The Meaning of Life: Discover Your Purpose

June 21st, 2005 by Steve Pavlina

Do You Have a Pre-Encoded Purpose?

Many books I’ve read seem to assume that we’re either genetically or divinely encoded with some sort of built-in purpose, and all we need to do is take the time to discover it through private introspection. You just sit down one day and write a mission statement and trust that what comes out of you will be the guiding force for the rest of your life. Perhaps every 6-12 months you update it.

Personally I think that’s nonsense. I see no evidence that there’s any pre-encoded purpose in any of us. You may have experienced strong social conditioning towards a particular purpose, such as if you’re born a prince or princess, and certainly your DNA will control some aspects of your life, but that isn’t sufficient evidence of any sort of divine will at work. I think in most cases you’ll just end up with a wishy-washy mission statement that doesn’t mean much.

If you begin with the assumption that you have a pre-encoded purpose and attempt to discover it merely by sitting down and writing a mission statement, I think you’ll end up building a house of straw for yourself. You won’t have a rational foundation for trusting your purpose. In most cases you’ll feel like you’re just guessing, and you might look back on your mission statement a week later and find that it’s not so interesting as you thought it was when you wrote it. You’ll always have doubts about what you’ve written.

When people try to sit down and write out a purpose or mission statement, they usually lack sufficient clarity to do so intelligently. How exactly are you supposed to define your purpose? Are you simply supposed to know it and squeeze it out of your brain like a sponge? What if you can imagine several different missions that might fit you, but you have no idea which is better? What if you can’t think of anything at all that seems meaningful to you? What then?

Just because you may not have a pre-encoded purpose doesn’t mean you don’t have a purpose though. It simply means that it will take more work to define your purpose. Your purpose isn’t really something you discover. It would be more accurate to say that your purpose is something you co-create based on your relationship to reality. I wouldn’t exactly call it a free choice though. There may be multiple choices for you, but all choices are not equally valid.

What is needed is an intelligent method for developing your purpose, a process that makes sense, such that when you arrive at your final answer, you have high trust that it’s correct.

If you’re wondering why defining a purpose for your life matters at all, read this:
Why Does Purpose Matter?

How to Intelligently Define Your Purpose

I’m going to suggest two different methods for defining your purpose. Ideally you should use both of them, since each will help you understand different aspects of your purpose. This is going to be a lot of work, but the end result will be worth it because you’ll reach a point of tremendous clarity. In the end it will be far easier to make decisions and take action, and you’ll find that your life just seems to work once you know your purpose.

Method 1: Emotional Intelligence

The first method is to consult your emotional intelligence. Passion and purpose go hand in hand. When you discover your purpose, you will normally find it’s something you’re tremendously passionate about. Emotionally you will feel that it is correct.

I’ve already written up this method here: How to Discover Your Life Purpose in About 20 Minutes.

The answer you get from this process, however, depends heavily on your ability to generate good input. Essentially what you are doing is exploring the search space of possible purposes, and you’re using the heuristic of your emotional reaction to gauge how close you are. But one thing I failed to mention in the original explanation of this process is that it requires you’re clear about your overall context for life first. If you don’t have that level of clarity yet, then you’ll have a hard time making this approach work successfully — you’ll be approaching the problem from the wrong context, so the potential answers you generate will all be in the wrong neighborhood. Garbage in, garbage out.

To use an analogy, imagine you’re looking at a map of the United States, trying to locate Las Vegas. If you have a good map, it shouldn’t take you long at all. Your eyes might shoot towards the left (west) side of the map, slide right (east) from California to Nevada, and you’ll soon spot Las Vegas in Southern Nevada. But what if you try this same exercise using a map of the U.S. from 1870. Now that’s a problem because Las Vegas didn’t officially become a city until 1911, so you won’t find it on a map from 1870. You won’t be able to locate the city until you realize you’re looking at an inaccurate map and get yourself a more recent map. Similarly, if your context is an inaccurate fit for reality, corrupted by too many false beliefs and incorrect assumptions, then you’re unlikely to be able to define a meaningful purpose for your life no matter what method you use — it’s simply not to be found anywhere on your map. Most likely you’ll settle for something that’s close to your purpose, but not quite right. You may target Reno instead of Las Vegas (Reno became a city in 1868, so it might be seen on your 1870 map).

My output from this method was:
to live consciously and courageously, to resonate with love and compassion, to awaken the great spirits within others, and to leave this world in peace.

If you’ve read yesterday’s post, you may notice certain patterns in this purpose statement that link up with my overall concept of reality:
to live consciously = awareness, required for conscious personal growth
and courageously = courage, a virtue required to pursue conscious growth
to resonate with love = unconditional love, which isn’t an emotion but rather a sense of connectedness with everything that exists, implying that working on my own growth and helping others to grow are compatible
and compassion = another virtue, one which helps temper courage
to awaken the great spirits within others = to help others lock in at a higher level of consciousness/awareness, which will give them the means to pursue personal growth consciously
and to leave this world in peace = a double meaning here: 1) world in peace = to do no harm, to work to improve life instead of destroy it, to leave a legacy; 2) leave … in peace = no regrets, knowing I did my best and could have expected no more of myself, refusing to die with my music still in me, inner peace

If you haven’t already done so, be sure to read these two posts to help you identify your overall context, within which you’ll be defining your purpose:
The Meaning of Life: Intro
The Meaning of Life: How Shall We Live?

Method 2: Rational Intelligence

The second method is to use your reason and logic to work down from your context. The clearer and more accurate your context is, the easier this will be.

To identify your purpose, you basically project your entire context of reality onto yourself. Given your current understanding of reality, where do you fit in? If you buy into the social context that most people seem to use, this will be virtually impossible for the reasons stated in yesterday’s post. Social contexts don’t provide sufficient clarity. At best you may end up with a wishy-washy purpose statement that addresses the basics like making money, having a family, having friends, and being nice, but there won’t be any real substance to it. If you gave it to someone else to read it, they wouldn’t come away knowing you any better.

Fuzzy context, fuzzy projection, fuzzy purpose.
Clear context, clear projection, clear purpose.

Since my context of reality is based on seeing life as a process of ongoing evolution (and I use the term evolution merely in the sense of growth and change, not in the strictly biological sense via natural selection), then when I project this context onto myself, the result is very simple — I’m a participant in the process of growth and change.

This is such a simple approach that it’s easy to miss. All you’re really doing is looking at your overall context of life and projecting those same qualities onto yourself. This projection becomes your purpose, your role in reality.

Imagine a hologram. When you cut off a piece of a hologram, the entire original image is still contained within the smaller piece. Reality is the big hologram, and you’re a piece of it. You inherit all the properties of reality. Your beliefs about reality become your beliefs about yourself. If your beliefs are accurate, you’ll end up with a sensible, achievable purpose.

This method will also help you identify problems in your context because you’ll notice that something is wrong when you project a false belief onto yourself.

Suppose your context of reality is whatever the Catholic Church teaches. Then when you project this context on yourself, you get that your purpose is to serve God, obey the Church in religious matters, and to strive to be like Jesus.

If you have a null context of reality (nihilism), you get a null purpose. When you project nothing onto X, you get nothing.

If you don’t like the purpose you end up with when applying this method, then what you’re really saying is that you don’t like the context you’re using. This is a conflict you’ll need to resolve. You must either accept the context and the purpose that accompanies it, or you must change the context.

Blending the Two Methods

I think it’s helpful to use both methods for defining your purpose to see where they lead you. If your context is sound, you should get congruent answers from both approaches. Your emotional and rational intelligences will each phrase your purpose differently, but you should see that it’s essentially the same. But most of the time that won’t be the case, and the answers will be different, which means your context is incongruent. You rationally think about reality in one way but you feel it in another way. Perhaps you hold religious beliefs but only follow them sporadically — they aren’t integrated across your entire life. You may feel in your heart that your beliefs are true, but you don’t think them in your head. In this case you have to identify the disparity, figure out where it comes from, and work it through until you can get both sides to agree or you can get clear on which one is correct. Use your consciousness to listen to the emotional side and the rational side, and be like a negotiator between them.

For example, if emotionally you feel that your purpose is to be some kind of artist or musician, but rationally you work out that you should be serving people in need, then you have to work through this disconnect by taking a look at what your context says about it. Remember that your context is your collection of beliefs about reality. When you experience a conflict like this, it will typically lead you to a hole in your context, a fuzzy area that you haven’t yet clarified. In this case you might see that you have mixed feelings as to the overall value of art and music. You partly see them as serving people, and you partly see them as a relative waste of time compared to other pursuits. You’ll have to decide which is the most accurate, empowering viewpoint. You have to fill the hole in your context. Yesterday’s post explains how to do that.

This can be a lengthy process if you have a very fuzzy concept of reality or if you’re very conflicted internally. For many people this will require rooting out incongruencies and consciously filling contextual holes, and it will take a long time before enough of those are eliminated to wield sufficient clarity to define a clear purpose.

At this point your purpose is likely to be very abstract and high-level, so tomorrow we’ll explore how to break it down into goals, projects, and actions.


This post is part three of a six-part series on the meaning of life:
Part 1: Intro
Part 2: How Shall We Live?
Part 3: Discover Your Purpose
Part 4: From Purpose to Action
Part 5: Transitioning
Part 6: Conscious Evolution


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