Some thoughts on where purpose comes from, how it might not be fixed through your life, and about limitations and the liberation of accepting them
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- Better to have more than one purpose
- Your body is not just a means to the end of your purpose
- Purposes come and go
- It can be liberating not to achieve a purpose
About Iain Morrow:
I run a small software company in the West of Ireland – Europe’s most westerly fintech company, as far as I know :).
I moved to Ireland in 2015 and built a house on Clifden Bay with my wife and (now) 3 kids.
Contacting Iain Morrow:
You can contact Iain by email
By Iain Morrow
When I started to write this. I thought I would end up by writing down what my life’s purpose was. But that turned out to be too difficult, for reasons that surprised me.
First of all – why is there only one life purpose? Or even, why is there only one at a time? Having a single purpose for a whole life seems very narrow. Maybe if you define that purpose as something very general like “helping people” or “living a good life”, it might work. But that doesn’t help you day to day. Nobody wakes up and thinks “Right, I need to go and live a good life today”. So there have to be more specific purposes that might change day to day, depending on which role you have to play most that day, and how you are feeling.
Which led on to the second thought, which was that when people talk about purpose, it’s often like they’re talking about the destination of a journey. Like they are driving their vehicle – their body – towards this destination. But the vehicle is passive in this analogy. It’s just a means to an end, and doesn’t influence that end.
Is life really like that? We all live in bodies, and it’s strange to think that they don’t shape our purposes in some ways. At one level, they might limit the purposes we can aspire to. People talk about overcoming the limits of the body – or “the flesh” if they want to be dismissive. And young, idealistic, people, who live in a body that feels like it is limitless and immortal, might get away with thinking like that. But for those of us who are a bit older, and feeling our mortality and the finiteness of time, that doesn’t work. My 20-year old self would see this as the typical sell-out attitude of old people, but it’s reality. In fact, as one of this year’s popular books pointed out, we really don’t have much time at all (4,000 weeks – https://www.theguardian.com/books/2021/aug/16/four-thousand-weeks-time-and-how-to-use-it-by-oliver-burkeman-review).
But that’s not the most interesting shaping that goes on. A purpose is something that you would feel good about achieving, that makes you feel happy to think about doing. Unless you believe that feelings are purely from your spirit (if you even believe in a spirit or soul) then feelings must come – to some extent – from the body.
And if the body changes, then, as we move through life, don’t the feelings change? And wouldn’t that change your purposes? Put another way, if you were in a different body, would you have different purposes?
So, purpose is a changing thing, and your purpose today might not be your purpose tomorrow, or next year. You have to abandon old ones, sometimes. That might be because they are impossible, or no longer desirable – at least for you. And this implies not tying your sense of self entirely to one purpose. That’s setting yourself up for disaster. Even if you do everything right, you might not achieve your objective. Sometimes you’re just unlucky. Poker players have always known this, and as this book (https://www.annieduke.com/thinking-in-bets/) argues, it’s important to “..disconnect the outcomes of a decision from the quality of that decision…”. In other words, you can make the best choices, and still not get what you deserve.
This could all come across as negative, abandoning a life’s purpose, and acknowledging our limited ability to do anything. But actually, it feels freeing. Not being constrained by picking a purpose and having to stick to it forever. Not being destroyed when it stays out of reach. It’s still good to have a reason to get out of bed, but it is only a temporary guide.