Finding Your Purpose

Every human needs a purpose.

I might be wrong about that. There are certainly outliers, for whom this need seems to be really far down the priority list. Maybe there are people who don’t need it at all. But as a general rule, people need purpose.

I think there’s a technical reason for this, which I won’t go into here, but having a purpose seems to do a lot of good. It helps you overcome addictions, escape apathy and boredom, and achieve more than you ever would have otherwise.

Maybe you’re shopping around for a purpose, and haven’t settled on one yet. I’ve been there. Maybe you’re realizing that your current purpose is running out of road, and you have no idea where you’re going to land. I’ve been there too.

In my life, I’ve tended to commit intensely to specific purposes until they hit a wall, and then go comatose until I find something new.

I think purposes need to be specific to an individual, a good match between what you feel the world needs, and what you feel you have to offer. That makes them hard to find, and it can take a while before they crystallize.

When they do, you’re suddenly alive again, off and running. At least, that’s how it works for me. It’s like falling in love — suddenly encountering something as if seeing it for the first time, finding all of your self spontaneously bending towards this brand new thing.

The best thing to do if you’re waiting around for this experience is just to get out there and play. Do things that are fun in themselves. Pursue whatever your nerdy obsession is.

We spend so much of our lives focused on what we’re supposed to do that it can be hard to get back to this kind of play unless you’re deliberate about it. This makes it incredibly hard to find a purpose, because it’s unlikely to be in the narrow world of what you’re already doing, and it probably won’t occur to you unless you’re actually out there doing it.

You might think about playing tennis, for example, and chalk that up as an enjoyable sport you’d like to revisit in the future. Or you might get out there and actually play tennis, and remember deep in your bones just how much you love it.

Finding a purpose, in a real, deep sense, is much more like the second one than like the first. Only when you’re in it, so to speak, are you likely to recognize it as the thing you need to devote yourself to.

The tennis example might make it sound like I’m talking about “finding your passion”, but I think these are significantly different. Finding your passion is about finding what you love to do, finding your purpose is about finding something you care about changing in the larger world.

As I indicated above, this can and probably should be highly individual. A purpose is a combination of what you care about changing, and a vague but plausible idea of what you can do about it.

So it does need to mesh with your skills or abilities at some level. But I think that’s probably pretty instinctive, and isn’t something you need to worry much about.

Instead, you just need to get out there and play, and experiment, and try things out, until you suddenly find something that gets you upset, that bothers you deeply, that compels you to want to change it.

You’ll figure out the rest. Once you know what you want to do, you’ll be able to pursue it in all kinds of ways you wouldn’t have thought of before.

Whatever your purpose is, I hope that it’s making the world a better place. I hope that it’s contributing to things at a larger scale. I hope that it’s part of some meta-purpose.

And if you’re looking for a meta-purpose, I have a suggestion.

Pursue the flourishing of life on the largest scales.

Work for the good of humanity. Work for the good of the ecosystem. Work for biodiversity and resilience and complexity. Work to protect the world from existential threats. Work to keep us all operational. In whatever way, and in whatever form, pursue the flourishing of life.

Life is, after all, the most valuable thing in this universe. And we humans are the ones best suited to protecting it.

Whatever purpose you find, I hope that it plays a role in that larger purpose we all share.

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