A central purpose is your top productive goal. It’s stylized and utterly selfish, not just the name of your profession.
One lawyer might have as her central purpose to defend companies against frivolous lawsuits. Another might want to get innocent people out of jail. If the lawyer works at the Institute for Justice, his central purpose might be to change the law of the land so that it protects individual rights.
A central purpose is important to adults of all ages, whether you are starting out, mid-career, or retired. If you want to lead a happy, selfish life, you need to integrate your values. You do this through a properly set and pursued central purpose.
The benefits of a properly formulated Central Purpose
I grasped this about ten years ago, when I was frustrated with my progress in my own career. I had a central purpose, which I discovered was not formulated well. My goal was “to undo the damage to adult minds wrought by Progressive Education.” But I was conflicted. Part of my effort was devoted to discovery of methods, part to teaching of methods, and part to building a business to support both of these ends. But these three undertakings often conflicted with one another. Obviously this effort was not fully integrated. I undertook to integrate my values and discovered I needed a slightly different central purpose to do that.
Done right, a central purpose provides three psychological benefits:
- It simplifies everyday decision-making by clarifying your top priority and setting a standard for judging lesser ones
- It connects mundane actions to a selfish end, thereby making them meaningful and motivating
- It ensures you make visible progress across the years of your life, rather than falling into a rut or burning out
These three benefits — clear priorities on a daily basis, meaning and motivation added to mundane actions, and a sense of progress — are essential elements of a happy life.
That’s just an assertion, which I aim to validate. In this article I explain exactly what a central purpose is so that you can see how it could provide these benefits. In the next article, I explain how a central purpose fits into your real life in the real world. In the third, I explain why only a productive goal leads to these benefits. Then I describe three methods you can use to identify a central purpose that can achieve these results in your case. Finally, in the last article in the series, I explain the practical and the emotional rewards of defining and implementing a central purpose for yourself.
What exactly is a Central Purpose?
To begin, what exactly is a central purpose? I learned this idea from Leonard Peikoff, who explains it in Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand in the section on Productiveness. He says:
A central purpose is the long-range goal that constitutes the primary claimant on a man’s time, energy, and resources. All his other goals, however worthwhile, are secondary and must be integrated to this purpose. The others are to be pursued only when such pursuit complements the primary, rather than detracting from it.
A central purpose is the ruling standard of a man’s daily actions… [O]ne needs a specific purpose as a standard to enable one to assess the various endeavors pressing themselves upon one as “important.” The man without such a purpose has no way to tell what is important to him…. The man who defines his purpose…knows what he wants from his time on earth. Since his concerns are hierarchically organized, his days add up to a total.
There is only one purpose that can serve as the integrating standard of a man’s life: productive work.
Just to be clear, because of the context, Dr. Peikoff explains a central purpose as something you should have. But elsewhere he makes it clear that the only reason you should do it is that it will make you happy over the long term. But let’s get clear on what exactly we are talking about and then see why it’s helpful.
You block out the time for your central purpose first
The idea that a central purpose is the “primary claimant” is critical for understanding what it is.
Primary means “first and fundamental.” A claimant is “one that asserts a right or title.” To say that a central purpose is the primary claimant on your time, energy, and resources is to say that it has a right to be attended to first. It should be the first thing you put on the schedule before you schedule other things, at a time when you’ll be fresh. Why? Because in some form it is your top goal and you want to make progress on it.
Right here you can see how a central purpose guides you. Because it is allotted time and energy first, it necessarily constrains what other commitments you make. Every other undertaking needs to be compatible with your putting time and energy into your central purpose. If it’s not compatible, it doesn’t get scheduled.
Incidentally, note the precision of Dr. Peikoff’s formulation. He doesn’t say that a central purpose does get this top-priority status. He says it should.
Putting your central purpose first is necessary because it is a long-range goal.
A long-range goal cannot be achieved without consistent action across months and years. It can’t be achieved in one month in a burst of energy. It requires sustained effort across time. You cannot leave this effort to chance. You need to make sure you work toward it on a daily or weekly basis, and that means you need to block out that time first, at a time when you will have the creative energy to do the work. And then you need to guard that time so that you actually do the work.
It’s not necessarily your paying job
Because it’s a significant productive commitment, your central purpose often is related to your paying job. But that is not always true.
For example, an actor may have as his central purpose to project heroism in everyday characters. However, he may not be able to support himself financially by that means, at least early in his career.
Acting would still be his central purpose, even though he might spend more time at his day job earning a living. But his day job would need to be chosen such that it was compatible with his central purpose. For example, he would likely need flexible hours to permit him to engage in acting lessons, auditions, and unpaid productions. The time directly connected to acting would be scheduled first.
Ideally, he would find a way to integrate his day job with his central purpose. He could study people if he were a bartender. He could practice roles while working a customer service job. As a delivery driver, he might rehearse while driving between stops.
This is an example of how a central purpose informs mundane tasks and brings meaning to them. This doesn’t happen by accident. You need to choose to connect seemingly unrelated activities to your other activities. But if you do it, you make every experience more meaningful.
For example, I knew a toy inventor who was fascinated by all manufactured objects. He was always looking at how things were put together, in part because it gave him ideas for toys, in part because it helped him figure out how to make the toys he dreamed up. This man could not be bored in any circumstance. There would always be manufactured objects around that he could be studying.
It needs to be an objective goal
Now that you see how a central purpose helps you prioritize, let’s look at what it means for it to be a goal. A goal is a result you decide to achieve. Qua goal, it has an objective completion point or points built into it. There’s a finish line. You can tell when you have achieved it.
This makes a central purpose something you do or create, not something you are. Be a “Lawyer” or “Engineer” is not a central purpose, or at least it’s not a well-formulated central purpose. If you think of your profession as your central purpose, you probably have a general direction for what you want to do, but you haven’t made your actual goal explicit. That matters.
Your central purpose is more specific than just a career. It needs to be a highly personal, selfish goal.
I gave a few examples of how lawyers might have different central purposes. Here are some different purposes that a software engineer might have:
One might have as his central purpose to make software easier to maintain and upgrade. Another might have a more general purpose of solving hard problems. Another might be motivated by the mission of the company he works for. If he worked for a bank, he might want to develop ways to make software hack-proof. Incidentally, it’s part of the job of a business leader to help connect the business mission with the personal purposes of the team members. That is the basic way that a leader motivates the people on his team.
It’s the personal significance and concrete goal that transforms a generic career into a central purpose. It’s what makes you passionate about it. It is why people with a central purpose enjoy their work.
Goals need to be based on gaining values, not avoiding threats
I must mention in passing that I have snuck in a critical standard for goal-setting as I discussed the need for a goal to be objective. To serve you best, a goal needs to be formulated in terms of gaining values, not avoiding threats.
Over the long term, you cannot survive without positive guidance. With practice, a threat-based goal can be translated into a values-based analog. This is the general principle of motivating by “love,” not fear. I gave a talk on this. There is also a lot on this on my blog. One reference is the article “Want to Be Happy? Set Objective Goals.”
But for our purposes, simply consider the difference between a mother who has as her central purpose to create a safe place her toddler can develop values versus one whose goal is “don’t mess him up.” The mother who is creating a safe place for her toddler to discover values will celebrate and see she’s succeeding every time he forms a new value. The mother seeking not to mess him up will only get feedback when her child seems to be in trouble. An avoidance-based goal doesn’t call your attention to success. It only alerts you when you’ve failed.
Which is going to lead to the happiest mother and toddler?
This failure to name the goal positively was part of the problem with my central purpose. As I mentioned, for many years I thought of my central purpose as “to undo the damage to adult minds wrought by Progressive Education.” This is focused on a negative — on the removal of a problem, not the creation of a value. Among other things, this cast a damper on the first 10 years or so of my work, because I kept finding more damage both in myself and others. A negative goal such as this triggers a perfectionism that is never satisfied. You can always find something to criticize. You only know you have succeeded if you have set a positive goal to achieve.
Incidentally, my central purpose now is: “to teach adults how to think clearly and logically about value-laden issues so they can lead happy and productive lives.” Every time I talk with a member of the Thinking Lab or write an article, I see myself as tangibly advancing my central purpose.
I didn’t get to that statement in one step. There is much more to say about how you formulate a long-term goal objectively. In particular, I asserted that a central purpose needs to involve productive work. In the next article, I’ll explain why that is needed for objectivity.