How can we start to pursue purpose?

Thoughts + Opinion

Life is often compared to an ocean. The rolling waves mimicking the rhythm and forces of life. This metaphor gives us a global perspective. Something high level to sit in awe of; something in which to feel peace and humility, to develop a “this too shall pass” mindset as a nod to the sheer magnitude of existence. The forces out of our control.

But what’s happening locally? What’s going on in each passing moment in the boring, ubiquitous monotony of everyday life?

Imagine each of us are on our own little boat. Nothing fancy, but something elegant and respectable. Seats four to six people – look, it’s a nice boat. You’re welcome.

We’re all out in the ocean, on these boats I have gifted you, trying to figure out where the fuck we’re going. White knuckling the wheel and hopefully not pulling a Buster Bluth and deciding “well obviously all these blue parts [on the map] are the land”. With time, we start to ease up on the grip a little a bit – falling into a sailing pattern which works for us. It’s not perfect, but at least we can say where we’re going. So we ease up on the throttle. We take a breath, set the navigation to autopilot, and go take a breather on the back of the boat. We’ve earned it…hell, we did it.

Usually, this trigger into equilibrium is getting a job, finding a group of people you care to be around, and checking your boxes of semi-committed hobbies – fitness, travel, etc. The trigger of checking the pre-determined boxes of what we have to do. And then you just…*hand waving gesture*…do that. Forever.

Sitting on the back of the boat is a reward for checking those boxes. You did it, now you can just cruise – let the boat sail on as those things we accomplished run their course. As they just happen. Pop a beer and watch the ocean behind you as the boat keeps pulling you forward, cheers to you. To us.

As the boat carves its path in the water, the wake ripples behind it. The echoes of the gently formed path across the water. Your path. Every hum of the motor creating another ripple which cascades backward into the deep blue expanse as the boat pushes onward. 

These are the moments of our lives passing us by. The inflection points of decisions we could have made, the actions we could have taken, and the person we could have become – fading out into an expanding and dissociating arc as the ship sails forward to its preprogrammed destination.1 As the wake keeps rolling out, we just stare at it, always wondering. Watching an endless supply of possibilities fade into the abyss as we keep getting pulled forward. Stuck in place, while always progressing forward. Your beer bottle is starting to crack.

 

Chains of Habit

As Jeff Goldblum once said, “life…uh…finds a way.”2 In this case, life is as good at nudging us away from critically rewarding discomfort, as it is at giving ancient lizards extra genitals. Life gently pushes us away from challenging self-reflection, mind rattling contemplation, and getting started (because we will suck…for a while). Questions like “what does it mean to live with purpose” and “when I’m 90 years old, what do I want to look back on? What do I want others to think about what I did?”3. The kinds of questions that must be addressed to approach life with open eyes and conscious engagement.

It nudges us away because these questions hurt. They hurt because there isn’t an answer, the stakes couldn’t be higher, and being wrong and failure are both guaranteed. And because they hurt, and the questions seek answers to problems we don’t technically have to solve, we avoid them. The nudge is subtle and silent, and even when we catch a glimpse, we embrace the nudge. The nudge is good. We love the nudge. All hail the nudge.

As our lives progress, inertia takes hold. The collection of activities – career, Netflix, hobbies, weekend hijinks, etc. – form an implicit identity. The things we just do, and find ourselves wanting to do, because that’s just…what we do. A lot of really great things, but also a lot of nudges. Maybe even mostly nudges.

Many activities are intentional, or at least started intentional, but they persist as pieces of our lives because that’s how we see our lives. This auto-pilot lifestyle does two things very well:

  1. It makes us feel like we’re doing it, living life
  2. It provides an effective distraction, an outlet from the uncomfortable questions of purpose and existence

 

So, we end up in stasis. We end up frozen in the back of the boat, getting pulled forward, watching the wake roll out. Rippling arc, after arc, after arc. Wondering.

We can’t help but form behavior patterns and habits. All we do is make choices and do things, you know, generally being alive and human. Except we don’t always really make choices, we just sort of do stuff. And that stuff keeps happening. A couple status calls go by, maybe a couple changes to our house, a new Jeni’s flavor, and then we’re dead.

These behaviors we form create habits. Often these habits can have destructive tendencies. We measure this by what they are excluding from our lives. The extra cocktails which steal sleep, focus, and time from our future selves via lobotomizing hangovers. The bloated Doordash meals we ordered all week – because fuck that week in particular – which make us feel like we’re moving in quicksand. The demand and distraction of everyday life we succumb to, is better measured by the absence of time spent reflecting intentionally on the challenging questions which can reshape our lives.

 

“The chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken.” 4

 

The reality is everyone wants to live a meaningful life, to say or imply anything else would be disingenuous. Everyone has that little itch that sits in the back of their mind questioning things around them, wanting more, wanting something different – but it comes in glimmers, and daily life does an impressive job of muting it (hail the nudge). It’s challenging to work through, it doesn’t have a solution, and it’s admittedly easier to turn away and just assume you’re doing (or trying to do) the right things, and it’ll all just work out.

Honestly? It probably will work out. But choosing to sit and keep watching the wake roll out, is itself a choice. Turning away from wake, from asking and exploring the tough questions, is the purest source of existential regret. The root of always wondering if you could have done more. Looking away doesn’t change what’s happening.

It’s not about quitting your job, getting on shark tank, or having a yacht that Mr. Burns would envy, it’s about living life intentionally, to your potential. Whatever that means to you. To do anything else, at any age, is to inherently forfeit a significant piece of the greatest treasure across the universe – consciousness. Use that awareness. Because everything behind us is, unfortunately, a sunk cost. It’s gone. Yet here we all are, existing. But existing is not the same as living.5

 

Making Time to Think  

These questions and concepts are terrifying. Thinking through the timeline of our lives and what it means to have purpose, and how to build that, is the emotional equivalent of snorting an eight ball of existential dread. Worse still, negative habits compound the same as positive ones. Thinking and exploring these questions pointedly becomes harder as time goes on. Time diligently piles more weight onto our shoulders like a Salem executioner.6 But instead of impressively large stones, this weight comes through responsibility, debt/lifestyle, and identity. And like a Salem executioner, life doesn’t give two fucks if we survive and turn out to be a witch or burst like a fleshy blueberry, it’s just there to stack more weight.

All we can do is maintain our lives in a way that is respectful of the responsibilities and commitments we have made, while feverishly carving out time to think about our lives, choose the arcs of the wake we want to explore, and act. It’s a cycle of identify, reflect, choose, act, repeat – and it’s the most important process we can engage in. It’s easier to do nothing, but this is debatably the only thing worth doing.7

 

“The things you think about determine the quality of your mind. Your soul takes on the color of your thoughts.” 8

 

It’s important to go through these mental processes because it builds our mind like a muscle. It creates a crucible for new ideas, perspectives, and insights to blossom. For us to boil down to what truly matters in our lives, and then develop an approach we can act on. Not to develop a static picture we cultishly chase, but to form a mirror in which we can explore ourselves and our lives honestly and compassionately.

And I know, right about now you might be ready to roll your eyes and think “I’m doing just fine, there aren’t any answers”. That’s exactly right. That might just be the only real answer.

If someone is selling you answers, they’re either delusional or a charlatan. Instead, embrace the ideas of reflection and choice. Maybe you sit down and decide you don’t want to change anything, so what? Isn’t it good you at least took the time to check? To ensure your movement wasn’t just the inertia?

In Principles, Ray Dalio offers a blueprint for making better decisions in life and work. He outlines the importance of prioritization, stating “while you can have virtually anything you want, you can’t have everything you want”.

Most of us just don’t choose. We don’t take the time to sit down and build answers to and act on the tough questions. To build a better blueprint. The true pain here is the same as mentioned earlier – this decision has real stakes. We can lose everything, we can fail at our dreams, and, what always seems to feel the worst, we will have to look stupid. To do anything well means to exclude everything else. Getting to that decision, choosing the small collection of things to focus on, and then to turn our back on everything else is challenging. It seems unrealistic to see anything other than the inertia and the nudges. It feels impossible.

Gift yourself the time you deserve to sit down without distraction and just think. Ask yourself challenging questions, focus on observing your life, and imagine what will be most important to you when looking back from the end of your existence. Things don’t have to change in a dramatic, cinematic way – and maybe they don’t need to change at all – but the process of sitting down with a pen, paper, and a cup of coffee and letting the thoughts pour from you onto the paper like an obsidian stream can start whenever you make the time. Clarity comes from action and reflection, it’s not gifted like a scratch off.

 

…And The Wake Rolls Out

As we watch the wake roll out, we can take comfort in Dalio’s message. Each arc of the wake a different possibility. We can’t have all of them, but we can pursue any of them. And over a lifetime, we can probably even pursue a few. But it requires taking time to embrace the cycle – to reflect and choose. And it demands each of us to believe that we can take a step toward purpose.

To believe anything else would be robbing yourself of your consciousness and inherent worth.

These contemplations can trap us in stasis, frozen at the enormity of the freedom we actually have, and the intensity of choosing an arc. The fear of regret, being wrong, and looking stupid can trap us in a state of avoidance which feels impossible break away from. The inertia and the nudges provide a path we can continue to follow without resistance.

Choose discomfort. Stare deeply into the rippling water and embrace it as a pool of opportunity9. Let your fingers graze a cresting ellipsis and know that it’s real, know what it could become. To sit by and do nothing, to passively let inertia carry you forward, is the worst choice of all.

Wondering in isolation simply becomes a watermark on each of the unwritten pages of a life we could have lived. There is immense tragedy in our inaction and stasis. And it’s a tragedy which, I think, most of us suffer from.

The tragedy isn’t being an average person or having to go to work. It’s not the knowledge that time itself makes it impossible to do many of the things which could be meaningful. The tragedy is watching as a silent, suffering passenger – sitting in the back of the boat, moving to a destination you accepted by default, watching the wake that is your life fade out behind you. The tragedy is not giving yourself the time and respect to think deeply and choose boldly, but to instead let it all become a forgotten possibility, fading back into the fabric of time by your own inaction.

The tragedy is always wondering and doing nothing about it. We can’t guarantee what happens in life; that things will get better. But they could be different. And maybe that’s enough.

With love/paranoia,
Nick

 

 

Notes

  1. Heavily inspired by the hauntingly visceral fig tree allegory by Sylvia Plath in The Bell Jar
  2. Obviously a Jurassic Park reference. Aren’t all Jeff Goldblum characters just…Jeff Goldblum in different costumes? His cinematic roles probably don’t make a good philosophical reference strategy
  3. A better question for a better way to think, presented in Decision by Design from Farnam Street
  4. Referenced by Warren Buffett during a Florida University commencement when discussing the important qualities that would help a graduating class determine who of their peers they’d bet on to be the most successful: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2MHIcabnjrA
  5. Referring to the Oscar Wilde quote, “To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.”
  6. From The Crucible
  7. The idea of purpose, and more specifically, the need to struggle and suffer for something we value and choose is a fundamental concept to Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving A Fuck
  8. Quote from the OG master of journaling and reflection, Marcus Aurelius; pulled from The Daily Stoic
  9. This is the name of an incredible cocktail at Maple & Ash in Chicago

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