This is what the eminent psychiatrist Professor Anthony Clare had to say about happiness in an interview I once read: “It’s not simply a matter of having friends, but of feeling a part of something bigger than oneself: whether through family, work or community. That’s why World War Two veterans often say that, despite the war, it was one of the happiest times of their lives. War gave them ‘a sense of comradeship’, a ‘common purpose’ and a feeling of doing something worthwhile.”
Or, put another way by William Cowper: “The only true happiness comes from squandering ourselves for a purpose.”
The major upside to the coronavirus pandemic was a welcome return to the spirit of ‘We’re all in this together’. Although, it must be said, if you are yet another “influencer” showing us the hardship of lockdown from the beach in Dubai, this is, of course, not strictly true.
Most of us have no sense of purpose whatsoever. And we are unlikely to find one if we never think of looking. Now you’ve some time on your hands, don’t you think now would be a good time to go and unearth yours?
So, what is purpose? In a business sense, it would be: “What are you in business to do? Why does your business exist?” Not surprisingly, the very worst-performing businesses can never accurately answer this question.
In a personal sense, it would be: “Why were you put on the planet? Why are you here? What is it your mission to fulfil?” Remember in the excellent animated film Toy Story 2, Woody, the cowboy doll, has to decide what is his purpose. Is it to be a collector’s piece and spend all his time in a museum, behind glass, protected forever from human touch? Or is it to be a real toy, played with by children, even though he knows one day this means he will be placed on the top shelf all battered and broken? Woody decides on his true purpose. Watch it again by way of a reminder. Toy Story 3 is just as good on this topic of “Why are we here?” (On the other hand, Toy Story 4 is utter pants).
You mustn’t become as clear as Woody about your own purpose. Because if I’ve noticed one thing above any other that can aid your attempts at becoming a complete and utter f##k up, it’s having a complete lack of purpose. Many have a nagging thought that goes something like: “What if I get to the end of my life and find that I have just lived the length of it? I want to have lived the width of it as well.”
Some luck lies in not getting what you thought you wanted but getting what you have, which once you have it, you may be smart enough to see is what you would have wanted had you known.
Have you heard about the Buddhist monk who walked up to a hot dog vendor and said, “Make me one with everything”? If only it was as easy as that. So, how do you know when you’re lacking meaning to your life? Well, often it’s when you’ve attained all the material things, like houses and flashy cars, but you still feel empty on the inside or, as Andy Warhol observed: “I am a deeply superficial person.” This is very reassuring because, as you look at all those people you envy for their outward material success, you can now take some perverse satisfaction from the fact that some are feeling, on the inside, just as miserable as you are. You can pucker and pout all you want through your perfect Instagram filter, but we knew it all along.
It would appear ours is a world where people don’t know what they want and are willing to go through hell to get it.
Now, unlike goals, purpose isn’t something you set. The trouble with purpose is it’s something you were born with. It’s already inside you just waiting to be discovered. Which is why you must be careful you don’t trip over yours by accident. Here is how Mary Dunbar put it: “We are each gifted in a unique and important way. It is our privilege and adventure to discover our own special light.” Or as Victor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning, said: “Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life; everyone must carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfilment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated; thus, everyone’s task is as unique as his specific opportunity to implement it.”
So, how do you ensure you don’t discover your purpose?
If you’ve given it any thought, which is unlikely because most people never do, you may believe that your purpose must be profound, sound complex, be difficult to write down and remember. Have you seen those company purpose or mission statements, in their gold frames, that no one can remember a single word of, including customers? Well, if you follow that format your purpose won’t be memorable, inspire you or make you leap out of bed every morning. So don’t, whatever you do, aim to end up with a simple but powerful statement about why you are here and what you are here to do. Don’t write a passion statement. Don’t create a set of words that causes you to feel deeply what your life is about. That when you read them, your emotions, and a voice inside your head, tell you: “Yes, now I think about it, this is what I’ve always done and enjoy doing and can always see myself doing.”
My friend Phil says: “The purpose of life is to develop loving relationships and make a meaningful, positive contribution.” Spot on. Comedian Demetri Martin puts it another way: “I ordered a wake-up call the other day. The phone rang and a woman’s voice said: ‘What the hell are you doing with your life?’”
Action not to take
Don’t think about these four questions from Robert Allen, author of The Road To Wealth:
- What are the seven things I absolutely love to do?
- What are the seven things I am good at, have a talent for, or other people tell me I’m good at?
- What is it that’s absolutely essential for me to do in life?
- What do I feel I ought or would like to be doing?
And don’t think about the legacy you want to leave. What difference you made. Even if it was just to one person – your equivalent to Andy, the kid from Toy Story. Don’t think about what you would want a letter to your grandchildren to say about the life you’ve led. Don’t think about leaving your song unsung. Totally ignore the advice of the painter Ashley Jackson: “Years go by as fast as cat’s eyes on a motorway. The art of living is to make use of what you’ve got and use it to the full. Most people don’t know what they are living for, but once you have found out you have the jewel of life.”
About the author
Steve McDermott - International Motivational Speaker and author of the new book How to be a Complete and Utter F**k Up: 47 ½ steps to lasting underachievement
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