Why does purpose matter?

January 26th, 2005 by Steve Pavlina

Why does it matter whether or not your life actually has a purpose?

Let’s take a few steps back and creep up on this question….

If you complete a task, and there’s no overall important context for that task, then the task doesn’t really matter. So you watch a TV show. It doesn’t make a difference — there’s no larger context for it. But if you complete a task that’s part of a larger project, now it suddenly matters, at least within the context of the project. If you create a web page, and it’s part of a new web site you’re building, that task matters. It takes you closer to the realization of the completed project.

Now when does a project matter? Projects matter only within the context of a larger goal. If your goal is to increase your income, and you complete a project that is likely to facilitate it, the project matters. It brings you a step closer to the realization of your goal. But if you complete a project like digging a trench through your backyard, and there’s no real goal you’re trying to accomplish, then the project is pointless. There’s no meaning behind it.

If a project isn’t part of some larger goal, then that project has no context and is therefore irrelevant. You don’t need a complicated goal to give meaning to a project. It could be something simple like increasing your happiness or even just entertaining you for a while. But human behavior is purposeful, and we humans don’t tend to undertake projects if there is no good reason for doing so. People don’t often work hard at digging holes and refilling them for no reason.

What’s the difference between projects and goals? Goals are outcomes, objectives. They’re states of being — a state where you’d like to be at some point. Projects are encapsulations of the actions you feel you can take to help you achieve a goal. Owning your own home is a goal. Writing a screenplay is a project.

So to reverse the order, you start by setting some goals, create projects to achieve those goals, and perform tasks to complete those projects and thereby achieve your goals.

But now what’s the context for your goals? Why do they matter? If a task needs the context of a project and a project needs the context of a goal, don’t goals need a context as well in order for them to matter?

Say you set a goal to increase your income by 50%. Why is that relevant? Is it pointless? What is the context within which such a goal actually matters? Why is that goal any better or worse than filling your backyard with holes?

Goals do need a context as well; otherwise, they’re irrelevant too. A goal without a meaningful larger context is pointless.

One context that makes goals matter is human need, branching from the basic root need of survival. Goals that enhance your survival can be said to be important. Another human need is connecting with others; it’s been found that this need is actually hardwired into us from birth.

But if all our goals occur only within the context of physical and emotional needs, then all we really get out of life is survival and mediocrity. Making more money seems to help satisfy our need for security. Getting married and having kids helps with our need for socialization and connection. And then there are compound behaviors like learning new skills to advance in our careers so we can become better and better at filling these basic needs.

But there’s another possible context for our goals that goes beyond need. And that is the context of purpose. If your life has a purpose other than merely satisfying your own physical and emotional needs, now you have the ability to access a whole new arena of goal-setting. You can set goals that go way beyond the context of need.

Some people may argue that purpose is a human need as well, possibly a spiritual need. I suppose that’s a valid way of looking at it, except that it doesn’t appear to be as much of a NEED as physical and emotional survival — it’s a lot quieter and easier to tune out. But for now I’ll treat purpose as something above and beyond basic physical and emotional needs.

If you only work within the context of need, then you automatically lack the ability to set and achieve certain types of goals. There are some goals you’ll just never be able to achieve. You don’t have a context for them, so you’ll never set them in the first place. Even though they might be grand and interesting goals, you won’t even consider them. People who achieve those kinds of goals that lie outside your context might include Jesus, Mother Teresa, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr. They worked within a context beyond personal need. If your only context for goals is need, then you can never hope to get close to anything they did. Your whole life will only be about survival — that’s as far as you’ll go. All you can ever hope for is mediocrity; greatness lies beyond your reach.

The second problem with having need as your only context for goals is that you’ll have a hard time pushing yourself beyond the point where you feel your needs are already satisfied. For some of you reading this, you’ve probably already done pretty well at setting and achieving goals within the context of your personal needs. I’ve been at this point in my life for many years. All my basic needs are met, and I expect I’ll be able to maintain that situation for the rest of my life without too much trouble. So there’s no real motivation in pushing myself to set more goals within the context of need. All that context can do is keep me maintaining the status quo, at best edging it up gradually. It can help me achieve more of the same and sometimes even an improved version of the same, but it can’t help drive me to achieve goals outside the context of need. And there are a lot of hugely interesting goals and experiences that don’t fall within the realm of need.

Some people get a lot more mileage out of the need context than others. For example, if you’re starting from a point of poverty, the context of need alone can push you to become extremely wealthy. Similarly, a bout with cancer can enable you to push yourself to a far greater state of health in the long run. But for most people, at some point that context of need runs dry. You can tell if this has happened to you if, when you think about big goals, they just don’t seem to matter; they appear to be more trouble than they’re worth. You have an underlying feeling that says, “Eh… why bother?” I suppose this helps explain why 90% of the people working today can expect to earn within +/- 10% of their current income for the rest of their lives.

When you reach this point of stuckness, it’s time to move beyond the context of need. Think of your need context as being a project you’ve completed. There’s no point in continuing to perform tasks within the scope of a project that’s already done. If you’ve already made dinner and eaten it, you can stop stirring the sauce. The meal is done.

Similarly, if you’re now living in a situation where your needs are adequately met, and you don’t seem to be getting any more mileage out of need-based goals, then you need a new context for goal setting. Otherwise, you’ll be stuck with some lame and impotent goals. You’re probably in this situation now if you set a goal to double your income, and despite feeling like you should want to achieve it, you get nowhere with it. And you know it’s because you didn’t really put much effort into it. Again, it seems more trouble than it’s worth. You’re not impotent though — your context for setting this goal is impotent. It doesn’t tap into your passion and talents in a way that sustains your momentum.

The next context beyond need is purpose. Purpose doesn’t conflict with need. It’s just a new context for goal setting. It can continue to coexist with need-based goals. Just as you can have multiple projects and multiple goals in your life, you can also have multiple goal contexts.

The cool thing about purpose is that it’s a much more expansive and interesting context than need. Need is pretty limited, as it’s focused around survival. But purpose is a much broader context that frees you from the limits of working on survival goals. Ideally, your purpose will be found within the overlap between your passion and your talents. If you need help identifying a context of purpose that’s right for you, here’s one way to do it.

I also find that the context of purpose works better than the context of need in several ways. First, it aligns better with your inner fire… your passion. You can only get semi-passionate about meeting your needs, but when your passion is aligned with your purpose, you’ll have far more energy and get far more done. For example, if you’re trying to find a mate out of the context of need, like you don’t want to be alone the rest of your life, that’s very weak motivation. You can easily fail to achieve such a goal when it’s only motivated by need — there’s little passion behind it… more of a sense of desperation. And your drive will be inconsistent — some days you’ll feel it strongly, while other days it will be weaker, and you’ll feel OK being alone. But when you come from the context of purpose, you’re feeling great about who you are as a human being, thinking about how much you have to offer a potential mate, and radiating that feeling to others you meet. And that passion will make it far easier to attract someone compatible into your life. Desperation turns people away, but passion attracts. Think about it — how attracted would you be to a potential mate who is living his/her purpose vs. someone whose whole life is just about survival? And if you attract someone from your need-based context, that person will most likely be in that same context, so your whole relationship will exist within the context of need — I need you; you need me. But contrast this with a relationship which forms within the context of purpose for both people; now the relationship itself can be much broader because it transcends need. The relationship itself forms out of the basis of achieving a greater purpose. These aren’t always romantic relationships either — you can see outcomes like the relationship between Jesus and his Apostles, coming together from a context of purpose rather than need.

The second way that purpose works better than need is that purpose is a more stable context. Need is a great motivator when you’re starving, but it’s a lousy motivator when your belly is full. The more you achieve your goals within the context of need, the more that need is satisfied, and the weaker it becomes as a context for setting new goals. Purpose, however, is ongoing and doesn’t drop off in intensity as you achieve success. It maintains its power at more constant levels — in fact, if anything it grows stronger the more you work within it.

Thirdly, self-discipline becomes easier. When your passion and talents are aligned with your goals (which is what happens within the context of purpose), everything down the line gets easier. Most of the projects and tasks which derive from your purpose-driven goals will fall within your talents, unlike need-based goals, which can lead to projects and actions that are very difficult and stressful. For example, if your purpose involves composing beautiful music, and you have a strong innate talent in this area, then your projects and tasks will likely involve spending a lot of time composing music. You don’t have to force yourself into action, since you’re already good at this kind of work, and you enjoy it immensely too. But you don’t always have this luxury of aligning passion and talents when you work only within the context of need. That’s where you may have to do things that you dislike and which you aren’t very good at, like forcing the musician inside you to do accounting work. Instead of feeling energized all day long, you’ll feel drained and demotivated if you work too far outside your passion-talent bubble for too long.

Fourthly, you’ll find that when you work within the context of purpose, you’ll also be able to use this context to more powerfully satisfy some of your needs automatically. Think back to the lower level of projects. Sometimes if you complete a particular project, it automatically takes care of another project in the process — i.e. killing two birds with one stone. You can do the same thing when working on goals from different contexts. And when this happens, it’s wonderful because you can achieve need-based goals while still enjoying the benefits of working within the context of purpose. An example here would be if you decide to pursue your passion as a musician, and you become very financially successful at it. So now you’re able to use your talents and passion to handle your physical needs without having to succumb to doing things you dislike or which you aren’t very good at. You’re able to satisfy your needs while staying within your passion-talent bubble.

This makes it pretty clear that knowing your purpose is crucial. If you don’t have a purpose in life, then you’re stuck working only within the context of need. It means your life is only about physical and emotional survival. Certain goals are forever beyond your ability to achieve. And your ongoing motivation for setting and achieving goals will become weaker the more successful you are at achieving them. The further you get, the weaker your motivation for continued goal-setting. The best you can hope for within this context is pretty darn limited. You’re basically doomed to live out a complicated version of life as a lower mammal.

However, when you know your purpose, now you have a whole new context for goal setting… not only new but also a lot more powerful. Imagine spending your whole life up to this point working on a project that isn’t very interesting to you and which you’re not very good at. And then suddenly you’re given a second project which fascinates you and which is a perfect fit for your skills and talents. And on top of that, if you focus on this new second project, it will likely take care of the first project automatically, so you never have to work on the first project directly again. Now which project would you choose to work on?

You don’t have to master the survival context to begin working in the purpose context. By it’s very nature, you can’t really ever master survival — the better you get at meeting your needs, the weaker this context becomes. And you needn’t abandon the survival context either. Keep setting need-based goals. But add that second, more powerful context of purpose right alongside it. Now you have a new dimension to start setting goals that have nothing to do with your survival needs.

What can you do within the context of purpose that you can’t do within the context of need? You can create an album of your own beautiful music with no concern over making money from it… just the desire to share it with the world. And you can have it matter deeply to you and not feel irrelevant and pointless. What are some goals you can set within the context of purpose which lie outside the context of need?

When you expand your goal-setting into the context of purpose, you expand your life. Right now I’d say I’m spending about 80% of my work time on goals within my purpose context and about 20% in the need context. A year ago it was about 80-20 the opposite way. This has made a huge positive difference for me, with the best part being that I’ve been experiencing life in ways I’d never have been able to access from the context of need alone. Often it’s possible to take a need-based goal and transform it into a purpose-based goal. So you gain access to all the motivational benefits of the purpose context while still taking care of the basic need.

If you don’t yet know your purpose, it’s worthwhile to take the time to discover it, so you can get past the dull need context and start working on some far more interesting purpose-driven goals congruent with your deepest passion and your greatest talents.



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