Joseph Rowlands
Joseph Rowlands

Purposeful Life

Life is a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action.
- Ayn Rand

Occasionally friends will tell me about their problems, hoping I can give them some advice. A common problem seems to be a kind of depression. They say they feel bored, and that they're wasting their lives. It's like a dull ache that over time eventually becomes stifling. They cannot seem to find a cause. In fact, nothing significant has happened in their lives to explain it. Nothing of interest had happened to them.

And there's the problem. They felt as though they were wasting their lives because they were. Or more precisely, they weren't living. They were confused about the concept of life. They believed it was a state, instead of a process. They believed because they hadn't died, it was the same as living. They were wrong.

To live is to act, and to act purposefully. Life is not measured in units of time, but in accomplishments, both in number and in greatness. It is measured in values gained. It is measured in happiness. It is not a passive state of existence, but an adventure. It won't come to you. You have to pursue it.

When this is ignored or misunderstood, the result is properly a sense that "life is passing you by." When you default on living, you are left with a void. You lack a sense of purpose. This is the depression my friends felt. Purpose is only meaningful in the context of action. To live you must act. To live successfully, you must act purposefully. You must have goals.

Goals are the means by which your actions are integrated over time. Instead of being a thousand disconnected actions, they combine by aiming at a single end. Goals give meaning to life. They change it from a haphazard state of existence into a unified, coherent whole. Instead of working to avoid death, goals allow you to act in order to pursue life.

Determining which goals to select is just as important as having goals. Choosing the wrong goals is the same as having no goals at all. You need a mix of short- and long-term goals, integrated to provide an underlying purpose to your life.

Short-term goals are necessary to direct your actions and to choose the kinds of actions that should be taken. Although it is important to have many short-range goals, they are not enough. Many people fill their days with lists of goals they want to accomplish. Although during the process of accomplishing the goals you feel the sense of purpose, it is short-lived. If the goals are unconnected and not part of a larger goal, they cannot fulfill the need for purpose.

Even if you can count some small accomplishments at the end of the day, your life is not furthered. This is why people often say, "I can't remember what I did over the weekend." Even if they filled the days with actions, the pointlessness of it all leaves no lasting sense of accomplishment. They are left off no better than they were, and with the loss of days. Short-range goals are important, but they need long-term goals to unify them.

Long-term goals can also have problems, though. If the goal is too remote with no intermediate steps and any uncertainty, it will be abandoned. Life is a process, and must be enjoyed as such. It is not just achieving a goal. The goals unify your actions, but they are not ends in themselves. They are the means by which you live.

Another problem with long-term goals is that it's not always clear how to act towards them. These goals are really dreams or aspirations. They are directions towards which your other goals aim. They are not a substitute for goals, since they do not imply any particular action.

Goals must be chosen based on your ability to accomplish them. An impossible goal is a dream at best, a fanciful wish at worst. Only goals that are within your ability can act to unify your actions. You have to understand your strengths and limitations in order to rationally pick goals.

A consequence of this is that your short-term goals are always limited by your current abilities. Goals that improve or expand your abilities are those that do the most to further your life. By expanding the potential of one's actions, one allows larger, more important goals to be accomplished. This allows dreams to become goals, and successes to be magnified.

Every goal should act in this way. Your life and actions should build on themselves, always expanding your possibilities and taking you to greater and greater heights. You should never have to look back on a year or day of your life and wonder why you gained nothing from it. You should be able to look back proudly and honestly declare that it was all worth it. That it helped get you to where you are and where you are going.

Goals are a means to living. To live you must act purposefully. The alternative is to wait and die. Choose your goals wisely.

If you enjoyed this, why not subscribe?