This is a response to the piece Resist that calling. It’s probably not your purpose in life posted on Medium by Fred Swaniker. In it, Swaniker states that we are “defined by our ‘Moments of obligation’” and that we should ignore 99% of these moments. The reason being that we each are on this planet for a purpose, and if we pursue ventures that are not this purpose, then we are delaying our calling from coming to fruition. He suggests applying three questions as a screening process for potential moments of obligation when they present themselves. These questions are:
- Is it big enough?
- Am I uniquely positioned, more than almost anyone else in the world, to make this happen?
- Am I truly passionate?
Three yes’s and you should pursue that calling. If your moment of obligation does not produce three “yes” answers, Swaniker recommends that you ignore this potential venture, “no matter how guilty it makes you feel.” Keep on your current path and your purpose in life will be revealed in time as part of a greater plan.
I must admit up front that I did not read this piece objectively as I do not ascribe to the concepts of fate and destiny. My answer to the question “What is my purpose in life?” has been and will continue to be, “Experiencing life is your purpose for existing.” From the position that we do not have a higher calling from a deity or the universe, I think we use our intuition or gut feeling in a similar way as these three questions to determine if we should follow new opportunities that present themselves. It appears to me that the difference between following your gut and Swaniker’s questions is that he is suggesting decision-making removed from empathy or guilt…to look at your moment of obligation coldly and logically along with personal desire or goals. This is what had me opposed to this from the beginning (by beginning, I mean from the title).
While I personally object to the concepts of fate and destiny, let’s say we all have a greater purpose in life, and we are each here for a reason. If that’s the case, then why have a filtering system for your life choices at all? Instead of being true to yourself and seeing where life takes you, are you attempting to help out fate? Swaniker states that being distracted by moments of obligation that are not your true calling only delays you from reaching your destiny. Okay, but we still reach it eventually? He didn’t say we could sway from our true path and then never find our way back. If you die while off your path, weren’t you actually on the real path? Isn’t your “true path” just based on perception?
I am not a fan of a simplified formula presented for mass consumption as a universal mantra because it ignores the numerous complexities of life’s experiences and the individual. We are all on our own trajectory with different backgrounds and unique thought/emotion structures, and the concept of everyone applying the same 3-question quiz to every major life decision or fork in the road is absurd to me. It is even more unsettling when you analyze the questions themselves. Let me address them in reverse order.
“Are you truly passionate?” I agree with this one. Too often we pursue an avenue because we believe it to be a great opportunity that shouldn’t be passed up. We eventually find ourselves regretting this decision as our heart was never behind it in the first place. The great opportunity transforms into a cause of stress and unhappiness because we never really wanted to do it. I’m all for pursuing a calling that fuels passion and drive.
“Am I uniquely positioned, more than almost anyone else in the world, to make this happen?” This one is perplexing considering there are 7.4 billion people on earth. No matter what your moment of obligation might be, there is a decent chance there are numerous individuals who are also in a position to make it happen.
But will they? This question assumes that if the issue you are contemplating is common enough, pass it up because somebody else will take care of it. Human nature, however, has shown that if an issue does not directly affect an individual and requires effort for that individual to take action, then the individual does not address it. A good example of this is trash on the side of the road. Anyone with at least one arm (i.e. mostly everyone) is positioned to clean it up. Most people choose to walk on by with the assumption someone else will take care of it (if they give litter any thought at all).
This question could be used to reinforce the decision to follow a calling if you were on the fence about it. Being in a unique position to help would probably tip you over to the side of yes. Using this question to completely rule out pursuing a venture doesn’t make sense to me.
“Is it big enough?” I find it presumptuous to determine that a good deed is greater than another based on a vague internal criteria. How do you quantify “big”? Do you refuse to initiate or participate in an idea that can benefit three or four people because anything less than half a dozen people is a waste of your time? Swaniker is suggesting making your decisions with a view of the big picture instead of what you feel is right. He says, “You should be solving the biggest problems for the world, not small ones.” This is infuriating to me, because as I mentioned earlier, people tend to ignore small problems, and small problems left untreated usually become bigger problems. Also, why is that a choice, big vs small? Shouldn’t it be, can I do something about this issue without it being detrimental to me financially, emotionally or physically?
This question’s main function seems to be for guilt alleviation, not for guidance to your perceived true purpose. Guilt, of course, can be very unhealthy, and it is not a person’s job to save the world. And actually, I don’t like the phrase “moment of obligation” because it implies that we owe the world something based on our position in life. I don’t feel I’m “obligated” to do anything. That being said, to completely ignore guilt as Swaniker suggests is to become an unfeeling machine that reads all the 1s and 0s and calculates all the factors to determine if the solution is equal to or greater than “big”.
The three questions almost sounds like an abbreviated strategy for business and professional success. To apply business principles to acts of goodwill feels dirty. From a purely selfish point of view, the reason to help other people is because it ultimately is supposed to make you feel good. That should be your true purpose: help people and feel good. This isn’t a matter of quantifying the number of people or the number of good deeds. That’s along the same lines as being a good person, not because it’s right, but because you’re trying to get into heaven. If you want to improve society and the world, you have to use empathy. Emotions need to be involved. Is it big enough? How about, is it the right thing to do?
The idea that I’m here for some higher purpose is an ego trip mired in delusion. Not everybody gets to have a calling that society will deem “great”. It doesn’t matter what society thinks of you, your profession, or your actions. What matters is how you feel. If you are doing for others based on what you feel is the right thing to do…If you are being true to yourself using both thought and emotion…then you should feel good about the path you’re taking. That is your calling: being authentically you.