31 causes of failure #2: lack of a well-defined purpose in life

Creative Commons License photo credit: puroticorico

This is a continuation of my series on Napoleon Hill’s book Think and Grow Rich that began last week.

Hill makes a brutal assessment in his book: in his experience, 98 out of 100 people lacked a well-defined purpose in life. Let’s take a step back and think about that: only 2 people in 100 have a well-defined purpose in life. This means two things: one, they have a purpose. Two, that purpose is well-defined. The other 98 people either don’t have a purpose or they have a purpose but have failed to define it adequately. That’s an amazing assertion, and while it’s difficult to assess, it seems true in my opinion. I know many people who want to be rich, for example, but they have vaguely formed ideas about how to achieve it or even what it means.

I’ll take myself as an example. I’ve said before in other posts that I lack a clear sense of purpose. I have interests, and I enjoy learning new things, but I suffer from “always wanting to do the new thing.” I like writing – but I get bored with it sometimes. I like astronomy – but I couldn’t imagine that as a purpose. I’m passionate about politics – but since I got disillusioned after working for a politician I haven’t been very active in campaigns. I could go on and on, but my point is this – I have no driving purpose in my life other than an amorphous and general plan to be a good family man and not do much harm. The main purpose in my life – what gets me out of bed and back and forth to work – is my family. But I don’t think “family” is a purpose. A purpose might be something as trivial (to some people) as “sailing across the Atlantic” or as grand as “becoming President of the United States.” I have no purpose that drives me to achieve other than vague ideas to accumulate enough wealth to enjoy financial freedom and “do what I want to.” Based on my experience between jobs and on weekends, what I want to do is spend time with my wife and my children – but even for that you need to develop a larger sense of purpose.

So how do you develop a well-defined sense of purpose? Here are some exercises I’ve cobbled together from a few sources, and I’ve tried them myself a few times with some success:

  • Personal journal: keep a journal. Taking the time each day to write down things that happened to you during the day can help expose your likes and dislikes. If your journal entries are descriptive of what you did at work, that’s a good sign. If your journal’s work-related lines are always “Boring day at work,” then you may have a problem. Do you write about food? Do you get excited recording your travels? And on a related note…
    Blog: I’ve been writing this blog long enough to know that if you don’t enjoy the topic, the creativity and desire to keep writing will dry up. I can only think of about four topics I could stay excited about enough to keep writing day after day: self-improvement and wealth-building (like this blog), politics, astronomy and travel. That probably tells me a LOT about my interests.
  • Blank sheets: Take a blank sheet and write the first thing that pops into your head after reading this question: Who am I? Then take another blank sheet and do the same thing. Repeat 10 times. Go back to each sheet and start brainstorming underneath that first question and answer. If your answer was “I am a father,” write down some ideas about why you answered that way. This is not my idea at all – it is taken directly from What Color is Your Parachute, which has some excellent ideas about discovering your passion.
  • Time off: I’ve talked about this before, but I can’t emphasize enough taking time off. When I had 5 weeks between consulting clients last year (partially voluntary but about 2 weeks unplanned), I realized something that is not at all obvious during a typical workweek – I like being at home. You may laugh, but I discovered that I genuinely enjoyed the routine of playing with my son, putting him to sleep, feeding him, cooking, sitting around talking to my wife and just enjoying reading, listening to music and writing (because that’s when I started my blog). When you are working long hours, commuting and dealing with the rush of “normal” life it’s not always easy to sit back and be introspective – sometimes all you want to do is watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer DVDs.
  • Talk talk talk: This step requires a willing partner, but try talking! Tell your partner or your parents or your friends your kooky ideas about what you think might be your purpose. You may be surprised at their enthusiasm. People – if they love you – want you to find your purpose.
  • Look at what keeps you up at night: Are there nights when you just can’t stop what you’re doing? Even though you have to go to work at 7 am tomorrow? You desperately want to go to sleep but you want to spend just a few more minutes doing what you’re doing? Think about what that tells you about your interests.
  • Read: Keep reading books and blogs and yes, even the news. Inspiration can be found again and again in the written word – it is not a glass, meant to be filled, but a waterfall that keeps filling up endlessly.

All of these steps help you find your purpose, but they don’t help you meet the “well-defined” requirement. Once you have an idea what your purpose may be, Hill reminds you that you have to define it. What does it mean? How will you achieve it? What is your next step? What do you need to be successful? Creating a definition is as simple as saying to yourself “what do I need to do today so that tomorrow I am closer to achieving my purpose than I was yesterday?” Then apply that same thinking to the next month, the next year, the next decade. If you want to become a political activist, maybe you need to decide what cause to support. If you want to start a business, maybe today you start to write a business plan. The important thing is to take action to define your purpose. If you can become one of those 2 in 100 people, your odds of success in life are already far higher than the other 98.