A Sense Of Purpose, Or, Saturday Morning at 9:58am


I was talking to my best friend yesterday (we raised our kids together, first she moved to Belgium, then to New Jersey, now we talk on the phone 3-4 times a week, but I digress), and we wound up at the topic of purpose.

Research shows that people who feel a sense of purpose are better off.

So as I sat in my car outside the yoga studio (I leave early for class so I can call my friend from the car, and often wind up sitting in a parking space, still chatting, as I wait for class to start, but I digress again) I tried to parse the idea.

I could think of three sorts of purpose, at the most abstract level:

  1. You want to win, at something. You are moving always toward achievement, with metrics.
  2. You need to express your sense of meaning in the world, through one medium or another. You are impelled by what feels like your unique and must-be-voiced perspective, and your tools, both.
  3. You want to care for something. A child, children, animals, the planet, an archive or artifact with import, a disenfranchised group.

I suppose there are other purposes in life, but these are the highest-level categories I can think of.

I spent much of my life trying to win. I’m tired of it. The blog was my first chance at expressing a sense of meaning. Thank you. And I cared for my children and still do but if I tried to use all my capacity on them despite their dear sweet natures they’d have to lock me up and throw away the key.

So now, as I said last week, I care for the children I teach. I also care for our country – I do not think of my political activism as trying to win, it feels like caretaking. And I care for my mother, my family of origin, and my husband.

What is your purpose? Does it fall into one of these categories or is it something else entirely? And does it provide most of your happiness?

Have an excellent weekend.

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25 Comments

  • Now you have me thinking. We (as a culture) have been so programmed toward winning. While I get that this has a place, too often I see it morph into a more pathological state, where everything becomes about one-upping someone else. We’re relational beings, and it’s hard to let go of comparison and worrying about how well we’re doing in relation to others. I like the focus on meaning and care as broader purposes. I have to believe those are ultimately way more satisfying in the long run.

    04/02/17
    9:02 am
    Lisa said...

    @Susan B, I do too.

  • Thank you for including meaning and care in addition to winning in your post. I have never been very interested in winning (too short, too near-sighted, too asthmatic…) but I have always searched for meaning in my life. I have used my career as a teacher to contribute a hope for the future. As I near the end of my career, I am finding it harder to find meaning in what I do on a daily basis. Oh, I could say that teaching is a noble profession, but the realities have changed over the decades. So I search for jobs that could bring meaning back into my professional life. And for guaranteed health care.

    04/02/17
    9:03 am
    Lisa said...

    @Carol, Guaranteed healthcare, the ultimate kind of caring. Teaching is about caring, when you aren’t ground into the pavement by the sheer amount of work and lack of resources. xox.

  • What an interesting question to consider Lisa. I have to say that I have never cared or strived toward winning. At the same time, I was an excellent student in college and graduate school, but I didn’t thin of it as winning, but rather mastering material–and not embarrassing myself by not knowing answers on exams or not being able to express myself.

    And yes, caring for my children was a mission all its own. I tried to do it to the best of my ability–not cutting corners–or taking an easy course.

    And then there is now. We have some of the same responsibilities you do–caring for an elderly parent(s). We see it as a duty and a rather daunting responsibility. We are not always happy campers in this endeavor for reasons that remain private in this forum.

    Thinking further on this question, I have to say that pursuing happiness is a main goal right now–and finding the time to do that. And along this journey, there probably is some self expression going on.

    So to sum up–no desire to win, some desire to care for others–but not at the expense of caring for myself. And, yes, a need to express myself-through artistic endeavors, comments about politics, maybe writing in the future.

    04/02/17
    9:05 am
    Lisa said...

    @Susan D., You are pointing out something that other commenters bring up, mastery for its own sake. I admit, that’s never floated my boat. That’s why I missed this as a category, but I think you’re right.

  • Interesting. I agree that as I get older I don’t care so much about winning. I do think you have it right but another purpose might be taking care of myself! I don’t need anyone to notice or approve but feel it’s important to treat myself well so I may have good health for a long time-hopefully till I die. Eating clean, exercising and enjoying others company. That will be my purpose besides taking care of older parents and a sick husband. (After having raised 3 children)

    04/02/17
    9:07 am
    Lisa said...

    @Joan, Interesting. I have never thought of myself as a worthy cause. Perhaps time to reevaluate!

  • Very thought provoking post. For most of my adult life “winning” was a big purpose, I was a single mother and an interior designer so winning at my profession equalled income, which was a necessity. I’m not in need of that anymore, but I do paint, so I suppose my desire for some sort of recognition of my art is a sort of winning….but I’m letting go of that more and more.

    Which segues to the second sense of purpose, which is something I try to do more and more with my painting, (rather than concern myself with recognition) cooking, knitting, gardening. These creative outlets are the tools that I use to express my unique perspective, I suppose?

    As for caring, I do a lot of that with my grandchildren, my daughter, my husband, and am involved in various political and charitable causes. And myself.

    04/02/17
    9:21 am
    Lisa said...

    @Kathy, I see your art voyage as you do, towards self expression. It is a unique perspective, IMO.

    04/02/17
    1:24 pm
    Kathy said...

    It was how it started, I did it just for my own sake – a visual diary, but then I got caught up in the “scene”.
    Back to the origins for me I hope. But, I do have a competitive nature, which has helped me in lots of situations, so I have to embrace that as well.
    I don’t think ambition is a bad thing, or winning either….

  • Hmmmm, so interesting. At first I thought I could simply adopt your three sorts of purposes, so convincingly are they articulated. And although I’m not sure I’ve so much ever wanted to win, I definitely relate to the notion of metrics of some sort or other. I do seem to have strived for and/or thrived on a sense of achievement. But after going away and thinking for a bit, I’ve come back to say that perhaps stronger than that for me, or intertwined with it, or something (also overlapping with your #2) would be a search for understanding, a drive to research, not necessarily knowing but following curiosity. And I think I’d want to feature creativity somewhere in that mix of #1 and #2.
    I love what you say about caring for your children and the way that can become too much for them. I’ve got a bit more leeway now, with grandchildren, but then I have to remind myself that it’s their parents who are charged with caring for them, and while my help is generally welcome, I need to have my own bailiwick of care. . .
    I’ve always enjoyed your Saturday posts, and I’m glad you were able to mesh blog interests with your current ones to come up with this — thought-provoking, thanks!

    04/02/17
    9:28 am
    Lisa said...

    @Frances/Materfamilias, Thank you! I do believe you pointed out something that Susan also brought up, which is mastery for its own sake. Curiosity, learning about a domain, and it seems to me it goes hand-in-hand with hobbies – knitting, any kind of self-practice with continuous improvement. As I said above, this isn’t my thing. I’ve never had a hobby, if you can believe it. Gardening is for the rapture – there’s very little focus or enjoyment even of my own improvement or skill, only on the end result and on the practice in the moment itself which generally involves losing myself and having no sense of skill. So I think there is a 4th category, one that I’m singularly unsuited to notice!

    Or maybe all the activities that look like skill-building to me are in fact raptures to others? Hmm. More thought required than 10 minutes in the car.

    Oh, and LOL about almost agreeing with me because of the articulation. I often have to remind myself not to fall victim to easy logical eloquence, to go back over my own thoughts and see if they are correct, not just easy to say well.

    04/02/17
    11:51 am
    Frances/Materfamilias said...

    Honestly, then, I’m puzzled about you might have previously defined “winning” for yourself, if it doesn’t involve some sort of mastery or practice.

    04/02/17
    12:55 pm
    Lisa said...

    Excellent question;). Working in tech, in new products and new companies, we were rarely mastering information that already existed. For the most part we were making it up, just using raw analytical/creative capabilities to figure out new stuff and new ways of doing stuff. By the end of my career my domain was become more automated, more known. But in the beginning, it was catch as catch can. So I “mastered” uncertainty, raw data, anecdotes, for forward progress, so that then we could know more. Winning was if you could herd the cats, launch something people would use, beat a competitor to market, convince the customer about something totally new.

    I had to learn just enough about the product/market to see the big trends and patterns, and then details only as asked for by the tech people or the salespeople.

    I am not saying these preferences in myself for novelty and raw pattern recognition vs. learning a domain where expertise prevails are good, just that they are. Like all strong traits, has been a strength, has just as often been a weakness. I am spending these days more time on trying to learn a domain, and it’s tough.

    04/02/17
    11:54 am
    Frances/Materfamilias said...

    Damn! That first addition was supposedly seen as a “duplicate comment” so I tried again, and now we’ve got me repeating myself in slightly different words. And I can’t see a way to delete — please excuse.

  • Man – this question is appealing in my current existential crisis mode. I don’t think of myself as a competitive person in the traditional sense, but I do love to win. Mind you, I feel like the wins are eluding me lately. As is meaning. I know there is purpose but I’m so out of phase, it’s hard to locate. I do believe that, when the answers aren’t coming, it’s time to watch and wait. It’s worked for me so far.

    04/02/17
    9:28 am
    Lisa said...

    @K-Line, I agree with watching and waiting, such a hard thing to do for the impatient, but very very important.

  • Love this post Lisa. I think we all have different ways of spinning those three kinds of purpose you mention. Stu and I were talking about something similar over our morning tea a few days ago. About the need we each have in our own way to feel like we have achieved something. A feeling, I might add, which did not disappear when we retired. Just shifted somewhat.
    I tend to agree with Frances on this, as I do on so many things… now that I think about it. That search for understanding, for knowledge, to satisfy a curiosity about the world, and to maybe convey the importance of having curiosity has long been important for me. Especially when I was still teaching… kids need to have their curiosity fed and not quenched… if you’ll pardon the laborious metaphor. And now after retirement that curiosity can be turned to other things. And the achievement measured in the communication of the results of my search. Maybe in blogging?
    Okay. I should stop now. We just came home from an exhausting and hugely eye-opening trip to South America. I have had two glasses of wine with dinner and a large piece of chocolate afterwards. I may be soooo relaxed as to be making no sense at all. Guess I’ll click back on here tomorrow and see. Ha.

    04/02/17
    9:31 am
    Lisa said...

    @Sue Burpee, I think some people are curious for its own sake, and don’t feel the need to communicate it for satisfaction, and some of us communicate. Selfishly, I hope you communicate yours;). And welcome home!

  • Don’t think I’ve ever been into winning. If I compete, it’s with myself in seeking self-improvement and trying to be better than I was yesterday. As for caring, yes I care for my family – my adult children (it never ends – the mother love), my grandchild, my husband, my 93-year old mother. However, I need to let go sometimes before I drive myself and everyone else nutty. I also need to care for myself because if I’m not well how can I be of help to anyone else? And purpose? My purpose each day is to be productive in some way, any way actually, to learn something new and to make a connection – a connection with a person, with an idea, with a book, with nature, with art, with anything really. You mention expressing your unique perspective and yes to that, too. At least I try to express myself but I’m not so sure I manage to be especially unique.

    04/02/17
    9:44 am
    Lisa said...

    @Jane, A woman I know on Facebook commented that her friends Francis Moore Lappé and Dick Rowe parse purpose as follows, Agency, Meaning, and Connection. As you point out, that connection doesn’t have to be with people.

  • The idea of purpose is a sensitive subject for me. The day my daughter was killed was the day I retired from nursing. 6yrs after dropping out of life, I began volunteering at a wildlife rescue and rehabilitation center in Morro Bay, CA. I’ve been there over 7 yrs now, but I still have no sense of purpose. I do it because working with the animals is an honor, but it’s passionless. I’m wandering through my life with no goals, no particular direction. My external life is a good one, but I’m just walking through. I’ve given up on hope of purpose, I’m afraid.

    04/02/17
    9:46 am
    Lisa said...

    @Shawn Marie, Oh I am so very sorry. I remember you’d told us about your daughter. I can only imagine how without feeling you must be, even now. Maybe some connection will bring you back some joy. I wish that for you with all my heart.

  • I would have never thought of winning as a purpose. You did not include to me the biggest area of purpose which is doing something which is making the world better. I tried to re-read what you wrote and it did not fit what I consider purpose. I work for a hospital, in the tenderloin, serving a very needy and desperate population, a population which usually does not want to be helped, other than to be brought back to life in order to go out on the streets to continue to do what they desire to do. But it is meaningful and it serves a purpose and most people don’t want to do it.

    04/02/17
    9:50 am
    Lisa said...

    @kiki, Winning certainly isn’t a high-level spiritual purpose;). Since my career was in industry I was exposed to many many people for whom it was the primary purpose. It was for me, at certain times. That moment when you revel in excelling. And you know you’ve done that when you demonstrably win.

    You don’t think my category of Caring covers what you do in the hospital? Especially in the Tenderloin where you really do care for those that can’t even care for themselves? I can see there’s no winning there, it is a problem currently without solution. But surely there is caring.

  • I think if you are in a career or volunteering, the “winning with metrics” will always be a failure, because how can you “win”? what are you winning at? The only people I can see that applying to are athletes.

    04/02/17
    9:55 am
    Lisa said...

    @kiki, Politicians, salespeople, anyone paid on a ranked performance basis, actresses who have to “win” roles, authors who write on best-seller lists, all those jobs with visible performance metrics, compensation, and awards. Volunteering, I agree, that’s what I like about it. Just showing up is doing good. Kind of like eating while pregnant.

  • As another academic/educator, I agree with Frances and Sue that curiosity and the desire to learn more/everything drives me in every aspect of my life. On the career front, I have always felt called, as a person of privilege, to do my part in removing barriers and opening new doors so others can see new possibilities. Nothing beats the thrill of receiving a note from a former student or a course evaluation that indicates I somehow made a difference in their outlook.

    04/02/17
    10:05 am
    Lisa said...

    @Tricia, Mastery, Agency – in a non-domineering meaning, and Connection. It must be so amazing to hear from former students. I can only imagine.

  • Such brilliant women!

    04/02/17
    12:55 pm
    Lisa said...

    Aren’t the comments a total joy?

  • If within you, you have nothing above you, you will soon succumb to what is around you.

    04/07/17
    8:27 am
    Lisa said...

    @Julia, I had never heard that but although I don’t follow an organized religion it resonates strongly.

  • Your Saturday morning thoughts run deep….

    I have never thought about winning…I am not at all competitive.
    But caring and nurturing people, students, friends and family…
    My goal was to instil and foster respect for people and the planet.

    Our grandchildren are a big part of my life right now and I love spending time with them.
    Its lovely to have a best friend that you can chat with regularly…I so appreciate my BFF…we have known each other for the better part of 55 years!

    04/07/17
    8:28 am
    Lisa said...

    @Bungalow Hostess, BFFs are such a wonderful invention! And I can imagine you were wonderful with the children at school. Lucky grandchildren!

  • My purpose is to clean up messes.

    I have a biracial son and live in Texas, so my first mess is racism. That biracial son is half Caucasian and half Asian Indian, so I also need to mop up religious prejudice. He is nine and our school community recently stopped an indoor shooting range from opening next door, so our common sense about gun laws needs to be untangled. He is asthmatic, so mending the broken healthcare system is a priority. Finally, we are an atheist family, which means I must contribute to stabilizing the wall between church and state.

    I’ll never accomplish much in these pursuits, but I do hope to set a good example. We’re all on the front lines, when you think about it.

    I can’t put too much energy into “winning” anything. I’ll leave that to my son and his peers. It’s possible they’ll do a better job.

    04/10/17
    9:22 am
    Lisa said...

    @Jennifer, I appreciate how focused you are. I do think that’s how things get done, with focus. I hope the world grows up to deserve your son and his peers.

  • diversity, curiosity, and justice. that’s it.

    04/10/17
    9:22 am
    Lisa said...

    @lauren, See, focus. Also, <3.

  • This is an interesting post, and it has me thinking although not as thoroughly as I might like as I am tired from packing books.

    I think when I was younger winning was Important, and although some creative outlet is also important, I am not sure that it alone is enough. I would say that taking care, caring, and/or caregiving are closer to my purpose. Not so much for my particular family, although that is always there, but for my own small interactive place in the world. I think we are relational, and that is not just about winning against each other, but about caring for each other and the world we share. I increasingly seem to feel that taking care, leaving beauty and kindness behind, these are worthy goals.

    04/10/17
    9:23 am
    Lisa said...

    @Mardel, I am with you – they are worthy goals. What use beauty and prizes if we have not love?

  • I could not express my purpose more clearly than what Jane said above (thank you): “My purpose each day is to be productive in some way, any way actually, to learn something new and to make a connection – a connection with a person, with an idea, with a book, with nature, with art, with anything really.” In fact, Jane’s words could describe my lifelong purpose, for I have never been interested in “winning” nor competitive at all. I have enjoyed reading each person’s response to your post, Lisa. As well as your own reflections, of course. As always.

    04/10/17
    9:24 am
    Lisa said...

    @Linda, Thank you. The comments here are so thoughtful – I always learn.

  • Sense of purpose changes as one goes through life. Winning promotions, playing the corp game well and rising though the organization was a big part of my life. After rising in the corporate world and seeing businesses fail and re-emerge. I no longer felt like winning and playing the game. I felt, been there, did that. Currently, my priorities are: Maintaining personal health and well being, caring for and spending time with my family and close friends, staying informed on world events, collecting ornamental trees and creating beautiful spaces on my property, doing educational advocacy for under-served students, and traveling. This keeps me busy and is very satisfying.

    04/10/17
    9:25 am
    Lisa said...

    @Susan, I do think that having played for competitive stakes, it is a pleasure to shift to caring. I am however glad to have the competitive era – otherwise I think I would have brought a poorly concealed desire to win to my caring, which, never a good look;).

  • I love your Saturday (Sunday for me,I’m always the last pupil here,when I wake up in the morning) posts very much-always interesting!
    I agree with Sue and Frances
    It was not winning in my case,it was the wish to be the best in my fields of interest (there is the tiny difference-I was competing with myself,not the others),to achieve…..
    I was,and still am, very curious,it’s the drive to research,to solve life puzzles,to solve people problems…..?
    And last,but not the least (the first,I would say) is to care,for my family,for my parents (now the completely time-consuming care for my father),my friends,my patients before…..
    Dottoressa

    04/10/17
    9:32 am
    Lisa said...

    @dottoressa, Yes! I am not curious about mastering a domain and facts, but am super curious about solving problems. A bias towards projects over process, and the thrill of completion.

  • I’ve always been more on the caring/building side – trying to put in more than I take out of a system, picking up more litter than I make, doing high-quality professional work whether or not the quality “pays” in money, feeding people, setting up community structures, matching up people with each other, and having a squashy sofa on offer for people who need a good cup of tea and a bunch of kleenex. That said, as a Christian I’ve theoretically believed that our productivity (even our valuable “do unto others” good productivity) is not where our worth sits, and that we can’t actually put in more than we get out.

    And then I got very sick, and mostly stopped being able to get my buzz/reassurance-of-worth from giving and building and financially-remunerative work. So that’s been interesting. It’s still a work in progress – extrinsic metrics are awfully addictive – but I’m working on accepting the concept of worth aside from output for me (I’ve always believed all the way through in worth not tied to productivity for other people, especially elderly relatives and such). It’s an… interesting ride.

    Thank you for the opportunity to think this through!

    04/10/17
    9:33 am
    Lisa said...

    @KC, You are very welcome. The question of worth aside from output is in many ways central to a civilized society. Once we can survive, then what happens?

  • This post appeared on my birthday (a major one), and I have thought about it a lot. No great abstract analysis here, but a realization about how to face what remains of my future:

    My purpose is to seek and embrace new experiences. To not be afraid, not be complacent, not say “I’m too old” or “It’s too late.”

    Bring it on!

    04/10/17
    9:34 am
    Lisa said...

    @Victoire, I love that. Essentially embracing the wonder of now – the thing in and unto itself, no matter the resolution, the outcome, the reward. The reward is the moment.

  • Sitting here on a grey and damp Good Friday morning, how glad I am to have found this post! This has been a recurrent, if blurry, train of thought for me since I stopped full-time teaching almost two years ago. As I am going to be 60 this summer, it strikes me that I am far too young to be regarded as old and too old to be thought of as young…so what drives me? Without a sense of purpose, humans are simply lost. For some it is as simple as getting up to feed and water the cat each day, for others, more Herculean tasks. For me: definitely need to do something creative – hence blogging and writing – to have happy and meaningful relationships with all sorts of people – and that is blog pals too – but most emphatically nothing to do with getting on any aspirational ladders, showing impact, aims, objectives, mission statements, SMART targets…these have led to my emotional downfall too many times. And seeing someone in my life for whom life has absolutely no meaning, her misery, her anger and her soul-sapping negativity – no thanks. I shall strive onwards in my own way, whatever.