August 2018

On Finding Your Purpose: What’s Your ‘One Thing?’

Author: Kent Thune

Why am I here? Why do I exist? What’s my purpose? You may not know it yet, but you already have a sufficient foundation to begin forming an answer to the existential, introspective questions of life’s purpose.

Like your authentic self, your purpose already exists; you only need to uncover it. And what’s covering it is likely a pile of conventional wisdom. For example, you were probably taught to work hard in school and to find a career that pays well. You were exposed daily to messages suggesting that you need more money to buy the things that make you happy.

At first, the conventional wisdom about happiness appeared to be correct. But the happiness would fade as you grew tired of the old things. Buying new things would at least temporarily make the happiness return. But yet a feeling of unfulfillment persisted. At least you had the weekends and vacations to look forward to, and you were able to obtain episodes of pleasure, but the enduring happiness eluded you.

Now you may ask why some of the greatest sages in history have said that every human being’s purpose is to be happy. You may think this sounds too simple or superficial to be true. Or, perhaps you tried this and it didn’t work for you. How can happiness be one’s purpose in life? The short answer to this is that we make the mistake of framing the idea of happiness within the perspective of the modern Western world: that happiness comes from things and these things can only be obtained by material or monetary means.

Within this misleading perspective, only the acquisition of more money could lead to more happiness. The Dalai Lama is an example of a wise man who teaches that finding happiness is our purpose. Would a Tibetan Buddhist monk, a person who could be happy with nothing more than a simple cloth covering his body and perhaps a cup of tea to sip in a quiet room, encourage his followers to go find money so they could buy a new car? Of course not!

The original and true definition of happiness is closer to that of contentment than it is to pleasure. And this contentment is best obtained by simply being yourself. As you surely have discovered in your own life, you are the happiest when you can be your authentic self. Equal and opposite, you are least happy when you are not able to be yourself. Having material things and sensuous pleasures is wonderful, but what we need most to be happy is enough freedom and space to be ourselves—to be actualized. As for material things, all we need are the basic physiological necessities: food, shelter and clothing. Everything else is extra.

So, the Dalai Lama’s teaching, that our purpose in life is to be happy, is not advice to seek external, material things; it’s encouragement to uncover and nurture the internal source of happiness, to be ourselves, to have a reason to get out of bed in the morning. Happiness is not seeking and finding the destination of pleasure; it’s taking many small steps on the path of purpose.

An uncomplicated way to frame this idea is within the unfortunate scenario of working in a stressful but high-paying job. You thought that the destination of material wealth would justify the everyday stress of immersing yourself in an environment that includes a boss that does not appreciate you, co-workers that plot to figuratively stab you in the back while pretending to be your friends, and daily tasks that don’t align with your authentic self.

At some point, you begin to fantasize about doing something that you love, something that provides meaning and purpose every day, even if it means a reduction in pay. But you may justify staying in the unfulfilling job because it pays well. As time progresses, you drift farther and farther away from the authentic self and, as a result, all areas of your life begin to erode, all because you were not acting with purpose.

Happiness is not a destination that can only come at the end of the day, the end of the week, the annual vacation, or the end of the career. It’s an enduring contentment that radiates from the inside out, not a series of short-lived, outside-in pleasures. Contentment is the goal; pleasure is the reward.

But how does one uncover the purpose that awakens the authentic self, which creates the true happiness? Perhaps some help from the entertainment world would be more accessible? In the 1990s western comedy, City Slickers, you’ll find useful guidance on finding your purpose. In the movie, the main characters decide to take a unique vacation on a two-week cattle drive from New Mexico to Colorado. The movie is filled with humorous scenes, but the one that is most useful is when Mitch, played by Billy Crystal, has a serious, one-on-one moment with the mysterious, tough-guy trail boss, Curly, played by Jack Palance. In the scene, Curly tells Mitch that the secret to life is “one thing.” When Mitch asks, “What’s that?” Curly tells him: “That’s what you’ve got to figure out.” On the cattle drive, Mitch helps deliver a calf from a dying cow, names the calf Norman, and protects it throughout the long journey. The experience helps Mitch discover that his one thing is his family back home.

So, what you need to figure out is your “one thing.” What is your gift to the world? What feels natural to you when you are doing it? Is there an overriding purpose that guides your actions? If you could describe this in one word, what would that word be? Before you answer, don’t be misled by thinking that this one word must represent a major life accomplishment or grand scheme. When the word comes to you, use it to find other related words.

For example, if your one word is “create,” other words, motivations, and actions, such as write, build or design can follow it. From there, you may open doors to careers, volunteer service or hobbies that are meaningful and rewarding. You can take a step in the direction of your purpose and your authentic self by simply beginning with your one thing, expressed as one word.

Kent Thune is a Certified Financial Planner® and is the owner of a Hilton Head Island investment advisory firm, Atlantic Capital Investments. He is also personal financial counselor to marines and other service members on Parris Island. Thune’s financial guidance has been published at The Motley Fool, Yahoo Finance, Kiplinger.com, MarketWatch.com, Nasdaq.com, InvestorPlace.com, and his own blog at TheFinancialPhilosopher.com.

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