Of all the big questions in life, one of the biggest is “Why am I here?”
Everyone from Douglas Adams to Victor Frankl has addressed it. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is more fun, but Man’s Search for Meaning is more important.
The Purpose Driven Life: What on earth am I here for? by Rick Warren also goes after this topic, and is one of the best selling books of all time. As of 2020, according the publisher and the author, more than 50 million copies have been sold. The book has been translated into 85 languages.
In other words, people all over the world want an answer.
We know there are mountains of data out there, and one thing we learn from a lot of our data is what people don’t like.
One place this shows up consistently in the data is the workplace. More than 70% of people, we are told, find their purpose at work. Or they don’t find it there, even though they look for it there and expect to find it there.
Because they don’t find it, they quit and take another job, hoping to find their purpose there.
This cycle is not particularly rewarding, and in fact can be quite frustrating. After a while people give up, keep the job they have, make the best of it, and settle in.
That is like finding a mostly clean, usually decent, nice-enough-people, diner with pretty good food and sticking with it. You’ll know you’ve settled in when the prices go up and you stay.
You say, “Prices are going up everywhere.” But 3 stars on Yelp with two dollar signs is a bad combination, and you know it.
Settling in is a habit I hope you have not fallen into. My goal here is not to get you to leave your favorite hang-out spot or your job, my goal is to get you to check your ability to move.
Settling in can be a precursor to finding yourself in a rut. A friend used to say that a rut is a grave with both ends kicked out, which is a funny way of saying “you don’t want to be in a rut.”
So it’s a good idea every once in a while to get unsettled. Again, don’t start with a big thing like quitting your job. Start with a small thing like wearing socks that don’t match.
Or trying a new diner with better reviews or lower prices — or both.
You will not find your “why am I here” if you are settled in for the duration. Getting unsettled in some way is a good practice that increases your freedom to make good choices.
Important note: if you’ve already made a great choice in a spouse or even a job, stick with it. Getting unsettled is for those who have “settled” for less.
I was going to make a list of things you could do to make sure you aren’t too settled in, but I’ll leave that to you. Just know that when moss begins to grow on one side of you, it is time to move!
Figuring it out
Now that you are “unsettled” and able to move a little, you can start figuring out the why thing. Notice that I said start figuring it out. Sometimes there is an “aha” moment, but usually this is a process.
In either case here is an important starting point: you are not here primarily for you.
In a short story, C. S. Lewis had a character say:
“Oh, Master,” [The Monk] murmured, “forgive – or can you enjoy? – my absurdity also. I had been supposing you sent me on a voyage of forty million miles merely for my own spiritual convenience.”
Too often we are exactly like The Monk, thinking it is all about us. The question, after all, is why am I here? So we assume the primary role.
One of the many things Rick Warren got right in Purpose Driven Life was his opening line: It’s not about you.
Naturally some of it is about you, because you are a central player. If you aren’t you, then it seems highly unlikely that your purpose will be fulfilled.
So steps 1 and 1A are related: know that it is not (mostly) about you, but you are integral to the answer.
Step 2 definitely involves you.
Ask the inventor
Without much effort, you can find lists of products that were invented for one thing and became famous for something else.
Among those are Coca-Cola (a cure for morphine addiction), Kleenex (intended to remove cold-cream and other makeup), and Listerine (an antiseptic). Perhaps the most surprising one I found was the original chain saw (pictured). Its first purpose was for use by doctors in various operations. Bubblewrap was invented as textured wallpaper.
The slinky was invented to help keep navigational tools steady at sea. But when the inventor dropped one and watched it “walk,” he thought of a better use for it.
My point is that sometimes even the inventor doesn’t know. That is true for companies as well as products, and “reinventing yourself” happens often.
But if you really want to know why you are here, you should ask the inventor. Since we’re talking people, we’d probably use the word creator.
Of course if you think you’re just random and there is no creator, this is a step you’ll have to skip. For those who think they were or even might have been created, this is a step that could be very useful.
How do you do that? There is a way, but that explanation and the final steps will have to wait until next week. My editor keeps me on a tight word count leash!
In the meantime, part of why you are here — if you will accept the assignment — is to do good.
And that’s in you.