I’ve been thinking a lot about purpose recently, from several different angles, so as I start writing this blog post I feel like a novelist who is embarking on a complicated, multi-stranded plot, with the hope (and not a little anxiety) that I can manage to pull all the plot-lines together at the end. Here goes…
For myself, I feel that purpose has had a massive impact on my trajectory. During my late teens and 20s I had little purpose other than to earn money, buying into the myth that money can make you happy, only to find that any happiness found this way is usually shallow. (Lack of money can make you unhappy, but that is a different thing.)
Abandoning my quest for material wealth, I then set out in search of something that felt more meaningful, and somewhere in the Peruvian Andes, witnessing the retreating glaciers, I found it – my environmental mission. This led to me fully embrace the purpose-led life, dedicating 7 years and 3 ocean crossings to raising environmental awareness. Along the way, I discovered deep wells of courage and resourcefulness that could have remained forever undiscovered if I hadn’t been so incredibly motivated by my goal.
I’ve attempted to plot this journey below (the thing that looks like a psychedelic ammonite), including references to the books that shifted my perceptions in important ways. I hope this wasn’t a purely self-indulgent exercise – I wanted to start exploring whether there might be a universal pattern here, like Joseph Campbell’s monomythic Hero’s Journey, and also to identify the “gumption traps” along the way, i.e. the points at which people decide to stay with the status quo rather than pursue a calling. I hope you might find it interesting and/or helpful.
Is Purpose a Feminist Issue?
Last weekend I was at a (socially-distanced, outdoor) retreat with a group of women, and we had a campfire discussion around purpose. I’m still reviewing the recording, but my initial impression was that, while some women had a specific purpose that they have pursued through their work, purpose can also be less about what you do, than the way that you do it – for example, by taking a mindful, intentional approach to life, or by striving to live more sustainably. Purpose may not manifest in a form that will get you onto the TED stage, but a life can be purposeful none the less.
This made me wonder if there might be a spectrum of purpose, from the grand obsessions of history (Darwin, Einstein, John Nash, Edison, Mallory, Shackleton, etc – mostly men, although Marie Curie, Elizabeth Fry and the Brontës are way up there too) to the equally important but more day-to-day purposes of living a good and decent life, raising well-adjusted children, etc.
(Tangent: “well-adjusted” is such an interesting word… what is it we are adjusting them to? And why did they need adjusting in the first place? More on this later, when we get to Julia Butterfly Hill.)
This led to musings on whether there could be some broad gender correlation, which I suspect would be more cultural than innate, where historically (and still to a large extent, still currently) men have been relatively free to pursue their passions in the laboratory/writing room/Himalayas, while their wives took care of the less glamorous tasks like running the household, making sure everybody got fed, and ensuring that the kids didn’t run completely feral.
But any generalisations relating to gender are risky – just as there is a spectrum of genders, there is also a spectrum of kinds of purpose, from mild to monomaniacal, and it would be hard to distinguish nature from nurture, so I just throw this into the discussion as food for thought, rather than a distinct theory.
Maslow’s Hierarchy and Drug Dealers
Closely related to purpose, the highest level of the traditional version of Maslow’s hierarchy is “self-actualisation” (although he did, shortly before the end of his life, add the further level of “self-transcendence”, but that’s not relevant to my present point).
Maslow defined self-actualisation as:
“The desire for self-fulfilment, namely the tendency for him [the individual] to become actualized in what he is potentially. This tendency might be phrased as the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming.”
In my experience, it is a sense of purpose that unlocks this potential, and enables the individual (me) to overcome (my) self-limiting beliefs and rise to challenges.
But Maslow’s hierarchy has been somewhat misinterpreted and abused over the decades. He saw it as a staircase, not a pyramid. He saw all the levels being available to everyone, and also included the possibility that we move up and down between the levels rather than it being a one-way progression up the hierarchy.
True, it’s hard to focus on self-actualisation when you’re starving or homeless, but in the original version there was no implication of elitism. By morphing the staircase into a pyramid, subsequent commentators introduced an element of exclusivity, as if the higher levels are available to fewer people than the lower levels. It’s time we re-democratised Maslow’s model.
Society has also introduced judgement around how people meet their needs. I was talking recently with a new collaborator, who introduced me to a really interesting idea: to focus on changing the product, rather than the behaviour. Drawing on her experience in the criminal justice system, she pointed out that drug dealers (the successful ones, anyway) have a talent for attracting customers, negotiating, and closing a deal. Also, given their life circumstances, drugs are an entirely logical choice of product: easily available, high profit margins, ready market.
So rather than getting them stacking supermarket shelves, why not take their talent, and turn it to a more beneficial (and legal) product – like cars, real estate, or antiques? After all, the illegality of drugs is a cultural decision, not a natural law. There are many other professions that exploit people’s weaknesses, without being illegal. (Please note: I’m not advocating for the legalisation of drugs, although I can see arguments in favour as well as those against. I’m just saying that illegality is a societal choice.)
Julia Butterfly Hill and the Joys of Not Being “Well-Adjusted”
Last week I was interviewing Julia Butterfly Hill for the second edition of The Gifts of Solitude (intended to be published post-COVID, whenever that may be). If you don’t know Julia’s incredible story, I highly recommend her book, The Legacy of Luna, about the two years she spent living in a redwood tree to protect it from loggers, enduring storms, biting cold, and frequent harassment by the loggers, who sometimes even used helicopters to try and scare her out of the tree.
And this brings me back to “well-adjusted” children, as mentioned earlier. She told me how the things that she was always being scolded for as a child, were actually the things that enabled her to do what she did – such as caring passionately about nature, being noncompliant and strong-willed. When society tries to create obedient, compliant children, are we actually crushing the very qualities that could help lead them to their purpose?
Rebellious children may be difficult, but how do we know if the thing we try to change about them is the very thing that might help them find their purpose? (Easy for me to say, I know.) Socialisation is important, but how do we avoid socialisation becoming homogenisation? I have no idea, and leave these questions to people who know what they’re talking about, like Sir Ken Robinson in his classic TED Talk, Do Schools Kill Creativity? – which has now racked up an unbelievable 66 million views.
Julia and I also laughed about the fact that, both being preacher’s kids and having spent much of our early adulthood rebelling against that inheritance, we have both ended up preaching, albeit in a non-religious context. Maybe the apple doesn’t fall so far from the tree after all. Even if neither of us inherited our parents’ religious convictions, maybe we did internalise the message that life can be enriched by a sense of vocation, which is just another word for purpose.
So, after all these half-baked theories, cultural cross-references, and random tangents, have I managed to get any closer to an analysis of purpose? Good question. Here’s what I think I know.
For me, personally, having the grand purpose of rowing across oceans to raise environmental awareness has added immeasurably to my life, introducing me to people, places, and inner resources that I would never have otherwise encountered.
But this just happened to be my path in this lifetime. And there are many other paths, which are also purpose-led, and equally important and valid. Society may still bestow greater rewards on the people who pursue purposes that have historically been associated more with the male of the species, such as exploration, science, business and politics, but purpose can also be a quiet, modest, non-attention-seeking thing that finds expression through daily acts of kindness, caring, and mindful living.
Ultimately, I would suggest that having a sense of purpose is an entirely subjective experience. If we know what our values and principles are, and live in accordance with them, then we are following our purpose. And we know the feeling when we are out of integrity with our purpose – if everything looks great on paper, but inwardly we know something doesn’t feel right – then it’s time for a rethink.
Writing this blog post has helped me clarify why I usually feel embarrassed when somebody praises what I’ve done (all that ocean-rowing malarkey) or says that they could never do it. If they had been in my shoes, with the perfect storm of influences and ideas all colliding at once to make the absurd idea of rowing across oceans seem like a good one, they would have made the same choice. And, like me, they would have set out not knowing if they could do it, and somewhere along the way they would have found out that they could.
I simply followed my intuition or, as I prefer to think of it, the calling of my soul. And that is all purpose is.
TEDxStroudWomen: The deadline for speaker applications was midnight last Friday, and we received an incredible 60+ applications in the last 36 hours, bringing our total to 84. The committee now has the unenviable task of winnowing these down to a shortlist of 20 or so, and then down to our final 9.
We are still on the lookout for sponsors, so if you know companies, philanthropists, or anybody else who might want to throw money our way, especially if they are Gloucestershire-based, please let me know.
And if you want to be sure of an invitation to buy tickets, whether in real life or virtual, depending on the COVID situation come 29th November, please sign up for our newsletter on the website. Thanks!