This is the sequel (or maybe it’s the prequel) to “What Do You Do All Day.”
One of the by-products at being terrible at living in the moment is my brain is usually off thinking about some big question or idea. These thoughts are usually along the lines of, “is there a guy on this planet who hates going to Michaels more than I do?”, “are Zach Morris and Kelly Kapowski still married?” or, “which was the more traumatic 6th grade memory – when Kelly Grimes called me chubby or when Blair Morris got paint all over my new Nike sweatshirt?” After pondering these big questions, I usually come to the realization that these thoughts aren’t productive, and I should concentrate on properly supervising my kids as they play in the bath together and move my old He-Man and Star Wars action figures perilously close to one another’s “private parts.” Who would have thought my kids would be doing the exact same thing I did when I was a kid!? Must be genetic.
Every once in a while, my thoughts will stumble upon a seriously good question at a time that is more appropriate for such contemplation (on the can or driving down the road). Recently, my favorite question to ponder is “what is the purpose of purpose?” For selfish reasons, this question rings true as I am struggling with my own purpose right now. My ego frequently tells me nonsense like, “dude, once you lock down your purpose, all your problems go away!” (My ego is apparently a bro). The less egoic side of my psyche will respond, “is that true?”
As your faithful ordinary Joe philosopher with an SAT score of 1120 (the best I could muster after two tries), the answer I am throwing around in my head is, “there is no purpose.” For those of you (myself included) who have been looking for purpose, you probably don’t love this answer. Before you put a scarlet P on my chest and poor some lighter fluid on my ass, here’s a happier conclusion I have come to. “This is the purpose.” “This” being life – what we are all doing every day. And when I say “I” have come to this conclusion, I mean, I have stolen this idea from the books of such esteemed thinkers as Alan Watts, Thich Nat Hanh, Tara Brach, and Jack Kornfield (men and women who probably have a much more enlightened SAT score). Spare me a moment to explain my toilet can philosophy…
Our human ancestors were around for about six million years (think prehistoric GEICO Cavemen). Anatomically modern humans (people who looked a lot like your quirky neighbor) have been around for 200,000 years. The beginning of our written history or civilization as we know it began around 6,000 years ago (Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia). Finally, the industrial age kicked off in earnest in the 1800s.
Why am I giving you a history of humanity in four sentences? Well, the GEICO Caveman (having 99.7% of our DNA) was roaming this Earth for 6 million years, while the human who most closely thinks like the human who just sat down next to you on the Metro has only been around for 6,000 years (assuming the guy next to you can read and write). What I’m getting at is the GEICO Caveman had one purpose for 6 million years (other than save you 15% on your car insurance) and that was to LIVE. The anatomically modern human, Ancient Egyptians, and Industrial Bros, who have been around for SIGNIFICANTLY less time, have all had the same purpose, to LIVE. The only difference between the groups of people is that somewhere in the Pyramids or deserts (200,000 years ago) our ancestors figured out how to write stuff down and came up with new ways to occupy our days. Around this time, some Pharaoh like Snefru or Neferefre, probably decided to sacrifice a group of people because he needed to thin out the population a little after a bad drought. Knowing this answer wouldn’t appease his people, our esteemed Pharaoh probably came up with this idea…
“Hungry people of Egypt, the gods have taken our rains, drying our mouths, stealing our rivers and killing our crops. We must give them a PURPOSE to return water from the skies. We must send souls to the heavens!”
After heads rolled, the Pharaoh got lucky and the skies opened up from above. The remaining population probably thought, “wow, look what happened when those Gods got a purpose to give us rains!? I need purpose too!” And from this point forward, we have been cursed with the idea of purpose.
Crazy improbable story about Ancient Egypt aside, the take-away is that for nearly 95% of humans’ existence, there was no such thought about purpose outside of living. For me, thinking about this historical context, it becomes easy to see that purpose is a fabricated construct (no different than a traffic light), to provide order to our lives. While it sounds interesting and worthwhile to have a purpose like; cure cancer, help the poor, or collect all the Beanie Babies ever made, a purpose outside of “living” isn’t necessary. In fact, I would make the argument that seeking a purpose is actually a detriment to “living.”
Since graduating college, I have been looking for my purpose. At first, I thought it was to get an amazing job that would have me making lots of money. Once I got amazing jobs and made money, I realized my life was still lacking. So, I went out and found the hottest and “best” wife I could possibly find. Still, something was missing. Then, I decided my purpose would be found in the form of a business. After successfully starting up and (forcibly) selling said business, that didn’t do it for me either. Kids, it must be kids that will give me the purpose I seek. Two kids later and the search for purpose still continues. While this quest for purpose has brought me companionship, love, and material substance to my life (in the form of family, a house, and money), and has certainly made living in this physical world easier, I don’t think the search has actually brought me closer to happiness. The quest has me constantly wanting, gazing over the shoulders of my children playing, looking for that elusive pot of purpose gold at the end of the rainbow. When in fact there is no purpose to find, it’s a myth or a mirage promising something better when better is right in front of me.
This is it. The thing right in front of me is all there is. It’s all there ever was. I’ve spent my entire adult life searching for something I had the entire time. I was searching for the destination when I was already there.
While my search for purpose comes to a close, a new search takes its place. A search for the moment I already have. Next time you see me, please lend a hand as I’ll probably need help in finding it. A friendly, “hey Dan, look around” should put an end to the quest until I lose it again.
Author Bio: Dan started Fired and Free in 2017, to provide his “truth” after being fired as CEO of the company he started and led. After a diverse 17-year career in management consulting and entrepreneurship, Dan now leads 3Sixty Leadership, where he provides coaching and consulting to business owners with 5 to 500 employees, helping them to work “on” their business not “in” their business.