“What IS my purpose in life, anyway?” I asked my therapist.
She replied, “Your cats need you.”
I scoffed, at least initially.
When I looked at my cats, I felt way differently about that answer. Because, you know, they’ve got those big, pitiful giant shiny baby eyeballs. And for all that, of me, for which they are grateful, I am also grateful that they let me live in their home.
DOES SIZE MATTER?
I never really thought of my cats needing me as anything that would be considered a “purpose.”
The way we are raised in America, you have found your purpose only when you’ve done something big, like invent the vaccine for Polio, or discover The Theory of Relativity.
In other words, it’s only purpose when you touch a great number of lives outside of your own.
I don’t think that size matters. Neither does popularity. In fact, maybe you and one other person are the ONLY ones who know about how you’re fulfilling a purpose by helping the other person while they are dying. That person dies, and now YOU are the ONLY one who is alive to bear witness to that purpose.
Nobody knows about it. The person who benefitted from it died. Does that invalidate the purpose?
DOES LENGTH MATTER?
What does this implicate about the concept of purpose?
Tending to the needs of a dying friend is honorable, and I feel it safe to say that the dying person on the receiving end of this feels a sense of comfort because you are there.
Maybe you tended to your friend’s needs for just a few weeks, or maybe a few months. Does that make it any less of a fulfillment of purpose? Most definitely, it does not.
DOES MONEY REALLY MATTER?
Your friend didn’t have a will, because they had nothing. This means that you did not get anything financial in exchange for your efforts.
In America, success is measured by levels of fame, popularity, or wealth accrued. It’s a truly lame and mindless way to measure anything, but people are convinced that it’s important.
In this case, we’re talking about money.
People don’t always do things to get money, power, or fame. Many people do things because they care. The good feeling one gets from helping a friend in a legitimate way when they are in need is something that cannot be purchased.
Money is not a consistent or reliable motivator. I’ll give you $100,000 to tell your dying friend that you’re too busy, and apologize to them.
Something tells me that you would not take this money, if the person dying were your true friend. There is no financial compensation that is adequate for precious time lost that can never be gotten back.
WHAT USED TO BE MY PURPOSE
Anyone who knows me can guess what I am going to say. MUSIC!
Whenever I’d notice improvement in my practice as a beginner, I felt that I was pursuing my purpose with success. When we would have a successful marching band performance, or I’d win another first prize at the ISSMA soloist competitions, I’d sense that I was fulfilling my purpose.
Having great success with both of my college bands gave me a strong sense of achieving another step toward my purpose.
Moving to LA, suffering, and sacrificing all, was something I viewed as essential to succeed in fulfilling my purpose.
Taking crap jobs because I’d be able to quit them soon due to financial success was an attitude I had that was essential to fulfilling my purpose.
Helping a “friend” build a recording studio and starting a business together was another piece of the puzzle of success.
Music was my EVERYTHING, and is still highly meaningful to me today.
But my purpose today involves the idea that my cats need me.
IS PURPOSE A STRING OR A PACKET?
My anecdote of Music = Purpose represents the concept of purpose as being a string. It stays on track, on focus, in context, and it must stand alone as my sole purpose.
Possessing a purpose like this is a highly stressful thing, because it is narrow and specific. I never suffered any boredom from it. Thanks, Autism!
An example of purpose as a packet is the anecdote of the friend helping their dying friend in their final weeks of life. It is something that appears before you, and then you take it on. Before long, the work is either done or no longer necessary.
WHICH IS A MORE HEALTHY PHILOSOPHY?
As noted above, when a purpose is structured as a string, it is very narrow and focused, and highly specific. You are headed to a destination, where the path is not defined, and you have to reach that destination in order to have “made it” and to have found your purpose.
There is just ONE problem with this. That problem is with the “destination.” The reason the path is not defined is because the destination does not exist! This purpose is not based on the philosophy that you arrive at a destination, and are then done. Purpose accomplished.
This is not how life works. Anyone who holds onto this purpose as a string is setting themselves up for guaranteed failure.
What CAN be accomplished is the little wins along the way. Successful gigs with both of my college bands, moving to LA/Hollywood, joining and forming bands, writing, recording, and performing music. I got to meet many of my heroes, and a few even became friends along the way. I got to play at all of the known and significant clubs on the Sunset Strip.
I didn’t list these things out in order to brag. The reason why I am listing them is because they existed in that purpose string, but their reality is that they are packets.
And there are lots and lots of packets; way more than the few I listed above. Just the one about playing the clubs can be broken out into a few hundred packets.
When I look at my purpose in the context of one continuous string, it is unfulfilling, unrealistic, and utterly ridiculous. To be clear, it’s not my choice of purpose that is ridiculous. Rather, it’s my framing of this purpose within the context of a continuous string.
But when I look at my purpose in the context of a collection of hundreds and hundreds of packets, I see lots of accomplishments, great experiences, incredible memories, the friends and loves I gained and lost while in pursuit of this purpose [and only because of my purpose being music], and so much more.
The string has been rendered invalid. Long live the packet!
MORE THAN ONE?
As noted above, the purpose that is framed as a string is narrow and focused, and highly specific. Because of its framing, no other purpose-oriented activities are allowed. Giving any time or consideration to anything other than music was considered to be the destructive act of stealing time away from my purpose.
But because the string framing makes no logical sense, and we therefore go with the packet framing, we can have other purposes.
For example, being there for your cats is a noble purpose.
I fulfilled a purpose when I worked in Tech and social networking for all those years. I fulfilled a purpose in being a father, step-father, and grandfather. I have fulfilled purpose on more than a few occasions by being a friend to a friend when we connect. I fulfill a purpose when I go grocery shopping.
The list goes on.
There is no limit.
IN THE END
I read a story about Henry Rollins, and how one day he just decided that he was no longer into making music. As he put it, “There was no toothpaste left in the tube.”
Ever since I started writing, I’ve felt badly about not giving my guitar playing more attention, and experienced a little guilt for spending time writing.
Since I’m not a well-known professional musician who earns a living at it, I have no need to make an announcement OR a commitment.
My writing is NOT stealing any time away from my “Music = Purpose” because that only exists in the now-debunked string framing. Conversely, playing music isn’t stealing away from my writing.
When I have an idea, I will write.
When I want to play something, I will pick up the guitar.
There is no schedule. There are no expectations.
I know that some people struggle with having a purpose, or finding what it might be. Some are having an existential crisis about it, feeling a sense of failure and wondering about the point of it all.
If your purpose lives in your mind as a never-ending string, then I tell you that you might be making things unnecessarily difficult on yourself.
I go with the packet framing over the string framing, not because the packet framing gives me a great deal of validation [it does!], but because the concept of string framing makes no logical sense.
Suppose that I kept my purpose — my dream — on string framing. I keep my focus and do nothing else. No writing, no being a father, no working in Tech, because I will have “made it” as a famous musician who earned a great deal of wealth, was recognized by my peers at award ceremonies, and have sold tens of millions of records all over the world, which I would tour every few years.
The Hedonic Treadmill always takes over, normalizing anything you receive. A boost in pay, fame, social status, sexual partners, etc., becomes the baseline over time. If you’re at the top, and this happens, you’ve got nowhere to go.
Congratulations. You’re trapped in the illogical mess that is string framing.
When you step off the stage after a successful gig, you have another packet in your hands. It’s warm and fuzzy, and it really feels GREAT! You go home and can barely sleep because you’re so hyped!
But the next day arrives, and you realize that hyped feeling is gone.
Instead of feeling like the string is broken [which inspires a sense of failure], acknowledging the acquisition of another packet and adding to the collection makes your personal hill a bit higher.
This is a good thing, not because you’re competing with your contemporaries, but because you are competing with yourself.
Ultimately, purpose is necessary only if you believe that it is necessary. It is okay to merely exist; to “just be.” It is also acceptable to not force life to be a certain way so much, and instead work with the things that are presented before you.
People, opportunities, fulfillment of expectations and one’s contribution to the social contract are things that we don’t force. They show up if and when they want.
We are then either ready to catch them, or they will fly right on by because we were too busy focusing on an illogical string framing that required specific things for success, and missed out on those things that were right beneath our noses.
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