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Jul 3, 2019

The idea of purpose seems to confuse people more than it helps them in gaining clarity around what they "should" be doing. Much of that confusion stems from mixing and matching the wordspurpose, mission, meaning, etc. As Socrates observed, "The beginning of wisdom is the definition of terms.” 

purpose: the reason for which something exists

And for this definition, there's actually a ready answer that applies to everyone. In the end, 'almost' everyone comes to the conclusion that life is about contribution to others.  In looking at almost 20 human needs models (see above), contribution in some way was almost always at the top of the fulfillment scale and self-worth was consistently at the bottom. 

And that's a good thing, because contribution pays off at the bottom end of the fulfillment scale as it naturally feeds connections, significance, stimulation and certainty.  Contribution is a "regenerative need".  Stimulation, security and significance are "consumable needs" (once we get them, we need more of them) that create a treadmill life.   See this video on Human Needs (MindRevV is an open source personal insight system that's still under development.) 

There are Many Way to Fulfill Your Purpose

So if we accept that fact that contribution is our real purpose (just play along with me here), that means purpose isn't just one thing.  You can fulfill your purpose in many ways and likely will at different times in your life depending upon what you have to offer, how you experience meaning, whether you enjoy how you contribute, whether it pays off for you, etc.   We may not have “a calling" (one thing we exist for - how some define purpose), because we can find many ways to contribute in all parts of our lives at different stages.

Contribution Works Best When it's Aligned with Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation

You are much more likely to become really good at something you're intrinsically motivated to do (you like doing it.)  You’re also much more likely to continue doing something if you're also extrinsically rewarded to do something (doing it pays off for you.)  

Contribution Necessitates Constant Growth

We can't contribute at the highest level until we have something to offer at that level, so commitment to contribution and fulfilling your purpose necessarily involves growth and mastery... and growth and mastery influence and expand what is intrinsically rewarding to you (pretty cool, huh?) as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi notes in Flow.

“Most enjoyable activities are not natural; they demand an effort that initially one is reluctant to make. But once the interaction starts to provide feedback to the person's skills, it usually begins to be intrinsically rewarding.If you are interested in something, you will focus on it, and if you focus attention on anything, it is likely that you will become interested in it. Many of the things we find interesting are not so by nature, but because we took the trouble of paying attention to them.” 

We Experience Meaning Differently 

Purpose also involves context.  Some people like to drive contribution in systematic ways that solve big problems, others in more local direct ways through groups and individuals.  I've found, for me, I can fulfill my purpose by working on big problems, but I also really need to  contribute in a way the lets me interact with others and see impact. 

So context, motivation, meaning and skill all play a part in how we choose to fulfill our purpose.

Back to the original questions:  What was I put on this earth to do? Why do I exist?  

Here's my (still working) answer:

Our purpose is to continually experience life in new ways and grow our abilities so that we can create more well-being,  meaning and happiness for ourselves and others.

Feel free to add, contradict or subtract from this argument as purpose also requires humility.