WHEN ALBERT EINSTEIN reached
70, he retired. He had reached his goals, assumed he had expended
his usefulness to the world, and retired. He didn't set any new
goals. He became depressed and listless, as people often do when
they no longer have a sense of purpose. He stopped taking his
dog for walks. Life lost its luster.
Then one day he realized
it might not be over; he might still have something to contribute
to the world. He decided to do two things:
1. develop a plan to control
the destructive use of atomic power
2. to discover peacetime
uses for atomic power
He came alive! The luster
was back. He took his dog for walks again. He had a purpose.
And as a result of his decisions and the ensuing efforts he made
to make those goals a reality, medical and electrical uses for
atomic power were found. He gave speeches and helped stir up
interest in a worldwide police force that eventually culminated
in the founding of the United Nations.
so much to tranquilizing the mind," wrote Mary Wollstonecraft
Shelly, "as a steady purpose a point on which the
soul may fix its intellectual eye."
It is physically and psychologically
healthy for a human being to have a strong sense of purpose.
The state of mind you have when you're absorbed in the accomplishment
of a purpose is called "flow," which is an engaged,
pleasant state of focus. Those who have learned to develop a
sense of purpose and who have learned to become engrossed in
the achievement of purposes are the most likely to be happy and
healthy. This has been shown in scientific studies and in everyday
observations. Happy people are purposeful people because the
most reliable self-created source of happiness is taking action
along a strongly-held purpose.
Flow has been the subject
of quite a bit of research. For example, swimmers who experienced
flow while training made the most progress by the end of the
training. In other words, experiencing frequent flow allowed
them to develop their ability faster.
Another study accentuated
those findings. It found that of all the things that influence
how successful a person might become in their sport or skill
in whatever field the most influential factor was
how much flow they experienced while doing it. In other words,
the amount of absorption they had was the best predictor of who
would develop their talent the most.
A sense of purpose brings
out the best in people. In his book, Carrying
the Fire: An Astronaut's Journeys, Michael Collins wrote about the enthusiasm of
the people in the Apollo space program in 1964. "
goal was clearly and starkly defined," wrote Collins. "Had
not President Kennedy said before the end of the decade?"
They had a clear goal that
the people at NASA were excited about. The moon! The impossible
goal! The goal they said could never be done! People showed
up early, worked hard, and stayed late. As Collins put it, "People
knew that each day was one day closer to putting man on the moon
This is the electrifying power of a strong sense of purpose.
one of the principle researchers into flow, says we usually see
work as a necessary evil, and we feel leisure is what we want:
time on our hands. Free time. Time with nothing to do. We long
for it. And yet, he says, "free time is more difficult to
enjoy than work." Or as Jerome K. Jerome put it, "It
is impossible to enjoy idling unless there is plenty of work
Work provides clear goals
more often than leisure and a clear goal is the first and most
important requirement of flow. If you want to experience flow,
you must have a purpose. Work provides a purpose. It provides
something to become absorbed in, so it provides opportunities
for flow. To get flow from leisure, you have to provide
the purpose. Many people don't know that, which means many people
don't get much enjoyment from their coveted leisure; it isn't
satisfying like they wish it would be. Some even suffer during
Sandor Ferenczi, a psychoanalyst
in the early 1900's discovered that anxiety and depression occurred
more often on Sundays than any other day of the week. Since that
time, many observers have noticed that vacations and retirement
also tend to produce anxiety and depression. When we are not
on the job when we are not given a clear purpose
many of us are feel adrift and don't know what's missing.
Clearly, a large percentage of people don't have a strong sense
of purpose for their off time, and it's a shame. Purpose is king.
A purpose to sink your
teeth into gives your mind a healthy, productive focus and prevents
it from drifting into negativity. Without goals, wrote Csikszentmihalyi,
"the mind begins to wander, and more often than not it will
focus on unresolvable problems that cause anxiety."
POWER OF CAUSE
Goals put you in a causal
position rather than a victim position and that is good for your
psychological well-being. In the book, Survive The Savage
Sea the true story of a family who survived a shipwreck
the author and father of the family, Dougal Robertson,
describes how their whole attitude changed when they shifted
from "hoping for rescue" to "we're going to get
ourselves to shore on our own; we're going to survive."
A ship was cruising by
fairly close, seven days after their boat sank. They spotted
it from their life raft. They lit off flares and yelled at the
top of their lungs and waved their shirts in the air, but the
ship sailed right on by. They were heartbroken.
Dougal looked at his empty
flare cartons bitterly and, "something happened to me in
that instant, that for me changed the whole aspect of our predicament,"
he wrote. "If these poor bloody seamen couldn't rescue us,
then we would have to make it on our own and to hell with them.
We would survive without them, yes, and that was the word from
now on, 'survival' not 'rescue' or 'help' or dependence of any
kind, just survival. I felt the strength flooding through me,
lifting me from the depression of disappointment to a state of
almost cheerful abandon."
Purpose has an almost magical
quality. It can imbue us with extraordinary ability. It can make
us almost superhuman more capable than humans in an ordinary
Ulysses S. Grant was writing
his biography near the end of his life. His publisher was Mark
Twain. Even though Grant was famous and had been President, he
was broke. Twain had assured him there was a market for the book
if he could finish it. Grant had cancer and was dying. But he
couldn't die. He had something to accomplish. It was very
important to him to finish this book and do a good job because
his wife would be destitute otherwise.
So he persisted. When he
could no longer write, he dictated. Doctors said he might not
live more than two or three weeks, but like I said, purpose has
a mysterious power, and Grant continued dictating until he finished.
He died five days after he completed his manuscript. And, by
the way, Twain was right: The book, Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, was very successful and is even
to this day considered one of the best military memoirs ever
written, and Grant's wife was set for life.
Charles Schulz declared
many months ahead of time when he was going to end his comic
strip. His last strip was published Sunday. The night before,
Schulz died in his sleep.
After his family was shipwrecked,
Dougal Robertson started adding up their stock. He discovered they
had enough food and water to last them ten days. They were two
hundred miles downwind and downcurrent from the Galapagos Islands:
an impossible feat to get there. They were 2800 miles from the
Marquesas Islands, but without a compass or means of finding
their position, their chance of missing the islands was enormous.
The Central American coast was a thousand miles away, but they
had to make it through the windless Doldrums. They wouldn't be
missed by anyone for five weeks, and nobody would have the slightest
idea of where to start looking anyway, so waiting for rescue
would have been suicide.
There were two possible
places to be rescued by shipping vessels. One four hundred miles
south; the other three hundred miles north.
Having roused himself enough
to assess his situation accurately, his heart sank again. Their
true and accurate situation wasn't very hopeful. His wife, Lyn,
saw the look on his face and put her hand on his. She said simply,
"We must get these boys to land."
This singular, clear purpose
focused his mind the whole journey. The thought kept coming back
to him, spurring him on, making him try when it seemed hopeless.
This is the power of a definite, heartfelt purpose. They made
it to shore alive.
THE MEANING OF LIFE
Purpose gives meaning to
your life. In many ways, your purpose is the meaning of
your life. That gives this subject a superimposing importance.
Viktor Frankl was a Jewish
psychiatrist in Germany when Hitler took power, and he spent
many years struggling to stay alive in concentration camps. During
that time, he lost his wife, his brother, and both his parents
they either died in the camps or were sent to the gas
chambers. He lost every possession he ever owned. Because he
already knew a lot about psychology and then experienced these
extreme circumstances and even managed to find meaning
in his struggle his slim book, Man's Search for Meaning,
is definitely worth reading. His perspective on finding meaning
in life is different from any other I have encountered. He writes:
The meaning of life differs
from person to person, from day to day and from hour to hour.
What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general
but rather the specific meaning of a person's life at a given
moment. To put the question in general terms would be comparable
to the question posed to a chess champion, "Tell me, Master,
what is the best move in the world?" There simply is no
such thing as the best or even a good move apart from a particular
situation in a game and the particular personality of one's opponent.
The same holds true for human existence. One should not search
for an abstract meaning of life. Everyone has his own specific
vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment
which demands fulfillment.
I love that line: "
carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment."
And Frankl gives many good examples of what he means. For example,
he tried to keep his fellow prisoners from committing suicide.
The Nazi camps strictly forbid prisoners from stopping someone
who was killing himself. If you cut down a fellow prisoner who
was in the process of hanging himself, you (and probably everyone
in your bunkhouse) would be severely punished. So Frankl had
to catch people before they actually attempted to kill themselves.
This, he felt, was a concrete assignment which demanded fulfillment.
He was a psychiatrist and was the most qualified to answer this
call from life.
The men would often confide
in Frankl, since he was a psychiatrist. At two different times,
two men told him they had decided to commit suicide. Both of
them offered the same reason: They had nothing more to expect
from life. All they could expect was endless suffering, starvation,
torture, and in the end, probably the gas chamber.
"In both cases,"
wrote Frankl, "it was a question of getting them to realize
that life was still expecting something from them;
something in the future was expected of them." After talking
with the men, he found one of them was a scientist who had written
several volumes of a book, but the project was incomplete. It
couldn't be finished by anyone else. The other man had a child
in another country waiting for him.
Each of our lives is unique.
The concrete assignment needing to be fulfilled is different
for every person. And Frankl found that a person would not commit
suicide once they realized their specific obligation to life
that life expected something of them.
Michael W. Fox, a veterinarian
and author of Superdog: Raising the Perfect Canine Companion, was a lover of animals, as most
kids are. One day he was walking home from school when he looked
through a fence and saw a ghastly sight. It was the backyard
of a veterinary clinic, and there was a large trash bin overflowing
with dead dogs and cats. "I never knew the reason for this
mass extermination," Fox said, "but I was, from that
time on, committed to doing all I could to help animals, deciding
at age nine that I had to be a veterinarian." Here was a
concrete assignment life had presented to Fox, and he answered
the call. He became a veterinarian and has done what he could
to reduce the suffering of animals. He has spent his life educating
people, writing books, and lobbying to create new legislation
that reflects more respect for animals.
Dr. Seuss had a mission
when he started. He wanted to turn children on to reading. "Before
Seuss," wrote Peter Bernstein, "too many children's
writers seemed locked into plots that ended with a heavy-handed
call to obey one's elders. By the 1950s, educators were warning
that America was losing a whole generation of readers."
Dr. Seuss wanted to do something about that. And he did. He wrote
books kids wanted to read. The Cat in the Hat, Green Eggs and Ham, and forty-six others which have sold over two
hundred million copies worldwide.
YOU MUST HAVE A GOAL
During the Korean War,
the Chinese government systematically tried to brainwash the
U.S. POWs. Their methods included deprivation and torture, and
the captives suffered tremendously. At one point, in one of the
prison camps, three-fourths of the POWs had died. Things
were incredibly bleak for the rest of them, and they were all
feeling desperate and hopeless.
Then one man said to the
others, "We've got to stay alive, we've got to let others
know about the horrors of Communism. We've got to live to bring
back the armies and fight these evil people. Communism must
This was a turning point
for every man there because their meaningless struggle was transformed
into a mission. Simply staying alive against the odds was their
goal. Their despair was turned into resolve. Their hopelessness
was turned into determination. And their death rate went way
Speaking again of his experience
in a concentration camp, Frankl wrote, "As we said before,
any attempt to restore a man's inner strength in the camp had
first to succeed in showing him some future goal...Woe to him
who saw no more sense in his life, no aim, no purpose, and therefore
no point in carrying on. He was soon lost."
Sometimes it takes a scientific
study to prove the obvious. At least you find out that what you
think is self-evident is actually true. Researchers at New York
State Psychiatric Institute asked an unusual question of suicidal
people. Rather than asking what makes them want to die, the researchers
asked what makes them want to live?
They studied eighty-four
people suffering major depression trying to determine why thirty-nine
of them had never attempted to kill themselves. The study revealed
that age, sex, religious persuasion or education level did not
predict who would attempt suicide. But not having a reason
to live did predict it rather well. The depressed patients
who perceived life as more worth living were less likely to attempt
to kill themselves.
here for part two