I have always been interested in finding meaning and purpose in life. Many motivational speakers will espouse how important it is, and they usually focus on one’s work. And although that has been an important lense to look from, it was only the first in many steps in appreciating my own understanding of meaning and purpose in my life.‘Passion’ as a continual requirement to finding meaning and purpose is a common requirement to most high octane personal development teachers. We will explore this further.

I have exclusively worked with social entrepreneurs across Africa for the past decade, who are focused on leading purpose driven, meaningful lives, and leaving an impact on the world. So, my exploration of this topic is personal and has been important to me, for most of my adult life. And one of the ways I have learnt about myself, is through others, by extensively working alongside them.

The motivation of this post is to make an argument that purpose and meaning have become one dimensional and not very useful or holistic in contemporary life. I want to explore a more useful and multi-dimensional guide, which has supported my own development. Here are some insights which have become clear to me over the years:

1. Passion is not 90% of my day, as the same way I don’t make passionate love with 90% of my time. I never expect that, although I really enjoy passionate moments. A very large portion of my time is taken up by doing menial and administrative tasks. I have needed to find meaning in that, to complete them. But I don’t feel it’s necessary to get passionate over admin.

2. As passion refers to that deep, intense experience, which is not long lasting and sustainable all the time, the writer Elizabeth Gilbert talks about being ‘curious’ as a more sustainable modus operandi to gently following one’s interests, and see where that leads. That’s not a wham bam passionate experience to your daily life, but an inviting gentle invitation to follow your interests and see where they lead. I can leave pressure and anxiety at the door when approaching life with gentle curiosity, similarly to how I treat certain hobbies I have.

3. Many ‘teachers’ feed us that the bigger the purpose, the better. It’s simply not true. Everything does not scale to benefiting billions of people. I find those individuals who seek quality of human engagement over purely quantity far more enticing. I’ve seen hundreds of millions of rand spent on scale, being burnt because care over the smaller, important details are missed, which take time.

4. Purpose and meaning can end up being a motivation by the ego. That’s not a bad thing per say, but in its extreme form, purpose and meaning can end up being about ‘me’ exclusively. ‘I’ want to ‘save’ the world / environment / Africans etc. The ego trading a wealthy investment banking identification, is no different to wanting to become a famous environmental activist, or spiritual guru.

5. Purpose and meaning for me is multi-dimensional. My work doesn’t only provide that, and it never should. Being a supportive husband, father, son, colleague, family are more important to me. How I treat myself and others every moment of every day provides me with immense purpose and meaning. Exploring countries, cultures, nature and the immensity of life brings immense meaning. With many social entrepreneurs, I continually them drive their work above all else, especially their family, which ironically causes pain to those whom you love most. Balance might mean work success takes longer, but life becomes more joyful on so many different dimensions. Leaders like Elon Musk who claim that you have to work 80 hour weeks to change the world, will no doubt trade huge costs in their life (and others) for scaling at unsustainable rates. These choices work for some, but not others, and I don’t think should be the default motivation.

6. Purpose and meaning is an evolution over time, similar to nature. It’s not only static nor fixed indefinitely, even though some might experience it that way. It’s been important for me to continually allow my curiosity to flow, but equally recognize that a significant portion of purpose and meaning is both experienced in a particular moment, and simultaneously shaped and deepened over longer periods of time — often years and decades. My love for my wife and child is an example of that.

7. A major feature in Western culture is this unrelenting drive, ambition and rush. It’s almost programmed in our DNA from when we wake up, swallow that first cup of coffee, and we collapse into bed. Although this has had its advantages in a fast moving, industrial, profit making and globalised world. The problem with this mindset, if not balanced, is that it doesn’t nurture patience, emergence and a relaxed nervous system. This is where aspects of Eastern culture (note their drinking of tea instead of coffee) is helping us. Purpose and meaning requires emergence, patience and time. It’s mechanism is not exclusively fast consumption, or immediate and continual satisfaction, especially at its beginning stages. I found it particularly satisfying that every previous major life event, learning and work experience has supported and been fundamental to the purpose and meaning I experience today in every aspect of my life.

In summary, what I’ve personally found, is that a complete shift in my consciousness, was required to lead a more holistic, purpose driven, successful and meaningful life. This is continually requiring me to (as separate processes):

  1. Wake Up — Become open, aware and take responsibility for my inner universe (my mind). My thoughts, emotions, fears, anxieties, which has resulted in leading a more peaceful existence. This inner shift came painfully as many of older habits had to fundamentally shift. This is the result of multiple psychological and spiritual modalities and practices, but equally accepting myself for who I am currently, which is continually evolving and changing. Accepting my many imperfections and darker sides has been a game changer.


2. Grow Up — Taking responsibility of my health, life and actions every day especially as a husband and father now. I am continually seeing the world in a more empathetic and compassionate way, towards others in their life journey. This perspective is evolving for me daily into a more inclusive / integrated version of a previous post modern or liberal perspective which I had for years. I find myself giving a more credible voice to people who’s life I either don’t understand or traditionally would of agreed with, especially those perspectives most difficult to fathom. (Eg: criminality, racism, alt- right, and Neo- nazi, religious fundamentalist perspectives). Truly listening (putting on the shoes) to the so called ‘other’ and validating their experiences even if I don’t agree with them is providing me with immense meaning in my life. It’s less polarized and helping me see the validity of the world exactly the way it is. I’m by no means perfect in this, as I still find myself judging others on a daily basis. But it’s an evolution taking place in me.

Purpose and meaning can represent completely different things to a person / populations at different levels of Waking and Growing Up. Human’s different purpose priorities are particularly visible at different socio-economic levels, cultural or religious affiliation, and the time/era they grew up in (think about a young, single mother living in the slums of India vs Middle class Western Man vs a Scottish Highlander living in the 18tj century). Therefore purpose and meaning is an ever present and evolving organism, and this is exciting as we can not only track our personal evolution, but equally what’s happening and trending in the world.

I hope this post can be useful to others in providing a possible framework and journey, if they are at the beginning (or middle) of exploring purpose and meaning in this relatively short and precious life we live.