Purpose

I am constantly wondering what the heck it is I’m doing. I try new variations on my “career path”, doing my best to evaluate what seems to work and what doesn’t. As a net result, I haven’t experienced “success”; if anything, my career history resembles a 20-year long game of Jenga, with plenty of wipeouts and a nice big pile of blocks to play in.

Wakey wakey!

There’s a remarkably open post on Jory Des Jardin’s blog about her late father. Her dad was incredibly smart, entrepreneurial and confident…right up to the day he just stopped caring. This passage, in particular, I found personally chilling:

“You just can’t imagine how frustrating it is,” he said, looking up at the ceiling, as if trying to make sense of the ceiling tiles. “I keep looking, but there’s just no answer!”

It’s never actually occured to me that there may be no answer. I may have just seen a glimpse of my future, lying in a bed and delivering the same exasperated, angry, desperate conclusion: I just can’t find the answer. The difference is that my room is empty, and I’m talking to myself.

I feel like I’ve been on a mission to discover something all my life. It’s hard to explain, and I don’t really expect people to understand anymore. I’ve tried different labels: finding meaning, having purpose, and finding my niche. I’ve explored the angles, trying to get some edge on the puzzle of living. I cackle with glee when I discover some new way of deconstructing my world view into more manageable chunks. It’s fun! It’s exciting!

It’s a distraction!

Jory quotes Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi from his book Flow (yet another book I need to read). He “describes this precipice of questioning, when we seek justification for bothering to try, but lack a means of gauging our success” (I’m splitting the quote into two paragraphs, emphasis mine):

Purpose gives direction to one’s efforts, but it does not necessarily make life easier. Goals can lead into all sorts of trouble, at which point one gets tempted to give them up and find some less demanding script by which to order one’s actions. The price one pays for changing goals whenever opposition threatens is that while one may achieve a more pleasant and comfortable life, it is likely that it will end up empty and void of meaning.

It’s an insightful quote, though not very comforting. There are times when it feels like I’m overlooking that precipice, fully cognizant of its ability to diminish any sense of accomplishment in my world. What is it all for? What is the point? Intuitively I know that Jory’s Dad was on to one of the dark secrets of the universe.

Sidestepping the Issue

One of my favorite movies is Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan…not because it’s Staaaaar Trek, but because of its bittersweet themes of friendship, conviction, and out-of-the-box thinking. It is the source of the Kobayashi Maru Scenario, a test that measures the ability of Star Fleet Academy cadets to handle stress under impossible situations. If you haven’t seen the movie and don’t plan to (though you probably should), here’s a link to the wikipedia entry on The Kobayashi Maru Scenario.

Anyway, my line of questioning has that same feeling of doom that I imagine one would get from the Kobayashi Maru test. Let me break it down:

[1] What I do is irrelevant. There is no meaningful end-game. Life is meaningless.

Although I accept this statement from a certain philosophical/agnostic perspective, I also reject it because it doesn’t really do me any good. However, the statement does reflect a certain feeling of despair that is nevertheless real.

[2] What I do is irrelevant. I can therefore make up my own end-game. Life is choice.

This is a very empowering perspective, and it’s generally the one I maintain. However, I am also aware that I’m masking a desire for meaning. Making up your own end-game can also be very isolating; such is the nature of command, even when applied only to yourself. That leads me to the following conclusion:

[3] Life without Meaning is the No-Win Scenario.

Eep! My immediate reaction to this statement is that it’s gotta be wrong, but on the other hand it may be that I just want there to be meaning. It’s entirely possible that there isn’t any, and I am deluding myself. There are no Answers with a Capital A. Even if I make them up myself, the authority vested in those answers come from “just me”…and that is an exhausting proposition. It is not sustainable in the long run.

I am toeing the line of Religion now, but I am not going to cross over. I may believe that there is a higher being, but I am not going to let some organization convince me that they hold to the keys to my salvation, so I have to move in a different direction.

Changing the Rules

Later in Wrath of Khan, it’s revealed that the Kobayashi Maru test has beaten every single cadet in its history, with the exception of one very smug James Tiberius Kirk. As a cadet, Kirk “expanded the scope of the problem”, which allowed him to get leverage on a solution that otherwise would not have presented itself.

In the context of finding meaning, my expansion of scope is to look at the pieces I’ve got:

  • Me, feeling alarmed at not having Meaning and Purpose
  • Meaning and Purpose, which I suspect are arbitrary and don’t exist

The solution should will address the feeling of alarm.

  1. A first-order analysis suggests that if you don’t have meaning and purpose, finding them is the solution. That is, keep looking. However, I am pretty sure they don’t exist in the absolute sense I am craving. And this, my friends, is the no-win scenario. Let’s move on.

  2. To apply the expansion of scope, I need to look at what’s not in the mix. On first glance, the system seems to be complete: there’s me, and there’s my personal desire…what more is there? It strikes me that the word personal reveals a bias in my thinking that is probably common…the search for personal meaning implies a circle of one. Just me, looking for some way to fulfill those desires that can’t be sourced internally.

  3. I’ve already expanded scope once by trying to find different interepretations of meaning/purpose. I hadn’t until now considered the second: expansion of personal scope beyond myself. That is what struck me about Jory’s conversation with her Dad…he seemed so frustrated that he, incredibly smart as he was, could not find the Answer. Yet one aspect of the solution was right there in the room, listening to him vent.

The End of Solitude

I have been working in isolation for quite some time, and while I sort of enjoy the solitude, I also find that I’m going down that road of wondering what they heck it is all for. The bright spots in my days are when I’m having an active conversation with a client. At night, I feel energized by exchanging emails with my no-longer-local friends. I love making new connections with people through this blog, and figuring out how our various dreams and goals intermesh. Again, it comes down to people, not technology. Even though I identified this some time ago, I still find it surprising. Looking back at technology through the lens of remembered childhood isolation, I can see now that technology was one of the primary sources of personal empowerment, and that it was this served as the conduit to making my best friends. I mistook the empowerment for purpose: the truly meaningful product of the system was friendship and cameraderie. People are not just part of the system, as I thought in Passion Turn Me Round and Round: they are the point.

Being Less Cliche

I recognize that “It’s the people, man!” is a very old chestnut to be tossing on the fire, but hey, it’s new to me. Let me clarify some of the salient aspects: Finding a purpose in life is a rational exercise. Finding the right people in your life is an emotional journey. I need both. As someone who tests very evenly on the thinking/feeling axis of personality, it is absolutely critical for me to balance both sides. To now, I have not done this on purpose. That must change. Reaching one’s goals requires focus and freedom from distraction. Finding the right people requires similar mindfulness and selectfulness. If I were to start a company and start hiring people, I know what I would be looking for in terms of temperament and personality. Would I be just as confident in the personal realm? Perhaps not, judging from my currently long-standing single status as a hermit freelancing in New Hampshire. I have known this for years, but thought that it was non-essential to achieving some modicum of success. This is classic male thinking: “I’ll achieve first, then I’ll find someone to relate to”. I thought I had somehow evaded this by talking to various women friends, but apparently this isn’t the case. Doh! Life is fluid, and so goals must be flexible. Similarly, to find the right people, one must also be fluid and open to opportunity. I don’t know exactly what I mean by that, but the gist is that I shouldn’t pre-select based on my preconceptions of what people I want to associate with.

Time to Get Balanced

For the past few months I’ve been largely focused on productivity in terms of how to track time, choose goals, and recognize progress. It’s interesting to note that for The Printable CEO™, all of the new forms have dealt with those tangible aspects. However, the original form emphasizes two activities: concrete accomplishment AND creating connections with people. I have not released any forms to help with the latter, because I have not been mindful about pursuing this kind of relationship making. Instead, I’ve let relationships happen to me, passively. One of the keys to productivity, I’m thinking, is also the key to happiness. It’s the sense of MOTIVATION:
  • One can be happy and productive when the motivation comes from the outside, but this is like running your business at a loss; it is not likely to last long.

  • It’s better when you can exchange your internally-motivated “product” for external motivation. If there is something I can do easily that I exchange for something that gives me motivation to keep doing it, then that is far more sustainable…assuming that a market exists for what you can make. These are great partnerships, and learning how to recognize them is the tough part. My feeling is that it takes uncommon candor and determination, but it’s the kind of happiness worth working for.

  • The “best” would be to be 100% internally motivated, both in productivity and in the seeking of happiness. I didn’t think this was achievable for myself until a couple days ago, when I had a huge insight about what really was at my core, and that this framed the world in a way that I hadn’t considered. However…that insight is just for me.

The Answer Key

<

p>Q. Is there an Answer, some kind of Ultimate Purpose for myself that I can believe asbolutely to be true?

A. Nope.

Q. What should I do then if nothing matters?

A. Things don’t matter, but people do. Find the people who matter, then constantly show them why. That is purpose enough for you, Dave.

13 Comments

  1. Eric Hope 11 years ago

    First, thank you for your honest exposition of a commonly discoverd yet often unspoken truth.

    Second, with complete sincerity and desire to extend the information that was shared with me upon coming to a similar state of mind, coupled with the risk of offending you and others, and in hopes avoiding to come off as “preachy”, let me say nothing more than, after reaching the very same place in my life, I truly did find peace, contentment, hope, and ultimate purpose and truth, through the genuine Jesus Christ, and God’s ornate and beautifull redemptive story as played through mankind.

    I share this not to force my beliefs on you or anyone else, but to share the one thing that has brought me all of the above.  Logically, if I were to affect substantial life change in a positive direction from a common starting location, and were to withold that information due to the risk of annoying them, I would be guilty of a terrible wrong.

    And finally, let me say, I’m not advocating “Religion”, nor what in popular U.S. culture is accepted as modern (empty, ill informed, and contradictory) Christianity, but rather a genuine, experiencable and personal relationship with God, his son Jesus Christ, and his word as recorded accurately.

    The best, most consistent, and accurate resource I can refer you to, if you indeed wish to explore my reccomendation for yourself, to test validity and worth, would be those found at: http://www.desiringgod.org (I am in no way affiliated with them, only a regular partaker in thier quality work.)

    Good luck to you Dave.  You are in my thoughts and prayers.  And regardless of what path you travel, I appreciate your consistent honesty and vulnerability.

    ——-

  2. Dave Seah 11 years ago

    Eric: Thanks for having the courage to post your comment with the spirit in which it’s offered. I’m profusely appreciative, and thank you for sharing!

  3. R.M. Koske 11 years ago

    Synchronicity, wow.

    I spent Memorial Day weekend mostly alone.  I was quite busy Saturday and Sunday alone and doing productive and satisfying-in-the-moment work, then spent Monday doing not much of anything in the company of my spouse (not much of anything includes not really interacting with said spouse.)

    Tuesday I was miserable with the loneliness of my weekend, and vowed to reach out to people more.  I haven’t figured out how, but your post makes me realize I’m not the only one struggling, and reinforces my intention to do something about it.  Thank you.

  4. Dean Johnson 11 years ago

    There may be no answer. There may be many answers. There may be different answers at different times or contexts. Actually searching for THE meaning of your life is largely fruitless. Actually I think the search is sort of like dating. The longer you go, the more desperate you become, and the more likely you are to make a bad mistake. I think mostly the meaning of your life finds you, rather than you finding it. The important thing is to be open to the opportunity and not so desperate that you believe that you have found the final answer. At one point THE answer was photography. I loved it and was obsessed with it and did pretty well at it. But it eventually became less interesting and my obsession wained. Then came linux. It was great, a real opportunity, so I was obsessed with it. Then the world caught up and it became much less interesting. So then it was cluster computing, a derivative of my linux obsession. Eventually the realization that cluster computing was about being a cheap bastard and became almost like collecting aluminum cans. Only thing interesting about it now is what is done with it, rather than clustering itself. And then my latest obsession, the sport of lacrosse, ran smack dab into me. Undoubtedly it will eventually become common place, and not the pioneering adventure that it currently is, and it will become dull. Eventually it will only be a reference point to make fun of baseball and nascar fans. But then something else will hit me and I will lurch in that direction. It all comes down to “The Journey is the Reward” and to think otherwise is to set yourself up for disappointment. Now theres a cheery thought. ;-)

  5. Dave Seah 11 years ago

    R.M. Reaching out to people is something that I find very hard to do in person myself. How the heck did we used to do it in grade school? Maybe being forced into things with a large number of people is just the way to do it…hm. Very interesting.

    Dean: Heh, “cluster computer == collecting tin cans” is hilarious :-) The journey is the reward is something that’s come to mind, but I think we naturally want to look back and see that it all ended up somewhere. And it gets worse if you compare yourself to OTHER people on THEIR journeys. Maybe the trick to not disappointing myself is just not to care too much about that. And the prerequisite for THAT is not to feel under the control of others…random thoughts here.

  6. Dean Johnson 11 years ago

    A couple disconnected thoughts.

    To quote a famous 20th century philosopher, “In the rough and tumble world of rock n roll, you gotta lead with your face”. Perhaps its blazing your own paths that matters. I gather lots of long term enjoyment out of the puzzlement of my father. To this day he cannot understand how I attained my tangible (and intangible) levels of success without following anything even remotely similar to his path. Far as he knows, I am an undisciplined hippy that plays with computers, not the buttoned-up, suit-wearing, managerial corporate cog that he would have preferred.

    Perhaps its seeing what you have left behind that gives you satisfaction. I still go back to the small town diners that I grew up with, to find my starting point. I sometimes run into classmates who haven’t left the county and I feel good that the totality of their world view is sufficiently small to be consider sub-pixel resolution to me.

    Perhaps its our attitude when travelling. We do things somewhat differently. We judge the success of our travels on how many people will remember us, by name, fondly after we leave. It’s really cool to tell someone going to Bora Bora to say “Hi! from Jennifer, Dean, and Nick” to the concierge at the Pearl Resort and have him remember us. Perhaps I am just keeping score and offsetting the number of ugly Americans that travel like locust.

    The men in my family seem to be blessed with a profound excess of certainty, so comparing with others is quite easy. While others may go to the same places or do the same things, but I am absolutely certain that we did it better. So maybe its just your level of delusion that matters. ;-)

  7. Mauricio Espinosa 11 years ago

    Dave,any person has weak and strong states of mind in different times during the day. The mental chatter is always there and what I do to change it to a positive direction is to challenge myself to do something good for somebody without thinking on any personal reward and I try to do it in the same day I feel disconnected. The more I do this, the more human centered my life gets and the stronger my state of mind is to connect with other people.  The other day I listened to this interview that explains a lot better what I try to say: http://800ceoread.com/podcasts/archives/006198.html

  8. Mark Wooten 11 years ago

    I could take a lot of time trying to find the right way to say it, but Eric basically said it much better than I could. I sure don’t have all the answers, but I do believe that the God of the Bible created this world, created us, and loves you and me and everyone else, enough to send His Son Jesus to die as the punishment for our sins.

    Regardless of all the southern redneck fundamentalist stereotypes (which have some truth!), if you ever want to talk about this subject, I promise not to berate you, be condescending, scream at you that you’re going to hell, or pretend that I have all the right answers and you don’t.  :)

  9. Lauren Muney 11 years ago

    I work with people about discovering what they really want (their values) and working towards those values. I discover that many people have depression because their values severely conflicts with a) what’s going on around them, and b) their own habits/activities that they don’t feel strong enough to stop, although sometimes they don’t believe in that habit anymore.

    The important thing is to seek yourself: uncover what your true values are, and attempt to live your life towards those values. (Example: it will cause you grief if you are a modest person, yet with a job as a stripper). The more you align your actions with your values, the more content/joyful you will be.*

    This sounds simplistic. It actually IS “basic”, but it’s not simple. Life is complicated with many factors… add to that, our values may change over time and circumstances. It takes diligence to live towards our values, and sometimes this means to make tough choices.

    Example: I have a value of being physically fit… therefore, if I eat copious amounts of junk food (which I love), I know that I will no longer be aligning with my values of fitness. Additionally, I’ve been fat and I never want to be fat again… So I reflect every food/exercise choice I make against those values of fitness: “Is this a beneficial food choice? Can my body utilize these calories and nutrients?” …

    …with this reflection, I have NO GUILT. No “I should have done…” Instead, I’ve made a conscious effort OR a conscious treat. This same idea can be applied to most of living—- if we LIVE CONSCIOUSLY to our values, we can get on to the real tough stuff of day-to-day life rather than deal with guilt.

    So, is there an “Ultimate Purpose”, you ask?—does there have to be? No, really, think about it: does everything need to boil down to a pat answer? As you said (and you weren’t the first): “The Journey is the reward”: the self- (and world-) discovery is what is wonderful. Those awkward times and even our difficult times are what we reflect upon to grow us.

    I say this after having a spin at being Christian and learning what the fundamentalists say, that this body (and current living) is inconsequential; it’s the hereafter which is important. But that completely discounts the present, which completely discounts why the Bible might tells its followers how to live. (Duh: if the present is inconsequential, why teach people to love each other?)

    One of the greatest things I’ve ever discovered is “awareness”. This is the hackneyed ‘know thyself’. Know what turns you on, know what turns you off, know what makes you uncomfortable, know what makes you joyful. A BMW may turn you off but a filed of wildflowers may turn you on… and for the next person, vice-versa. With this “awareness” you can also see your junk-food habits or foul-mouth habits or procrastination habits or other actions. Then, usuing this awareness, you can compare these habits to your values to decide whether you want to keep the habits – or change them to better actions more suited to your values.

    This is what was interesting with Zen Buddhism. (I’m not a Buddhist, by the way). Zen says, “sit down, [be quiet] and be aware”. That’s it. From this awareness you can decide what to do. It has nothing to do with “salvation” (you have to want to be saved TO something, for salvation to work) and it has nothing to do with nihilism (“there is nothing out there anyway”).

    Awareness and following your values only offers you a satisfying life of ‘no regrets’. Sure, you can make mistakes, but you don’t ‘regret’ them if you understand that they are all the journey: you just make amends for those you’ve hurt and you do better next time. (Even if you’ve hurt yourself).

    As I see you, Dave (and I read your blog every time you post), you could look to your VALUE of being around other people. This is not exactly the same as “meaning” or “purpose”, but if you live towards your VALUES you will definitely find peace—no “no-win” scenario. You win.

     

    <ul>
    <li>“Living to values” does come with a caveat: it does not imply that you should be removing others’ values/lives while you live yours. IE: just because someone likes murdering other people doesn’t make his value possible in society. I’m not talking about sociopathic or psychopathic values… I’m talking about personal values that each person has for himself: love of family time, love of fitness, love of creativity, love of solitude, whatever.</li>
    </ul>

  10. Dave Seah 11 years ago

    Dean: “knowing what gives me satisfaction”…that’s a good question. For some reason, I am unable to differentiate or distill any single or group-themed set of things.

    Mauricio: Thanks for that link! I’m halfway through it, taking copious notes. It’s really underscoring a lot of things I believe, and I’ve seen it repeated in other forms and other sources. It’s very interesting and inspiring, and I’m sensing a broader pattern to draw from. Awesome!

    Lauren: THANK YOU for the thoughtful, considerate, and grounded comment. I was quite moved. What I am starting to think is that there is a shift in perspective that I’ve been making for a long time, away from metrics that I’ve taken for granted (and have been confused by). Your comment on looking to VALUE struck me to my core. Coincidentally I have been thinking about values and principles with respect to a friend going into the public limelight, and how I’ve actually been a little lax on defining my own. I have felt the DESIRE to put them in some kind of tangible form (this blog might be the lazy expression of that). I think you have just unlocked something very important…thank you!

  11. Dean Johnson 11 years ago

    Dave, if you can’t figure it out, you probably haven’t truly had it yet. I suspect that satisfaction about your life is like love, that there are different forms, some real-ish, some faux, some short term, but the real stuff is undeniable. One problem with something like love, is that the fake and fleeting ones are inevitably more intense than the real thing, which human nature inclines you to go after. There are tasks that will give you wonderful amounts of satisfaction doing, but in the process you give up too much of your self to continue. Let’s say that I get really involved in some church based mission that helps deserving people out. Its fun and gives me a lot of satisfaction and makes me want to do more. If I am good at it and the people running the activity dig my presence, they entice me to do more, which isn’t a bad thing. Atleast right up until the point that I am responsible for it and it become something of a job. It goes from “I think I’ll help some folks out” to “I need to help folks or else…”. Or they expand what is involved and it naturally staggers in the realm of religious stuff. Given that I am an atheist, it would be truly disingenuous to direct people in religious things, apart from “do whatever you feel is right or that you must do”. Or they start talking about how I am doing “gods work”. Hell no, I’m doing my work, don’t attribute it to anybody else! And then things go south. Thus, something that was fun and gave me satisfaction, became sour in the natural course of things. So I move on, looking for the next satisfaction fix.

  12. Mark 11 years ago

    David –

    If I may, I’d recommend you read “The Business of Heaven” by C.S. Lewis. It’s a book of daily readings from his anthology.

    Here’s a sample passage, entitled “Looking Beyond Ourselves”,

    We should, I believe, distrust states of mind which turn our attention upon ourselves. Even at our sins we should look no longer than is necessary to know and to repent them; and our virtues or progress (if any) are certainly a dangerous object of contemplation. When the sun is vertically above a man he casts no shadow: similarly when we have come to the Divine meridian our spiritual shadow (that is our consciousness of self) will vanish. One will thus in a sense be almost nothing: a room to be filled by God and our blessed fellow creatures, who in turn are rooms we help to fill.

    It’s a book on Christianity, but it’s not preachy nor organizational key holding in nature. Rather it is thought-provoking and I think speaks to a good bit of the thoughts you’ve expressed here.

    By way of disclaimer, I’ll join the others in saying I’m not posting here to convince or sway you in any kind of direction.

  13. Dave Seah 11 years ago

    Mark: I’ve heard that C.S. Lewis wrote some interesting books on Christianity…thanks for the recommendation! I’ve been thinking a lot of values lately, positivitiy, and the nature of direction from both the Christian and secular perspectives.

    Neat site, btw! Like the idea of transforming from a “good freelance practice” to a “great company”.

A message from Dave:

I believe we all benefit when we respectfully share our perspectives on common experiences. My house rules are "please be respectful of divergent views" and "enjoy the flow of ideas!"

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