Jun 6, 2007

In Search of Higher Purpose

A number of readers have written to ask how they should go about finding their Purpose in life.

This question has several implicit assumptions. Firstly, it is assumed that each person DOES have a Purpose in life.

Secondly, it is assumed that the Purpose ought to be discoverable now or in the near future, as opposed to, say, at a much later stage in life.

Thirdly, it is assumed that each person only has ONE purpose.

Of course, none of these assumptions are necessarily true. For example, it may well be that the Universe hasn’t assigned a specific Purpose to you that you are supposed to discover – instead you'll have to choose your own Purpose and stick to it.

Or it may well be that you do have a Purpose assigned to you by a Higher Power, but this Purpose will unfold itself to you not now, not tomorrow, but 5, 10, 15 or 20 years later, when the time is right.

Or it may well be that you could have several different Purposes at any given time, or alternatively you could have a Purpose at a particular time, and another Purpose at another time in your life.

Now let’s look at all this in a practical way, by revisiting Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

People wondering about their Purpose in life are actually wondering what they should be doing at Level 5, when they get there.

But maybe they should get there first, that is, climb right up into Level 5, and then their Purpose (or Purposes) will become clear to them.

In other words, take care of your Level 1 – 4 needs first, and then (and only then) may your Level 5 needs become crystal clear to you.

Remember, Maslow’s needs are hierarchical. A person facing big challenges at Level 1 would be unclear about Levels 2 or 3. A person who is facing big challenges at Levels 2 or 3 would be unclear about Level 4.

And to be clear what you want at Level 5, perhaps what you need to do is to fully address your Level 1 to 4 needs.

Consider for example, Gautama Buddha, who was once a prince. As a prince, he had power, respect, authority, riches, royal luxuries, palaces, guards, servants and furthermore, parents who loved him so much that they did not want to know him to know that pain, suffering or death existed.

In other words, Gautama Buddha had just about everything that anyone could want, at Levels 1, 2, 3 and 4.

And that, perhaps, was why he was eventually able to launch into such a determined, inspired effrt into satisfying his Level 5 need (in his case, the need to understand the ultimate meanings of life).

And eventually he attained Enlightenment – but that is not the point of my post. The point of my point is – perhaps you can discover your Purpose only after satisfying your every other lesser purpose, goal, desire or ambition first.

And then your Purpose – the one with the capital P – may finally unfold itself to you.

44 comments:

What on earth am I here for? said...

Read 'Purpose Driven Life' by rick Warren

Anonymous said...

no, don't wait. because that day will never come. do it now. do it despite your circumstances.

ps: i understand that many arahats come from very diverse backgrounds and circumstances.

Anonymous said...

Their question is, do WHAT now.

Henry Leong said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Somehow we are always searching for meaning...

Anway I have a bit of a different view: I don't think Level 1-4 need has to be fufilled before self-actualisation is attainable. I think "suffering" be it poverty,poor health,or heart-break, for example, can sometimes be a access into consciouness.
-nubie

Anonymous said...

Our Purpose in life is to seek happiness for ourselves and for those we care about! Full Stop.

I dont think many people would argue with such a universal concept (surely your purpose in life cannot be to seek sadness, right?) The very difficult thing however is, as Mr. Wang would probably say: how to break down such a vague concept into concrete deatils that we can follow. Let's analyse:

First step: we can analyse thus - happiness cannot be conditioned on external things, physical or otherwise. (Physical - material wealth, big house, money etc all cannot last. So if your happiness is dependent on them, your happines will not last too. Non-physical - people we love may leave us, people we dislike may inevitably bump into us, there will always be people who blame us or praise us etc, you can have no ultimate control over such things and so again, if your happiness depends on such non-physical thing, you wont be always happy). Thus happiness must come from within!

Second step: Clearly, to achieve such a happiness-from-within stage would require us to have a mind that:
- is fully "tamed" so that when it comes to those situation examplified in step 1, it will walk the walk instead of just talk the talk. Talk is cheap.
- has strong concentration (the mind must "concentrate" on remaining happy, instead of being easily distraced by the external conditions stated in step 1

Step 3: We know that meditation is a training of the mind to tame it, help it concentrate and thus is the key to achieving step 2.

Step 4: However, who the hell have time or mood for meditation? Eg. If we are busy spreading rumours about our colleagues, and suffer tit-for-tat because of that, where got mood too relax the mind even for a few minutes? Thus, we need to cultivate some basic morality even before step 3 becomes possible.

Step 5:But even after doing step 4 then step 3, what evidence is there that we can achieve our purpose in life? Well, I think the moment we start to do step 4, we can already feel some happiness/peace of mind. And the benefit of step 3 can be felt at each step (it's not like studying for exams, where you torture yourself all the time only to see the benefit when you get the exam result!). So all these mini-benefits can help reduce doubt as to whether our self-effort is the only possible way to achieve our purpose in life and help provide evidence to enhance our confidence.

Step 6: In this last step of analysis, we look back at our stated purpose in life and question: but how do we seek happiness for people we care about. Simple: you teach them what you know.

Anonymous said...

Maybe I (the anon above) should repharse it:
Our Purpose in life is to be a very HAPPY MAN/WOMAN

Anonymous said...

Osama Bin Laden is also a good example of someone seeking higher purpose.

A breath of time said...

Yes Mr Wang, your are right. The question for us is, how many of us in Singapore can even go beyond no 2?

If we check the national registry of births (1960-1980), correspond it with the number of graduates we have (Yr 2000 would be when the above borned are working), we will understand that Singapore has about 60-70% of our population who are trained in either Polys or Unis.

That is one point towards why we need foreign "talents".

But the question is, why are graduates struggling to get good pay too?

A breath of time said...

sorry, typo.

edited above comment as "... about 60-70% of our population who are not trained in either Polys or Unis."

Anonymous said...

If happiness is a person's purpose in life, the spiritual aspect is more important than the material aspect.

But in today's world most people's higher purpose in life would probably be to accumulate wealth and attain high positions which cannot always result in lasting happiness. and certainly not enlightenment.

Mr Wang Says So said...

Some astute observations there, by my various readers, and I notice that both the Christians (comment at June 6, 2007 7:15 PM) and Buddhists (comment at June 7, 2007 6:22 AM) have come out to play.

---

" I don't think Level 1-4 need has to be fufilled before self-actualisation is attainable."

I agree - I also don't think that this is always the case (in fact, this is one of the major criticisms of Maslow's theory). For example, a mother may risk or sacrifice her own life to save a child (for that matter, in an emergency situation, a person may risk or sacrifice his own life to save strangers).

On the other hand, I think that Maslow's theory does a good job, most of the time, in predicting people's behaviour.

------

Henry Leong said...

Shakya after practice severe austere, advocate the middle way.
http://henryleongblog.blogspot.com/

Mr Wang Says So said...

Yes Mr Wang, your are right. The question for us is, how many of us in Singapore can even go beyond no 2?

If we check the national registry of births (1960-1980), correspond it with the number of graduates we have (Yr 2000 would be when the above borned are working), we will understand that Singapore has about 60-70% of our population who are trained in either Polys or Unis.

That is one point towards why we need foreign "talents".

But the question is, why are graduates struggling to get good pay too?


----

Actually your examples are more Level 3/4, than of Level 2. For quick illustration:

Level 1 - think of a person starving for food.

Level 2 - think of a person wanting a roof over his head.

Level 3 - think of a person wanting to have a friend, a mate, a spouse, a family, a clan etc.

Level 4 - think of a person wanting to have self-esteem / respect from others (he may seek this eg by getting a university degree, having a successful career, buying a nice home etc).

Level 4 is very "5 C's", although one must recognise that each person's psychology is subjective. Eg one person may seek to buy a condo to satisfy his Level 4 need; but for another person, a Sixth Avenue landed property is needed to satisfy his Level 4 need. But it's all Level 4 anyway.

Level 5 is what happens thereafter.

Mr Wang Says So said...

"But in today's world most people's higher purpose in life would probably be to accumulate wealth and attain high positions which cannot always result in lasting happiness. and certainly not enlightenment."

See, in my model of things, these are Level 4 needs. My recommendation (one approach anyway) would be to accumulate wealth fast, and attain all the high positions you want, etc etc. Then your Level 4 needs will be satisfied, you will lose interest in these sorts of things, and then you can go to Level 5.

Anonymous said...

Buddhists would probably not consider level 3 (belonging) and level 4 (ego) important needs.

Mr Wang Says So said...

Buddhists have to get past Step 1.5 before they can get past level 3 and level 4.

See Anon June 7, 2007 6:22 AM. Notice the qualifier placed in Step 5.

Anonymous said...

Many of us live a life that just get-by. Look around your friends, colleagues, family, etc. Majority of their topics will be on money, works, shopping, eating, marriage and family and occasionally, politics.

How many truly will sit down and asked themselves what they want to do with their life. Very Few.

Such questions appear to me few times for the last 20 years. But it did not occur to me to take it seriously. Until I begin to loss my jobs a few years ago and to-date, that I begin to closely examine my life.

Yes, I have finally decided what I want for the remaining years of my life. I have achieved one purpose. The remaining two purpose, I am working on it.

No one can understand the pain of being "A compass without a needle" until he/she begin to ask themselves.

Anonymous said...

Those who r not wealthy can also achieved self actualization. Infact u r in a better position that those who are rich as they will be so preoccupied with their material consumptions to satisfy their basic needs. Foods and more fine foods. Cars, more luxury and powerful cars. House, houses, bigger and more luxurious houses and so on. As they get joy out from their ability to satisy their cravings, they will never be able to let go of this basic needs and thus cannot move to the next level. They will be so afraid of losing their ability to afford their basic needs. They will be afraid of being rob, kidnap. They will be afraid of dying.

If u keep ur physical requirements to the minimium, then u don't need that much $ to sustain ur simple life (L1).
When u don't need that much $, u also feel more secure with what u have.(L2)
When u r more secure, use ur other energy to care and help others. Have unconditional love and compassion for others and u will receive that in return. (L3)
Then remember that u do that not for urself, reward or fame. That u do it because it is the right things to do for humanity and the world.(L4) Getting rid of egos is the most difficult for Singaporeans due the conditioning of the pap government over the years. If u look thru Mr. Wang's posting u will see that he is still stuck here.

Anonymous said...

there's no purpose. in fact the word purpose is quite meaningless.

there is just cause and effect and not much else.

pierce your heart with a dagger;
u'll learn about pain and die.

stop eating for a day or two;
u'll really know hunger.

don't do anything at all;
u'll still die.

life is just a long series of such experiments.

Anonymous said...

Finding a higher purpose in one's life involves finding the 3rd chi of the gevinigen order. This can only be done after the expiration of the general poloclu wasicka which has climbed to the 44th out of the acarage wiggin.

in fact, though maslow postulates 5 levels, the 5th, self-actualisation, being the highest in his model, climbing the acarage wiggin allows one to reach the 6th level - acarage actualisation.

maslow left out the 6th level in his teachings because the 6th level is out of reach of ordinary mortals - only a select few achieve it.

- maslowboy

Anonymous said...

Quote: Osama Bin Laden is also a good example of someone seeking higher purpose.

June 7, 2007 9:11 AM Unquote.

Sure he has EVIL Goals in life.
He is stuck at L2 - hiding in the mountains of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

With so much angers and hatreds in him, how to progress ?

Anonymous said...

A lot of people, if you go by satisfaction of all needs, should now be at level 4 - Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Li Ka Shing to name a few. But can we say that they have gone on to level 5, asking themselves what is their higher purpose. I wonder.

Mr Wang Says So said...

eogNot sure about Ka Shing, but yeah I'd say Bill has gone to Level 5. Quite long ago, actually. Do you mean to say you don't know what his hobby is?

Buffett, by the way, was never very interested in the luxuries that money can buy. He is well-known for his very simple lifestyle. But he has also done much more for good causes than you or I can ever hope to do.

Meanwhile, George Soros, the legendary currency trader, is now in his 14th year of promoting open societies, democracy and human rights, through the Open Society Institute. In fact, in 2005, he criticised Singapore for not being an open society: link.

Oh, you may be interested to know that billionaire Franklin Templeton has, for most of his life, been intensely interested in spiritual matters, and through the Templeton Foundation, and funds an annual prize (usually given out by Prince Philip at Buckingham Palace) to people who make breakthroughs to expand human perceptions of divinity.

(I read about an experiment that Templeton once funded - it was to scientifically determine the power of prayer. It involved setting up different groups of patients, using control groups etc, and getting people to pray for their recovery. Their recovery rates are then statistically analysed).

Anonymous said...

Mr. Wang, all these facts about Gates etc seems to be at your fingertips. I salute you.

Mr Wang Says So said...

Infact u r in a better position that those who are rich as they will be so preoccupied with their material consumptions to satisfy their basic needs

That's the Buddhist approach. It has its merits. On the other hand, it's seriously doubtful how many people can do the monk thing.

Furthermore, you seem to be confusing Level 5 with altruistic or spiritual pursuits. While they could be, they need not be.

The mode of self-actualisation still varies from individual to individual. For example, a person could self-actualise through his pursuits in art, music etc. Maslow considered Albert Einstein to be a self-actualiser who self-actualised through his constant seeking of scientific knowledge.

Finally your comment suggests that people can never satisfy their Level 3 and 4 needs - eg they will go on pursuing more and more material riches.

This plainly isn't correct. There will be a point when a specific Level 1 to 4 need is satisfied. By definition, these needs are capable of being satsified (revisit Maslow's theory on "deficit needs" and "being needs").

The point will vary from individual to individual, but it exists for every individual. For example, a person may desire respect from others (Level 4), for being well-educated.

So he may study for a degree, and that could be more than enough. If it is not enough for him, he may get a masters. If it is still not enough for him, he will get a PhD. If it is still not enough for him, he may seek to become the most respected academic in his country. Or the world. Or whatever.

Point is - there will be a point when it becomes enough. When getting more degrees is not going to do anything more for this person. And he won't feel motivated by this anymore.

Same with money. Or friendships. Or social membership. Or air. Or food. Or physical safety. Or social status.

Or any other need from Level 1 to 4.

Anonymous said...

u always want more money.

Mr Wang Says So said...

You could look at it this way -

how much money would it take, to convince you to retire tomorrow?

Eg $500,000; $1 million; $2 million; $10 million; $100 million?

Clearly there has to be a number.

-I- know my number, because I already am planning for my early retirement (as I mentioned in my recent post).

Anonymous said...

Mr. Wang : "Point is - there will be a point when it becomes enough. "

U will be surprised as to how many billionaires who still want to multiply their wealth.

U will be surprised as to the extent some rich people go to satisfy their tastes for good food.

U will be surprised as to how many cars some rich people have and still buying.

When they have enuf cars, they want to buy yatches and planes.
Probably in the not too distant future they can buy their own spaceships.

There will be no end to material acquisitions so long as one can afford it. Material acquisitions are level 1 needs. Most rich people will never be able to let go of their needs for material acquisition.

BTW, this Maslow heirachy of needs is a very simple model.
Go read the Buddhist or Taoist concepts, they are much deeper and advance.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Wang : "That's the Buddhist approach. It has its merits. On the other hand, it's seriously doubtful how many people can do the monk thing."

U don't need to be monk to lead a simple and good life. Everyone can do it.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Wang : "Furthermore, you seem to be confusing Level 5 with altruistic or spiritual pursuits. While they could be, they need not be."

Is the confusion urs or mine.
Did I said u have to take up a religion to reach level 5. As I have said, one need not be a monk to lead a simple life. U assume that ?

Anonymous said...

Oh my apologies then. Your approach sounded rather buddhist to me. But your tone does sound too offended to be buddhist, lol.

Going back to the very 1st comment, as I recall, the author doeS talk about the use of one's natural gifts / talents, in the context of living a purpose-driven life. Sounds like self-actualisation to me, but of course this particular book is christian, hence non-christians may not relate very well to it.

-- mr wang, from blackberry

Anonymous said...

For those interested :

http://www.kktanhp.com/doctoring.htm

Anonymous said...

methinks it'll be nice to be rich.

so that i'll have more to give away.

—a very small animal

Henry Leong said...

My answer to Mr Wang, goal setting:http://henryleongblog.blogspot.com/2007/06/elements-of-success.html

AverRal said...

you are very inspiring.

Anonymous said...

Money is never enough for many people. Money will lead to more material possession. hence there will be no end.

I come to this world empty-handed and I will leave this world empty-handed.
I am only a temporary master of this world.

Ling said...

"But he has also done much more for good causes than you or I can ever hope to do."

Ahh... Mr Wang, I thought you told us not to limit ourselves? Or did I remember wrongly? Hee.

I think all of us SHOULD hope to do as much as or even more than anybody has done before. That's how people break records and set new ones.

Taking the lid off is not easy, for many see the lid as part of them already. Still, if we manage to do that again and again, we'll keep breaking through to higher levels of achievements.

Inspirational Ling

Mr Wang Says So said...

"Money is never enough for many people."

Definitely in personal financial planning, you would set specific targets (in terms of dollar amount, timelines and purpose of money).

Eg you may set the target of having X dollars in Y years' time so as to send your child to university (and you'll have to estimate how much a university education costs then).

If you don't spell out your targets like that, you will have problems deciding how much risk you can take, for the returns. So you wouldn't be able to have a rational plan.

Eg you wouldn't be able to decide whether you should put 70% of your money in shares, or 50%, or 30% or zero per cent.

---

For early retirement, bearing in mind that you might live for a long time after retiring, you need to estimate the amount of passive income you need.

Passive income means the regular income you get, without having to work.

Eg (and this is just one example) suppose by then you have a second property, which you can rent out. The rental income would be passive income.

I have a tentative plan to acquire an investment property in 2012. Why 2012? Some of the reasons are explained here.

Anonymous said...

I think the approach to "In search of Higher Purpose" can be very different for those who advocate the spiritual route and those who advocate the material route.

You can reach your goal in simplistic ways like Singapore's Teresa Hsu, or you can attain your goal by accumalating material wealth, like those billionaires.

You need a Buddhist to understand a Buddhist's ultimate purpose in life.

Mr Wang Says So said...

I suppose my post is being misunderstood by some.

I am not advocating any particular type of thing or activity at Level 5. My post is simply in response to those readers who have asked me to share some ideas with them on how to find their "higher purpose".

Now I don't think it is wise or correct of me to prescribe any specific or particular "higher purpose" for any of these readers.

In other words, I do not tell them that their higher purpose is to be a billionaire, or a monk, or an Albert Einstein, or a Teresa Hsu, or a Bill Gates.

I do not tell them that they should meditate, or be a Christian, or be a Buddhist, or write, or paint, or make music, or do social work, or be kind to others, or win the Nobel prize, or whatever.

And I do not tell them that their "higher purpose" is to live a simple life, practise good morals, and teach others how to be happy.

I do not tell them any of these things, because I think that everyone would have a different "higher purpose".

What I do tell them is that it is possible that (a) they would not be able to discover their higher purpose at this stage of their lives, (b) they could have more than one "higher purpose"; (c) at different times of their lives, their "higher purpose" could change ....

Bearing all this in mind, I then tell them that since they do not know what their "higher purpose" is, perhaps what they should do is first attend to all their "lower purposes" that they DO know.

And when they have successfully attended to all their "lower purposes", then perhaps it will become quite clear to them what their "higher purpose" should be.

Now, imagine that you are sitting in your flat, and it is on fire, and burning down. Here is a Level 2 situation - you need to escape, otherwise you will die.

In this situation, I suggest that instead of sitting around moping about "what is my higher purpose?", the person should immediately attend to his Level 2 need, either by putting out the fire, or escaping from the flat.

Once you have extinguished the fire and are no longer in danger, then if you have nothing better to do, you can go back to pondering about your "higher purpose".

That is a rather drastic example, but now I hope my point is clear. If you successfully deal with your "lower purposes" first, then I think you're likely to have a better chance of what your "higher purpose" is.

Anonymous said...

Apologies, dont mean to distract....do read about the trial and tribulation of someone who wanted to be a relief teacher but was not approved by MOE. Apparently he was 3 times prize PM Book Prize winner...

http://www.blurty.com/talkread.bml?journal=sleepless77&itemid=161258

Anonymous said...

Thanks Mr Wang! I very much enjoy reading your blog!

Anonymous said...

The first 2 levels can be easily attained, if you're living in a relatively safe and stable place. The next 2 levels can be reached even more easily by seeking contentment. 5th level...i'm almost there.