Neil Tambe

I'm a Detroiter who happens to enjoy writing, national parks, orange juice, the performing arts, and fanciful socks. More than anything though, I aspire to be a good husband, father, and citizen.

Purpose: Accept or Create?

"Purpose...It's that little flame that lights a fire under your ass." - Avenue Q

I had the privilege of chatting with my very great friend, Nick, yesterday afternoon at Michigan State University. Over the course of conversation we covered several topics, per usual. He's a wise friend, so I threw him a question I've been gnawing on. I don't remember the question exactly, but it was about purpose.

In asking this question, I identified two ways of finding purpose, I think both are legitimate framings of the task. I suppose even this frame was a valuable use of the conversation, even if no conclusions were drawn. Basically, I asked him "how did you find your purpose?". He's found his calling. he's currently working for the Orthodox Christian Fellowship, in Indianapolis, even though he's still in school. He'll continue after graduation.

Here's a breakdown of the ways to find purpose, as I see them. Obviously elements of both are at play, but the "both factors matter" analysis doesn't really satiate because it doesn't examine the underpinnings of the ideas. Time to explore.

1) Accept your purpose
An individual has a duty to do what they are good at/serves the public good. You do what you will be most useful at in life. Of course, enjoyment in work matters, but only because people who aren't happy in their work can't excel. You do what you can excel at and benefit the public good in this way. Circumstances choose you and its up to you to accept or reject them.

2) Create your purpose
You blaze your own trail--and hopefully leave a path for others--in the best way you can. You figure out what you are good at and what you want, and thrust yourself into those areas. You make an assertion, about the world perhaps, and make it happen. The individual is the primary agent in determining his/her future, rather than the public good. Circumstances don't choose the individual the individual chooses the circumstance. The individual's decision is not to accept or reject the opportunities they are presented...the individual's decision is to create and ensure the opportunities they want most.

What Nick suggested is roughly the following. You cast yourself in a general direction, the direction in which you want to catch opportunities, and then make the most of the opportunities you have on the table. It's a bit of a combination of the two ideas above. First, the individual has agency (e.g. YOU decide if you want to be a science major or an arts major). Then, the individual has a bit of freedom in accepting or rejecting opportunities.

I don't think everyone operates like this. Some I know, desperately want to work in New York City--so much for letting circumstances totally choose you. But also, there are some that go whichever way the wind blows.

And, I'm not so sure it's that simple as being open to opportunities while also training in a certain area. What I really am asking then is: which comes first...accepting purpose or creating purpose? Surely both matter, as they ought. But, which leads and which follows?

This is why it matters. Think of the Lois Lowry's book, The Giver. In the novel, children are assigned a job, for the good of the collective. The main character is chosen to be the "receiver of memory", whereas his sister is chosen to be a nurturer or something. This epitomizes the idea of accepting a purpose.

Imagine another scenario where all create their own purpose. In my high school it would've meant that roughly 5% of all the people I graduated with would've become art or music majors...because that was the path they wanted to create. Which is cute, but the world probably would be a little bit more better off if less than 5% of all high school graduates were artists or musicians...substitute your own percentage.

(And yes, for the record I do think scientists, engineers, mathematicians, social workers, teachers, civil servants, lawyers, entrepreneurs, business managers, social sector employees etc. probably are a more primary need than musicians...though I think its great the people who pursue the arts, do so. But my point have 20 million of the people currently studying other disciplines switching to arts probably isn't the best allocation of talent).

These two scenarios are gravely different, and would ultimately lead to societies being constructed radically differently. Both these approaches would put people in different places in different proportions. Personally, I think our country is a little bit more like the Giver scenario. Incentives/pay and education systems tend to shuffle people to areas with the most public need. I think its really hard to blaze a trail as I've described...but I digress.

Both these have problems. The first approach allows for the wasting of talent. What if that "golden opportunity" never comes or its not identifiable...then what does one do. If you "miss the boat" on your calling...then do you live a life of mediocrity? What if circumstances never call? The first approach doesn't really allow burning ambition--a really powerful force--to drive people, i think. If you're just doing what your duty is, it seems tricky to stay motivated, doesn't it?

The second is problematic, a human how do you know you choose a path for the right reasons? What if you choose a path but it leads away from the public good or it's totally not suited to you? Isn't it possible that some streak of selfishness can take hold of a person's choice of profession?

I really don't know which approach leads which, but what I do know is that effort is required. Either way, the individual or community needs to seek out a purpose for himself or his neighbor, respectively. What's most useless is someone who wastes their potenial or whose community allows them to waste or never activate their potential.

Of course, this presumes everyone does have a purpose, or that its even possible for everyone to have a purpose. So, regardless of whether purpose is accepted or created perhaps another issue is more important at the moment. Allowing everyone to have a purpose, that's reasonably actionable and meaningful. If that does happen, the question of "accepting" or "creating" a purpose might not matter so much.

A company's truck drivers have just as much purpose as company's CEOs, I think. I wonder if both parties realize that.