Purpose – Why do we Wait so Long? #20 #cong22


Thinking about purpose for the first time on our death bed is probably the wrong time.  Children benefit from and have greater capacity to process these conversations than we think but we need to look deeply inside ourselves first.

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Key Takeaways:

  1. Research tell us children benefit from having a greater sense of purpose
  2. Children can handle the introspection needed
  3. We should first ponder our value and purpose
  4. Don’t overdo it and forget the joy of living

About Eoin Kennedy

Chief bottle washer @ CongRegation HQ.  Ex teacher, Communications Director, StartUp Founder, Lecturer and now a Content Strategist in Pharma.

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By Eoin Kennedy

For some it’s on their death bed, the result of a near death experience, the passing of a loved one, a bad health diagnosis, a trauma or even a job redundancy but frequently the only time we really ponder purpose, and the heavily related meaning of life, is in reaction to something life altering.   This something is normally adverse, often late in life and accompanied by feeling of regret of a purpose unfulfilled.

The treadmill of life, the expectations of others, being busy doing and general dream walking through life does not leave much space for pondering purpose.  At worst its not something that society and social order wants questioned especially with the lack of answers for the logical follow on ‘difficult to answer’ questioning about our very existence.  It’s also a difficult topic that involves quite a bit of introspection and so many of us chose to compromise and accept what life throws our way, as it dashes by.  This despite the growing body of evidence of the health benefits of purpose.

So if your death bed is a bad time to ponder purpose, when is a good time.

I have  mental picture (perhaps due to Hollywood) of Aristotle tutoring Alexander the Great as a Child in 343BC.

Aristotle’s belief that the final purpose for human existence was happiness and this happiness could be realized by maintaining a virtuous life is not something you would expect the conqueror of the known world to carry around with him but two things strike me profoundly.

  1. The impact of basic philosophy and the questioning of purpose could have on a young mind
  2. How much wisdom we have rediscovered but whose basis is over 2,000 year old.

When we talk about the future with children I often think that we are short changing them by asking ‘What do you want to be when you grow up’.  Why do we ask such limiting questions, loaded with external expectations, that have a profound impact on the course of someone’s life.  Are we protecting ourselves or do we genuinely believe that the young are incapable for the level of introspection that a deeper probing of meaning would entail.  For anyone who has suffered the endless ‘whys’ from a 4 year old will know they are naturally inquisitive.

The University of California Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center has written extensively about purpose and meaning as being among the fundamental building blocks of emotional well-being.  It points out that ‘research suggests that the development of purpose is linked to the development of identity, which peaks during youth. Thus compelling young people to cultivate a sense of purpose and adopt a vision of the world beyond oneself has profound effects over the course of their lifetime to come.’

Simplistically this and much additional research tells me that children not only benefit from an earlier exploration of purpose but are more capable of processing it than we think.  Our role as parents perhaps necessitates a rethink or according to the UCB Greater Good Science Center  “Because the only person to know and uncover your child’s purpose is your child, listening and opening the door to reflection is more important than pointing to any answers.”

Although the health benefits are clear, the number of children exposed to this thinking is low with the non-profit Great Schools pointing out that one in five teens report has a sense of purpose (against 40% of adults).

How to Foster A Sense of Purpose in Youth

Thankfully there is an ample supply of advice on how to cultivate purpose in youth, mainly as a direct result of the research that highlights the many positive benefits.

According to James Stanfield there are a few steps to help children find their purpose from teaching social and emotion skills, helping them learn about inspirational people, letting them know what they do matters and exposing them to variety.

The Dad’s for Life movement suggests the following steps

  1. Expose your child to various activities in an attempt to identify his or her strengths and passions.
  2. Take time to talk to your children about the issues that are important in your life.
  3. Be encouraging towards your child.
  4. Instil certain traits such as resilience, discipline, and self-confidence.
  5. Educate your child on the broader effects of his or her actions.

Indeed the Greater Good for Action centre in Berekely has a whole set of resources to facilitate the discussion and Confident Parent Confident Kids gives great direction on how to talk to teens about their purpose and creating the right environment.

Most of these seems to be an evolution of or a reskinning of the main tenants of the Japanese practice, ikigaiwhich helps to find purpose.  At its core it is refreshing simple and explores 4 key areas to uncover self-knowledge and meaning

  • Passion – what you love
  • Vocation – what you are good at
  • Mission – what the world needs
  • Profession – what you can get paid for

My Own Purpose – Practice what I Preach?

I worked for over half my life in a profession that I rarely use to describe myself.  It was exciting, interesting and met a lot of my needs but cannot say it gave me purpose.  My current role in a pharmaceutical company offers more purpose but the distance to patients makes it foggier than its for front line medical staff.  I also find purpose in CongRegation but was unsure why.  Cronan McNamara captured it succinctly in his submission

“To describe the purpose of our company, we articulated the vision, mission and values of the company. These are all built on the foundation of the company’s purpose.”

However like most of us work purpose constitutes only a small piece of the meaning pie and I find greater purpose in my role as a father, husband, son, brother, friend, community participant and in sport/activity.

However many of these are temporary roles.  What happens when work makes me redundant, my children move out and on with their lives, my partner passes away, my family drift and I cannot participate in sport?  Do I fall apart and get stuck in the ‘what was the point of all that’ circular discussion.  Similarly if my purpose is too narrow and I achieve it.  What happens then?

Also some days I am completely fired up by purpose, other days I groan ‘why bother’ and wish I could pull the bed clothes over my head.

I envy those who profess to have found a true purpose but sometimes those with a unshakeable purpose can be so single minded that they can appear less human and a bit scary.  I doubt I ever will find true purpose or understand the true meaning of our existence but I am comfortable with it.  Always questioning, asking ‘the why and what’ are probably more important than finding the answers.  I am comfortable with this vagueness, the greyness and sense of a journey.  My life has never been tied up with a nice tidy ribbon, my impact will be modest, I try not to sleep walk too much through life and completely squander time the time I have.

Thankfully perspectives from other CongRegationers snapped me out of this potentially circular discussion. Will Knott would describe some of my ponderings as potentially mirthless – a humourless, grim, glum, moody and dour take on life – and forgetting the joy of just being alive.  Life is for living, we are not robots, purpose gives us guidance, they are a manifestation of our values but there are no answers.  Reading Tom Murphys submission I suspect I don’t know my true self well enough.  Ger Mulcahy defines his purpose in fairly broad terms, almost a philosophy for living and is something I could gravitate toward.

So back to children and purpose.  I truly believe asking them the big questions, helping them uncover their values, encouraging them to ponder their existence and aiding this with some guidance is a very positive thing.  It might mean we need look deep into the mirror an understand ourselves a bit deeper first.

Expecting them to have a ‘right answer’ is wrong.  An awakening and kindling of curiosity at an early age is probably enough.


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