“A central purpose serves to integrate all the other concerns of a man’s life. It establishes the hierarchy, the relative importance, of his values, it saves him from pointless inner conflicts, it permits him to enjoy life on a wide scale and to carry that enjoyment into any area open to his mind; whereas a man without a purpose is lost in chaos. ” ~ Ayn Rand
It was from Ayn Rand that I learned about how purpose is intimately tied to both morality and productivity. By identifying and guiding life with a central purpose, an integrating theme pulls activities together for a fuller, more meaningful life. I have written about my search for an integrating purpose to my life and the enjoyment I have received from the resulting career. It has helped me to resolve inner conflicts and define my hierarchy of values. For me, defining a central purpose is not a moral issue, but a useful tool for actualizing my full potential. I can and do have many interests. I could potentially pursue a wide variety of projects and enjoy them all. But when I focus on an integrating idea, when I search for a value-dense purpose, I find greater enjoyment in life in general.
Is a central purpose obvious? For some it is, for many it is not. I took me until I was 27 until I discovered my central purpose implicitly and until 33 before I could explicitly write it down. It involved identifying and integrating all of the things that had happened in my life and all the jobs I had loved and hated, until I finally saw how they all related. And it was hard work! But I know of other people who knew from an early age what they wanted to do. For them it was obvious.
Can multiple major purposes exist? Absolutely. I know of people who have multiple interests and live happy lives. Is it the best way to live? I liken it to a business that has multiple lines of business. The greater the similarities between those lines of business, the greater the synergies that will emerge, which can lead to greater success. The business owners may indulge in multiple lines of business that have no relationship to one another and enjoy each thoroughly. They can even create a positive cash-flow in each line of business. But how easy would it be to run such a business? If a hierarchy of values is not established, which line of business would get what resources? Which would get the most attention, money, time, or effort? With a hierarchy of values, something must be at the top. That top value is your central purpose. The more projects and activities that support that highest value, the less conflict and confusion you’ll have. That’s not to say you can’t enjoy hobbies, your family, your friends, or your own body. But what is central? What is most important? There is a bunch I can say about how other values fit in with the central purpose, but I’ll save that for another post.
Could you be happy without defining a central purpose? Yes. But the better you can find an integrating purpose, the less inner conflicts you will experience and the better equipped you will be for directing your life. Again, it’s about degrees of enjoyment and does not preclude other values that you can enjoy as well.
Can a central purpose change? Yes, but if it changes often or deeply then it probably was not well-defined. I remember when I was much younger, interviewing for a job in web development. The interviewer asked how my previous employment in tutoring and teaching related to web development. She wanted to be sure that web development wasn’t some passing whim. That I had some integrating purpose to my life. I immediately saw the connection, in both cases, I wanted to facilitate the transfer of knowledge. In one case through face-to-face classroom instruction and in the other case through electronic medium. The connection between the two jobs was not vast to me, because I was already starting to identify and integrate my passions. The interviewer was very impressed with my answer and eventually offered me the job.
Are you immoral without a central purpose? No, but you’re missing out. I see a well-defined central purpose as a tool for achieving a satisfying and enriching career. It is a tool that helps identify our hierarchy of values. You shouldn’t beat yourself up if you don’t have one, but spending some time reflecting on your passions and your purpose can help you to achieve more.
Your central purpose is your highest value and the most important concern. If this value is not carefully defined, it is easy to slip into careers you either don’t enjoy or feel indifferent about. And that, to me is a travesty.