A common purpose myth that shackles you with guilt
I encounter this all the time in my purpose coaching: People feel conflicted about their life purpose because they feel like what they want to do won’t make a big enough difference in the world.
They feel like following their bliss is somehow self-indulgent. They’re held captive by “ought” and “should”: “I ought to do something more meaningful.” “I should do something that makes a greater difference.”
We look at people like Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Jr., or Gandhi as the standard of what we all should be aiming for: some monumental mission of martyrdom, where we sacrifice all our needs for the benefit of others. Anything less feels selfish, frivolous, unimportant.
We moralize purpose and think of it in terms of a hierarchy, a scale of worthiness.
On this perceived scale, building homeless shelters or taking care of orphanages are noble and worthy purposes that belong at the top of the hierarchy. Playing basketball or skateboarding or creating art are selfish and unworthy purposes at the bottom.
In this hierarchical mindset, we feel guilty when the things we love don’t seem to serve some profound, humanitarian service for the world.
This guilt, rather than motivating us to be better, does nothing but keep our light hidden.
The truth is that no such hierarchy exists. There is no purpose that is more worthy than another.
Tony Hawk’s purpose as a professional skateboarder is every bit as valid and worthy as Mother Teresa’s. Lebron James’s purpose as a professional basketball player is no less important than that of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Why do millions of people spend millions of hours and millions of dollars watching people like Tony and Lebron? They inspire us to be the best we can be. They show us what bliss in mastery looks like. They demonstrate a life we would all love to live: using our gifts to their fullest and doing what we love to create value for others.
Hierarchy creates comparisons
The core problem of thinking of purpose in terms of a worthiness hierarchy is that it creates comparison. And comparing the individual purposes of human beings is like comparing the abilities of a fish to that of an elephant.
Comparison creates conformity — in comparing ourselves to others, we try to be like others who we deem as worthy.
Even worse, we look down on others who we deem as unworthy. As my friend Kevin Hall often says,
“If you feel inferior to someone in one setting, you’ll likely feel superior to someone in another setting.”
Every one of us is an unrepeatable miracle. In a forest of a thousand trees, no two leaves are alike. No one sees the world quite like you see it, no one can do what you can do quite like you can do it — that is, if you are being uniquely you. But you can’t be what you were born to be as long as you’re comparing yourself to others.
“Is Mother Teresa’s purpose more important than mine?” is the wrong question to ask. The right questions are, “What are my unique gifts? What is my singular contribution? How can I become the best version of me?”
There’s only one Mother Teresa, and there’s only one you. You can’t and shouldn’t aspire to be like Mother Teresa because you have a unique purpose.
God planted seeds in your heart and your heart alone. It’s not just your responsibility to cultivate them — it’s your privilege.
You get to do what makes you happy! That’s what God placed you here to do.
If creating art makes you happy, go create art. If playing chess or ping pong makes you happy, play it to your heart’s content. If skydiving or rock climbing get you jazzed, go jump and climb like there’s no tomorrow.
Mother Teresa and Gandhi were great souls, to be sure. But they did what they did because that’s what made them happy. They followed their bliss.
You following your bliss is no less important or worthy.
Forget hierarchy — focus on the right allegiance
Having said that, here’s the caveat: There is no hierarchy of purpose, but there are allegiances, which determine how we apply our gifts and the value we create for others and the difference we make in the world.
There are four possible allegiances we can have in this life:
- God (or Good)
We are disciples of and to our allegiance. Our allegiance determines our loyalty and devotion. It determines how we use our gifts and the goals we pursue. It determines our character and how we treat others.
What made Mother Teresa great wasn’t that her purpose was somehow intrinsically more worthy or important than anyone else’s, but that she got her allegiance right.
One of my coaching clients loves real estate development. He’s an amazing man with a heart of gold and an allegiance to God.
He struggled for a time with thinking that real estate development didn’t really serve any profound purpose in the world. But think of all the good a real estate developer with an allegiance to God can do.
Not only can he make himself wealthy, as is his birthright, but he can also use his wealth to bless millions of lives. And think of all the lives he blesses simply by virtue of developing real estate — all the jobs and wealth he creates.
With an allegiance to God, our unique gifts are used to make us the happiest we can become, as well as to make the greatest positive difference for others.
On the other hand, a real estate developer with an allegiance to Self may be living his purpose, but won’t fully develop his gifts to their fullest potential. Since he doesn’t think beyond personal benefit, he will by definition be limited in what he can accomplish and the difference he can make.
Stop thinking of purpose in terms of a hierarchy of worthiness — that does nothing but stifle your gifts and happiness and shackle you with misguided, unwarranted guilt.
Choose the right allegiance, and then follow your bliss and do what you love. With the right allegiance, you’re guaranteed to fulfill your highest potential and make the greatest difference for others with your gifts.
With the right allegiance, you don’t need the approval of others. You’ll never compare yourself to others. You’ll never think of yourself as less than or greater than anyone else. You’ll never devalue your gifts. You won’t worry about using your gifts to be self-indulgent.
You’ll shine your light with courage and confidence. You’ll serve with humility and joy. And the world will never be the same…