The Bear Trap Of Finding Your Purpose
David Sedaris’s new book Happy-Go-Lucky, has the commencement speech he gave at Oberlin College in 2018. It’s great (Transcript here). But there’s one piece of advice he gave that has kept me giggling: “Choose one thing to be terribly, terribly offended by, and be offended by this as opposed to the dozens or possibly hundreds that many of you are currently juggling.”
A lot of things annoy me: a boiled egg that won’t peel smoothly, the checkout person at Whole Foods asking me, “Any fun plans today?”, or a shower drain that backs up while showering, my toes sticking up out of the water like a turtle head gasping for air.
But are those offenses? No, I wouldn’t say so. I don’t know if I can just choose one offense to get into intense arguments over for the rest of my life, but a front runner is certainly anytime people in their 20’s or early 30’s say to me, “I don’t know what my purpose is” (or any variation of that).
Here’s the problem with the notion of the big “P”—the what-am-I-on-this-earth-to-do Purpose. Assuming that you were put here “spiritually” presupposes your cosmic significance, and therefore the presence of your unknown or untapped potential on the universal order. It’s like you’ve sold yourself that you have a magical key and you need to find the one lock it opens.
The ramifications of this kind of thinking are myriad but the two big ones are:
You either discredit anything you’ve done as not good enough, leaving you with a Sisyphean assessment of your efforts or place in the world, or
You judge anything you might do as a waste of time, meaning that instead of creating some purchase in life, you’re left aimlessly window shopping from one idea to the next
In thinking you’re inherently special, you miss the opportunity to fully be human.
Here’s what I know: Your life is not a thematic one act play. Your life is a series of disconnected improv sketches. Most of the time you’re just figuring out how best to fit in the context of each one. It’s ok. It’s normal. Each skit gives you new tools, and adds to your bigger narrative even if you can’t feel it in the moment.
The best way to find purpose is to do things on purpose, using your brains and your brawn, your fingers and your (non-submerged) toes, using the information and intuition you have at the time.
So, purpose is a result of being purposeful. It sits on the backend of intentionality. (Very similar to my bit on meaning.)
A yearning for a grand Purpose is purely existential angst because we know we’re going to die, and we want to do everything we can to make life not feel so arbitrary. Purpose and meaning, then, are what give us agency to operate under the weight of galactic indifference.
And we secure purpose and meaning in life by creating it, by owning our verbs, by closing the loop on our accountability, and seeing where the hell that took us. Then, we rinse and repeat. Action, interaction, reflection…action, interaction, reflection.
Believe me, I’m in the same improv class as you, even in my 40's, wondering what my next move should be. Should it be about myself or others? Impact or money? Private or public?
So, be kind to yourself. You never have all the facts. There is no magical key. You’re not “supposed” to do anything. Just keep being intentional in the moment you’re in. Action is purpose.