How to find purpose in a world we don’t understand? How do we choose one thing over another? How do we create values in a world without purpose?
Over last couple of years I have been asking myself these and similar questions over and over again. I struggled, and to a certain degree I still do, to find any meaning in my own existence and the answer to the annoying question about what I want to do with my life is often a blank stare and a silent wish of snaping the questioner’s neck.
How the fuck would I know that? I already struggle with defining the most basic principles and concepts other people build their whole lives on. I am so far and disconnected from anything what could be considered a structured, goal-oriented life plan, that I might as well be the poster boy for a highly dysfunctional adult ready to be displayed in every psychology class around the globe. Not that this would be a bad thing. It is one way of getting famous, for sure.
I’m not implying that not knowing a specific goal in life or not having a structured plan is something to be worried about. Alas, it doesn’t worry me. Not anymore, at least. I used to be highly insecure about this stuff though. Waking up, trying to figure out what to do with my day and life, going to bed without finding a satisfying answer, over and over again. While almost everyone around me seemed to follow a specific goal, achieving their career goals and fulfilling their dreams. Or maybe they are just pretending. Maybe they are as lost as I am but too scared to admit it. But at some point, I stopped caring about my inability to find a specific goal. Mainly, because I understood something very important: I will never be satisfied.
I realized that I am unable to have a fixed set of goals in my life because I lack the ability to predict the future and accordingly my emotional and intellectual temptations. Instead, I started pursuing values over goals.
What might sound like an arbitrary distinction is one of the most important revelations I came across during the recent years. But before I dive deeper into the discoveries and conclusions, I derived from this revelation, it is important to define three main aspects. Otherwise, we lack clarity and discussing anything without proper definitions is just a waste of time. There will probably be different descriptions of the same aspects out there, but since this is my playground, I will define them in the way I make use of them.
We live in a world without purpose. This is a given. Don’t ask me how I know that, just accept it as the first axiom. I will not dive into some kind of meta-physical debate about whether we are all part of some divine plan or if there are supernatural forces at work. We are not and until I get proven differently, I will not change my stance on that issue.
That is pretty much it. With more or less variations in between. The world, the universe, the black holes in our galaxy – nothing cares if we colonize Mars soon, cure cancer, create an omniscient artificial intelligence or fuck our neighbor’s girlfriend. None of this shit matters.
Which is neither good nor bad – it just is.
The only ones who care about these things are we pathetic naked apes. We think, there has to be some kind of macro-plan to justify all that suffering we endure during our lifetime. If nothing means something, why do we do anything at all?
Because humans are almost incapable of experiencing life without a somewhat satisfying explanation for why things happen the way they do. Our brain automatically searches for any straw to grasp in order to make sense of the world around us – even if the derived conclusion could not be more wrong and delusional. As long as our brain is satisfied with what it got, we have no problems accepting it and do not bother to much asking further questions. Ignorance is bliss.
But our desire for explanations does not end here. We also crave control. We want the ability to shape the world according to our will.
“And on the seventh day, the Lord created goals to provide his little human toys with the illusion of control.”
We love being in control. It provides us with a sense of power and the feeling that almost anything is possible if we just try hard enough.
Goals are the perfect tool to foster that illusion.
We wake up, make a plan or, even worse, a schedule, and we try our best to achieve every tiny step documented on that little bucket list. But if we fail, and I can safely promise, we will fail way more often than succeed, we are struggling to comprehend on what is even happening to us.
How did we miss that? Why weren’t we able to prepare for this unfortunate event? Are we ever going to recover from this devastating experience? You probably shouldn’t worry all too much. In most cases we will be fine. Relatively spoken. Even when bad shit happens, which tends to be the case a lot, we are slightly or even massively worse of after but eventually we bounce back. If there is one key part of human existence it is our ability to endure even the most painful and tragic events. Not always, of course, but in the end more people survive than kill themselves – which counts as a win on the big scale. Although the suffering individual is probably inclined to disagree. I cannot blame them.
I do not intend to promise you lavish fruits from beautiful trees full of wonders. Life is nasty, brutish and short. Or is it? Too short? Most likely. Nasty? Very often. Brutish? More times than I can count. But is life really nasty, brutish and short? Or is there something else? Might this description be a bit too shortcoming, ignoring all the wonderful pieces which are part of the human experience? A question I leave for you to answer.
But I digress. Your goals are what brought you here and now we have to make sense of that mess called you. A pitiful existence with crumbled dreams, aspirations and hopes – betrayed by a society which pictured the achievement of goals as the savior to redeem us from all our sins and make us whole again. What a cruel promise.
Goals don’t solve anything. They provide you with the illusion that your life will follow a set plan and every piece of the puzzle will fall into its rightful place. Suddenly your drunk friend crashes his car into your living room, destroying your beautiful puzzle and all that is left is your inability to adapt because you were too focused on your goals and never considered serious failure an option.
Or maybe everything goes according to plan, and you achieve your set goals – what then? You finally followed through with that diet you always wanted to? Lost the 30 pounds you set as a goal? Ran that marathon? Got that high-paying career you always strived for? Feel that emptiness creeping up on you? This annoying little question of the all-important “But what now?”
Don’t fall for that trap by setting goals for yourself. You can be smarter than that.
I can already hear them. The naysayers and slaves to a system they never considered to leave. Accompanied by an armada of self-help gurus and con-artists. Which are most likely the same. They will proclaim, if we don’t set goals for ourselves, we will never achieve anything. We will never be able to reach our full potential. Whatever that means. Why should we strive for anything, attempt to achieve a better life tomorrow than we had yesterday, if not for the holy land of future-us promised by our own goals?
Values, my friend. Values.
While goals ask what we do, values search for the big why.
This why is not a nonsensical one in the sense of asking why you act in a certain way to achieve a specific goal. That would just be more of the same useless circular logic we are trying to free ourselves from.
Instead, understand why you do anything in the first place. What drives you? Curiosity? Power? Fear? Love? Spite? Ideas?
Values transcend goals in any imaginable way. Why do you want to research the cure Alzheimer? Why can you find satisfaction in helping homeless people on the street? Why are you trying to become a better person every day?
And why don’t you give a shit about any of the above and just want to watch the world burn?
Some people might fear that without goals, humans would lose structure and struggle to cope with what life throws at them. I want to frame the argument in the opposite way: Goals increase our fragility to unexpected events manifold while building our actions upon a strong foundation of values makes us more resistant against the tides of life.
We can still do the same shit we did before but with a shift in perspective. Or we might realize that what we are doing is not in alignment with our convictions and change life altogether. Where goals fall short, your values fill all the necessary gaps.
In the end – why do anything we don’t believe in?
Don’t answer that. It was a rhetorical question. Many people have to deal with shit they are not particularly fond of. Be it with their work, society’s expectations or private relationships. For most of us it is almost impossible to rid ourselves from these issues overnight. I certainly don’t expect to shed all the smaller and bigger parts of my life which are not value-aligned in the near future. But I am constantly working on it. Step by step and I have seen vast improvements over the past years.
Value Alignment is, at its core, a process to eliminate as much cognitive dissonance as possible. Meaning, a persistent fight for aligning our everyday actions with what we actually believe in. To provide us with a sense of self-worth, not only after big achievements but on every step along the way.
But what about our purpose in life? Are goals really useless or even dangerous?
Well, yes and no.
Great answer, I know. On their own, without reflection and deeper consideration about the why, goals are indeed nothing but shallow promises aiming to provide you with a fake sense of higher purpose.
But this isn’t where your story should end but rather take a different turn and write a new chapter. In a world without inherent purpose and values, you need to create and find your own. There are no definite right or wrong answers about whatever path you choose, only consequences and how they affect you and the people around you.
What might seem to some like a relativistic or even nihilistic approach is quite the opposite. It is the search and creation of a fundamental set of values so strong, that it gets only shattered and replaced by a superior set of different values. The goal is to build a foundation on which grounds you can construct your whole life without constantly worrying about yourself or what nasty surprises the future might hold.
This foundation of values should be strong enough to withstand most attacks from the outside but never as rigid to prevent a restructuring from within. It is a part of life to be wrong. Many, many times. Even with a strong foundation of values, there will be times when you are forced to reevaluate and adjust your convictions. This is called progress.
When you have built your foundation, you can move to the next step and find purpose. You already know why you do what you do – now it is time to figure out how to implement those values on a larger scale. Are you able to create something which transcends the limitations of your own mind an bring something unique to the world? Maybe even something which create values for others, thus continuing the circle of searching, finding and creation of values in another iteration?
If so, you can finally go back to your beloved goals. But with a caveat. At this point you don’t succumb to the illusion of control anymore. You are aware that all your neatly set goals might crumble in an instant. But for you, they are merely tools to achieve the implementation of your values into the real world. Goals are now simply a form of increasing the applicability of your foundation under practical circumstances. When, not if, but when these goals fail, you will have your foundations of values to fall back on, readjust and start again.
In a world which is nasty, brutish, short and devoid of any inherent meaning – we humans are able to create our own values, enrich them with purpose and put them into practice via specific goals. And then we fail. Get beaten down by life. Over and over again. But we adjust, survive, get scarred, fight back, create new values and move on. Eventually we fail ourselves to a better tomorrow. Over and over again. Or die trying.
What might appear to be a very bleak outlook on life and the world around us is nothing of the sort. Instead, I propose something very different: embrace failure.
Acknowledge your inability to predict tomorrow. Try different paths, make mistakes, grow with them and make some more. Lose the shackles of whatever perfectionism you or the culture might impose on you. It will never be enough, and you will never be satisfied.
Don’t even try to be satisfied. It is ok, to always feel that inner drive, this insatiable hunger to get, learn and grow more. Satisfaction is dangerously close to complacency. Strive for improvement instead. Your body, your mind and the world around you. Welcome the hunger as a part of you, greet him like an old friend and explore life’s mysteries together.
If you cannot find values in a world you don’t understand – create your own.