A Big Picture View of Purpose By Jesse S. Smith
Specific life goals have a way of changing over time. But in the big picture, when we step back, we may see that we’ve been working towards the same larger purpose from various directions for an entire lifetime.
I started my business in 2003 largely for the initial purpose of self-publishing my travelogue, an account of the year I had recently spent teaching abroad in Egypt with my sister and several of our friends from college. But that book remains unpublished to this day. Instead, I ended up publishing a book of political philosophy in 2008, titled Principles for a Self-Directed Society. And if you step back, both books are part of the larger purpose of disseminating the world view developed by an international traveler who had lived and worked among the locals in a deeply impoverished foreign country with a culture very different from our own.
My book, a rather strident political rant by a complete unknown, was not a hot seller; so I turned to web design, which had more of a market potential. I even got a business degree to better serve my clients. But although I could understand the concepts; and I could even figure out the technology: I remained somewhat baffled by human beings.
I came face to face with my own personal rock bottom after my web design business collapsed in 2016. I was in a very dark place for a very long time; and I emerged from that dark place thanks to the healing power of self-help messages. These messages helped restore me to myself. Self-help told me that, rather than dwelling on my failures, I could find hope for the future by pursuing a sense of purpose.
I revisited my old book of political philosophy to edit a Second Edition in 2020, and was surprised to discover that, although my attitudes had shifted in the intervening years, my big-picture values had remained remarkably consistent. This experience, of writing out my ideals at length and revisiting them many years later, was profoundly enlightening, and I would recommend it to anyone. Go ahead, try it! For me, these reflections eventually led me to decide to get involved in politics.
I ran for a seat in the Oregon State House of Representatives in 2022, and then for my local School Board in 2023. Although I lost both races by large margins, I managed to publicly make a stand for issues that I care about: including worker protections, the natural environment, teacher compensation, and the ongoing fight against censorship and political bias in public school curricula.
Running for office gave me many opportunities to connect with my fellow human beings. Several people very warmly shook my hand and promised to vote for me; one person continued to shout conspiracy theories at my back even as I walked away down the street; a number of people very generously donated money to my campaign; and I listened patiently to a slightly drunk man’s very angry rant about gasoline prices. All these experiences profoundly affected me.
Running for office was exhausting, frustrating, even aggravating at times; but in the larger picture, the effort was incredibly rewarding and deeply fulfilling, because I felt that I was truly living my purpose.
And I believe you can do this, too. You don’t have to run for public office, if that’s not your thing. You don’t have to start a business, if that’s not your thing. You don’t have to write a book, if that’s not your thing. You don’t have to teach overseas, if that’s not your thing. But you can do any of these things, if you choose to! What’s “your thing” might change over time; and that’s okay, too. There is no limit to what you can achieve, if you choose to. If you have some audacious life goal, pursue it! In ten or twenty years you may define “success” differently from how you picture it now; and yet, success can be yours. Or, if you just want to live in a state of contentment where you are now: you can do that too, if you choose to.
It’s not always easy to put your purpose into words. But you can sometimes feel it in your gut: either when you’re living in accordance with your purpose, or else when you’ve grown distracted by the countless pressures of life. This notion of “purpose” is akin to the concept known as dharma, or right action, in the Eastern philosophies of Buddhism and Hinduism. It is that which we are meant to do. It doesn’t look the same for everyone. It may change over time. But the clearest path to following your purpose is when you live in accordance with your core values.
You can do amazing things. You can find your passion and pursue your purpose. May you feel fulfilled.
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