unbounded

You get a purpose! You get a purpose..!

It’s been almost a year since I last wrote, as I haven’t been struck by anything in particular that inspired me. Then yesterday I was at Starbucks minding my own business, when I was assaulted by Oprah Winfrey. Oprah is now selling her own branded tea, which includes putting her inspirational quotes on the insulating sleeve around my Americano. “Follow your passion,” she writes. “It will lead you to your purpose.” There’s nothing better than being reminded by a TV celebrity that you have a purpose in the universe, which is only knowable by following your passion, so that you too may someday become as successful as she is. 

The purpose of a fishtrap is to catch fish, and when the fish are caught, the trap is forgotten.  The purpose of a rabbit snare is to catch rabbits. When the rabbits are caught, the snare is forgotten.  The purpose of words is to convey ideas. When the ideas are grasped, the words are forgotten.  Where can I find a man who has forgotten words? He is the one I would like to talk to. -- Taoist Lesson from Zhuangzi

The purpose of a fishtrap is to catch fish, and when the fish are caught, the trap is forgotten.
The purpose of a rabbit snare is to catch rabbits. When the rabbits are caught, the snare is forgotten.
The purpose of words is to convey ideas. When the ideas are grasped, the words are forgotten.
Where can I find a man who has forgotten words?
He is the one I would like to talk to.
— Taoist Lesson from Zhuangzi

In joy there is creation, say the Upanishads. It’s a very old idea, more recently popularized by Joseph Campbell and Seth Godin. Life isn’t about finding yourself, it’s about creating yourself. You can be passionate about something, but this has nothing to do with your purpose. Your purpose is to simply to show up.

You are created to be creative; to create art, wealth, havoc, joy, children, technology. It really doesn’t matter. You are an unwitting participant in the eternal unfolding of an immense computation that is the universe, made possible through the virus you carry called DNA. The idea that you were meant to do something is deterministic folly. While you can only exist in relation to everything else, you are still free to choose at every moment who you become and what you do.

The anxiety that comes with the freedom to make these choices is something people unconsciously avoid, because it carries the risk of making the ‘wrong’ choice, and of failure. We prefer to select from safer options that are already presented for us. When you own your choices and take accountability for creating your life at every moment rather than living into some predestined role, you will look at failure as merely feedback; as a way to find out what doesn’t work so you can get on with exploring what works.

I am a big believer in doing more of what makes you happy. What bugs me about Oprah’s fortune cookie wisdom is the assertion that there is something we all should be doing; that we have a specific calling and it is out there waiting for each of us to discover. Purpose isn’t something that can be found, it can only be created. As Alan Watts says, “You are it.”

Rather than some imagined Calling, your success lies at the nexus of talent, passion and creating perceived value. It can take years to find this sweet spot and you may never find it. You may be great at something that never pays, or passionate about something for which you have no talent, or get paid a lot do uninteresting work. And the universe answers, “So what?” The payoff here is not necessarily one of public accolades or monetary rewards, but the satisfaction of being in flow and doing good work. Success is yours to define and own through being purposeful.

Oprah’s message is the secular version of “God has a plan for you”. It resonates with people who want to believe in the fantasy that their life has some particular cosmic meaning. The only meaning your life has is how you choose to relate to who you are and what you do. Finding your purpose won’t make you happy; acting with purpose will. Whether you are planting rice or teaching at Princeton, if you are enjoying the process of creating something, it makes the whole notion of finding a purpose irrelevant.

Passion is a sign you’re creatively engaged in an exercise that makes your life meaningful. It’s not a sign that you have found your Special Place in the universe. If you have a passion for waging jihad, lighting things on fire or torturing animals, you can certainly do these things with purpose, but that doesn’t mean you should give up your day job. With one of my daughter’s crayons, I have created my own inspirational cup sleeve which reads, “Congratulations on becoming a human being! No need to go and find your purpose, it has already found you! So enjoy this cup of delicious Starbucks coffee.”

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