My original title for The Path to Purpose – nixed by the publisher – was to be The Age of Purpose. My intention was to signal a dual drama that is now playing out simultaneously in the lives of individuals and in the life of our society. No doubt my publisher decided to avoid my double entendre in order to ensure a clear title that could directly communicate the book’s contents. But at the start of my blog, I now have a chance to say what was on my mind when I first envisioned the book project.
Many individuals find themselves adrift in a vacuum of belief, searching for something that they can wholeheartedly devote their talents and energies to. The search for meaning is especially acute during the time of adolescence and emerging adulthood – in our society, the teens and twenties – and so this is the first, and perhaps formative, “age of purpose” during human development. Yet the need to find purpose continues throughout life, right up into the retirement years, when folks who have succeeded in everything (business, raising children, gaining social status) suddenly can find themselves coming up empty unless they find a new purpose for what some authors have recently called “prime-time” (Marc Friedman) or “half-time” (Bob Buford). So, for the individual, the age of purpose comes early but re-appears late, and self-renewal, as the great John Gardner once wrote, is the entry fee that we always must continue to pay for a meaningful life.
On a societal level, we are at a pivotal time in history. Traditional systems of cultural and social meaning – faith, patriotism, matrimony, vocation, paternity, maternity – have been challenged in their ancient forms. In some cases, these challenges have lead to progress towards liberation and greater equality; in other cases, the challenges have lead to nothing more elevated than confusion and doubt.
Our civic society in recent years has vacillated between despair and hope. Revered social institutions in finance, education, and the popular media, have fallen into disrepute; but at the same time creative new approaches to democratic communications and networking in our burgeoning social media have triggered optimism and energy, especially among the young. Global conflict and criminality seem to rise, hydra-like and unmanageable, from every corner of the earth; yet there have been courageous political and military responses to some of the most fearsome incidents. Whether, as a society, we will end up traveling down the road to despair or the road to hope is still unknown: the answer, once again, is blowing in the wind.
The road to hope, for both the individual and the society, can only be approached by the path to purpose. Purpose is required to fill the spiritual vacuum that leads to drift, apathy, cynicism, and nihilism. Purpose is needed to sustain the will to strive, achieve, contribute, and continue learning. Purpose provides resilience in hard times, elevation in good times, and confident aspiration all throughout life. It is the key to psychological survival for the individual, economic and civic survival for the society, and a state of thriving and well-being for both.