“Everything, a horse, a vine, is created for some duty. For what task, then, were you yourself created? A man’s true delight is to do the things he was made for.”
-Marcus Aurelius (121-180 AD)
Living with a sense of purpose, is an essential cornerstone in a fulfilling life. However, for many, purpose remains elusive. For others, the pursuit of purpose, is not the holy grail of happiness they expected.
I believe we have forgotten the true meaning of purpose and as a result, look for it in the wrong places.
So what is purpose?
According to Roman Emperor and stoic philosopher, Marcus Aurelius, our purpose, is to perform the task for which we were created. In his personal journal, the “Meditations”, we are given a view into the mind of an earnest and thoughtful individual, wrestling with questions of how to live. One such question was:
For what task were you created?
This simple, yet impactful inquiry, opens the door to a lifelong exploration into how to live your purpose. Enter through this doorway with courage and commitment and you will have taken the fist step, towards living a life of purpose.
The quote above by Marcus Aurelius, may trigger you at first. A younger version of myself, would reject its deterministic tone and the notion of “duty”. But before rejecting and thereby missing the wisdom of his words, remember they were written two thousand years ago, at the height of the Roman empire.
Then, it was commonly believed, that a person was born with a “genius”. A sort of guardian spirit, that reminded each person, of their purpose, as well as their abilities to fulfill this purpose.
A more contemporary understanding of genius, is the idea that we all have certain innate abilities, drives and values. This is our innate nature. When we follow the guidance of our genius, we align our actions with our innate nature. When we do work we care about, or apply our abilities to a task for which we are particularly qualified, we feel the joy of “fulfilling our duty”.
So why do we so often lose sight of purpose?
Our society, has conditioned us to believe, that much (if not all) of our happiness (and self worth) is derived externally. As a result, the faint whispers of our genius, reminding us of our innate nature, is drowned out be the loud incessant chatter of our ego.
The ego cares not about our innate nature, but about status. It looks externally as it defines our purpose. It seeks a purpose, that will make us look good, or indispensable within a group. When the ego dictates our “purpose”, an existential misalignment between our innate nature and how we live and work, can easily occur.
So how do you uncover your purpose?
Make sure the ego does not hijack the process. If you feel the need, to have a grand purpose or that it is a reflection of your worth, then it is ego speaking. You are likely defining your purpose less in alignment with your innate nature and more based on external approval.
Today, even the original meaning of “genius” has been hijacked by ego. This or that person is called “a genius”. This was never the intended use of the word. Every person carries genius within them. One genius is not better than another. Someone is not more or less a genius. What matters is that you live in alignment with your genius.
Another way to free yourself from ego, is to instill your purpose with a sense of service. People often find that being of service to others, is the most rewarding aspect of living a life of purpose. Look for ways, your innate nature can be of service to others.
To uncover your purpose, start by paying attention. Journal, about the enjoyable moments in your day and what energized you. Document the moments in your life, when you felt a deep sense of satisfaction, connection and meaning with work or the people in your life. Notice the times, when you were totally consumed with the task at hand, losing track of time and place.
To help answer “For what task was I created?”, consider the following inquiries:
What would I do if money was no object?
What would I regret not having done if today was my last day?
How can I best be of service to others?
Friends and family can be a valuable source of information in this process. They can share their observations about your unique abilities or genius. Often, it is difficult for us to see our own genius. Since our innate abilities come naturally, we often take them for granted.
Look for patterns as you explore these questions. Stay open if you find yourself drawn to something unrelated to your current work. You may find, that what gives you meaning may be surprisingly simple or without a clear path to making a living.
Don’t judge or jump to conclusions as tempting as this may be. This is an existential question, your raison d’être. Give it the time and space it deserves.
Importantly, since purpose is about living an authentic life of meaning and fulfillment, it may not be convenient or even make sense to others. However, your life must make sense to you. Giving yourself permission, to “perform the task for which you were created”, will require courage, especially if it entails significant changes.
May you find the courage, to be the answer.