Purpose is the primary fuel of ambition. Purpose creates a destination.
We can only become fully engaged in life when we feel that we are doing something that really matters.
Purpose is what inspires us, lights us up, and floats our boats.
Washington Irving—the famous author, historian and essayist—said, “Great minds have purposes, others have wishes. Little minds are tamed and subdued by misfortune, but great minds rise above it.”
The search for purpose and meaning is one of the most powerful and lasting themes in every culture since the dawn of time. You’ll find it in Homer’s Odyssey, and it has inspired some of the greatest spiritual figures in history: Jesus, Buddha, Moses, Mohammad.
You’ll even find it in modern culture in movies like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, which re-tells the story of Perceval’s search for the Holy Grail through the daring character of Indiana Jones, as well as the timeless Star Wars saga, in which Luke Skywalker confronts his deepest fears by facing and vanquishing Darth Vader and the Empire.
It’s no coincidence that these movies—which modernize the legendary virtues of the hero’s journey, the search for meaning and the triumph of good over evil—are among the most popular and successful of all time.
“There is one quality we must possess to win,” said Napoleon Hill, author of one of the best-selling books of all time, Think and Grow Rich, “and that is definiteness of purpose, the knowledge of what one wants, and a burning desire to possess it.”
For an extraordinary example of the power of purpose, let’s look to one of the greatest military geniuses of all time: Alexander the Great.
For a time, Alexander was an almost inhuman force, alive with unbridled and unmatched purpose. While many in his position would’ve been content with a life of kingly hedonism, Alexander was cut from a different cloth. He pawned off everything he owned to finance what he truly cared about: his vision of a glorious destiny and immortality.
But perhaps more impressively, he conducted himself with equilibrium, restraint, and benevolence startlingly uncharacteristic of a conqueror. He lived in a time where men of his ilk were expected to indulge in mindless slaughter and degradation of the people they subdued, but he not only discouraged it, he forbade it.
One year before his death, however, his quest required an advance from Persia to India to conquer what was left of the known world. When Alexander announced this to his soldiers, they mutinied. They were exhausted and longed to return to their families.
Despite inspired, moving speeches, Alexander couldn’t convince them to continue, so he released them from duty and relegated himself to the role of administrator of his empire—a post he loathed. Months later, Plutarch wrote that the king “lost his spirits, and grew diffident of the protection and assistance of the gods, and suspicious of his friends.”
Ironically, during this time of ennui, Alexander suffered his worst losses. Intrigues led to the execution of his great friends and loyal generals Philotas and Parmenio. He killed his brave and loyal officer, Cleitus, over drunken slurs. Alexander sank into a deep depression, almost driving him to suicide, and sowed much discontent amongst his people that had come to love him dearly.
Alexander’s plight didn’t stop there. His best friend and general Hephaestion died a mysterious death, rumored to be from poisoning. The loss sent Alexander into an irrevocable rage that cost thousands of Persians their lives and led to his further self-deification as well as his increased adoption of Persian customs, which many Greeks despised.
Finally, Alexander—a man who had defied death so regularly and against such odds that his enemies had declared him invincible—lost his life to an unexplainable fever that began after a night of heavy drinking. The morality of Alexander’s ambitious purpose notwithstanding, it’s very clear that once he had lost it, he rapidly lost everything.
If we are to succeed in our endeavors toward greatness, we must learn and apply this final lesson of Alexander’s to our journeys. Simply put: If purpose dies, the entire adventure quickly folds.
But what is a purpose, exactly? The dictionary defines it as follows:
“The reason why something is done or why something exists. It is something set up as an object or an end to be attained; an intention.”
Where the goal is the what, the purpose is the all-important why.
Purpose gives goals meaning. When the intention to make something happen is weak—when you’re just not feeling the “fire”—it’s not going to happen. People that ignore purpose don’t go very far in life. Nobody can love what they don’t feel in their hearts. The will to go on expires, soon or later.
How excited are you to get to work in the morning? How much do you enjoy what you do for its own sake rather than what it gets you? And how accountable do you hold yourself to a deeply held set of goals? These are the questions of purpose all adventurous souls must ask themselves.
If your answers to these questions are enthusiastic, then chances are you’re bringing a strong sense of purpose to your pursuits. If your answers to these questions are anything less, chances are you’re just going through the motions.
The former path breeds persistence and grit, which lead to opportunities and successes thereafter. The latter breeds indifference and lethargy, which can’t handle even the pettiest of pressures.
Imagine that you’re out at sea on a boat, voyaging to a far-off destination. Your boat springs a leak, which immediately becomes your priority. You jump down and start bailing water to prevent going under, but forget that nobody is left to navigate the ship. One day, after doing nothing but bailing water for who knows how long, you poke your head over the bow and wonder where the heck you are and how you got there.
This is the purposeless life. People can become so preoccupied with just staying afloat that they fail to realize that nobody is at the helm.
Unfortunately, clarifying purpose takes time—quiet, uninterrupted time—which is something many of us feel we don’t have. We rush from one obligation to another without a “50,000 foot” view of where we’re going. It may seem self-indulgent to stop and reflect on questions of meaning and purpose, but your journey will demand it.
When Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and David Geffen started DreamWorks, their purpose was to entertain and delight people. Profits were second to that. They went through some tough times, coming close to bankruptcy twice. But they persevered in large part due to their dedication to the studio’s vision and reason for being. Today, DreamWorks is one of the largest film studios in the world.
Nobody can force a purpose on you—you must choose it of your own free will. There are so many ways to help people in the world, but you need to find your way—the way that makes you want to close your browser right now and get into action.
As Howard Thurman said, you must find what makes you come alive.
So, before beginning any adventure—before choosing any particular path—don’t forget to ask yourself why: Why are you doing this? Why is it exciting? Why does it really matter?
When you’ve addressed these questions with true convictions, you know you’ve unlocked your purpose. This is the wellspring of any strong drive to succeed.