I Don’t Have a “Life’s Purpose” (And That’s Just Fine)

Tiger Woods held a press conference recently to address his ongoing health struggles and potential return to golf. He looked unhappy, to say the least. The Washington Post went so far as to describe it as “a masters class in sadness.” One of the best athletes of our generation – arguably the greatest golfer of all time – answered questions such as “What do you do during the day?” like this:

“I am really good at playing video games, really good. That’s basically how I pass a lot of my time.”

Woods’ entire life has been dedicated to golf. At age 2, he was putting against comedian Bob Hope on The Mike Douglas Show. By age 11, he had won 113 tournaments. That year, he went an unfathomable 36-0 in tournament play. Whether it came about by choice or by circumstance, Woods’ “life purpose” – playing competitive golf – has been apparent his entire life.  It’s no wonder, then, that with health problems keeping him from playing, he looked and sounded so hopeless. Without this one passion, it’s like he’s an empty person.

Tiger

Our culture has a bit of an obsession with the idea of “finding your purpose” – the single thing (and usually, the career) that energizes you, gets you out of bed every morning, and satisfies you beyond any other. It starts as soon as we’re old enough to conceptualize the idea.  We start asking children, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” before they’re even capable of going to the bathroom by themselves.

The obsession continues into adulthood. Take a wide variety of classes in high school and college – one is sure to ignite that flame of passion. If you somehow make it to graduation without identifying your one true purpose, do a volunteer program or take a professional role with functional rotations – then you’ll finally identify the work that really inspires you.

Still haven’t figured it out? No worries, your local bookstore’s Self Help section is packed with New York Times bestsellers for your consumption – books with provocative, life-changing subtitles like Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose and Discover the Epic Idea that Motivated Your Birth.  Maybe you’ve made it through your entire career and you still don’t know. That’s okay – there’s another whole section about figuring out your purpose in retirement. Once you’ve nailed that down, then you’ll be able to enjoy a satisfying life as a retiree.

I think we’re being unrealistic.

Based on a recent unscientific poll of my friends and family, approximately zero people report having it all figured out or having identified the one “purpose” of their lives.  Some talk about work, some talk about family, but most people don’t know their purpose any better today than they did twenty years ago.

I’m one of them. For years, I hoped that some industry or job would really pique my interest and turn into a satisfying, decades-long career. When I graduated from college, I took a position as a generalist consultant – one of the most appealing aspects of which was the prospect of seeing a variety of industries up close to figure out which one I loved.  In the years since, I’ve found many different projects to be fun and interesting, but nothing ever reached the level of “life purpose.”  Not even close.

My partner Daniel has a passion for social service. In college, he volunteered at 15 different organizations with clients of all ages and demographics, trying to figure out what the ideal career path would look like. But did he ever discover exactly what he wanted to do for the rest of his life?

“I don’t know any better today exactly what I want to do, but I do know that going into all those experiences with the expectation that I would figure it out was really distracting and stressful.  I should have been focused on the positive experiences I was having, but I always had a distracting thought in the back of my mind: ‘Is this the one?’ After graduation, I did another volunteer program because I didn’t know what I wanted to do yet. I had great experiences there and don’t regret any of it, but I wish I hadn’t stressed about the future implications and just appreciated the present. Some of the experiences I had were exactly what I wanted to be doing right then. That should have been what I was focused on, not the idea of ‘do I see myself here in 10 years?'”

I think we need to drop this notion of living with a single, defined purpose. Presumably, you already have a variety of interests, hobbies, and activities.  One of them does not need to be the only thing for which you live. I’ve had many interests in my life, some of which have grown and waned over time, and I think that’s a perfectly acceptable way to live. In spite of my occasional complaints, working in a professional setting for the better part of a decade has been interesting and enjoyable. Now, I’m ready to try something new. Will we want to travel in a van for the rest of our lives? Will that be our “purpose?” Almost certainly not, but that’s what we want to be doing now. For our next life after that, who knows!

I look at it in much the same way I do investing. Diversification is an advantageous strategy. I have many passions and interests. I enjoy many elements of my current work, but I also love travel, personal finance, time with my friends and family, the great outdoors, good food and drink, and a hundred other things. If we burn out on traveling, we can do something else we enjoy. Compare that to the undiversified life of someone like Tiger Woods: when your single investment crashes, what’s left?

You don’t need to plan your entire life based on some vision of your future. In his famous 2005 Stanford commencement address, Steve Jobs reflected on having taken a calligraphy class not because of some predefined notion of his life, but just because he enjoyed it. The class ended up being a major source of inspiration as he designed the first Macintosh.

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. Because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart, even when it leads you off the well-worn path, and that will make all the difference.”

One final point: one of the oft-cited reasons to define your “life’s purpose” is to ensure that you find meaning in your life. Bouncing around from one pleasurable activity to the next may make you happy, say critics, but that’s not the only indicator of a life well lived. Fair enough.

There’s plenty of research on this topic, though, and finding meaning in one’s life doesn’t require a specific purpose. Instead, the major drivers are the ways we approach our lives and the people around us. Meaningfulness involves thinking more about the past, present, and future. It’s derived through giving to others. It comes from managing challenges, and through self-expression.

So instead of coming up with some specific life purpose, maybe what we need is more of a mission statement:

I seek to live a happy, healthy life. To live in the present while being conscious of the past and future. To have meaningful relationships with others. To give to others. To continue to challenge myself. And to provide myself with outlets for creativity and self-expression.

Thanks to Pat at retirementtransition for writing the blog post that provoked some of these thoughts.

6 Comments

  1. As a parent, there’s even MORE pressure – all those people started doing their “life’s purpose” at age 4! My oldest is 7! Forget her olympic dreams… all because I didn’t put her in ice skating! But then I think about how I don’t WANT my kids to be the best at one thing. I don’t want them to be obsessive about something. What happens if they are only good at ice skating and they break a leg? Where is their worth then? As you say, I want my kids to lead a happy, healthy life and be well-rounded and get to experience ALL the things instead of just one.

  2. Yep, that’s my mission statement, too. I gave up a long time ago trying to figure out what I was “supposed” to do as an adult, until this year when I decided to focus on achieving FI to open new opportunities for myself. Awesome post.

  3. This is amazing. I am so enthralled by the analogy you presented of the composition of your life’s passions, interests, endeavors as you would diversify your portfolio. One year you may have taken a fancy to strengthening your relationships (stocks are up!), while potentially your work out endeavors have taken a bit of a back seat to free up more time (bonds are down). Each person has several building blocks that create them as a person, and when we regulate them to just one purpose it does not allow for other areas of life to shine through. Driving yourself crazy trying to find one purpose also blindsides you to what you could be incredibly great at (but never had the time, resources or energy to pursue). Great post, and I am digging your mission statement!

  4. Such a great perspective. I totally agree. You can find happiness and meaning and bliss and love without finding your “purpose.” We are under no illusions about having a purpose that we just haven’t found yet. We just want to find what makes us stoked to get out of bed every day, and makes us feel like we’re contributing to the world in some positive way. Glad you feel the same way! 🙂

  5. Great post! This definitely fits me well as I have no idea what my life’s purpose is. I don’t have one passion that I’m willing to follow until the end of time. I’m 27 now and just starting to realize that this is A.O.K. I know I love personal finance, joking around, spending time with people I care about, and traveling a little. I’ll keep doing those things and let the rest fall in place.

  6. I love it! I have so many interests I never know what to do next. I get extreme pleasure from a plethora of avenues. Oftentimes, I feel bad for people who think their work defines them. It may, to some extent, but it’s so important to be multi-faceted and able to adapt to different situations. Case in point: I have a career as a scientist, I am an artist (oils and charcoals), I love and invest in real estate (even run a Meetup group), I’m on FIRE, I write a blog, oh, and I’m a wife and mother too! And there is so much more I want to do. As a child, I wanted to be a doctor. I, ultimately, decided against it because of the time commitment and loan burden. Instead, I’ve focused on my scientific career and my real estate passion. My real estate passion might even trump my interest in science and medicine. Closing one door opens up many others. I feel bad for Tiger 🙁

    Mrs. Mad Money Monster

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