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History has changed what purpose means to us.

In the past, purpose was implicit to life.

While purpose has varied culturally and across time, it has typically been defined by the era of your life:

  • In 12,000 BC on the African Savannah as a roaming tribe, perhaps your purpose was to provide food for the survival and wellbeing of fellow tribesmen.
  • Growing up in the 6th century BC China, perhaps your purpose was to honor authority and respect your ancestors by living morally and in harmony with others.
  • In 600 CE Egypt your purpose may have been to honor Allah by following the prophet Muhammed.
  • Arriving in 15th century America from Spain perhaps you believed your purpose was to spread Christian faith and colonize native people.
  • In 18th century Europe as a member of the intelligentsia, perhaps your purpose was to spread the idea of democracy and empower the people.

In the context of homosapiens as a species (and even within the past 11,000 years since we began settling into civilizations) purpose is a relatively new concept.  For most of humanity’s timeline purpose was a given. In contrast, today it is possible to ‘choose’ one.

For the majority of human experience, purpose was built in as the survival of ourselves and our loved ones, honoring God, or fulfilling our predetermined social roles. With modernization and increasing standards of living, the conditions of life that made survival our top priority have shifted.  Today, in many (but far from all) societies around the globe, the focus has shifted from surviving and meeting the basic benchmarks to thriving.

Jeremy Adam Smith writing for Greater Good Berkeley on finding purpose even postulates that, “Indeed, a sense of purpose appears to have evolved in humans so that we can accomplish big things together—which may be why it’s associated with better physical and mental health. Purpose is adaptive, in an evolutionary sense. It helps both individuals and the species to survive.

Author James Suzman recently debuted a book covering the history of work, as featured in this article from The Week. Suzman illustrates the differences in how hunter-gatherer societies spent their time versus how we structure our modern lives in relation to work, demonstrating that we worked for different reasons and dedicated our attention to different things than we do now.

In alignment with the hierarchy of needs model (that was a misinterpretation of the work of Abraham Maslow) and Scott Barry Kaufman’s expanded theory on Transcendence, once many of our basic needs for survival and security are met we are better prepared to focus on growth or thriving. Purpose thus shifts from being fulfilled as a basic need to falling into the thriving/growth category.

For the majority of human history, people experienced far more disease and physical suffering, death of loved ones, poverty, and shorter lives than we do today (in the 1800’s no country even had a lifespan over 40). According to the hierarchy model, higher-order growth needs on the pyramid were not easily within reach under such conditions. Today the privileges of modern society put us in a position in which we’re capable of and motivated to reach further and further towards self-actualizing and transcendent needs.

Scott Barry Kaufman asserts that the real thriving power lies in self-actualization: the process of becoming the best version of ourselves. He separates self-actualization from the others as a growth need and expands it to include exploration, love, and purpose.  He places a sense of purpose at the top of his Sailboat version of the pyramid (arguing that this model is actually reflective of what Maslow meant!).

Try This: Think About It

Take a more in-depth look at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and Scott Barry Kaufman’s Sailboat of Needs.  Scott Barry Kaufman’s version of the pyramid helps us conceptualize how the hull of our boat (security needs) must first be sound so we can float, so that the sail (growth needs) and its consequential momentum and direction are possible and useful.

  • Consider what needs you have met in the various parts of either diagram. Draw your own and fill it in with specific examples of ways you meet that area, and note how satisfied you are with each part.
  • How “solid” is your hull? Or, how secure are you at this point in your life, based on the diagram? Has that ever been different?
    • How many growth needs are you pursuing? Here are some example actions for each growth need:
  • Purpose: Deciding what is important to you and pursuing it, learning about purpose (check!), crafting meaningful goals
  • Love: Cultivating healthy relationships, deepening friendships, creating belonging in your communities
  • Exploration: Learning something new, going to therapy and uncovering why you feel or do things, traveling, experimenting with new activities, spending time reflecting on what you want, taking risks you believe are worthwhile
  • How is that current status of your security “boat” impacting your pursuit of and relationship with your growth “sail”?
  • What security needs could you improve on to better prepare yourself to pursue growth needs?

The Modern Era Makes Purpose an Inside Job

Author and professor Paul Froese argues in his book, On Purpose, that modern conceptions of purpose are no longer given to most of us as pre-ordained roles for basic survival (although this is part of the equation in many cultures in varying amounts). He asserts that purpose is no longer inherent to our lives, which makes purposelessness possible. Faced with such an unattractive possibility, we’re charged with the urgent responsibility of crafting it ourselves.

This new responsibility isn’t anyone’s fault. Economic and social progress and ideological shifts have been shown to be interconnected1,2; it’s not clear if secularism leads to economic prosperity or vice versa3, but they tend to change together. Modern Western societies have become increasingly secular (meaning ethics are determined more so by human faculties like logic, empathy, and moral intuition rather than being defined by religion) and affluent. With this shift has also come the cultural ideology of the meritocracy, which honestly can put a bit of a damper on the development of purpose by defining success for us.

A meritocratic society is one in which success and clout are a direct result of hard work, rather than social class or wealth.  This ideology is fundamental to Capitalism and other Western cultural memes; it’s the essence of the “American Dream”. It’s an idea that has been lauded effusively as empowering and enabling of possibility for the broadest spectrum of people; and often it does just that!

Unfortunately, meritocracy also has its shortcomings; particularly in the realm of psychological well-being for those who haven’t attained success. Believing that those who are successful deserve their success implies that those who are unsuccessful are equally deserving of their conditions. Imagine a kid who grew up being told he could be anything he wanted if he tried hard enough (probably like you), but unfortunately met many challenges along the way that derailed him (family illness, not being able to afford the right education, moving often, depression, etc). Even if those challenges weren’t his fault, a meritocratic society insists that he probably just didn’t try hard enough. He failed, and he deserved it.

Those who don’t have desirable results can end up self-blaming when there are very likely systematic issues preventing them from attaining a goal. Froese states it bluntly, “A culture that celebrates self-empowerment suggests that your fate is your fault.”

Alain de Botton: A kinder, gentler philosophy of success | TED Talk
In this highly-recommended 16 minute TED Talk, philosopher and author Alain de Botton explains how a meritocratic society makes failure possible, because it implies that you get what you deserve in the best and worst circumstances. He emphasizes how what we consider desirable is shaped by our upbringing and culture, encouraging us to make sure our desires are completely our own. (You can find more guidance on how to do this yourself in the Clarify section of Purpose.)

“What I want to argue for is not that we should give up on our ideas of success, but we should make sure our ideas are our own. We should focus in on our ideas and make sure… that we are truly the authors of our own ambitions. Because it’s bad enough not getting what you want, but it’s even worse to have an idea of what you want, and find out, at the end of the journey, that it isn’t, in fact, what you wanted all along.”

Botton hits the nail on the head in his suggestion that we ought to examine our definitions of success and determine it for ourselves rather than blindly accept the narratives our societies have gifted us, such as the one that “success” makes you valuable. Accepting meritocratic ideology as a measure of your value could be disempowering. Likewise accepting that your purpose is innate and beyond your means to influence may leave you without agency in determining your fate and well-being.

Try This: Think About It

Contemplate the following questions on paper, in your head, or discuss amongst friends (or strangers!)

  • Write down YOUR definition of success.
  • How does it differ or align with what the culture of your upbringing says success is?
  • Where does purpose fit into this definition of success?
  • Do you know anyone who defines success differently, and if so, how? Where did they learn that?
  • How has your definition of success influenced the decisions you’ve made?

Find even more reflective prompts like this to help you gain insight in the Clarify: Narratives page.


  • Purposefulness was inherent to life in the days of our ancestors when our primary objective was basic survival. However, as society has evolved it has ushered forth eras of financial security and political stability for a significant portion of the population. Without the pressure to simply survive any longer, purposefulness has become optional.
  • Similarly, meritocratic values have developed in concert with affluence and stability. A meritocratic society believes that success is earned through hard work; and vice versa, it believes that all “failure” is deserved.
  • It is essential that we examine our definitions of success in order to avoid the damaging side of meritocratic ideology.

Purpose The Gist of Purpose Parts of Purpose Purpose Fundamentals Purpose in Context Purpose as your Work Should You Quit Your Job Purpose Myths Hindrances to Purpose Benefits of Purpose Passion The Purpose Journey Clarify your Purpose Align with your Purpose Support your Purpose Purpose Practice and Exercises Purpose Resources