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Hi, this is a very long post, and it begins by quoting myself at length from a 2011 magazine column I wrote for Alrroya Aleqissadiya -- one of the coolest jobs ever, 30 cents a word and guaranteed ink, published weekly opposite Paul Krugman. He was easy to oppose.

Let's turn the time machine back to 2011 and talk about purpose:

* * * * *

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It's been years, perhaps a decade since I considered the subject of purpose.

It might be a distinctly American idea, to choose an individual purpose in life, by which I mean a distinct goal of fairly ambitious scope, sufficient to inspire years of endeavor and considerable risk. If one's purpose can be achieved by doing something simple like making money, advancing a career, and being a good neighbor, then you've done a good job in everything except personal purpose.

Not everyone feels free to select a personal purpose. Most people are compelled to define their life's work and aspirations according to the dictates of religion, nation, family or peer group. As creatures of history and society, it seems rather far-fetched and implausible that an individual could segregate himself from the crowd and its steely imperatives of value and virtue.

Not everyone is prepared to buck public opinion or family pressure.

Americans are not quite so firmly stuck to tradition as other cultures, primarily because many different nations and ethnic groups joined the American Experiment and learned to tolerate each other's beliefs and expectations. Their children were exposed to the idea of individual liberty as a personal legal right. More than a few black sheep wandered off the reservation, as we say in the States with our usual amalgam of metaphor and malaprop. I won't try to explain, except to say that US kids often frustrate their parents' demands and prayers.

Rebellion against traditional work practices and antiquated technology results in progress. But to rebel against family and friends is not a productive innovation. At best, it's neutral. If one erases something, what's left is an absence of color and texture, a blank page.

On such blank pages, one is theoretically free to create something individual and new.

Doing this later in life seems unfair. It's rightly the prerogative of youth to strike out on a fresh, reckless adventure of their own. Not old people who are set in their ways.

I'm writing about purpose today because an older man of my acquaintance raised an eyebrow when I said that I was "just turning the crank" to earn a living and care for my family.

Bless his heart, I needed to hear again that every man needs a sense of purpose. It's not enough to do the routine business of living. I'm no different than a machine unless I define a new goal for myself apart from obligations, habits, and duties that clog and threaten to fill my remaining days.

Personal purpose takes us into the realm of dreams and fantasies.

There is a natural time for ambition, in young adulthood, ages 20 to 30, making our first unfettered strides in business or a specialized career.

But it can happen to older men and women, too, especially when their children are grown and gone, living independently. What does one do at age 60 with an empty nest, too old to start at the bottom in competition with younger, brighter, faster, tech-savvy whippersnappers?

To my mind, there is an infinity of opportunities for older men and women. Young people need leadership and inspiration, marshalling their raw ebullience and energy toward a distant and difficult objective involving sacrifice and heroism.

Armies and revolutions spring to mind involuntarily, however horrible it may seem. Leaders are forever trapping youth and bending their will in service of an old man's dream of glory.

That's not for me, nor for any man who seeks a personal purpose. The essence of an individual purpose is to do it alone, or with a minimum of others who have to be captured and led.

I like contractors. We can agree that their purpose and mine will be aligned for a brief period of time to achieve a specific task, no further obligation. I can use many, many contractors without sacrificing ownership of the project, and they don't have to pledge allegiance or surrender their private ambitions.

So, the question for me is simple. It doesn't require an army. What project ignites my personal ambition and inspiration, deserving of personal sacrifice and labor for the remainder of my life?

Supposing I have five or ten years to invest, what would I like best to achieve?

What sort of thing is extremely difficult and rare, so that I will die serene in the knowledge that I chose a noble purpose, as Spinoza defined it?

Making money and providing for my family is not an issue. I will always do that.

But there must be something personal, strictly for myself, or else I'll perish as an individual without dreams and aspirations of my own.

What I came to choose, after much thought, for my purpose at this stage of life may seem trivial compared to others. Individuality forces us apart. What you might choose is entirely your own.

I have chosen to make a photographic collection of the beautiful. Call it a hobby. But it will be mine, undertaken solely to express the yearning depth of a personal vision like no other.

 

* * * * *

Okay, flash forward 6 years. I was never a major contributor to the family bank account. My wife was the earning champion by leagues and ratios best explained with exponents and polynomial expressions. My thing was writing, which paid small sums at best. The Abu Dhabi magazine was fun, but I also had full-time salaried writing gigs, $5600 a month as recently as 2013. It was one of those awful things people do, shave every morning and wear a tie. Zero personal purpose involved, when you take a corporate writing job. I lasted four months.

The meaning of purpose is first in my mind these days again, as it was in 2011. Perhaps it's never been far from first. I recently changed the main picture on my Facebook page, a little inventory of my career, most of which was independent and creative. Corporate jobs were short-lived. I had a six-month contract at Crown Communications, but that was an exception granted by a brilliant creative boss. It was a pleasure to work for Marc Wright.

Hmm. I was just reminded of directing, which paid well on occasion. There ought to be a law against auteur filmmaking, marshalling others to execute a personal artistic purpose. I was saved from vanity by blundering as a young director. It always made me crazy directing. The intense privilege of being instantly obeyed by a group of capable actors and crew was a little too rich for my equilibrium, being fundamentally shy and easily embarrassed.

So I became a writer and feel most natural in isolation.

Now then, about purpose (as a writer). After a lot of experience and nearing the end of my useful productive days, I've started a series of short novels, entitled The Case Files of Cable & Blount, with two nice books completed, confident that I can write three or four more with the same characters. Chris and Peachy are ideal people, expressing a settled purpose, which is unchanged. In the "movie of the mind" that good writing can achieve, Chris and Peachy are a collection of beautiful pictures, finally achieving the purpose I spoke about in 2011.

Whether I will be empowered to continue writing is up to an agent and a publisher, which Chris and Peachy would simply shrug at. Their beauty is not blemished by quietude or death or the poor opinion of others. They love each other, and they earned the right to love each other for better or worse, in sickness or health. You couldn't pry them apart with a crowbar. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the meaning of heterosexual romantic love.

When they met in A Portrait of Valor, romantic love was involuntary and right for all time, an ideal couple, equally courageous and vulnerable, driven into each other's arms by passion for the best that life offers. In a very real sense, Chris and Peachy got lucky, because they found each other in their late 30s, fully formed and tested, single, alive to the wish for true love.

I cheated a bit, making Chris heroic and Peachy brilliant, murdering Peachy's billionaire father (the butler did it) so they wouldn't have to scrape the floor for crumbs and splurge on tuna casserole once a week. I am fully acquainted with poverty, and there's no happiness in it. My characters are like Dashiell Hammett's Nick and Nora Charles, fabulously rich, free to strike heavy blows against an evil opponent in my second book The Tar Pit.

It's a fun series to write, whether I get to write another word or not. I'm on strike until an agent steps forward and a publisher opens her checkbook. Chris and Peachy shrug. They don't care whether I write more. Two happier people don't exist in literature.

Purpose accomplished.

 

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  • 2 weeks later...

Wolf wrote: "I like contractors. We can agree that their purpose and mine will be aligned for a brief period of time to achieve a specific task, no further obligation. I can use many, many contractors without sacrificing ownership of the project, and they don't have to pledge allegiance or surrender their private ambitions."

We are on the same page (so to speak).  I spent the latter half of my working life as a contractor.  I was a Jack of a few trades,  and a Master of fewer. 

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  • 2 months later...

I'd say that purpose is the function of something within a larger context.

 

Like the purpose of a steering wheel is to point the car in the direction it should go.  Purpose needs to have a context and as you get more abstract your context because too big and you can't know the context.

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20 minutes ago, RobinReborn said:

I'd say that purpose is the function of something within a larger context.

 

Like the purpose of a steering wheel is to point the car in the direction it should go.  Purpose needs to have a context and as you get more abstract your context because too big and you can't know the context.

The context is an individual life.

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  • 3 years later...

I was about to create a thread with this title, but I'll just resurrect this one instead. The following is stream-of-consciousness craziness, but I think there is some good stuff that I will try to straighten out eventually.

 

Rand says this:

Quote

A central purpose serves to integrate all the other concerns of a man’s life. It establishes the hierarchy, the relative importance, of his values, it saves him from pointless inner conflicts, it permits him to enjoy life on a wide scale and to carry that enjoyment into any area open to his mind; whereas a man without a purpose is lost in chaos.

 

This is a teleological system for evaluating our actions and circumstances. Our purpose is essentially our highest value--it is our "life." The most depraved individual, according to Rand, is the man without a purpose. This is a bottom-up way of organizing one's values. Fleeting pleasure becomes the foundation for building one's "life." This is how career choices are made for many, most, or maybe even the vast majority of people. The foundation receives all the focus, and thus it is hard to make any vertical progress.

 

It's like starting to build a structure with mud, because that's the easiest material to find. The man with a purpose decides what the foundation will be based on the end goal. The value is not to be derived immediately (the man with a purpose generally has a low time preference).

 

But the point of bringing this subject up is to question the importance of purpose. "Purpose" is a pretty central concept to Rand's ethics, it is the equivalent to "man's life." She apparently has not said much on purpose, or at least not much is in the lexicon. I see a problem, though, being how one determines one's purpose, as well as whether a purpose can change.

 

What comes before purpose? We can say that the bottom-up value hierarchy is childish, and we are certainly born that way. At some point we have to start looking for higher values and work our way backward. What makes a value higher, or more abstract? Time preference is an easy way to start looking at this. If eating a cookie is good, sacrificing a cookie now for two later is better. The abstract concept of the future two cookies becomes a higher value.

 

But here we only have the same process for choosing a career that I mentioned above. Work becomes a means to an end, and a temporary sacrifice for a later payoff. This is not the same as a purpose, which involves integration, as Rand says. Meaning that there is no sacrifice vs payoff dichotomy, every part of the value hierarchy is thoroughly connected to the rest. I haven't read Rand in a while, but I feel like non-contradiction is going to be the main issue here, meaning if A has a value of X when we are considering it vs B, it's value should still be X when we consider it vs C.

 

All value is experienced at the foundational level. So a higher value is only an abstraction that helps us achieve more fundamental values. The problem here is understanding the range of value qualities. If we don't know something is a value, we may develop a deficiency. Since value is essentially psychological (the value of our health is derived from our capacity for joy, or something along those lines), it is a very complex subject. We may constantly be learning about what is and is not valuable to us.

 

So one's purpose will likely change. The idea of how they want to live, with the broadest consideration for types of value, will change as their understanding of value changes. This means "purpose" is not a stable, and the man without a purpose may be in between purposes. Or maybe purpose is not all it's cracked up to be... maybe there is an abstraction further, being the ability to let purposes come and go.

 

Purpose for Rand was like a direction to grow,  but perhaps real growth is the ability to change direction.

 

If fundamental values are derived from our nature, our nature might ought be our highest value. But it is natural to repress our nature, so this is not straightforward. Honesty is uninhibited natural expression, while it is natural to be dishonest from time to time--I feel this is an exception; a safety feature like a circuit breaker. Nature, on an individual level, is the idea of "working as intended," and I think maximizing that is probably a good idea.

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Here's my latest take on purpose:

 

Purpose is a function of our abstracted circumstances. "Life" is the highest level of abstraction. If we are not able to conceive of our life as a whole, we will focus on some subset of the whole, and our purpose will be derived from this abstraction. So it's not that some men have a purpose and some don't, it's that men derive their purpose from concepts of ranging scopes. Some men may consider their life as a whole, or close to it, while others may only think about the short term (perhaps due to mental limitations or emotional inhibition).

 

This is how I think the "integration" works. The broader the scope of the abstraction, the more contextualized everything in your life becomes. Things become good and bad that would otherwise be irrelevant. However, I don't know that having "no purpose" is really the worst quality a person can have. The worst people in history have all had a purpose. We're seeing a lot of shitty stuff right now coming from people who certainly have a purpose. I'm not sure exactly how this works, as in a way I feel like they've gone into the negatives in their level of abstracting their own circumstances, and have come out the other side, viewing everything through the lens of society. But I also think they are quite selfish, in the orthodox sense, and seeking low order pleasure/happiness while at the same time championing high order social values.

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2 hours ago, Dglgmut said:

The worst people in history have all had a purpose.

Even the lower levels of humanity have a purpose. From the junkie to the street thief and thug their purpose is for instant gratification. The purpose of the bully is to diminish others to raise themselves within a perceived hierarchy. The sadist gains gratification through the pain of others. All these lowlifes want ‘power.”   

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12 hours ago, Dglgmut said:

 However, I don't know that having "no purpose" is really the worst quality a person can have. The worst people in history have all had a purpose.

That's like saying "I don't know that having 'no career' is really the worst quality a person can have. The worst people in history have all had a career." Or children. Or money. Or oxygen.

The standard of quality can't be whether or not other people have used those things for nefarious purposes.

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1 hour ago, ThatGuy said:

That's like saying "I don't know that having 'no career' is really the worst quality a person can have. The worst people in history have all had a career." Or children. Or money. Or oxygen.

The standard of quality can't be whether or not other people have used those things for nefarious purposes.

But Rand assigned quality to the quality. Having a career, in this sense, = good. So is the converse of your last statement also true: that just because something can be used for good does not necessarily make it good?

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11 hours ago, Peter said:

Even the lower levels of humanity have a purpose. From the junkie to the street thief and thug their purpose is for instant gratification. The purpose of the bully is to diminish others to raise themselves within a perceived hierarchy. The sadist gains gratification through the pain of others. All these lowlifes want ‘power.”   

This accords with what I said here: "So it's not that some men have a purpose and some don't, it's that men derive their purpose from concepts of ranging scopes."

The narrower the scope, the less non-contradiction/integration is possible. The sadist lives in a bubble, insulated from the past and future. Power can be experienced in different ways; egotism can be applied in different ways. Power over another person (status), power over reality (creativity), or power over oneself (independence)--something like that--are all different expressions of egotism.

What about the anti-egotist: the man who lives for pleasure or the man who lives for society? These would be the men without a purpose, I think. Technically, they do have a purpose, but by Rand's standards they do not. They are guided either by their body or other people. Maybe these are worse than the people with corrupted minds? They are the necessary tools for these people to effect their destruction.

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I watched the Tom Hanks movie, "Angels and Demons" the other night. A whole lot of Cardinals were portrayed and a dead Pope. What is their purpose in life? They siphon off money from people and really do nothing. They should be made to learn magic.  

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