About the purpose of life

What follows is extracted from an email exchange. The parts I quote are shared with permission while the identity of my correspondent remains private.


I am writing this message to you since I do not know anyone else as well versed as you in these topic. I would be that “programmer you teach philosophy to” guy. I am but a teenager living on the other side of the world who happened to visit a TEDx¹ conference some days before. I had no feeling but shame on being there, seeing people younger and older than me who’ve attained worldwide fame; but I also wanted to be worthy of such recognision and fame.

If I do no changes to my life, I might end up as some famous highpaid “wagecuck” in some “STEM” industry. I am not interested in reinventing the wheel as many others do to gain fame. Nor I don’t think I’d do any good outside this “STEM” studies. I despise poverty as much as I despise being the top 1% (financially).

On reading “self-help” books and autobiographies of famous personalities, almost everyone seem to talk about some purpose in life and none elaborate on that. What is this purpose? How does one discover this purpose in their life? How to realise god and fulfill my duties of life?

I will answer your questions in a round-about way, starting with a comment on your age. You mention you are a teenager who already is a programmer and is attending conferences. To me this is inspiring. It shows you are serious in what you do, which is a positive sign as it implies commitment and an eagerness to put in the requisite effort. Without hard work, no amount of talent will ever be good enough.

By “inspiring” I don’t mean to flatter you. I am genuine about it. As a teenager I was all about having fun, play football, fool around with my friends, take nothing seriously. I gradually learnt to be more focused by having to earn a living and pay for my life+university expenses in my late teens to early 20s. I figured things out through trial and error, with “trial and error” being a defining feature of everything I do to this day.

For you to show this quality at a young age is an indication that you may be on the right path. The right path to where? We will get to that.

The potential downside of being driven is that you are on a mission to prove or achieve something. It is okay to take things seriously, but not too seriously. When you overdo it, when you over-commit to a cause you are necessarily fully invested in it; you are obsessed with it; you cannot let go of it; you become it.

Every goal entails expectations. These are ideas which influence our conduct. If, say, I set a target to write a 100 essays until the end of the year, because I know I am capable of it and want to push myself, I am already framing the experiences of the next months in light of this ambition. Every passing day revolves around this notion of working towards the goal, moving in that direction, and making sacrifices in the process. For example, I might have to skip some emails, not go for a walk, refrain from programming, and the like, all in the name of essentially winning a bet with myself.

[ Also watch: Expectations, rules, and role-playing (2022-05-03). Follow it up with: On selfhood (2022-05-31). ]

Being driven means that you are competitive. There are two types of competitors: those whose primary aim is to best others and those who want to outdo themselves. In both cases, there has to be a sense of perspective in order not to go to extremes. Because if you make it your life’s telos to win in that one single category, everything you do will be instrumentalised towards this end as you turn yourself from a fully fledged human being into the avatar of an ambition.

When you avatarise yourself, either by conscious choice or by internalising the norms of your social milieu and believing to be acting out of your own initiative, your purpose in life is to accomplish that which rendered you manifest as an avatar. The avatar that sets to write a 100 essays until the end of the year lives and dies by that target. The avatar who seeks to only make money is realised in the plenty and made irrelevant in the few.

We often hear people lament how they are a failure in life. To which I must ask: are you a failure or some avatar of yours? Did the human being qua human being fail, or did the persona you made out of it not win in its little game? A persona which was designed in the image of a certain bundle of expectations and in pursuit of a given idea.

Who is the failure, really?

There is a poem by a Greek poet called George Seferis (Γιώργος Σεφέρης) which is titled Helen (Ελένη). It nominally is about Helen of Troy and, by extension, the Trojan War and its aftermath. As legend has it, the Achaeans fought the Trojans because a prince from the latter camp seduced Helen who was in the former’s camp (simplifying in the interest of brevity). A decade-long war ensued. In his poem, Seferis alludes to the beautiful island of Cyprus and how the nightingales won’t let you sleep at Platres (a village close to where I live), while reflecting on this notion of effectively winning in a game; a game that was fought in the pretext of Helen. What was it all for, Seferis concludes, but for “an empty shirt, for a Helen”.

Who is the Helen we all pursue by default? Money, fame, glory, a successful career, enjoying the validation of being recognised as a genius, a hard-worker, and so on. Much like the poet’s empty shirt, these too are fleeting dreams, devoid of any further meaning. They have value insofar as we give them value. It is not intrinsic to them.

[ Also watch: Conventions, relativism, and cosmopolitanism (2022-02-21) ]

Just look at how unfortunate the world’s uber-rich are. They are trapped in a gruelling game where they compete against each other and the rest of the planet over who gets the best score, which is measured by their net worth. There is no tangible difference in your life if you have 100 mansions instead of a 150: they still are more than you will ever need. But in the context of the game, where your avatar’s utility is measured by the number of mansions at its possession, every extra piece matters greatly. The uber-rich are unfortunate because they are shallow in what they do and fail to realise it: a high score on the richness index, nothing but an empty shirt.

Now we are back to the contents of your email. I quote:

I had no feeling but shame on being there [Prot edit: at the conference], seeing people younger and older than me who’ve attained worldwide fame; but I also wanted to be worthy of such recognision and fame.

In its simplest form, philosophy is the practice of asking “why”. Consider it now but don’t provide a definitive answer. You are young and likely have a lot to learn (just like I do through trial and error). Why pursue fame? Is it for the sake of being famous? And what is the point of that? To show that you are better than your peers? To be potentially more attractive to better (define “better”) sexual partners? To be seen as the proud heir of your family’s legacy? And why even care about legacy?

These are all social constructs that inform our cultural milieu. We are immersed in the culture before we even start to form our own opinions and develop an independent way of thinking. They are thus taken for granted. We want to accomplish those goals because our social life is itself a role-playing game or, at least, starts out that way until we assume agency. You have to be the child prodigy, the studious student, the eager and tireless labourer, the fair lady who is the object of admiration (emphasis on “object”) but otherwise has no personality, the alpha male because reducing yourself to a caricature of a sociopath is supposed to be cool now, and so on. There are all these roles and each of them engenders the same kind of avatarisation I already outlined.

Back to your email:

If I do no changes to my life, I might end up as some famous highpaid “wagecuck” in some “STEM” industry. I am not interested in reinventing the wheel as many others do to gain fame. Nor I don’t think I’d do any good outside this “STEM” studies. I despise poverty as much as I despise being the top 1% (financially).

This contradicts nicely with the previous quote. At least there is a kernel there, a core idea that maybe—just maybe—what others have and what you lack is worthwhile only in light of a given perspective. As soon as you view it from a different angle, it becomes worthless.

This statement of yours shows that you already know the difference between fame for its own sake and fame as a by-product of some other activity. I think the fact you don’t want the former already puts you in a position to not partake in the given role-playing game. What about the latter? What about fame as a side-effect or bonus? You need to be careful with it. Make sure not to turn it into a tacit objective, as it will also instrumentalise everything else in your life, even if you don’t admit to it.

With those granted, we are ready to answer your questions:

[…] almost everyone seem to talk about some purpose in life and none elaborate on that. What is this purpose? How does one discover this purpose in their life? How to realise god and fulfill my duties of life?

Maybe no-one elaborates because theirs is a cliché with no further meaning? If the purpose in life is something we define, then how can we be sure we made the right choice? Which version of myself is best suited to decide on this all-important matter? The pre-teen me who does what the parents want? The impressionable, inexperienced, and reckless adolescent me who pretends to know everything but actually is a fool? The young adult me who lives a stressful life in pursuit of a succesful career and who thus has developed tunnel vision? The current me who has more questions than answers? If the purpose in life is meant to be given by me, I am none the wiser as there is no singular “me” devoid of context.

Let us then return to metaphors. The ancient Greek creators had a tradition of appealing to the muses (goddesses of arts and science). Statements like “sing to me, oh Muse, so that I may talk about THIS and THAT”. Who does a muse sing to? Can I, for example, who am terrible in music, painting, and poetry, refashion myself as an artist? No. The muse picks the person in advance and we only ever learn about the muse’s doings through that person.

If my purpose in life were decided solely by me, then there is a chance I would be led to make the mistake of putting all my energy towards becoming that which I cannot be or am unsuitable for. Each of us has a unique set of features. Each is predisposed towards certain fields of endeavour and sees a unique horizon of possibilities per the particulars of the case.

By recognising that not everything we do is subject to—or emanates from—our own volition, we emancipate ourselves from the burden of a terrible falsehood: the misunderstanding that if we do not achieve something, we are the only ones to blame for and must see ourselves as a failure due to it.

In a sense, there is no purpose in life. Even if the muse talks to you, you might misinterpret what she is saying or, generally, put a different spin on it. Your works will be your own, not the muse’s. And because there is no immutable selfhood, your interpretations will change and evolve. If you are fixated on a singular purpose, you foreshadow and inhibit this natural process with a peculiar dogma of constancy. Admit to being a variable.

Continuing with the metaphor… In another sense, your purpose in life is to find the goddess that speaks to you. There are lots of deities and not all are about the arts. Try to take a step back from what your family, friends, culture wants and start being honest about what you want; about what your condition predisposes you towards. By being true to yourself, you let the god’s signal cut through all the noise that society creates. You will then know to aim for a betterment of what the god has given you, with the understanding that your humanity renders you subject to change; your presence in the world necessarily contextualises you and makes you a function of an interplay of factors outside your control.

What I have learnt is to not take myself too seriously. I am not emotionally invested in what I do, I am eager to admit my mistakes, and will not fight for my ideas because that presumes I am right. I shall not wage war for “an empty shirt, for a Helen”.

My purpose in life then, if I can put it this way, is to pursue the truth, which includes the possibility that there may be no absolute truth to be attained. So I am relaxed and have no worry if I don’t discover anything and don’t go anywhere. There is a lightness to it. A purpose that has no real purpose.

In conclusion, you are young and you will have plenty of time to find the answers or ask the questions. Do not make the mistake of letting your adolescent you dictate the life of your adult you. Remain open-minded and allow space for flexibility.