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

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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.

20 Replies to “31 causes of failure #2: lack of a well-defined purpose in life”

  1. Since we both seem to have an affinity to Hill andd his writings, I thought you would enjoy the Text and Audio clearly defining his Secret.

    The Secret of Think & GROW Rich

    We also discuss Hil,l Haanel and Wattles in detail on The Focus Society of Overachievers Live Talk Show, just click on my Name.
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  2. Wow! This post sums up what I’m feeling about my life right now. I lack purpose…and drive.

  3. Great Post! I am also trying to find my new purpose in life. After a number of years working towards specific goals, I find myself for the first time wondering What Now. Alas I’ve been wondering What Now for a number of years……..

  4. I need to read this book – and I appreciate the exercises you have listed to define my purpose. I had a well-defined purpose for the first half of my life ( early childhood education / rental properties ). But now at this point I’m so ready for something new – a new direction and like you stated… PURPOSE!
    Thanks for the post – very inspiring for me!

  5. I don’t understand why family (or a more defined goal that is centred around family) is not enough but sailing to Ireland is. (Did they have quarter life crises when Hill was writing?!) If you don’t include “sending successful kids out into the world by the time I’m 50” or something, of course you’ll only find 2 per cent or so.

  6. @Chuck Bartok: I will definitely check that out.

    @Saving Diva: Trust me, I’m always struggling with it too. You will find it – we all will, if we try. It’s only if you accept being a routine person that you won’t find purpose. I’m trying to think of it this way these days: what would I like to give back?

    @Bouncing Betty, @dawn: It’s great that you’re working on Purpose Set #2! Same response that I gave Saving Diva: always look at it in terms of what you can give back. That’s a helpful kick start to any question of purpose…

    @guinness416: Very good point. I can tell you that I always thought that having kids would flood me with an overwhelming and unending sense of purpose, that would eliminate all need for external purpose to disappear. It doesn’t. Having kids is not a purpose. Having a good relationship with your spouse is not a purpose. Being happy is not a purpose. I was really bummed to discover this. Purpose seems to be external to family. I feel an overwhelming pride in my son’s accomplishments and happiness and if he grows up to be a good man and a good father himself I’d die happy. BUT… it wouldn’t fulfill that need for purpose. Maybe it’s just me, and maybe you’ve given me good fodder for a future post. Sailing to Ireland isn’t a purpose, but challenging yourself against the Atlantic is. People are weird. You would think having a roof, three hots and a cot would be enough but it isn’t. I am already wealthier and healthier than 99.99% of the human population and I natter on about self-improvement. We are just lucky to be here at the leading edge of human history, seeking purpose instead of grubbing for calories to survive until the next day…

    (end bleakness)

  7. Great post. This is one of my favorite books as well, and has really gotten me to begin taking charge of my personal finances. (My blog is named after one of his other books, actually). I am looking forward to reading your future posts in this series.

  8. I agree that having kids isn’t a purpose. Furthermore, trying to make them into a purpose is an almost guaranteed formula for strained relationships with your kids. Children are thinking human beings just like we are, and to mature well they will need to formulate their own life purposes. And they have to do that the way we all have to do it, based on their interests and their talents. Those will necessarily differ from the interests and talents of their parents.

    You could say “raising my children to be happy, productive members of society” is a goal, and that is probably what most people mean when they say having kids is a goal, but if you think about it, this goal must be necessarily vague. Why? Because our ideas of what constitutes “happy” and “productive” are going to necessarily differ from our children’s ideas of what constitutes “happy” and “productive.” So our concepts of those terms as pertain to our children are going to be necessarily vague. And a vague goal is not a goal that leads to success.

  9. Steve, Great post. Recently I’ve been thinking that I need to read Napolean Hill’s Think and Grow Rich. This blog post has further encouraged me to read the book. I’m not surprised that on 2% have a well defined purpose! I try to talk with my husband about his goals and he has a hard time even articulating short term goals. He’s a smart, successful, and wonderful person, so I think this is pretty common. I have short term goals, but they may not all relate to what I want my purpose in life to be.

  10. Excellent post! How do you feel about the difficulty of weighing the risk of your purpose vs. the reward? For example, as a father, you’re responsible for providing for your children and being there for them (at least if you want to be a GOOD father). The risk of sailing across the Atlantic to Ireland could jeopardize that responsibility. I ask this because I’ve been skydiving for 16 years, I have 2 small children (1 and 3), and my wife is now telling me that pursuing my passion of skydiving is no longer an acceptable risk. I define myself as a father, husband and skydiver, but I’m not sure how to resolve the risk involved…

    Thanks again for inspiring me to start writing and keeping a journal again!!

  11. Steve,

    Thanks for the reply, and the perspective. I’ve told my wife that I’m willing to not skydive while our kids are so young and dependent on us, and she wants me to commit to not skydiving until they get out of high school. We’re considering going to counseling to see if a third-party can help lend some objectivity to this “discussion.” She’s convinced that I’m not considering our kids future if I decide to skydive and I think it’s just a difference of opinion regarding the relative “safety” of skydiving. There’s lots of skydiving safety statistics online (http://entertainment.howstuffworks.com/skydiving8.htm or http://www.supremesite.com/skydive/skydiving_statistics.htm) , and, while I’m not saying it doesn’t have risks, I’m just saying that I do consider the risks of anything I do and how it might affect my family before I decide to pursue that activity or not.

    The additional $1300/yr. cost to my life insurance also affects my decision, and I would NEVER consider resuming it without having life insurance and accidental death & dismemberment coverage…

    Thanks for the scuba statistic. Makes me wonder if she would have the same objection if I wanted to start diving…

  12. @Brian: Hm. I had a good friend who had a skydiving accident and smashed his lower leg and ankle into shreds – it took several surgeries and pins and physical therapy, etc. to get him back to speed. He said that was it for him – not because he was scared but because he couldn’t risk it with a small child.

    But – and this is a big but – it wasn’t something he was burning with passion to do. He certainly didn’t define himself as a skydiver, and he just turned himself to other pursuits. It’s a really tricky question. If part of your identity – your reason for “being” – is tied up in skydiving, you have to ask yourself if you’ll be miserable and a worse father and husband if you stop doing it. If you will, you shouldn’t stop – maybe you can scale it back, or do “safer” dives. However, you also have to ask yourself which would be worse – missing the thrill of skydiving or missing seeing your children grow up.

    I’m willing to bet you are causing your wife a lot of stress. Think about whether all that is worth it – all of THEIR stress is worth your enjoyment – and then make a decision. And if you decide to keep skydiving, make sure you are insured to the max. Don’t add fear of financial-disaster-through-accidents to your family’s stress, too!

    Really, risk is everywhere. Getting in a careening metal box and driving at 60-70 miles per hour on roads with other metal boxes headed toward you at the same speed is awfully dangerous, too. I walked through a subway station in Moscow once that blew up and killed 80 people 30 minutes later once. Life is risky.

    (as a side note, do you know more people die scuba diving than skydiving every year?)

  13. I’m somewhat in the same boat, I think in general I have a lot of interests, but sometimes my attention span for those interests doesn’t stay around for very long. I’ve had to work very hard to learn to focus on a few interests at one time, and not get caught up in all the new things I feel like doing.

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