Why does it matter whether or not your life actually has a purpose?
Let’s take a few steps back and creep up on this question….
If you complete a task, and there’s no overall important context for that task, then the task doesn’t really matter. So you watch a TV show. It doesn’t make a difference — there’s no larger context for it. But if you complete a task that’s part of a larger project, now it suddenly matters, at least within the context of the project. If you create a web page, and it’s part of a new web site you’re building, that task matters. It takes you closer to the realization of the completed project.
Now when does a project matter? Projects matter only within the context of a larger goal. If your goal is to increase your income, and you complete a project that is likely to facilitate it, the project matters. It brings you a step closer to the realization of your goal. But if you complete a project like digging a trench through your backyard, and there’s no real goal you’re trying to accomplish, then the project is pointless. There’s no meaning behind it.
If a project isn’t part of some larger goal, then that project has no context and is therefore irrelevant. You don’t need a complicated goal to give meaning to a project. It could be something simple like increasing your happiness or even just entertaining you for a while. But human behavior is purposeful, and we humans don’t tend to undertake projects if there is no good reason for doing so. People don’t often work hard at digging holes and refilling them for no reason.
What’s the difference between projects and goals? Goals are outcomes, objectives. They’re states of being — a state where you’d like to be at some point. Projects are encapsulations of the actions you feel you can take to help you achieve a goal. Owning your own home is a goal. Writing a screenplay is a project.
So to reverse the order, you start by setting set some goals, create projects to achieve those goals, and perform tasks to complete those projects and thereby achieve your goals.
But now what’s the context for your goals? Why do they matter? If a task needs the context of a project and a project needs the context of a goal, don’t goals need a context as well in order for them to matter?
Say you set a goal to increase your income by 50%. Why is that relevant? Is it pointless? What is the context within which such a goal actually matters? Why is that goal any better or worse than filling your backyard with holes?
Goals do need a context as well; otherwise, they’re irrelevant too. A goal without a meaningful larger context is pointless.
One context that makes goals matter is human need, branching from the basic root need of survival. Goals that enhance your survival can be said to be important. Another human need is connecting with others; it’s been found that this need is actually hardwired into us from birth.
But if all our goals occur only within the context of physical and emotional needs, then all we really get out of life is survival and mediocrity. Making more money seems to help satisfy our need for security. Getting married and having kids helps with our need for socialization and connection. And then there are compound behaviors like learning new skills to advance in our careers so we can become better and better at filling these basic needs.
But there’s another possible context for our goals that goes beyond need. And that is the context of purpose. If your life has a purpose other than merely satisfying your own physical and emotional needs, now you have the ability to access a whole new arena of goal-setting. You can set goals that go way beyond the context of need.
Some people may argue that purpose is a human need as well, possibly a spiritual need. I suppose that’s a valid way of looking at it, except that it doesn’t appear to be as much of a NEED as physical and emotional survival — it’s a lot quieter and easier to tune out. But for now I’ll treat purpose as something above and beyond basic physical and emotional needs.
If you only work within the context of need, then you automatically lack the ability to set and achieve certain types of goals. There are some goals you’ll just never be able to achieve. You don’t have a context for them, so you’ll never set them in the first place. Even though they might be grand and interesting goals, you won’t even consider them. People who achieve those kinds of goals that lie outside your context might include Jesus, Mother Teresa, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr. They worked within a context beyond personal need. If your only context for goals is need, then you can never hope to get close to anything they did. Your whole life will only be about survival — that’s as far as you’ll go. All you can ever hope for is mediocrity; greatness lies beyond your reach.
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