The Pit and the Purpose
I have talked at length in previous blog posts about how thinking is the most important value people have because it gives us all of our other values. The second most important value, having a purpose in life, is also vitally important and deserves its own post, so here I go.
A purpose is an overriding reason for choosing the values one pursues. As I said in my previous post “So What are Values, Anyway?” (August 2015), having a purpose is vital because it determines, out of a huge number of potential choices, which values someone should pursue. Unlike lower animals, we as humans do not act automatically in response to what we perceive so, unlike lower animals we actually have a choice as to how to act and what to go after. This gives us the benefit of being able to control our lives and achieve happiness in ways that are unattainable to other animals. The flip side of this though, is that unlike lower animals we have the chore of consciously figuring out what to go after because if we don’t we stagnate and die.
That’s where a purpose comes in. People need to choose a purpose because we have to plan which values we’ll pursue over the course of our entire lives; there is no point where we become like lower animals and start automatically regarding some things as values, the way a grizzly automatically goes after a salmon. For most people their purpose is their career with their career choice determining what is of value to them. If you want to be a doctor, for example, you have to have as values going to medical school and doing a residency. If you want to be a lawyer you have to go to law school, etc. Some people who are independently wealthy can make a hobby their purpose; either way, whether it’s a career or a hobby, everyone still needs a purpose. If someone doesn’t organize his values according to an overarching purpose, he drifts from one thing to another like a playboy who never really becomes very good at anything, never produces anything of significant value that he can make a decent living selling to anyone, and probably ends up poor and miserable.
A purpose has to be something that is in demand (e.g., you can be an automotive engineer, not a buggy whip engineer), something that you like enough to be all-in for and something you actually have an ability to do. For example, I think I can remember actually playing basketball once in my entire life and sucking at it. For me to want to be a professional basketball player in the NBA would therefore be ridiculous not only because of the infinitesimal odds of anyone actually making it on to a team, but also because I don’t play well to begin with. However, I had very good grades in high school and college and a strong interest in philosophy, political science and law. So becoming a lawyer or a writer might be a rational choice.
A major problem today is that young people are not taught how to choose a purpose. I’m reminded of Dr. Phil’s story on The Kelly File about Chris, a forty year old man who wanted to be a ‘rock star’ and went through the motions of being a musician while failing miserably, living in his parents’ house and causing them to squander their retirement savings taking care of him. Not only do I wonder if he has any real talent to be a musician, I also wonder if he knows whether he has any real talent to do it. He doesn’t seem to, but if he does, again I wonder if he is all-in enough for doing what it takes to actualize a career doing it. Again, it doesn’t seem like it. What it seems like is that he never knew how to take seriously the need to select a purpose, and with his back to the wall, is now just playing games.
Many young people today seem like Chris, maybe not as extreme but still drifting through life trying one thing or another until they ‘fall into something’ or ‘something clicks’, and never really happy with what happens to them. This is what happens to the Leonardo DiCaprio character in the movie Revolutionary Road, for whom the last thing he wanted was to spend his life working at Knox Machines the way his father did. Guess what? He ended up spending his life working at Knox Machines the way his father did.
Of the requirements for a fulfilling purpose, it seems the one that causes the most trouble for people is that it be something that someone likes enough to be all-in for. That may be because people are told to suppress their desires and ‘serve other people’. Again a movie comes to mind, this time Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life. At the end of the segment on middle age, a waiter in his 50’s tells the viewers to come with him on a ridiculously long walk from inner London out into the countryside to the house where he grew up. Once there, he tells the viewers that the thing that stuck with him when growing up was his parents telling him to “make other people happy”; he says on the basis of this, he became a waiter. He then says that he knows it’s not much, but…and then suddenly he becomes upset and angry, telling the viewers, who followed him all the way out there, to just go away and get lost as he walks away towards the house disgusted.
This is actually a very sad and troubling scene in the movie because it exposes an erroneous conflation that has been ruining good people’s lives for perhaps millennia: that if you do what you want, you become a crazed hedonistic lunatic who will hurt other people and only by suppressing your desires will you be fit to live with and trade with other people.
The truth is the opposite: only by doing what you like enough to be all-in for will you be good enough at it to be successful at trading value for value with other people. It’s a non sequitur to say that just because you like doing something, it will be useless to or a danger to other people and producing value for others can only be done by doing something you don’t like. As I said in my post “So What are Values, Anyway?” there are very few limitations on what can be a value and what can’t. One of these is that something is not a value if it is obtained by force or fraud; so therefore, as far as selecting a purpose goes, you can’t be a criminal or a manipulator, or you can be a banker but not a bank robber. But as long as you’re not driven to be a criminal of some kind, feel free to choose what you like; or as INXS once sang in their song “Hear That Sound”: “So your time has come/children watch the fools/don’t let anyone tell you/what you must do/do you like what you see/or does it make you cry/use your imagination/to start a fire.”
Enough about failures to find a purpose, it is time for a story about someone successfully finding one and living happily ever after.
One day in a park, in a wooded mountainous area on the edge of a city, a little girl about seven years old was walking on a trail with her parents. They lived in a subdivision on a mountain just outside the park’s boundaries. The girl became giddy and silly so she started running away from her parents as a joke. She ran down the trail so far they lost sight of each other and she began to get nervous she would get lost, so she started running what she thought was back the way she came. What she really was doing, however, was continuing to run away from her parents and where she previously was… deeper into the woods.
She kept running deeper and deeper into the woods until alongside the trail up ahead she saw a pile of rocks and a fence. Her anxiety changed to curiosity and she decided she’d see what was there. When she got there, however, she screamed at what she saw behind the rocks and fence; a vertical cave shaft so deep she could not see the bottom. She became horrified and traumatized because she knew what would happen to her if she were ever to fall down it. She ran screaming and crying back down the trail to her parents. She had nightmares about the horrible pit for several days afterward.
But then, a couple of weeks later, an interesting thing happened; her terror was replaced by curiosity. In her mind, several questions started coming up over and over again. Why was that pit there? Was it natural or manmade? Where does it go? Did anyone ever fall down it? Can people go down it safely and what’s at the bottom? Are there other such pits in other places?
She remembered the location of the pit in the park and knew where the park was in relation to her house and school, so one day she decided on her way home after school to see the pit. She went there and noticed the colors, shapes, striations and fractures in the rocks. She looked over the edge from as close as she could safely get to it and saw the bottom far down with what looked like a pile of debris in it. She saw birds and bats flying out of it, and lizards, snakes, chipmunks and squirrels at the top by the edge. All of this made her even more curious, so every so often on her way home from school, she would visit the pit. On one visit, as so often happens in that part of the country, a violent thunderstorm started. Although soaking wet she was fascinated when she saw the rainwater cascading down the abyss. She wondered where the water went. She saw the rocks over which the water fell seemed smooth and wondered if the water had something to do with forming the pit.
Then one day on one of her visits she became extremely lucky. As she approached the pit she saw ropes tied around trees near the edge and people going down into and coming up out of the pit! She ran over to talk to them. “Don’t play here, little girl, it is dangerous!” they told her. But she started to pepper them with the questions that had been on her mind for several months now. They started to laugh a little nervously at her intelligence and intense curiosity, and wondered what was really going on. Some of them started to give her satisfactory answers but they seemed too busy with other things to spend much time with her. Then suddenly, an old man with gray hair, big muscles, and leathery skin wearing gloves and a tank top came up a rope over the top of the pit. He seemed friendly, knowledgeable and older than the other people in the group and was obviously, the group’s leader.
He started telling her about how this was a cave that formed in a kind of rock called limestone, and it was vertical because water erodes limestone and when there’s a vertical crack between two large blocks of limestone, water will over a long period of time erode out a vertical space like this one. He explained that the water goes down the pit to something called the water table, which is the level of groundwater underground, and that people sometimes drill wells to get their drinking water from the water table. “But what if the rainwater’s polluted?” She asked him. “Well that could be a serious problem,” he replied. “If you’re this interested in caves, you should study geology. It’s the science of rocks,” he told her as the group packed up and left.
All this conversation with the cavers made her even more curious. She was stoked about following up on all the information she received! She saw the equipment they used, learned about limestone, groundwater, and geology. She became nuts about these things. When she went to high school she became part of a caving club and eventually rappelled down into the pit. She also developed a fascination with science, particularly chemistry, acing the class with perfect grades. She went to college to study geology and learned all about all kinds of rocks: sedimentary (which included limestone), igneous and metamorphic. She did extremely well in college, received her Bachelor’s degree in geology and went on to get her PhD in Sinkhole Mitigation in areas of karst topography. She eventually married a man who was a civil engineer whose firm she worked for as a geological consultant. She and her husband eventually moved to Orlando where they opened an office. She later became one of the best structural design consultants in Florida. Finally, when she died at a very old age she left her family a decent-sized fortune from the family business.
All of this success because when she was seven, she was lost in the woods. Now, that’s what a life with a purpose looks like.