purpose. At the end of the day, I still feel empty. Purpose, to me, comes out of helping others and trying to be an encouragement for those who are downtrodden. Forgetting about me, myself and I, working on my character and wanting to be as much of a blessing to others that I can be. My frustration comes from the fact that I want to teach and impart to the poor the how they can work their way out of their situation. I want to teach them how to manage their finances; how to make good nutritional choices for themselves and their families…I taught myself all these things. But here in this country and on the Mission trips I’ve done (I speak Spanish and am a Dental Hygienist so I’ve done medical/dental Christian mission trips to the Domimican Republic several times), we’re still giving fish instead of teaching people how to fish. I don’t know how to change things; how to make this vision I have come to pass. I’m not looking to enable people’s poverty based thinking, but rather to help them radically change it. Any suggestions anyone? Thanks.

7 Alissa @ FinanceWand August 5, 2014 at 02:48

Thanks for this enlightening blog post. Appreciate it. I’ve found out writing down the broad goals that I need to achieve, followed by small goals (preferably one month). Then I try to follow the monthly target by following it on a daily basis. It helped me a lot.

8 BrownVagabonder September 3, 2014 at 05:47

I am still searching for the why of my life. I know it might be a long process before I get there, but I sometimes do feel out of place and worried that I don’t know what I’m doing with my life.
Then, I read a post like this one, where a person like you, who seems put-together, is talking about the why of his life and the search. After reading this, I feel better. I’m not the only one out there who is lost, and I know one day, I will find my why as well.

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