With a stellar academic record and a host of impressive extracurricular achievements, Gaurav was recruited on campus by a top-notch multinational firm. After a three-year stint, he sailed into a premier MBA program and was ready to enter the job market again. But, this time, Gaurav felt a strange malaise. He had checked off all the achievement boxes on his list and was now overcome with a feeling of emptiness. Now what? Sure, he would land a plum job with an impressive salary and move up the clichéd corporate ladder, but is this what he really wanted to do with his life?
In retrospect, Gaurav feels that he didn’t really think about his choices as a student. Being a topper, he simply did what most successful students do. As he was taking the well-trodden path, his parents and teachers didn’t ever ask him to reflect on his decisions. Social expectations, based on external markers like grades, awards, salary and status, drove his preferences. According to psychologist William Damon, an increasing number of young adults appear to be on course but are actually “drifting, without a clear sense of direction.”
In his book The Path to Purpose: Helping Our Children Find Their Calling in Life, Damon asserts that well-being and life satisfaction are related to having a sense of purpose. By ‘purpose’ Damon refers to “an ultimate concern” wherein a person is motivated by “a deeper reason.” Even as people chart short-term goals and benchmarks, these do not constitute purpose in and of themselves. Thus, even though Gaurav appeared to be on track, his actions were not propelled by a “larger purpose” and he felt rudderless when he had fulfilled all his short-term objectives.
Damon argues that a purpose has to be “an end in itself.” It stems from engaging in work that is meaningful for an individual while also being “consequential for the world.” But ‘consequential’ does not necessarily entail “showy accomplishments,” staggering salaries or status-elevating roles. Rather, it means engaging in work that impacts others, whether it is a single child, a classroom of teens or a handful of clients.
During the high tides of life, purpose provides joy but when the tide ebbs, purpose bestows resilience on people. Purpose also assumes varying guises. From wanting to eradicate malnutrition to raising a contented family to producing entertaining movies, purpose can be expansive or contained. Most importantly, the purpose may be realised by every individual, regardless of their talents and skillsets. It doesn’t necessarily have to be something impressive or exalted by conventional standards. Cultivating a garden patch, cooking wholesome meals or designing furniture can constitute purpose. What matters is how a person’s competences and interests align with the chosen tasks, and the narrative that the individual weaves around them.
The purpose is also integral to a young person’s evolving identity. When people view their vocations as contributing to something larger and loftier than their own individual betterment, they are more likely to find their work imbued with meaning. Significance can be derived from any occupation or activity, however mundane or menial it may appear to others.
A janitor can perceive his work as maintaining a salubrious office environment, a nanny can see herself as shaping a human being and a courier delivery person may view his role as the harbinger of important tidings.
On the other hand, even stereotypically meaningful professions like teaching or medicine can be devoid of purpose if doctors routinely tick off a checklist or if teachers deliver drab content to disengaged students. Ultimately, it is an individual’s interpretation of their work that endows it with purpose. Damon believes that purpose emerges when people see their work as espousing “a religious faith, a political ideology, a vocational calling, a lifestyle philosophy, or an aesthetic ideal.”
While purpose can be cultivated at any age, it is ideal if people begin to think about their place and purpose in the cosmos during adolescence because this is the period when identity beings to fructify. As youngsters grapple with “choices about what kind of person to become and what kind of life to lead,” they begin their quest for purpose. While factoring in material benefits of various choices is essential, people’s decisions should not be driven solely by the yardsticks of “fortune or fame”, warns Damon. If youngsters don’t think of “ultimate concern,” they are likely to experience disquietude is the long run.
To find purpose, people need to assay the world while also plumbing their inner selves to find a fit between “their own talents and interests” and opportunities that the world offers. Damon sagely points out that defining purpose is “deeply individual” and “unavoidably social” as it concomitantly involves “inner examination” and “outer exploration.” Further, even after discerning their main purpose(s), individuals have to periodically re-examine their choices as purpose can transmute over time.
(The author is director, PRAYATNA)