Here’s a question. Why are you (really) here?
Aloha: If there’s a single lament-slash-question I get most often — and most pointedly — lately, it goes something like this: “Listen, Deepak Kafka. I’ve read your stuff about living a meaningful life; I’vefollowed your advice; I’ve even spent long evenings at dive bars, just like you recommend. But what the blazes do I do with mine? I’ve searched high and low, looked far wide, listened long and loud, but I still can’t find anything even vaguely resembling my purpose.”
Let me offer you, then, my top four admittedly idiosyncratic — yet hopefully pragmatic — tips.
Be uncool enough to love. Purpose is a kind of love; it bridges the gap between the individual and the world. Yet, at every turn, in our brain-dead cult of the glacial machine, we’re discouraged from even using the word love — unless, of course, when it serves the consumerist purpose of selling diamonds or cheeseburgers or SUVs. So we substitute lower-quality ingredients for it, talking about “passion” or “dreams” or “bucket lists.” Yet, just as a McBurger is more of a food-like product than real food, so McLove just gives us the sensation of emotional fullness without the lasting nourishment of sustenance.
Real love, today, is outmoded, passé; it just isn’t cool. Love your work? Love your neighborhood? Love your life? Love humanity? Love yourself? See, I just made you roll your eyes with the coolly detached irony of the mustachioed hipster overlord.
In our overly numb culture of icy cool, when we do feel something, we so often feel the opposite of love: hate, anger, fear, and envy. And those can give you drive. But drive isn’t purpose — drive is a fury to be slaked, an ambition to be achieved. Purpose is love, not just little-l love, but Big Love, the grand affair that defines a life — first between you and your better, fuller, truer, worthier self; and then between your that self and the world. And the longer you spend, insulated in the armor of ironic detachment, icy cool in your igloo — the longer you’re on something like a permanent vacation in the lifeless arctic wastelands of the empty tundras of the human soul.
Head into your heartbreak zone. This is how you find your way out of the frozen arctic wastelands. It’s a cliché to say: get out of your “comfort zone”. Most of us, having attempted that, end up in a no kind of no-mans’-land of the the human spirit; maybe not the arctic badlands, but surely not the lush valleys of accomplishment; an ennui-laden purgatory where we’re neither satisfied, nor dissatisfied — just as aimless as before. So head past your discomfort zone — right on into the burning tropical isles of heartbreak. Now, by that, I don’t mean: dump the love of your life. I do mean: immerse yourself in stuff that makes you hurt, ache — that maybe even makes your heart break a little bit (or a lot). You’re feeling the stirrings of empathy — and purpose, Big Love, needs Big Empathy like the river flows to the sea.
When I got to college, it took me about a month to grow weary of the ninth circle of McDecadence I seemed to have fallen into. So I did the last thing on earth everyone, including me, might have expected my 17 year old self — replete with green Mohawk and giant combat boots — to do: I volunteered at a hospital for kids with life-threatening neurological illnesses, who were facing the prospect of possibly lethal brain surgery. I thought I’d have a few chats with people who needed to talk to someone, and it would be interesting, maybe even fun. Man, was I wrong. It was harrowing, grievous, haunting. I cried like a baby, alone in the basement, after every session for the first two months. But it wasn’t soul-crushing: it was the opposite. It evoked in me the desire to begin tackling problems that mattered. If, today, I have a Big Love for what I do it’s because I ventured just out of my comfort zone, but straight into that zone of heartbreak; for it’s in heartbreak, and only in heartbreak, that we discover not just the grace and power of love, but that our own limitless capacity for it finally, suddenly unfurls.
Most us don’t just hide our heartbreak — worse, we hide from heartbreak. And so we end up something like mute and mapless orphans in the human world; unable to speak the language of mattering; our vocabulary of life itself forever stunted.
Follow the NASCAR Principle. My friend James is a very “successful” banker — but every day at work leaves him number and (by his own admission) dumber than the last. My friend Steve, on the other hand, spent his twenties and much of his thirties in one failed venture after another — today, finally, he’s at the helm of a start-up that leaves him not just comfortable, or even “happy” — but abidingly, almost overwhelmingly, fulfilled.
Yet, most of us, I’d bet, see purpose like James did — and does: something akin to driving the perfect Formula One race. In this view, purpose is found by driving laps cleaner, closer to the textbook Platonic ideal, than the next contender — and so achieving a faster time. Hey, presto: race won! (It’s assuredly not a contact sport: touch another car, and you’re both likely to literally crash and burn.) But in truth, the creation of purpose is less the construction of the Platonic ideal of the perfect life, and more like NASCAR: a bruising contest of wills, cussedly defiant, often inelegant, and usually impertinent.
You take your knocks, and your knocks make you. So the question is: what are you going to make a dent in — that’s worthwhile enough to make a dent in you?
Here are some eminently worthwhile answers — if your goal is little-l love: your “job”, your “grades”, your “career”. Here are some tougher answers, that Big Love demands: humanity, history, society, the world. Love is the process of being transformed by transformation; of a kind of reciprocity in transformation; where the subject makes the object wholer, fuller, truer, and so too, in the discovery of the fuller, truer, wholer self, the object makes the subject. It is for this reason that, when we are electrified by love, the world around us seems bigger, brighter, better — because, in truth, it is.
Purpose, then, is the hunger you and I have for transformation to transform us; not merely to endow us with a sense of exhilaration, gratification, or pleasure, but to bring us closer to completion, fulfillment, wholeness; not merely the appetite for the possession of McStuff, but the hunger to be possessed by a sense of meaning.
Aim for forests, not fireworks. Live Little-l love is fireworks. It sparks, sizzles, flares — and fizzles. Big Love? It’s the quiet, mighty unfurling of the seed into the towering Redwood. It deepens, roots itself, reaches branches to the sky. A purpose is as dynamic — and as powerful — as all that. So don’t make the mistake of thinking that having “found” your purpose, all that’s left to do is execute the subroutines of an intricate, cold program of predestination; purpose is a process, not a state; an ever-unfinished accomplishment, not an algorithm. And so all the above must be not a set of steps you take to a plateau of purpose, once — but a ladder that one keeps ever-ascending.
Finding your purpose is not a phase of life — but a way of living.
I can’t find your purpose for you. You probably can’t find your purpose for you. Your purpose will — just maybe — find you. Like every kind of Big Love, it’s not in your control. It strikes, finally, suddenly, when least expected, with the full fury of a hurricane. Or it gathers around you, building slowly, like snow melting into spring. But the more it’s painstakingly stalked and carefully hunted, cajoled and wheedled, coaxed and lured with toy-store charms and cheap tricks — the more it just seems to rumble on off into the dusty horizon.
If, that is, you’re dumb, naïve, innocent, and vulnerable enough to let it.
Perhaps too many of us shop around for a sense of the way we shop around Muzak-filled big box stores, picking one, then another generic box off the sagging beige tube-lit shelf. We try law school (blue box), a geo-mobile-social gaming start-up (green box), i-banking (yellow box), or anyone of a hundred underpaying socially responsible nonprofits (red box). But finding a purpose is not like shopping. The unforgiving truth us: it’s a little more like boot camp. It hurts, it’s hard, but you can emerge fitter, tougher, better. Want purpose? Prepare to be left black and blue — all over, over and over again. Purpose beats you up; it bruises you; it’s no mere shadow-boxing with “life goals” but a bare-knuckle gladiatorial contest between you, and the heavyweight champion known as a life that matters. Like Big Love, it doesn’t just give you scrapes — it leaves with you scars.
And maybe that scar tissue, to those sunning themselves on the bleachers, ironically, coolly grinning at life — instead of struggling with living it — looks disfiguring, ugly, something to jeer at and mock. But those of us privileged by purpose? We know a secret: that growth sometimes feels like suffering.
Purpose, like any great love, redeems us. Perhaps not from the inferno, but from the void. Of a life, starved by insatiable self-regard, that comes to feel desperately empty — because, in truth, it has been. There is no singular, simple, final meaning to life. And it is the scars of purpose that, finally, don’t just merely give meaning to life — but endow us with a greater privilege — giving life to meaning.