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by David N Johnson

September 18, 2023

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Hey there, my friend,

You and I have had some deep chats over the years, but there’s one conversation that keeps coming back to me: the enigma of purpose. You know, that elusive feeling that we’re doing exactly what we’re meant to do. It’s like we’re all looking for that magical compass that always points us in the right direction, no recalibration needed. So, I’ve been pondering, researching, and yes, even losing some sleep over this. And I’ve decided to put my thoughts down in this post, aiming to explore how we can find that “set it and forget it” purpose—or whether that’s even the right goal to have.

We’re complicated beings, aren’t we? It’s like we’re built with a mixtape of desires and goals, each track playing its own tune. One moment, we’re jamming to the beats of instant gratification—hello, binge-watching! The next, we switch to a more reflective melody, pondering the bigger picture and our long-term goals. Can you relate?

So, here’s a thought: Is this ever-changing playlist of desires a bug in our system, something we need to fix? Or is it a feature, a built-in flexibility that lets us adapt to life’s twists and turns?

The Nature of Purpose

Ah, purpose. That weighty word that has inspired countless philosophers, artists, and everyday folks like you and me. But what exactly is “purpose”? At its core, it’s the driving force that gives our actions and our life meaning. It’s the ‘why’ behind the ‘what.’

You’ve got two main types of purpose—Intrinsic and Extrinsic. Intrinsic purpose is deeply personal. It’s like the music you listen to when you’re alone, not caring what anyone else thinks. This could be the joy you find in creativity, the peace in solitude, or the thrill of mastering a new skill.

Extrinsic purpose, on the other hand, is more like the playlist you’d put on at a party. It’s shaped by the world around you—your culture, your family, your social circle. This could be the societal validation you get from a high-paying job, or the sense of duty you feel towards your community.

And then there’s the mixtape of life, where these two types of purpose blend and remix. The cultural backdrop, societal norms, personal experiences—they all act like DJs, tweaking our sense of purpose as we go along. Isn’t it intriguing how fluid this can be?

Why Purpose Wavers

You’ve probably heard of the “Shiny Object Syndrome,” right? It’s like you’re on a carefully planned road trip, map in hand, destination clear, but then you see a sign for the “World’s Largest Ball of Twine,” and you think, “Why not?” Before you know it, you’re miles off course. The human mind is a bit like that, susceptible to distractions and detours.

So, why do we waver? One reason is cognitive biases. Our brains are teeming with these little shortcuts that helped our ancestors survive but now often lead us astray. Ever find yourself doomscrolling when you’d planned to meditate? That’s your brain’s novelty bias at work, pulling you towards new information as if it’s a matter of life and death.

Life events are another curveball. A sudden loss, a new relationship, or even a global pandemic can change our priorities in an instant. It’s like your GPS suddenly rerouting you due to unexpected road closures.

And let’s not forget inner conflicts. Sometimes, the enemy is within. We might have deep-seated fears or beliefs that sabotage our best efforts. Think of it as a backseat driver, constantly questioning your choices and suggesting alternative routes.

So, the question is, how can we silence the backseat driver, ignore the distracting billboards, and stay true to our map?

The Art of “Setting and Forgetting”

So, you want to “set it and forget it,” like programming a reliable old VCR to record your favorite shows. Ah, if only life and purpose were that straightforward! But perhaps there are ways to get closer to this ideal. Let’s explore a few.

First up: Daily Rituals. Just as athletes warm up before a game, a simple daily routine can serve as a reminder of your purpose. It doesn’t have to be elaborate. Even a five-minute morning meditation focusing on your goals can anchor your day.

Next, let’s talk about Commitment Devices. Ever tried to diet and then bought a cake “for guests” that you ended up eating yourself? A commitment device is like asking a friend to keep the cake and only bring it out when you actually have guests. In the context of purpose, this could mean setting up automatic donations to a cause you care about, or publicly declaring your goals to create accountability.

Now, a personal story. I once set a goal to write daily, but I found myself skipping it more often than not. Then I started a pact with a friend: we’d both write every day and share it with each other. Knowing someone else was counting on me made all the difference. It was a commitment device and daily ritual rolled into one, and it worked wonders.

The takeaway? While our minds may not naturally “embrace the purpose all on its own,” as you put it, we can create external structures that make sticking to our purpose almost automatic.

Course Correction: It’s Okay to Waver

Contrary to popular belief, a steadfast focus isn’t always a virtue. Imagine you’re hiking and you decide to follow a trail. It looks good on the map, and you’re excited. But as you go along, you realize it’s not what you expected—too steep, too crowded, or just plain dull. Would you keep going just because it was your original plan?

The beauty of being human is our ability to adapt. Just like in hiking, life offers us multiple trails, and it’s never too late to switch. Some of the most successful people have changed directions multiple times. Remember, even Steve Jobs dabbled in calligraphy before co-founding Apple, and that experience later influenced the typography of Apple computers.

So, here’s a provocative question: Could the ability to change our purpose be one of our greatest strengths? Could it be that a singular focus, while comforting, might limit our growth and potential experiences?

Practical Steps to Instill Purpose

We’ve talked theory, now let’s get practical. How can you take that nebulous cloud of “purpose” and distill it into something tangible? Here are some ways.

1. Mindfulness Techniques: Before you can truly know your purpose, you need to know yourself. And that starts with mindfulness. Whether it’s meditation, journaling, or simply sitting in quiet reflection, these activities can help you tune into what really matters to you.

2. Goal Setting: Ever heard of SMART goals? They’re Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound. By setting SMART goals aligned with your purpose, you’re more likely to stick to them. It’s like setting waypoints on your GPS—clear, achievable markers that guide you to your final destination.

3. Community: Remember, you’re not in this alone. Surrounding yourself with like-minded people can act as a reinforcement mechanism. It’s easier to walk a difficult path when you have company, wouldn’t you agree?

4. Celebrate Small Wins: Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither is a life of purpose. Don’t forget to celebrate the small victories along the way. They’re stepping stones, building up to something bigger.

5. Embrace Antifragility: Most people aim for resilience, the ability to bounce back from setbacks. But what if you could do more than just bounce back? What if you could actually get stronger with each challenge? That’s the essence of antifragility. Instead of seeing difficulties as obstacles to your purpose, view them as opportunities to refine it. This mindset shift turns every crisis into a classroom, every obstacle into an opportunity. When you’re antifragile, your purpose isn’t just a static goal; it’s a dynamic, evolving entity that gets better and more focused with each challenge. This isn’t your everyday self-help advice; it’s a radical rethinking of how to approach life’s ups and downs.

6. Temporal Discounting: This is a psychological concept that explains why we often opt for immediate rewards over future gains. You might think it’s all about willpower, but it’s actually hardwired into our brain’s architecture. The kicker? You can hack this system. By vividly imagining the future rewards of sticking to your purpose, you make them more “real” to your brain, reducing the discounting effect. Essentially, you trick your brain into treating long-term rewards like short-term gains.

7. Cognitive Reframing: Ever notice how a change in perspective can completely alter your reaction to a situation? That’s cognitive reframing at work. Instead of viewing purpose as a constant struggle to stay the course, what if you reframe it as a fascinating challenge or game? This subtle shift engages different neural pathways and can make the pursuit of purpose feel less like a chore and more like an adventure.

This isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach, but more like a toolbox. Pick what resonates with you, leave what doesn’t, and don’t be afraid to customize your own tools.

The Odyssey of Purpose: A Final Reflection

We’ve journeyed through the landscapes of human desire, navigated the intricate terrains of purpose, and even picked up some advanced navigational tools along the way. So, where does this leave us?

Firstly, let’s acknowledge that purpose is not a one-and-done deal. It’s a dynamic entity, ever-evolving like the chapters of a great novel. Our minds, complex and intricate, are both the canvas and the brush, painting layers of purpose as we go along.

And remember, while the compass of purpose is invaluable, it’s the journey that truly enriches us. So as you set out on your own odyssey of purpose, don’t just aim for the destination. Relish the detours, embrace the challenges, and celebrate the small victories. After all, isn’t the adventure what makes the story worth telling?

As you move forward, consider employing some of the advanced techniques we’ve discussed. Turn obstacles into stepping stones with antifragility, outsmart your brain’s bias with temporal discounting, and make the quest thrilling through cognitive reframing.

So, are you ready to embark on your own odyssey of purpose? The horizon is wide, and the sea is calling. What’s your next move?

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David N Johnson

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David N Johnson

  • That is an EXCELLENT post with practical insights on cultivating Purpose. For many people, the concept and experience of purpose lacks ultra-high-definition clarity.

    Whereas I know my mission, that knowledge comes with a deep, driving intensity that offers no breaks along the path, no forgiveness for taking a breather, and hardly a pat on the back for the ground covered that day because I’m always thinking, “I could have done more – I KNOW I could reach deep down and gained more yardage.”

    This reading inspires me to perceive an opportunity to convert that level of self-demand into a self-enriching blessing because it compels me ahead. The allure it offers says, “If you meet my standards, you will be a BEAST.”

    It offers me mental bait – a picture of myself as a Terminator who crashes through goals relentlessly, indefatigable, to stand victorious, eventually, as a conqueror and king of fate. If I’m going to be a machine, a beast, why not access the delight there to be had?

    Lions don’t sit around giving themselves grief for not taking down an entire herd of gazelles. They snack satisfactorily on the meat they’ve managed to capture that day, and it makes them strong.

    If the driving taskmaster resulted in more happiness rather than more demands, it would be one thing, but in reality, it is constant pressure with no time to enjoy small victories, and upon occasion when my inner voice concedes, “Not bad, not bad at all,” it is usually followed by, “Now, how can you do MORE, tomorrow, and what can you do RIGHT NOW (at 11:30 pm, tired and sleepy) to guarantee the outcome?”

    As for myself, I can appreciate your idea of reframing because I can use that tactic to address my habitually nagging ‘Purpose Radar’ – the drill sergeant in my head yelling for me (as though I’m Gomer Pyle) to stay on course every day.

    I can adjust it into an encouraging, congratulating, and celebrating voice that recognizes the daily steps I take rather than focusing on all the additional ground it claims should have been covered on that day’s march along the road of success.

    After reading this, I can see how that might be very important to increase my satisfaction because, in reality, I run circles around folks who have no burning purpose. That fact should bring daily joy instead of dissatisfaction.

    So why live under the abuse of well-intentioned self-harassment when I can raise my awareness of unflagging, daily progress so that it’s good enough for ol’ Sarge?

    Yours is one of the genuinely substantive peak performance websites on the web, and I’m grateful for the content you provide the public.

    • David N Johnson says:

      Thank you so much for your thoughtful and detailed comment. It’s incredibly gratifying to hear that the post resonated with you on such a profound level.

      Your description of your “Purpose Radar” as a relentless drill sergeant is incredibly vivid. It’s a powerful analogy that many of us can relate to, even if the voice in our head isn’t as demanding as yours seems to be. The idea that we could reframe this internal dialogue from a taskmaster to a supportive coach is exactly the kind of transformation I hoped to inspire.

      I particularly loved your lion metaphor. It’s a poignant reminder that even the most ferocious predators take time to savor their victories, however small. If they can, why can’t we?

      Your remarks about “raising awareness of unflagging, daily progress” hit the nail on the head. At the end of the day, purpose is not just about the destination; it’s also about appreciating the journey, including the strides we make, however incremental they may seem at the time.

      Thank you for your kind words about the website. Knowing that the content is making a difference is the highest reward I could ask for. As you know, I initially wrote this for myself but am working on getting this information “out there” as it is my hope that it will help others as much as it has helped me.

      Keep being the beast that you are, but don’t forget to enjoy the journey and savor the small victories along the way!

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