How a Central Purpose Fits Into Your Real Life

Image of human-like figure as a tree with arms as branches stretching forward and back and leaves for hair; the words My Life appear beneath; the whole in shades of leaf green

In the last article, I described a central purpose as a long-range productive goal that is stylized and utterly selfish. I gave a few examples of how different people in the same profession could have significantly different passions. And I argued that everyone, from young adults to retirees, benefits from having such a goal.

There are many confusions about this, which all come down to “Well, that doesn't apply to me." In this article, I hope to show you that a central purpose is possible and necessary — and supremely beneficial — no matter what your life circumstances. 

What if I don't have a calling?

Many people are daunted by the idea of setting a central purpose. They think a central purpose should set the direction for the rest of their lives. This is not the way to look at it.

Yes, some people develop a “calling.” Incidentally, it's named a "calling" from its origin in a religious context. Religious people who have a calling think that God put them on the planet for a specific purpose — He called them to do that. As part of their religious beliefs, they dedicate themselves to that purpose. 

My  understanding of a calling is completely secular. I would say that I have had a calling since soon after I grasped the damage done to my mind by Progressive Education. The initial realization made me angry and I decided to do something about it. As I dove into retraining my own mind and I learned more, I became more committed to the general goal of figuring out how you solve this problem in general. I saw that I, personally, am in the right place, at the right time, with the right education, possessing the right kind of ambition and having the right starting skillset — and lack thereof — so that I am uniquely qualified to make headway on this problem. It is also an extremely difficult problem with many ramifications. As a result of this, my mission in life has not changed since I first formulated it and I will keep working on it until I can’t think any longer. 

But not everyone has a calling, nor is that necessary to have a central purpose.

Most people formulate a central purpose that is a 310 year goal. Three years is about the shortest timeframe in which you can get the integrating benefit of a long-term goal. Over the course of three years, you can develop expertise and passion related to your goal. The expertise gives you a deep confidence; the passion gives you lasting motivation; together, they allow you to achieve significant results. It takes at least a year or so to develop any significant expertise and passion, and then a year or so to cash in on it. If you have a goal that is less than 3 years, it will not have much of a payoff.

On the other hand, after 10 years, most people seem to need a shift. Sometimes you become so good at the work that it becomes boring or routine. You need a bigger challenge. And if you've had success in a given area, new achievements in that same area may not seem so interesting. You need something to refresh your passion.

Indeed, even though I have had one calling for 30 years, my central purpose has changed every ten years or so. First it was to discover how to retrain a mind. Then it was to teach people. Then I figured out that in order for my work to make an impact, I needed to zero in on one clear challenge to address. At present, my central purpose is to teach adults how to think clearly and logically about value-laden issues so they can lead happy and productive lives. That purpose guides all of my discovery, teaching, and business decisions. Once I’m satisfied with my body of work on this topic, I expect to turn to teaching rational communication and/or essentialization. We’ll see.

But what if I have health or family constraints on what I can do? 

Sometimes external circumstances have a big impact on what you set as your central purpose. Your purpose needs to change to some degree with the changing circumstances — and with your resources to act. But you still have many options.

For example, take the story of a mother I know whom I think of as a role model for motherhood. Her kids are happy, curious, and self-confident, and everyone in the family loves each other. Although she loved her children, she did not find the full-time work of keeping them healthy and happy in their early childhood years to be intellectually satisfying to her. For a decade while they were young, her central purpose was to write suspense novels. She necessarily did this part-time, but it gave meaning to her life and ensured her kids had a happy mother, not a depressed one. When her oldest child reached adolescence, he became very curious about philosophic ideas. Her central purpose changed to fostering the development of her son's conceptual faculty. Novel-writing became a side project, not her central purpose.  

Or take the case of retirees. Retirees need a central purpose, too, to keep their passion and interest in life and to make sure their lives don't go in circles. Their time horizon may be different, though the "strategic coach" Dan Sullivan recommends you always set 25-year goals, no matter how old you are. Since they’re retired, they don’t have to make money. This opens up possibilities that weren’t previously practical such as fiction writing. That’s exciting.

However, they may also need to spend more time focusing on health. Doctors' appointments eat up their week. Plus, they may want to spend more time on leisure. One way or another, most retirees will want to devote less time each week to their central purpose than they did during their prime working years. 

There's a minimum amount of time to devote in order to get any kind of momentum on a long-range goal. I think it's about 10 hours a week. That is enough investment in a central purpose to help you prioritize your days, give meaning to everyday actions, and ensure that as you look back, you see you are making progress toward a major goal. Less than that and you may feel that when you sit down to work, you spend all of your time catching up with where you left off.

Though retirees may have a central purpose that doesn't make money and doesn't take all of their time,  one thing stays the same. A retiree’s central purpose still needs to concern productive work.

What exactly is productive work?

Productive work is the creation of material values.This means you create something in the world that has an existence and potential value apart from you. It is not just in your head. 

If you are an intellectual, this is the difference between setting your goal to be " know things" versus to communicate what you know. Knowledge is a value. But you have not created a material value until you put that knowledge into some material form, whether a talk or a book or a course. This gives the ideas an existence beyond just in your mind.

Trade with other people can turn a non-material value into a material value. A musician who lived prior to the invention of recording devices could make his music objective by performing for an audience. Even an unpaid performance is an observable event that can be evaluated. For example, I often run practice sessions of new talks with a practice audience to see how they react. This gives me helpful feedback on what I am creating. Indeed, most creations go through at least one round of objective feedback. 

Having values you created out there in the world is essential to your psychological health. Creating material values meets critical mental needs.

Why is productive work so important?

Again, productive work is the creation of material values. The most important reason you need to create material values, not just create experiences in your head, is that you need to be able to see your own ability to make your way in life.

When you create a material value, the results are tangible. You can see your own success. This is the basis of an authentic self-esteem that underlies a happy life. When you create material values, there is an objective basis for feeling satisfaction, joy, and pride in your life. 

Now, creating material values doesn't guarantee you'll be happy. You may have old baggage that gets in the way of those pleasurable feelings. But if that happens, you will have the means of analyzing the situation and getting rid of the old baggage. Since it will be objectively true that the baggage is distorting your emotional reactions, you will be able to see it and find the contradictions in your own thinking that give rise to the distortions. 

Consider again the case of a musical performance vs. a practice session by yourself. Suppose you make a mistake or two in the performance. You will know it, but it will be helpful to find out how the audience reacted to it, to judge how much it undercut the goal of the performance. Even more important, if there are very knowledgeable people in the audience, they can give you positive feedback. Often, a listener will give you positive feedback that helps you understand and appreciate your own performance. Something you took for granted and did unselfconsciously may be important and worthy of conscious attention.

Subjectivity is an objective problem. You need objective achievement in the world to get real-world feedback on your own psychology. The results of your action need to be out there in the world, not just in your head.

I learned this in part because I started with a discovery goal. I wanted to understand how the mind works and how to retrain it. But after years of learning many things, I had very little to show for it and little sense of progress. This is inherent in having a learning goal. As soon as you learn one thing, you now have questions about three more things that connect to it. Knowledge of what you don’t know necessarily grows faster than what you do know.

You can establish objective measures for the growth of your knowledge but it takes work. Teachers set up a supportive environment so that students can see objective growth in their knowledge. That is a huge value that a teacher brings to a student. But if you are learning by yourself, you need to develop advanced skills to evaluate whether you are making objective progress or just going in circles. Your achievement is intangible until you make it objectively real. That always involves communicating it in some way.

There is a lot more to say about why a central purpose needs to concern productive work. I will elaborate in the next article in the series.

P.S. Incidentally,  I run an 8-week program called “Launch” to help people kick off work on a major goal.  Many people, including retirees, have used this program to figure out a central purpose. 

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1 Comment

  1. Mike

    Great emphasis on objective achievement ‘out there’ as opposed to simply trying to gin up pleasant experiences inside one’s own mind. It seems so much of mainstream psychology over the last few decades has devolved into an overemphasis on subjective experience divorced from tangible external realities. There is an essential link, correspondence between actions and results in the real world and our internal emotional responses. Emotions serve as motivation and feedback, about how we’re doing relative to what’s important to us. Real confidence comes from ‘environmental mastery,’ not from telling ourselves or being told that we’re great, special, etc.

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