When I first started writing this post, it was going to be a long comment to an entry on Glory Begin, in which the author thoroughly trashes (and in my opinion, deservedly so) the popular notion that in order to accomplish anything meaningful, one must first identify some all-encompassing purpose giving life meaning. That is common advice from today’s motivational authors—find and focus on a defining passion, visualizing it in great detail and pursuing it as a lifetime dream until, through the mysterious powers of the Universe, it eventually comes true.
Actually that’s not a new idea, but rather a twist on one that goes back much farther in history. Many traditional religions taught that people had a calling from God (or the gods) to follow a predestined path all through life. Back in the long-ago days when social roles were so rigid that changing one’s path was nearly impossible anyway, many folks probably did find that advice helpful. For instance, if you were the son of a farmer or a carter, you’d likely be doing the same work too; and if you saw it as God’s plan, then you’d feel happier and more dignified as you rode around behind your oxen every day.
And of course, there were obvious political benefits for the kings and priests whose obedient subjects believed that their circumstances were their God-given destiny. Nowadays we don’t feel constrained by old barriers of social class like our ancestors did; the modern narrative is that we can do anything if we set our minds to it. But, at the same time, there’s still an underlying belief that we are not really constructing our lives from the choices we make each day—instead, we’re humble pilgrims on a quest to discover and follow a life path already laid down by fate.
Way back in the misty depths of time when I was a confused teenager and life felt like a wild overgrown forest with thorny thickets everywhere, the idea of finding a straight and well-defined path had some appeal. But as I gained more perspective on how quickly the world is changing, I realized that trying to plan an entire lifetime according to one singular purpose was nearly impossible—and even if it could be done, it amounted to a recipe for stagnation.
Like many of us, I have a job that didn’t exist when I was a student trying to pick a major. Most workers in today’s tumultuous economy will change careers several times. As for small business start-ups, most will either fail or, if among the fortunate survivors, will end up getting acquired by some huge diversified company. Even if we love our work and throw ourselves into it with all the passion and clarity imaginable, there is still a high chance that in 10 or 20 years, we’ll find ourselves doing something completely different.
Although it may seem wasteful not to stick with the same plan for a lifetime, exploring different paths is not really a waste of time and energy because it builds a more flexible mindset and a broader set of skills. Entrepreneurs often have a history of trying many different projects and careers before finding success—not by chance, but because their earlier efforts gave them valuable experience that made them better able to recognize a good opportunity when they saw one.
To put it another way, we wouldn’t want a phone or computer with an outdated operating system that didn’t suit our current needs, would we? So, why should we expect our brains to keep on running Life Purpose 1.0 forever, while the world changes around us every year?