How to Find and Commit to a Central Purpose

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Working out your central purpose is one of the most selfish things you can do. It has the biggest effect on your future and your happiness.

It’s not a quick process.

If you already have a general direction but need to clarify the personal significance for yourself, you may be able to sort it out in a month or two. If you lack a direction or are in conflict, you should expect it to take six months. That's what it took me when I overhauled my central purpose a decade ago.

There are three methods that I recommend to people whom I coach on this topic.

1. Values Clarification

The first method is values clarification. Most people have not thought deeply about their values or haven’t thought about them much recently. Your values develop as you take purposeful action. You form new values and reprioritize old ones throughout your life. But nothing forces you to articulate your values and see how they fit together. That takes a deliberate act of self-awareness.

If you are unsure of your central purpose, you need to allot significant time to doing this. The best way is to schedule 20-30 minutes of journaling on a daily basis to gain this self-awareness.

This is an introspective task. Its goal is to dig deeper into what inspires you. It is a data-gathering process. You want to get clearer on what you love and why.

This is what I did when I saw I needed to clarify my central purpose. Each day I would find some goal or value to think about, and then I would ask these three questions:

  • What does this goal or value mean to me?
  • Why do I want/love this?
  • How does this relate to my other goals and values?

I rotated among several processes for finding goals and values to think about.

Often I would simply reflect on what went well the previous day. I would identify three good things and then think about why they made the list.

Other days, I would analyze my conscious goals. I would take a major goal and think deeply about why I cared about it. Why did I set this in the first place? What will it make possible? What happens if I don’t succeed? These questions often triggered strong emotions, which I then introspected.

Sometimes I would reflect on my past achievements. I thought about why I had done them and what difference they had made in my life. And I would celebrate my success and how that success shaped me.

At one point, I did a Lifetime Goals exercise I learned from Alan Lakein. I wanted to see what came up spontaneously. Then I put these goals through the same analysis. Why did they make the lifetime-goals list?

Honestly, when I did this, I just made it up as I went along. I gave myself six months to explore all of my values. This took off the pressure. On any particular day, I could go off and explore any value-laden issue that came up with the goal of clarifying my value hierarchy.

Now I have a course in the Thinking Lab to help people explore their values. But I did it ad hoc.

Vetting goals and values

During this process, I didn’t just explore my goals and values, I vetted them as I went. I analyzed the value information as it was revealed to make sure I caught any mistakes and unresolved issues. I used this time to resolve conflicts and eliminate contradictions in my value hierarchy, as a means of integrating my goals.

There are three kinds of errors that are very common in thinking about values: second-handedness, emotionalism, and duty premises.

Possible second-handedness shows up as a concern with what other people do, or think, or want you to do. Possible emotionalism shows up when you formulate a goal in terms of how you want to feel instead of what you want to achieve. A possible duty premise shows up as the words “have to” when you’re describing your goals.

If you see these hints, you need to investigate further. In a previous article on "The Importance of a Value Orientation Toward Past Actions," I explain briefly why these three issues are irrational and how you deal with them. If you have some evidence that values are being held these ways, you need to stop to clarify the issue and eliminate any contradictions. Otherwise, you make your goal impossible to achieve.

Just to make sure there is no misunderstanding: The fact that you may have some dubious reasons for your goals doesn’t make you irrational. It just means you now have an urgent, selfish need to sort out the issue because you have evidence you made some mistakes. What you do is assume that this mistaken reason is a distorted attempt to achieve some rational value. You just need to find it.

For example, suppose the reason for your goal is “I want other people to like me.” This is not a good reason. But once you clean it up, you might find a desire for friendship with other valuers.

Or if you feel you "have to" do something, presumably that means there is something important at stake. Go beyond the assertion to figure out what that is.

I have developed a tool for sorting out the rational element in any distorted motivation. It is a list of Deep Rational Values, which is available as part of the Thinking Directions Starter Kit, the freebie on my website. Deep Rational Values are discussed in a class called Emotions & Values 101, and the handout for the class includes the list. The kit also includes instruction on Thinking on Paper.

If you are undertaking values clarification, I strongly recommend you get these tools to help you.

If your central purpose is just under the surface, you may find that values clarification is all you need. However, if you clarify your values but still feel pulled in multiple directions, you may need the second process: Values Development.

2. Values Development

In a previous article, I explained how values form. The short version is that values get strengthened in three ways:

  • You act to gain and keep them
  • You contemplate the value to you, especially after success (celebration and mourning)
  • You logically connect them with means-end relationships to other values

This means there is a chicken-and-egg problem. When you go to clarify values, you may discover that you don’t have strong values. In this case, you will need to take action to develop your values.

This is an experimental process. You set some goals that you think seem reasonable, then you take steps toward them and see what happens emotionally. As you take the steps, the situation will change. Events will trigger new emotional reactions. This will give you new material to introspect.

As Harry Binswanger says, “Emotions are not good predictors of future emotions.” You will be surprised at what you enjoy and don’t enjoy.

I have a friend who was a lawyer who was surprised to discover she liked employee relations law. It turns out that that requires putting out a lot of fires. She was good at it and she liked it. But she had no idea that this would be a good fit for her until after she had experimented with a few different kinds of positions.

Just the other day, a friend told me that he was surprised to discover that he loves managing a project to release, including all of the technical, marketing and customer-service elements. He had thought of himself as a technical manager and had thought the rest of the work was a chore, until he reflected on what exactly he liked and disliked about his work.

To develop values you need to experiment with goals that seem reasonable and then introspect your emotional reactions to them. That’s how you decide what you want to do.

This method works particularly well if you already have a general direction for your life and some experience in that area. You have past actions to analyze, plus if you are working in the general area, you can choose projects to work on and/or people to work with to give you experience in areas that seem like they'd be helpful.

If you have no idea of your direction, you will need to spend even more effort to develop values through action. In these cases, you may need to experiment with avocations to find work that "makes your heart sing." A good resource for this is Barbara Sher.

Ultimately, a deep passion for your work is created by consciously pursuing values and deliberately strengthening them by self-generated action: acting to gain them, celebrating your successes, and connecting them logically to your other values.

3. Value-Based Commitment

The third method is value-based commitment. By this, I mean you make a value-laden decision about what you will do and commit to action to do it.

This takes special attention if you didn’t uncover a goal for which you already have a deep passion. When you have a passion or change is forced upon you, you are motivated to persevere when it’s tough. And it will be tough. When you undertake something new or go to the next level of difficulty, you are not skilled at the work. It is not easy. Obviously, you should use every goal-setting and productivity tool available to be as successful as possible. Obviously, you will need to set goals that motivate. But it is still not going to be smooth. You should expect setbacks. Passion is what kept me going for 30 years.

If you don't already have that passion, you will need to build the passion through sustained, value-laden pursuit of the goal. In the meantime, you need to draw on the deepest of values to motivate the work. You need to commit to yourself. You set a central purpose because it is the only way to integrate your values and make a deep sustained happiness possible. To quote Ayn Rand (again from Galt’s Speech):

Happiness is a state of non-contradictory joy—a joy without penalty or guilt, a joy that does not clash with any of your values and does not work for your own destruction, not the joy of escaping from your mind, but of using your mind’s fullest power, not the joy of faking reality, but of achieving values that are real, not the joy of a drunkard, but of a producer.

This metaphysical perspective on happiness is what motivates the investment you make while you build your personal passion. This is how you solve the chicken-and-the-egg problem.

Value-laden pursuit of the goal is the key. It is critical that you don’t pursue a central purpose out of duty. If you do it because you “have to” or because “good people do this,” you will be motivating your work by fear, which is self-destructive. For more on this, see my course Do What Matters Most.

Instead, you need to get very clear on why you are making this commitment. Some reasons to keep in mind: A central purpose can help you simplify your priorities, give meaning to your lesser tasks, and ensure that you see progress over the long term. Maybe like I was, you are feeling conflict between your goals, which is unproductive. You want to grease the wheels of productivity.

These are rational values and they are a reason you might set a three-year goal to pursue a central purpose that you weren’t sure was “it.” You would commit to developing your values in that area and then see how you might adjust your course. As I mentioned earlier, three years is a short enough time that you can do an experiment, but long enough that you can really learn something.

To make the commitment, you may need one more tool: you may also need to reject the status quo. You need to see that if you don’t put in extra effort, if you continue the way it’s going, you will not be happy. You want to grow. You want your life to add up. You want to create results in the world.

At a deep level, setting and applying a central purpose is how you take ownership of your life. That metaphysical perspective can motivate you to commit to make changes that will take considerable effort over the long term.

When set and applied correctly, a central purpose plays an important emotional role in day-to-day life.

When you can see how weekly actions are building to a longer-term goal, you feel powerful. When you have a central purpose that lets you find meaning in the mundane activities of the world, every day is brighter. When you sit down at your desk each morning knowing your priorities, you feel confident.

If you already have a central purpose, I hope these articles enable you to get even more joy out of it.

And if you don’t already have one, I hope I have inspired you to take the time to define your central purpose.

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