“What is your main purpose in life right now?”

As part of my DBA, there is what the university calls a “personal development module.” So people ask me questions that are meant to make you think. The question we got over the holiday period was this: “What is your main purpose in life right now?” I don’t know whether my answer will resonate with you at all, or even is in any way good. I share it anyway.

1  Reframe

I do not think that the idea of “life purpose” bears a lot of value. The physicist in me knows that essentially, there is no cosmic purpose. We happen to be around, for some time, and are gone, after. Most likely, our actions will not be remembered for long, and that is probably, for the majority of cases, a good thing.

So the real question should be, what do I intend to do with the time that I happen to have been given—not knowing, of course, how much time that actually may be.

Where the notion of “should” itself bears a lot of finer details. Because, obviously, I could take the position of, well, I’m here, I did nothing about that, so why not sit it out. The other notion, that plays against that, is that of “given” — somehow I was given time to spend in this part of the universe, so independent of whether there is some higher form of being, of consciousness, or not, in very practical terms, society, and my family, has given me some considerable amount of their time which allows me to be here, today.

A posteriori reciprocity hence appears to impose on me a sense of duty, or obligation, extending on Kant’s first formulation of the categorical imperative:

  • Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law

As we know, Kant dismissed the “Golden Rule” because of its inherent a priori reciprocity. In my own life, I learned this early on from my father: At some time, I had done some good programming job for a local law firm, and when I asked him what he considered a fair price I might ask for, he said, well, you can come up with whatever you deem wise, but here’s a thought: I’d just ask for nothing. I was astonished as to that proposal, and his explanation—that you always meet twice in life and that your act of not asking for compensation would create an imbalance of duty that would, at some point, be compensated by the other side—sounded logical, and practical, but did not completely convince me on a deeper level. I accidentally got my hands on a copy of “Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals” soon after, and derived a different formulation that I have tried to adhere to ever since:

  • When you have the possibility of helping someone, you have the moral obligation to do so, and ask for nothing in return.

Whether I continue to adhere to this maxim because it has proved useful in the past, which would in itself represent a condition of utility as an afterthought I cannot tell. Most of the time, I am busy with the first part, i.e., the hopefully objective, and effortful, estimation of whether I could be of help in any given situation. If so, I am most of the time then busy with the act itself, and do not even happen to ask something in return.

I am terrible at even filing travel expenses. I typically have a backlog of half a year.

Whether this position would still uphold in the face of lack of satisfaction of basic needs, I cannot say; I have exposed myself repeatedly, in the past, to working with very poor people—as part of development organisations spending time in projects in places such as Sri Lanka, Northern Thailand, or Guatemala—but of course I always had an exit strategy, while those there don’t. At least, what this allowed me to observe is that apparently specifically those in need tend to be more helpful to others than those in abundance. As an example, it recently turned out that the people who gave shelter to Edward Snowden, in Hong Kong, were three emigrant families who themselves were—and are still—struggling. Their thought, as they recently voiced, was simple and unanimous: There was, as they said, someone in need, and they were able to help. So they did.

2  Application

2.1  To my Job, Studies…

So if I reconsider the question about what I see as the main purpose in my life right now, the maxim that I mentioned above very much did not change throughout the better part of the last 30 years of my life. I do consider, hence, the fact that I am pursuing a higher education another a priori given that imposes on me an obligation, since it puts me in a position of helping others in future and present.

Thinking it further, I do not consider the content of what I am doing in any way particularly relevant. As a computer programmer, I am used to, and actually fond of, regularly scrapping days worth of work when I notice it becomes too convoluted, and the simple thought that I was hoping to get to starts to evade. Also, as a quite experienced project manager and worker, I have seen the output of the work of people become irrelevant at a simple decision.

2.2  …and my Private Life

From there, I’ve derived a second maxim that I try to also pass on to my daughter:

  • Whatever you do, make the effort to do it well, and let only yourself tell you whether to appreciate what you did—which is much more important than the result.

In other words, whatever you do, don’t contend yourself with mediocrity. Strive to be good at it. And when you’ve done it, be more proud of the honest effort that you put in than of the output, let alone whether it is going to be appreciated by others.

I happen to think that many parents tend to appreciate children for what they think they are — “special” in some way — rather than for what they do. Of course my child is special for me; but in comparison to all other children, my child is in no way more special than most of the others. So I don’t tell my child things like “you’re so intelligent” — I don’t want to create a narcicist, first of all, and also, this does not particularly prepare anyone for times when everyone else tells you that you’re really not special.

Rather, when she comes around with the latest creation of hers, and asks me whether I like it, I typically ask back, what do you think? Do you like it? Of course, she says, “yes” (most of the time, sometimes she says no) — but in any case, I tell her, what I like about this that you worked really hard on this. You spent a lot of time on this. That makes me proud.

I don’t know what the average output of other four year old children is, but I was stunned at the end of the year, when I scanned all the artwork that she did over the year, and it turned out to be in excess of a thousand pages of paintings, writings, drawings, etc. While I do mostly work from home, I only had noticed that my printer paper was running down faster than ever in my life, but not really observed how much it was.

I took her by my side, hence, and showed this to her. I said, look, there are here three binders of paper that you have used up over the year for your drawings. I was happy to see that she did not look sceptical at me, fearing any kind of criticism, but rather was beaming proudly. And of course, as she went through all of that and pointed out to me the occasional things that she really liked, I said, you know what, I was not even aware that you have put so much time in this. This is absolutely amazing for me, it is a great pleasure to see how much time you have spent. It truly makes me proud to see how much you do.

3  Answer

In a nutshell, hence, the main purpose that I see in my life is to give, to extend my reach by my own hard work to come in a position to give more, and doing so, motivate others to do the same. There may not remain a lot of any of us that stays after we all go, but, maybe, we can pass on a spirit of give first, ask questions later, or even not at all.