On Purpose

by Jason Stotts

It’s interesting to me that one’s purpose in life is such an integral part of it, but for many people is completely opaque to them. It forms the core of who we are and how we live. It structures our life and gives us focus. Yet, there is really little to no guidance about how to pick a purpose in your life, which is problematic considering how important it is for ethics.

The standard way of thinking about your purpose in life is to think about what you are passionate about abstractly and then to try to find some way to match that up with a job in the real world. This works fine for many people, but for some of us it is less than instructive. What if the things I would want to do aren’t translatable into jobs?

Moreover, and more problematically, what if I’m not sure what I want to do with my life? What if there is no one thing that pulls me irresistibly to it? What if there are many things I enjoy and they don’t add up into a career? How do I go about creating a valuable and rewarding purpose that I can translate into a job? Let’s see if we can’t make some headway on this issue.

This issue is actually made all the more poignant for me because I am suffering under it. I don’t have a purpose in life right now. I mean I have some vague purposes like living well and seeking knowledge and having good meaningful relationships with good people. It’s not like my life is a mess. But my career hasn’t begun yet. I’m still working at a job and it’s frustrating for me to know that I am very intelligent, hard-working, and motivated, but yet I don’t know how to focus my attention and get a real career off the ground. A large part of this is due to me not understanding the issue of passion.

In order to help me with this issue, my wife found a couple of articles from this blog Study Hacks that make an interesting case that I may have been going about this entire process incorrectly. I’ve taken quotes from two different articles “Beyond Passion: The Science of Loving What You Do” and “Are Passions Serendipitously Discovered or Painstakingly Constructed?” and I’m going to link it up in a way that’s slightly different than the author does (go read the originals first though). Also, I hope the original author doesn’t mind my light editing to abstract the general principles from the context of the article.

From “Beyond Passion: The Science of Loving What You Do.”

1. Mastering a rare and valuable skill is the key to generating a remarkable life — much more important than following your “passions” or matching your career (or academic major) to your personality.

2. The introspection principle [matching your work to personality traits and interests is the key to finding a job you love] elevates [erroneously] the act of self-reflection to be the most important for making big life decisions.

3. To be happy, your work must fulfill three universal psychological needs: autonomy, competence, and relatedness.
• Autonomy refers to control over how you fill your time…if you have a high degree of autonomy, then “you endorse [your] actions at the highest level of reflection.”
• Competence refers to mastering unambiguously useful things.
• Relatedness refers to a feeling of connection to others.

4. [Pick a subject or career and] strive to become excellent at it…your love of the subject will grow with your sense of autonomy and competence.

5. Autonomy, competence, and relatedness are the key to loving what you do. So how do you get them?
1. Master a skill that is rare and valuable.
2. Cash in the career capital this generates for the right rewards.

From “Are Passions Serendipitously Discovered or Painstakingly Constructed?”

1. Passion: The feeling that arises from have mastered a skill that earns you recognition and rewards. [Also thinking this skill is important?]

2. [The belief that in the course of your regular life you will develop passions for various pursuits] posits that passions exist a priori of any serious engagement with a pursuit; [as though] they’re some mysterious Platonic form waiting for you to discover. This is a dangerous fiction.

3. Passion is the feeling generated by mastery. I submit that this concept is liberating. It frees you from obsession over whether you are doing the “right” thing with your life. A mastery-centric view of passion says that aligning your life with passions is a good thing, but almost any superficial interest can be transformed into a passion with hard work, so there’s no reason to sweat choices such as an academic major or you first post-college career. Your real focus should be on the long road of becoming so good they can’t ignore you.

4. The mastery-centric view denies that a priori passions exist. There’s probably no new job that would immediately grant [a person] the feeling of passion he seeks. That can only come from mastery.

Now that we have some of the material I want to work with, let’s start connecting the dots together and see if we can’t find a better way to understand purpose.

If your passion is not some innate thing that you just have, and framing it this way makes it sound less plausible in the first place (tabula rasa anyone?), and is, rather, a cultivated emotion that is a response to mastering a particular skill, then it seems a quite bit easier to achieve passion for your purpose, as passion stops being some mystical emotion that one cannot act to bring about and becomes something that one could work to achieve. That is, if you want to be passionate about something, you need to become great at it. If this is true, it means that we’ve always been taught to do it backwards, that the cause and effect have been reversed.

Although I’m not sure I’ve completely bought into the idea yet, I certainly think that it solves a long-standing question for me in what seems to be a very reasonable way. It also helps me to see that, in some ways, it doesn’t matter what I pick as I’ll develop a passion for it.

On the other hand, in my situation it doesn’t exactly provide concrete advice. I know that my passion is to keep working with ideas and to try to clarify different issues in human life through the application of reason and intelligence: basically, I want to actually do philosophy. But it’s hard to get people to pay you for ideas, when most people in the culture don’t realize the dire importance of ideas, that ideas move their lives and the world itself. While I think I’ve mastered many of the ideas in sexual ethics, and created a passion for it in my life, it’s still not clear how to monetize this and make a living from it.

I know that if I had to pick a single word that I would like to describe me, I would pick the word “philosopher.” I would be proud to earn that title and I think that I have new and good ideas. So, maybe I should go back into academia and get my doctorate and teach and write in philosophy. But, at the same time, I want to do philosophy as applied to life and not engage in the conundrums of philosophy apart from this. So, I’m not sure if I would be happy there. Certainly, however, I would be much happier there than I am in my current position, so even if it’s not ideal, it would be much better. If I could get my book done quickly and its well received, perhaps I could become a “public intellectual,” writer, and speaker, which I would really enjoy. But that’s a pretty open goal with a lot of variables that would have to fall in place that I wouldn’t be able to directly control, so that’s not ideal.

So, after all, perhaps I haven’t solved my practical problem. But at least I’ve made it easier and have a better grasp of how to solve it, instead of looking for some mystical purpose from nowhere.

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