A purpose in life

A gerontologist who has researched old age had an interesting experience with a group of young students. They had read books about career strategies and success, many of which emphasised purpose. They had heard motivational speakers exhort them to find a single life passion, without which they were sure to drift, rudderless, through a disappointing career. But one all-consuming life goal in life eluded them.

One student asked him, “This really worries me. Do I really need a purpose in life? That’s what the books say, but I don’t have one. Is there something wrong with me? And how do I get a purpose if I need one?”

My answer is: relax. You are likely to have a number of purposes, which will change as you progress through life. Your focus should not be on a purpose, but on purposes, which change as your life situation, interests, and priorities shift. Don’t be railroaded in the direction of a single purpose, or remain on one train track because the train will change. The trick is to broaden your mind; that is your priority as a young person. Keep flexible, with your strengths, try everything to see what your aptitudes and talents are.

Then determine a general direction and pursue it. Determining a direction, an orientation in life (say, technical, or mathematical or artistic) is easier, more spontaneous, more flexible, and less laden with overtones than some mystical revelation that sets you on an immutable life path. Times change, circumstances change – indeed, change itself is the norm rather than the exception. A grand purpose is unnecessary and can actually get in the way of a fulfilling career. An attractive orientation is what you need.

My wife, an economist, and I, a businessman and amateur actor and painter, found in mid- life a joint aptitude for writing music. Neither of us had a background in music at all (My father told me I hadn’t a musical bone in my body!). You can’t make money out of composing, but that wasn’t the point. We found it a truly joyful experience, almost a mini-miracle that allowed us to work on something creative together, snd have it played by professional musicians. Early in my life I had established is an orientation towards the arts, and this was a great help. I simply decided to spend the money-making part of it in the business world (which can be creative ss well). You never do know where life will lead you, and that is part of the excitement of it.

  • Owen Bell

    I completely concur! Life is what you make for it. Telling people that there is only one purpose in life, and that is to surrender it to a distant supernatural entity, robs the individual of the right to decide for themselves what their purpose in life is.
    I also accept that what gives you purpose changes over time. When you’re young, you don’t get as many chances to try new things as when you’re older. Being economically dependent on and controlled by your parents means you generally only try the things they want you to. When I got a job and money for university, I was able to use the money to spend it on things my parents would to an extent, consider a waste of money. This particularly applies when travelling abroad. My parents aren’t particularly interested in visiting the Middle East or the US, but I certainly plan to do both within the next couple of years.