How do you make sense of the world around you?
From a young age, it feels like we are placed on a treadmill and simply told to run. Nobody is able to articulate why. Life is simply in motion. We have no choice but to go along with it. When the child questions why, his parents can only provide simple answers. As the questioning goes deeper, the child is silenced.
There’s a good reason for silencing the child. The parents don’t know the answers themselves. At least, not on a level that they are able to articulate. In fact, they were put on the treadmill too. As were practically everybody that came before them. In truth, nobody has definitive claim to the answers of our most pressing questions.
One of such questions is why are we here? In other words, what is our purpose?
But that certainly doesn’t mean people haven’t tried. In fact, the exploration of our purpose as humans has been the most pondered question since we’ve been alive. Assuming of course, that one’s meal for the day had already been taken care of.
It is a topic that has been explored across the world through every time period. Every culture, every tribe, and perhaps every individual has their own take on it. It is the question that has spawned countless religions, some of which continue to influence the minds of millions, others fading away into history.
It is the thought that the brightest minds of the ancient world in Greece, Egypt and Persia have contemplated – up through the Renaissance and to the modern day. The competing philosophies, the myths and even the sciences created – all in the pursuit of this question.
Like many of life’s deeper questions, there are many answers. Regardless of who you are and your beliefs, there is a case to be made for all of them.
Aside from mythology and folklore, perhaps the oldest method of trying to explain our purpose has come through religion. As a simplification, religions can be divided into the categories of monotheistic, polytheistic and agnostic belief systems.
Monotheistic religions include the main three of our day: Christianity, Islam and Judaism. These three beliefs differ in many ways, but what they have in common is the belief in one God. Followers believe that there is only one supreme being, what they call the creator, and he has provided guidance in the form of prophets and holy books.
All three religions seek to provide a purpose for human existence. Depending on interpretation, this could mean the repentance of sin, doing good in the world, submitting to God, personal sacrifice, or the implementation of holy law.
Religion has served as the dominant force for the masses when it comes to individual and collective purpose. Although myths and folktales provide details of heroic deeds and explanations of the world, it is religion that tied somebody’s birth, life, existence and destiny into a complete narrative. As a result, billions of people today explain their existence through the lens of monotheistic religion.
Religious perspectives to purpose have popped up around the world. One of such has come from the east in the form of Buddhism – a Godless religion. The focus is taken away from creation and is placed on the individual and his conflict with his mind, body and spirit. In many ways, it is a practical belief system for managing yourself.
At its core, this agnostic religion explains human purpose through the goal of transcending the physical world. It calls for a detachment from materialism – both thought and objects – which leads to a reduction in suffering of the spirit. Through this, one is hopefully able to achieve enlightenment – a state of bliss where one can see the true nature of reality.
What is our purpose started out as a philosophical question. But it is these questions that gave birth to practical questions such as ‘why does the sun rise everyday?’ Eventually, scientific inquiry was born and our understanding of the world around us increased. We’re at the point where thousands of scientific papers are published each week, and our knowledge has us eying up trips to Mars.
Science is about how and why things work, but it can still provide us some perspective about our deeper questions. We know for instance that we are part of life. We are biological entities that eat, sleep, reproduce and slack off when nobody’s looking. If you pierce our skin with a knife, we will likely bleed to death. We are mortal and finite in our existence.
Although not very romantic, an argument can be made that our purpose is simply to survive, and if lucky, reproduce. Afterall, that is what all other living things are doing. Do elephants or snakes wonder about their existence? They may not have as developed brains as we do, but we still share the fact that we are biological organisms.
It comes down to the fact that it is hard to determine what the truth is outside our existence. Do other people have consciousness, or it is our imagination? What we do know is that we have hardwired biological imperatives: the need to eat, drink and sleep. And once we hit puberty, the need to procreate.
As if our biological reality wasn’t a simple enough purpose, there is an even more bleak outlook. From the perspective of physics, chemistry and astronomy, it could be said that we are nothing but stardust. We are made up of the same materials that form the inanimate entities in our solar system. And on the most microscopic level, we are nothing more than a collection of unquantifiable mindless atoms. In other words, we are nothing more than matter.
In modern times, answers to our purpose have begun to take a different form. This time, these ideas are coming from a more educated, forward thinking and progressive population. As capitalism marches on and it’s flaws start to show, people are asking if there is more to life than consumption, work and luxury. Although religion has answers to these questions, progressive populations are basing more of their beliefs on evidence, as opposed to traditional ideas.
For most however, the simple explanation of ‘survival’ as a reason for our existence is not enough. They are looking for a deeper answer. It is now a common trope that is simply not enough to just survive, but to thrive. That is, contributing to building a better world that is more fair, equitable and prosperous. This idea is also part of our biology – the aspect of altruism that goes beyond base instincts and encourages humans to help each other.
We see this played out at all levels of society. At the top, we have philanthropic endeavours from the likes of Bill Gates and Warren Buffet – both pledging to give away large sums of their wealth when they pass. Many entrepreneurs also are driven to ‘leave a dent in the universe’ like Steve Jobs, or lesser known social entrepreneurs. Even at lower economic brackets, individuals are motivated to do work that has an impact on the world. Be that through volunteering or vocational occupations. For those in less impactful roles, they find a way to contribute through the likes of charity and social activism too.
The human drive for purpose can seldom be disconnected from our need to work. This is why many of today’s explanations of finding your purpose involve ideas such as ‘passion’ and ‘doing what you love’. In light of this, a multi-billion dollar industry of life coaches, motivational speakers and modern day spiritual gurus have popped up to satisfy this growing demand.
The root of this trend is the desire to find work that is meaningful, engaging and something that an individual can attain mastery in. As described in the book ‘Flow’ by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, people achieve happiness when they are fully engrossed and lost in work in which they are good at. In this sense, they surrender themselves to a craft they can use to represent their unique, creative footprint.
So why has this question been of such importance throughout history?
We can’t tell you what the answer to your life’s purpose is, but we can help you understand why it matters. The reason why purpose matters comes down to how our brains are wired and the psychology of the human mind.
Although we have basic primal drives as mentioned above, we have evolved a more complex brain that has its own set of motivators. One of such motivators is the ego which plays a part in regulating our emotions, attitudes and behaviours. Someone described as egotistical suggests that that person has a grander, more self-centered view of themselves.
Apply that concept on a mass scale, and you have one of the natural mechanisms that motivate us to seek out purpose. Surely, there must be a reason for our existence, we think to ourselves. Something or someone made us, and we are part of something bigger. We as individuals are all special and have something to give. And so the sayings go.
Linked to this is the other innate desire to be happy. Happiness can come from many forms. Hedonism, social relations, achievement, recognition, detachment, and of course, purpose, which ties together with all other aspects of happiness. Fulfilling our ‘purpose’ then serves as a route to happiness.
Not much has changed over the years. To this day you could argue that purpose has become even more relevant. As technology increases our collective wealth, people gain more free time to think about higher level concepts such as purpose. We have more of a choice to reject work and ideologies that don’t fit our view of ‘purpose’, thanks in part to reduced scarcity and more freedom.
Combined with better education and a raised collective consciousness, people are exploring new routes to purpose that didn’t exist in the last century. And in a slightly more negative outlook, the rise of AI has many people questioning what really makes us unique.
For entrepreneurs and leaders, this shift is beginning to affect the entire economic model. It will change every aspect of business; how you manage your team, what products you create, how you brand and what your own purpose as a visionary is. The industrial era, and even the modern era style of approaching business is quickly coming to an end. A new framework that sees purpose as a core tenet of life and business is needed.
In this series, we will show you how to adapt to this new change. We will cover problems you will encounter, the benefits of being at the forefront of this change, and practical case studies you can apply to your own situation. In the next part, we will address ways to turn your organizational purpose into an unfair advantage.
Stefan Beiten is a lawyer, international entrepreneur and investor from Berlin. With more than 20 years of experience, Stefan is an expert in building, scaling and managing successful businesses.