what we talk about when we talk about purpose
You can’t have everything. Where would you put it? — Steven Wright
So you want a purpose. It’s a shame you can’t just buy one off the Internet. But if you don’t have a purpose, and you’re looking for a purpose, maybe that is your purpose right now. To engage in that process of discovery.
Call it a vision, a mission statement, a personal creed, a tattoo: different strokes for different folks.
Purpose is a way of nailing ourselves to the world. click to tweet
It’s that point where our inner life connects to a shared and much larger picture, through the expression of what Nilofer Merchant calls our onlyness.
(When I grow up, I want to be as smart as Nilofer Merchant.)
“Onlyness is that thing that only one particular person can bring to a situation…Each of us is standing in a spot that no one else occupies. That unique point of view is born of our accumulated experience, perspective and vision…”
“Embracing onlyness means that…we must embrace our history, not deny it. This includes both our ‘dark’ and our ‘light’ sides. Because when we deny our history, vision, perspective, we are also denying a unique point of view, that which only we can bring to the situation. Each onlyness is essential for solving new problems, as well as for finding new solutions to old problems.”
If purpose involves embracing your onlyness, it’s also about listening for the call of the times – and how it calls you in particular (and what it calls forth from you). Purpose depends not just on who you are, but on where and when you live, the problems rising to meet you.
I can’t help wondering if the reason so many of us struggle with purpose is because we’re trying to lock down something meant to be fluid and dynamic: it grows as we grow, shifts as the world shifts. You think you’ve got a hold of it with both hands only to find it’s slipped your grasp and transformed into something else.
Maybe it doesn’t come as a neat and tidy verbal statement.
Maybe trying to cast it into language is a mistake: narrows the meaning, cuts off the oxygen.
Maybe, for some of us, purpose is felt deep in the body, like an arrow that keeps pointing us in certain directions, even (or especially) when we keep trying to go another way.
Maybe it lives in our minds as a recurring image, a waking dream, a secret self.
Maybe purpose isn’t a quest, but a multilevel process of surrendering to what you already know, in that bone-deep sense that goes beyond words.
It’s about paying attention to the kinds of things you notice – and the things you don’t notice – and what that says about what you truly care about. It’s about noticing where your mind goes when it doesn’t have to be thinking about anything in particular. It’s about what you see in your daydreams. It’s about what in the world gets under your skin and tugs at your soul and makes you want to cry or scream or stand there amazed at the beauty of it all. It’s about what pulls you forward. It’s about what draws other people to you. It’s about what you embody and how you embody it.
Most of all, though, I think it’s about the thing in you that’s bigger than the fear we all feel when we want to try or do or be something great. The only thing that can drive out fear is love, whether it’s for self or someone else or some ideal, for animals or the planet or humanity in general. Purpose taps into that love, leads with that love, and people can’t help but respond because who in their right mind doesn’t want to be around love?
Show me who you love, or so the saying goes, and I’ll show you who you are.
All we have to do is remember.