Purpose is a luxury. What will you do without it?

“One person with knowledge of his life’s purpose is more powerful than ten thousand working without that knowledge” says Muhammad Ali.

Purpose is great. Purpose lights up your world. But it’s also a luxury. It’s nice to have but not strictly necessary for survival.

In the closing paragraph of John Gray’s Straw Dogs, he observes that “other animals do not need a purpose in life. A contradiction to itself, the human animal cannot do without one. Can we not think of the aim of life as being simply to see?”

If you asked every person who has ever existed if they lived a life of purpose, what would the responses be?

A few would say their life was defined by the effort they put forth in pursuit of it. Many more would say, “yes I did,” and it would be a distortion of the truth, mainly because we impose narratives upon all that happens to us. And the majority, if they were truly honest would say “no.”

Purpose is a luxury that few have and many do not.

Yet we attach so much importance to it. Even when we consider the people who don’t have it, our only question is “how can we help them find it?” As if we are doctors administering a cure.

James Stockdale, Vietnam veteran and author of one of my favourite books, gave a speech called “Trial by Fire” in 1985. It was about the difference between a nominal leader and a crisis leader. The former look the part, say the right things and steer the ship in calm waters. The latter reveal themselves in times of great distress and crisis.

“The key to our leaders’ merit may not be “hanging in there” when the light at the end of the tunnel is expected. It will be their performance when it looks like the light will never show up.”

In a similar vein, the quality of your character will be revealed in it’s confrontation with purpose.

If you have found it, can you overcome the obstacles in your path and fulfil it?

And perhaps more importantly, in the absence of purpose, how will you choose to respond?