The stories we hear of the successful often make it seem like they were destined for greatness. They identified their purpose from an early age and forged ahead, cutting down distractions in their path. But if you peel back the facade, few encountered sudden revelations. Purpose is hard won.
Child prodigies like Mozart or Tiger Woods are the exception. Robert Greene, best-selling author, worked dozens of jobs as a construction worker, hotel receptionist, translator, and screenwriter, before pitching his first book, The 48 Laws of Power, at age 36. But each step gave him a greater sense of meaning and direction on his way towards writing full time.
It’s human nature to crave a sense of direction. And direction comes from purpose, identity, and authenticity, each of which are intertwined. But they’re not the same thing. If you want to make progress, you have to be able to separate these and lower the stakes.
Meaning is what purpose is made of
The trouble with taking on purpose from day one is that it appears insurmountable. When you break it down into its individual components, it’s easier to pursue. Purpose is the series of pieces you find meaning in.
Your life doesn’t need a single purpose out of the gate. Just as it doesn’t need a single meaning. Meaning is an ebb and flow that tracks the motion of your life. If you follow this, it leads towards things you are uniquely suited to bring to life.
Charles Darwin (1809-1882) discovered botany only after dropping out of medical school. And he wouldn’t publish his theory of evolution until twenty-four years after his visit to the Galapagos Islands. During that time, he speculated on diversity in the natural world through experimentation and careful observation–breeding pigeons, studying barnacles, and soaking seeds in salt water to see how long they survived. What tied together these seemingly unrelated experiments–where he found meaning–was working to understand the nature of life.
Purpose becomes attainable once you stop obsessing over it and turn your attention to the little things you find meaning in on a daily basis. Meaning is within reach.
What’s meaningful to you?
Consider inclinations in your earliest years – moments when you were unusually fascinated by certain subjects, objects, or activities.
Reflect on moments when certain tasks or activities felt natural to you.
Determine what particular form of intelligence your brain is wired for (mathematics, logic, physical activity, words, images, music).
Do more of these things. The key is determining what’s meaningful to you and not absorbing what’s important to someone else as your own. Otherwise, you’ll miss the mark. If Darwin listened to his father and remained in medical school, he wouldn’t have joined the crew of the HMS Beagle or discovered the theory of evolution.
And this is perhaps the most difficult skill of all–sorting through the noise and determining what’s your own. It requires years of exploration, introspection, and reflection to determine for yourself. But this exercise gives you a solid start.
The long game and force multipliers
When you focus on meaning first, you create a system that favors an action-oriented approach. You shift your mental framework from external to internal–what’s within your realm of control. And this is the mindset you need to play the long game.
The promise of recognition or reward can carry you for days, maybe months. But not years. Only meaning provides that. Robert Greene’s latest book, The Laws of Human Nature, was the culmination of his life’s work and took six years from start to finish. You can’t fake 72 months of sustained effort without turning things back to what’s within your control and finding a stronger sense of meaning in your daily work.
Aspiring to win a Royal Medal or become a bestseller can still be productive, if held in perspective. But if that perspective is lost and your self-worth becomes dependent on external validation, you’ll likely give up at the first sign of criticism or apathy–and there will be plenty.
I find meaning in reading, writing, articulating complex problems, leveraging technology to simplify (rather than overcomplicate), and using storytelling to reveal something to people about their own lives. I can sustain each of these indefinitely because they’re meaningful to me and how I make sense of the world. If recognition comes along the way, I’ll welcome it (always keep the upside). But I also won’t stake my existence on it.
The catch is that few reach achievement without first pursuing meaning. You can get lucky and reach the top once, but to sustain at that level, like Darwin or Greene, requires something more. Meaning is a force multiplier. The stronger the connection to your work, the more force you’ll be able to exert.
It’s almost impossible to beat someone who’s engaged, finds meaning in their work, and is committed to the long game.
You still have to determine what you want out of life, make sacrifices, and focus on a few important things. But it’s not worth agonizing over the search for a single purpose from day one.
Instead, look for the pieces you find meaning in. Trust yourself. Discover ways to blend your unique abilities, interests, and experiences. With dedication and reflection, you’ll discover a sense of purpose that ties it together along the way.