How to Find Meaning and Purpose in Life

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Two most important elements in any life are meaning and purpose.  Your soul, your spirit and your sense of well-being may depend more on these two elements than anything else you will ever find.  Money, fame, and success will mean nothing if you do not believe that you are living a life consistent with your purpose.  Nothing you buy or acquire will have any importance to you if you do not feel that your life has any meaning.

Many books have been written about the elements of meaning and purpose.  Two of the most famous are “The Purpose Driven Life” and “Man’s Search for Meaning.”

 “Being successful and fulfilling your life’s purpose are not at all the same thing; You can reach all your personal goals, become a raving success by the worlds standard and still miss your purpose in this life.”  — “The Purpose Driven Life” —  Rick Warren

“These tasks, and therefore the meaning of life, differ from man to man, and from moment to moment. Thus, it is impossible to define the meaning of life in a general way. Questions about the meaning of life can never be answered by sweeping statements. ‘Life’ does not mean something vague, but something very real and concrete, just as life’s tasks are also very real and concrete. They form man’s destiny, which is different and unique for each individual. No man and no destiny can be compared with any other man or any other destiny” — “Man’s Search for Meaning” —  Viktor Frankl

Perhaps, you still do not know what the difference is between purpose and meaning.  Do not despair.  There are as many ideas about the meaning of these two elements as there are about life after death.  Everyone seems to have their own ideas about these qualities, but everyone agrees on one thing; they are essential for a life that is worthwhile.  I am going to give you my take on them.  What they mean and how to find them for yourself.

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What Is the Difference between Meaning and Purpose?

We live in a world of contrasts and dualities.  Up and down, back and forth, good and bad, happiness and sadness.  Perhaps these are only our own perspective that we cast onto the world but for better or worse we are stuck with them.  The Yin and Yang concept is very useful in thinking about the world.  For every Yin there is a Yang.

“The principal belief of the Yin Yang is reflected in the categorization of musical tones. The two main forms of Taoist music are the Yin Tone and the Yang Tone.  Yin stands for all things that are female and soft and Yang stands for all things male and hard.  Through the proper balance of Yin (female) and Yang (male) a Taoist can find harmony and simplicity in all things.” (Bowker, 2000) — Wikipedia

Esoteric_Taijitu-5c85cc7b46e0fb00014319cdMeaning and purpose are Yin and Yang to each other.  Purpose is outside you and is what you do in the world.  For me purpose involves doing.  Meaning is inside you and what you do for yourself.  Meaning involves being rather than doing.  Let’s use a running race as an example.

I am a runner.  I have been running since I was twenty-five years old. I have run dozens of races.  Some of them were long and some were very short.  Let’s say I run a race and do so half-heartedly.  By fate or circumstance, I come in first place.  My purpose was to run and win the race or at least my age division now that I am 75.  How I ran it is somewhat irrelevant to my purpose.  In this case, I won, and I get the medal or trophy.  I may not have done my best, but the world does not care.  It rewards winners and not losers.  What we do for the world is our purpose.  We may not do our best, but we may still win the award.

My purpose in life is to help bring different perspectives and insights to the world through my writings.  I want to challenge conventional ways of doing things and thinking about things.  That is my purpose in life.  Purpose for me is about doing and not about being.

Back to the race.  I can run the race and give it my best.  I may go all out and still come in tenth or even dead last.  If I  know I did my best, I will feel good about myself, even though my results will not receive any accolades or awards.  To me, this is meaning.

img_7909Meaning in my dictionary is about living up to my potential, my values and my beliefs by doing the best I can each day to be consistent with them.  No one may ever know if I am being kind, compassionate or patient today.  You cannot see the inner virtues that I want to live by.  I am the only person at the end of each day who can judge whether or not my life had any meaning today.  If I can be the best person that I want to be each day, I will die feeling that my life had meaning.  To the rest of the world, I may just be another old teacher, old veteran or old guy who lived an average life and died at an average age.  Meaning to me is about being and not doing.

Martin Luther King in his famous Eulogy Speech summed up the meaning of his life very well when he told the world how we wanted to be remembered:

“Yes, if you want to, say that I was a drum major. Say that I was a drum major for justice.  Say that I was a drum major for peace. I  was a drum major for righteousness.  And all of the other shallow things will not matter.

I won’t have any money to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind. And that is all I want to say. If I can help somebody as I pass along, if I can cheer somebody with a well song, if I can show somebody he’s traveling wrong, then my living will not be in vain.”

We should all write a eulogy for ourselves before we die.  This is to let the world know what we tried to be and tried to do.  The world will see what we did do.  You won’t have to tell the world what you did.  Purpose is written in accomplishments, but meaning is written in how people feel about you.  Purpose is pride and success while meaning is love and integrity.  In some respects, it is impossible to separate being from doing and meaning from purpose.  They flow together like melody and rhythm in a song. They can be separated but together they make life more beautiful.

See my blog:  “How about writing your eulogy today?”

How do I find my purpose in life?

Your purpose in life will depend on both your skills and your interests.  If you match the two you may find what your purpose in life is.  If you have skills in mathematics or science and you are interested in the medical field, you may devote your life to working as a doctor or medical researcher.  If you love music and have a skill for playing instruments, perhaps you will be a composer or music teacher or musician.  These skills will be the vehicles that you use to share your purpose with the world.

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The above diagram was developed to help people find what their purpose in life is.  It has four elements which overlap.

  • What do you love?
  • What are you good at?
  • What can you be paid for?
  • What does the world need?

Ask yourself these four questions.  If you can find a way to make the answers mesh, you will have found your purpose in life.  Over time, your interest and the world’s needs may change.  Finding purpose is not always a once and for all effort.  Some lucky people find a purpose which takes them all through life.  Many of us will have several purposes before we finish our journey through life.

How do I find my meaning in life?

There are hundreds of formulas and suggestions for how to find meaning in life.  The one thing I am certain of is that each of us must define our own meaning.  We define our meaning by deciding what we want to be in life.  Notice, I did not say what we want to do in life.  What makes this a difficult question to answer is that what we want to be is defined by how we go about being.  We must realize that being and doing are inseparable.  There is a Yin and Yang here.

Ask yourself, what do I want to be?

new1_10If I answer, I want to be rich,  my meaning in life will be defined by how I go about becoming rich and what I do with my money.  If I want to be a writer, my meaning will be defined by what I write and how I go about the writing process.  If  I want to be happy, my meaning in life will be defined by how I go about achieving happiness.  No one except me can judge how I define myself.  People may say that I am not very rich or that I am not a very good writer, but it is what I believe about myself which will define my meaning in life.  Vincent Van Gogh is now widely regarded as one of the greatest painters of all time.  His paintings sell for millions of dollars.  However, in his lifetime, he sold only one painting.  It was to his sister-in-law who felt sorry for him.

91QvVMwW4BL._AC_SY606_“What am I in the eyes of most people — a nonentity, an eccentric, or an unpleasant person — somebody who has no position in society and will never have; in short, the lowest of the low. All right, then — even if that were absolutely true, then I should one day like to show by my work what such an eccentric, such a nobody, has in his heart. That is my ambition, based less on resentment than on love in spite of everything, based more on a feeling of serenity than on passion. Though I am often in the depths of misery, there is still calmness, pure harmony and music inside me. I see paintings or drawings in the poorest cottages, in the dirtiest corners. And my mind is driven towards these things with an irresistible momentum.”Quotes from The Letters of Vincent van Gogh, ©Excellence Reporter 2020 Vincent Van Gogh,

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I realize as I write this that some people will never care about the meaning or purpose of their lives.  Just as some people are goal oriented and others are not, meaning and purpose may be subjects that not all people desire or can even pursue.  Perhaps they are luxuries of a more educated or affluent existence.  Perhaps people born into abject poverty and hunger have more to worry about then the meaning and purpose of their lives.  Aldonza in the “Man of La Mancha” sang:

ALDONZA

Take the clouds from your eyes

and see me as I really am!

You have shown me the sky,

But what good is the sky

To a creature who’ll never

Do better than crawl?

9781780749327_27I conclude with the consideration that Meaning and Purpose may not be everyone’s cup of tea.  I confess that it was much later in my life and many hurdles had been taken and many obstacles overcome before I started caring about the meaning and purpose of life.  Now I look back and shake my head with some sorrow that I did not grasp their import on life when I was in my teens.  A have learned that a life without meaning and purpose is not a life, it is just living.

Happy New Year – 2022

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sourceJanuary 1st– the beginning of a New Year.  This is the time when many of us will make new resolutions, new dreams, new goals and promises galore.  It is a time when we will begin over and try to make wishes come true that did not work out the year before.  We bring in the New Year as a mother brings in a newborn baby, full of promise and youth.  There are those critics and skeptics who look at the inevitable human trail of broken dreams and unfulfilled goals from bygone years and laugh at our efforts.  Such people deny the possibility of hope and change.  I may often be a pessimist but for any of you with the courage to tackle a new set of goals or dreams, I say “try, try, and try again.”

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You can and will do a better job this year than you did last year.  You can and will continue to grow and change.  We can all continue to overcome the folly of our past lives.  Hope springs eternal in the human breast and what would we be without it?

We need to dare and dare again and when we fail, we need to get back up and try again.  The only failure is when we stop trying.  So I say, “Disregard the naysayers, go ahead and set some new goals and new dreams.”  Stretch your vision and your horizons.  People do not perish because of their dreams; they perish because of a lack of dreams.

“It is difficult to say what is impossible, for the dream of yesterday is the hope of today and the reality of tomorrow.” — Bob Goddard

“Everything that has ever been accomplished, every skyscraper, every bridge, every invention, every medical breakthrough, all started with a dream!” — Catherine Pulsifer, Living The Dream Accomplishment

“Wishes are possibilities.  Dare to make a wish.” — ― Lailah Gifty Akita, Think Great: Be Great!

The Old Woman Who Wanted to Be a Pilot

Little girl dreaming of becoming a pilot

I would like to tell you a story that led me to a principle that I have used over and over again in my life.  The story begins in 1979.  I had just received my M.S. degree in Counseling from the University of Wisconsin – Stout.  I began applying for jobs where I could use my degree.  I also took the Wisconsin test for state employment. 

I did well on the state employment test and after an interview process, I was hired by what was then the Department of Industry, Labor and Human Relations (DILHR) as a Manpower Counselor 2.  I was officially a counselor in the Work Incentive Program (WIN).  I would be in charge of the WIN Program as well as a number of other programs including, Labor Education Advancement Program (LEAP), Indochinese Refugee Assistance Program (IRAP) and the Job Training Partnership Act (JTPA).  I would have offices in two counties.  One office was in Ellsworth, Wisconsin in Pierce County.  The other office was in Hudson, Wisconsin in St. Croix County.  I was then living in River Falls, Wisconsin which was almost dead center between my two offices. 

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Each day my job consisted of basically trying to help people find employment.  Depending on their ages, genders, skill levels and aptitudes, I had a variety of resources to help them find a job.  Some of my resources included, employer incentives, apprenticeship training, on-the-job-training, education benefits and a variety of tools to help my clients gain the needed skills to find and seek employment.  I also had a large data base of employment openings that were furnished daily by the head office in Madison, Wisconsin.   

My counseling program at Stout was led by a grand educator named Evelyn Rimel.  She was dedicated to the counseling program and would do anything she could to help her students learn the skills they needed to become good counselors.  Dr. Rimel was born in September 1911 and died in August 2009 one month shy of her 98th birthday.  She was a remarkable woman.  The following poem which she wrote expresses her ideas and goals in life.  She was 42 years old when she wrote this poem and numerous people will vouch for her devotion to this vision.

aac54f3a-b1b5-11de-9fb3-001cc4c03286.imageI’d like to think when life is done,

That I had filled a needed post;

That here and there I’d paid my fare,

With more than idle talk or boast;

 That I had taken gifts divine,

The breath of life and womanhood mine,

And tried to use them, then and now,

In service to my fellow man.

Evelyn received many awards during her lifetime.  When she died she was the oldest living and longest-serving member of the American Association of University Women, a national organization to which she belonged for more than 75 years.

Evelyn was the prime mover in the counseling program at Stout and no one who was accepted into the program could ignore her influence on what they would learn.  For instance, employment and school counselors are taught to use many tests such as the GATB, SATB, Kuder Richardson and Strong Campbell to help profile job applicants and identify their strengths and weaknesses.  Dr. Rimel would hear nothing about weaknesses.  She told us that these tests were only pointers and not conclusive evidence of what someone could or could not do.  I still remember what Evelyn said but at the time it seemed very theoretical.  I would not learn the real meaning of her message until I met this client who came into my life a year or so later.

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The year was 1980 and I was in my office in Hudson when an older woman came in to see me.  She asked if I could help her find a job.  I was 34 years old at the time and it was early in the year 1980.  The economy was not doing so well, and it was difficult to find decent paying employment in our area.  I asked her to take a seat and how could I help her?  She told me that her name was Margaret and that her husband had recently passed away.  They had raised four children and she had been a stay-at-home mom.  She had no schooling or formal training beyond high school.  She was 68 years old and did not have enough money to live on.  She needed to find a job to supplement her social security income. 

FYC.adviser.0020-16x9-1-1024x576I asked her if she had any idea what she could do.  She replied that she did not.  I suggested that she take an employment aptitude test to see what kinds of work she might find interesting.  It was all very theoretical to me, but I could not imagine what kind of work I could find for her in the local area that would pay enough for her to live on.  She did not have any current job experience and no goals for a career.  The aptitude test was simply an effort to do something even though I did not believe that I could help her much.

She agreed to take the test which I then administered.  When she had finished the test, I told her that I would need to have the test scored.  We setup an appointment for the following week to meet again.  I sent the test in to be scored and the results came back before our next appointment.  When I reviewed the results, I was incredibly surprised.  I even laughed at the findings of the test.  The test showed Margaret’s highest aptitude to be that of an airline pilot.  I laughed because in 1980 there were few women finding employment in the commercial airline industry as a pilot and even fewer who were 68 years of age.  Not to mention, a woman with no prior flight experience or military experience.  Back in the 80’s, many commercial airline pilots came from the ranks of retired or former military pilots. 

I chalked Margaret’s results up to a curious irregularity in the testing results or an anomaly that could probably not be explained.  I was not willing to put any credence into the test and totally ignored Evelyn’s caveat about using employment tests as pointers and not as conclusive evidence.  When Margaret arrived at my office for her appointment we sat down to discuss her results and what our next steps might be.  I started the conversation off by a dismissal of the test findings.   “Margaret, these tests are frequently not accurate.  This test showed your number one aptitude to be that of an airline pilot.”  She looked down at the floor and then up at me.  Speaking directly into my face, she solemnly said, “When I was a little girl, I wanted to be an airline pilot, but my parents and teachers all told me it was impossible.  Girls could never be commercial airline pilots.”    

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I don’t really remember the rest of the conversation that day or whether or not I ever found a good job for Margaret.  What I do remember and will never forgot was my narrow mindedness and smugness.  I had totally written off the possibility that Margaret could ever be an airline pilot. 

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I mentioned at the start of this story that I gained a principle from this episode that I have used the rest of my life.  The principle was this:  I would never ever tell anyone, client, student, relative or friend that they could not do something or be something.  From Margaret, I realized that one of the things that holds us back are other people who tell us what we can or cannot do.  I have previously told the story of my spouse Karen who was advised by her high school guidance counselor that she could never be a nurse because of her low science aptitude scores.  Karen ignored this “helpful” advice and spent over 55 years in the medical field as a registered nurse and nurse manager. 

 “Love what you do and do what you love. Don’t listen to anyone else who tells you not to do it.  You do what you want, what you love.  Imagination should be the center of your life.”  —Ray Bradbury.

 

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