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13 Advance with a Sense of Purpose
The Law of Aimlessness
Unlike animals, with their instincts to guide them past dangers, we humans have to rely upon our conscious decisions. We do the best we can when it comes to our career path and handling the inevitable setbacks in life. But in the back of our minds we can sense an overall lack of direction, as we are pulled this way and that way by our moods and by the opinions of others. How did we end up in this job, in this place? Such drifting can lead to dead ends. The way to avoid such a fate is to develop a sense of purpose, discovering our calling in life and using such knowledge to guide us in our decisions. We come to know ourselves more deeply—our tastes and inclinations. We trust ourselves, knowing which battles and detours to avoid. Even our moments of doubt, even our failures have a purpose—to toughen us up. With such energy and direction, our actions have unstoppable force.
Growing up in a staunchly middle-class black neighborhood in Atlanta, Georgia, Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968) had a pleasant and carefree childhood. His father, Martin Sr., was the pastor of the large and thriving Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, so the Kings were relatively well off. His parents were loving and devoted to their children. Home life was stable and comfortable and included Grandmother King, who doted on young Martin Jr. He had a wide circle of friends. The few encounters he had with racism outside the neighborhood marred this idyllic childhood but left him relatively unscathed. Martin Jr., however, was exceptionally sensitive to the feelings of those around him. And as he got older, he sensed something from his father that began to trigger some inner tension and discomfort.
His father was a strict disciplinarian who set solid boundaries of behavior for the three King children. When Martin Jr. misbehaved in any way, his father whipped him, telling the boy this was the only way to turn him into a real man. The whippings continued until he was fifteen. Once his father caught Martin Jr. at a church social dancing with a girl, and his scolding of the boy in front of his friends was so vehement, Martin Jr. strove to never repeat the experience by causing his father’s displeasure. But none of this discipline came with the slightest hint of hostility. Martin Sr.’s affection for his son was too real and palpable for the boy to feel anything but guilt for disappointing him.
And such feelings of guilt were all the more stressful for Martin Jr. because of the high hopes the father placed on his son. As a boy, Martin Jr. displayed an unusual way with words; he could talk his friends into almost anything, and his eloquence was quite precocious. He was certainly bright. A plan formed in Martin Sr.’s mind that his elder son would follow in his father’s footsteps—attending Morehouse College in Atlanta, becoming ordained as a minister, serving as copastor at Ebenezer, and then eventually inheriting the father’s position, just as Martin Sr. had inherited it from his father-in-law.
Sometimes the father shared this plan, but more than anything else the boy could feel the weight of his father’s expectations in the prideful way he looked at him and treated him. And it made him anxious. He deeply admired his father—he was a man of very high principle. But Martin Jr. could not avoid sensing the growing differences between them in taste and temperament. The son was more easygoing. He loved attending parties, wearing nice clothes, dating girls, and dancing. As he got older, he developed a pronounced serious and introspective side and was drawn to books and learning. It was almost as if there were two people inside of him—one social, the other solitary and reflective. His father, on the other hand, was not complicated at all.
When it came to religion, Martin Jr. had his doubts. His father’s faith was strong but simple. He was a fundamentalist who believed in a literal interpretation of the Bible. His sermons were aimed at the emotions of his parishioners, and they responded in kind. Martin Jr., on the other hand, had a cool temperament. He was rational and practical. His father seemed more concerned with helping people in the afterlife, whereas the son was more interested in life on earth and how it could be improved and enjoyed.
The thought of becoming a minister intensified these inner conflicts. At times he could imagine himself following his father’s career path. As someone deeply sensitive to any form of suffering or injustice, serving as a minister could be the perfect way to channel his desire to help people. But could he be a minister with such tenuous religious faith? He hated any kind of confrontation with his father, with whom it was impossible to argue. He developed the strategy of always saying yes to whatever his father said. His way of dealing with the tension inside him was to postpone any decision that might cause a rift. And so, when he graduated from high school at the age of fifteen, he decided to attend Morehouse, delighting his father. But in his mind he had a plan—he would study everything that interested him and decide on his own the path he would take.
In the first few months he thought of a career in medicine, then sociology, then law. He kept changing his mind about a major, excited by all the subjects now open to him. He took a class in Bible studies, and he was pleasantly surprised at the profound, earthy wisdom in the book. There were professors at Morehouse who approached Christianity from a very intellectual angle, and he found this quite appealing. By his last year at Morehouse he had changed his mind yet again: he would become ordained as a minister, and he would enroll at Crozer Theological Seminary, located in Pennsylvania, for a divinity degree. Now his father was quite ecstatic. He understood it was best to let Martin Jr. explore religion on his own, as long as he ended up at Ebenezer.
At Crozer, Martin Jr. discovered a whole other side to Christianity, one that emphasized social commitment and political activism. He read all of the major philosophers, devoured the works of Karl Marx, and became fascinated with the story of Mahatma Gandhi. Finding the life of an academic a pleasant one, he decided to continue his studies at Boston University, where he gained a reputation among his professors as a brilliant scholar in the making. But as he prepared to graduate in 1954 from Boston University with a PhD in systematic theology, he could no longer postpone the inevitable. His father had lined up for him an irresistible offer—a position as copastor at Ebenezer and a part-time teaching position at Morehouse, where he could continue the academic studies he loved.
Martin had recently married, and his wife, Coretta, wanted them to stay in the North, where life would be easier than in the troubled South. He could get a teaching job at almost any university he wanted. It was tempting to fall for either option—Ebenezer or teaching at a northern university. They would certainly lead to a comfortable life.
In the past few months, however, he had had a different vision of his future. He could not rationally explain where this came from, but it was clear to him: He would return to the South, where he felt a primal connection to his roots. He would become the minister of a large congregation in a good-sized city, a place where he could help people, serve the community, and make a practical difference. But it would not be in Atlanta, as his father had planned. He was not destined to be a professor or merely a preacher molded by his father. He would have to resist the easy path. And this vision had become too strong for him to deny it any longer—he would have to displease his father, breaking the news as gently as possible.
Several months before graduating, he heard of an opening at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. He visited the church and gave a sermon there, impressing the church’s leaders. He found the congregation at Dexter more solemn and thoughtful than at Ebenezer, which suited his own temperament. Coretta tried to dissuade him from such a choice. She had grown up not far from Montgomery, and she knew how fiercely segregated the city was, and the many ugly tensions below the surface. Martin would encounter there a virulent racism he had never experienced in his relatively sheltered life. To Martin Sr., Dexter and Montgomery spelled trouble. He added his voice to Coretta’s. But when Dexter offered Martin Jr. the job, he did not experience his usual ambivalence and need to think things over. For some reason, he felt certain about the choice; it seemed fateful and right.
Established at Dexter, Martin Jr. worked hard at imposing his authority (he knew he looked a bit too young for the position). He devoted a great deal of time and effort to his sermons. Preaching became his passion, and he soon gained a reputation as the most formidable preacher in the area. But unlike many other pastors, his sermons were full of ideas, inspired by all of the books he had read. He managed to make these ideas relevant to the day-to-day lives of his congregation. The key theme he had begun to develop was the power of love to transform people, a power that was desperately underused in the world and that blacks would have to adopt in relation to their white oppressors in order to change things.
He became active in the local chapter of the NAACP, but when he was offered the position of president of the chapter, he turned it down. Coretta had just given birth to their first child, and his responsibilities as a father and as a minister were great enough. He would remain very active in local politics, but his duty was to his church and family. He reveled in the simple and satisfying life he was now leading. His congregation adored him.
In early December of 1955, Dr. King (as he was now known) watched with great interest as a protest movement began to take shape in Montgomery. An older black woman named Rosa Parks had refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white man, as prescribed by the local law for segregated buses. Parks, an active member of the local NAACP chapter, had spent years fuming at this treatment of black people and at the abusive behavior of bus drivers. Finally she had had enough. For her defiance of the law she was arrested. This served as a catalyst for activists in Montgomery, and they decided upon a one-day boycott of Montgomery buses to show their solidarity. Soon the boycott stretched into a week, then several weeks as organizers managed to create a substitute system of transportation. One of the organizers of the boycott, E. D. Nixon, asked King to take a leading role in the movement, but he was reluctant. He had so little time to spare from his congregation work. He would do what he could to lend his support.
As the boycott gained momentum, it became clear to its leaders that the local chapter of the NAACP was not big enough to handle it. They decided they would form a new organization, to be called the Montgomery Improvement Association. Because of his youth, his eloquence, and what seemed to be his natural leadership skills, at a local town meeting those who had formed the MIA nominated King to be its president. It was an offer they half expected him to refuse—they knew of his past hesitations. King, however, could feel the energy in the room and their faith in him. Without his usual careful premeditation, he suddenly decided to accept.
As the boycott continued, the white administrators who controlled the city became increasingly adamant in their refusal to end the segregated practices on the city’s buses. The tension was escalating—several blacks involved in the boycott movement had been shot at and assaulted. In the speeches he now delivered to large crowds at the MIA meetings, King developed his theme of nonviolent resistance, invoking the name of Gandhi. They would defeat the other side through peaceful protests and justified boycotts; they would take the campaign further, aiming at complete integration in Montgomery’s public places. Now the local authorities saw King as a dangerous man, an interloper from outside the state. They initiated a whispering campaign, inventing all sorts of rumors to be spread about King’s youthful indiscretions, insinuating he was a communist.
Almost every night he received phone calls threatening his life and that of his family, and such threats were not to be taken lightly in Montgomery. A normally reserved man, he did not like all of the attention from the press, which had now become national. There was so much bickering within the MIA leadership, and the whites in power were so devilishly tricky. It was all so much more than he had bargained for when he had decided to become the MIA leader.
Several weeks after assuming the leadership position, King was arrested while driving, ostensibly for speeding, and placed in a cell full of the most hardened criminals. Once bail was posted, a trial was set for two days later, and who could guess what trumped up charges they might come up with? The night before his trial he received yet another phone call: “Nigger, we are tired of you and your mess now. And if you aren’t out of this town in three days we’re going to blow your brains out, and blow up your house.” Something in the tone of the caller’s voice sent chills down his spine—this seemed more than just a threat.
He tried to sleep that night but couldn’t, the man’s voice on the phone call replaying in his mind. He went into the kitchen to make some coffee and calm himself down. He was shaking. He was losing his nerve and his confidence. Couldn’t he just find a way to gracefully bow out of his leadership position and return to the comfortable life of being just a minister? As he examined himself and contemplated his past, he realized that up until these weeks he had never really known true adversity. His life had been relatively easy and happy. His parents had given him everything. He had not known what it was like to feel such intense anxiety.
And as he went deeper with these thoughts, he realized that he had simply inherited religion from his father. He had never personally communicated with God or felt His presence from within. He thought of his newborn daughter and the wife he loved. He couldn’t take much more of this. He couldn’t call his father for advice or solace—it was well past midnight. He felt a wave of panic.
Suddenly it came to him—there was only one way out of this crisis. He bowed over the cup of coffee and prayed with a sense of urgency he had never felt before: “Lord, I must confess that I’m weak now. I’m faltering. I’m losing my courage. And I can’t let the people see me like this, because if they see me weak and losing my courage, they will begin to get weak.” At that moment, clear as could be, he heard a voice from within: “Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you, even until the end of the world.” The voice—that of the Lord, he felt sure—promised to never leave him, to come back to him when he needed it. Almost immediately he felt a sense of tremendous relief, the burden of his doubts and anxiety lifted from his shoulders. He could not help but cry.
Several nights later, while King was attending an MIA meeting, his house was bombed. By sheer luck, his wife and daughter were unharmed. When informed of what had happened, he remained calm. He felt that nothing could rattle him now. Addressing an angry crowd of black supporters who had congregated outside his home, he said, “We are not advocating violence. We want to love our enemies. I want you to love our enemies. Be good to them. Love them and let them know you love them.” After the bombing, his father pleaded with him to return with his family to Atlanta, but with Coretta’s support, he refused to leave.
Over the following months there would be many challenges as he struggled to keep the boycott alive and maintain the pressure on the local government. Finally, toward the end of 1956, the Supreme Court affirmed a lower court decision ending bus segregation in Montgomery. On the morning of December 18, King was the first passenger to board the bus and sit wherever he liked. It was a great victory.
Now came national attention and fame, and with it endless new problems and headaches. The death threats continued. The older black leaders in the MIA and the NAACP came to resent the attention he now received. The infighting and the clash of egos became almost intolerable. King decided to start a new organization, to be called the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, its purpose to take the movement beyond Montgomery. For King, however, the infighting and envy only followed him.
In 1959 he returned to his hometown to serve as copastor at Ebenezer and to lead various SCLC campaigns from the headquarters in Atlanta. For some in the movement he was too charismatic, too domineering, and his campaigns too ambitious; for others he was too weak, too willing to compromise with white authorities. The criticism from both sides was relentless. But what added most of all to King’s burdens was the slippery and infuriating tactics of the whites in power, who had no intention of accepting any substantial changes in segregation laws or in practices that discouraged blacks from registering to vote. They negotiated with King and agreed to compromises, then as soon as the boycotts and sit-ins stopped, they found all kinds of loopholes in the agreements and backtracked.
In one campaign King led in Albany, Georgia, to desegregate the city, the mayor and police chief made a show of exaggerated calmness, making it seem as if King and the SCLC were the unreasonable group, just stirring up trouble from the outside.
The campaign in Albany was largely a failure, and it left King depressed and exhausted. It was now the pattern in his life that in such moments he yearned for the simpler, easier days of the past—his happy childhood, his pleasant years at the university, the first year and a half at Dexter. Perhaps he should retire from the leadership role and devote his time to preaching, writing, and lecturing. Such thoughts tugged him at him with greater frequency.
Then, toward the end of 1962, he received yet another request for his services: Fred Shuttlesworth, one of the leading black activists in Birmingham, Alabama, begged King and the SCLC to help him in his efforts to desegregate stores in the downtown area. Birmingham was one of the most fiercely segregated cities in the country. Rather than comply with federal laws to desegregate public places, such as swimming pools, they merely closed them down. Any form of protest against the segregation practices was met with powerful violence and terrorism. The city had come to be known as “Bombingham.” And overseeing this bastion of the segregated South was the police chief, Bull Connor, who seemed to relish the chance to use force—whips, attack dogs, high-pressure fire hoses, billy clubs.
This would certainly be the most dangerous campaign so far. Everything inside King leaned toward turning it down. The old doubts and fears returned to him. What if people were killed, and the violence touched him and his family? What if he failed? He suffered more sleepless nights as he agonized over this.
Then the voice from seven years before returned to him, as loud and clear as ever: he had been tasked to stand up for justice, not to think of himself but to think of the mission. How foolish to be afraid again. Yes, it was his mission to go to Birmingham. But as he mulled this over, he could not help thinking more deeply about what the voice had told him. Standing up for justice meant bringing it about in some real and practical way, not talking or settling for useless compromises. His fears of disappointing people and failing had made him too cautious. He would have to be more strategic and more courageous this time. He would have to raise the stakes and he would have to win. No more fears or doubts.
He accepted Shuttlesworth’s offer, and as he planned the campaign with his team, he made it clear to them they would need to learn from past mistakes. King laid out to them the nature of the predicament they faced. The Kennedy administration had proven to be incredibly cautious when it came to civil rights. The president feared alienating congressional southern Democrats, upon whom he depended. He would make great promises but keep dragging his feet.
What they needed to do in Birmingham was to provoke a national crisis, one that was bloody and ugly. The racism and segregation in the South were largely invisible to moderate whites. Birmingham seemed like just another sleepy southern town. Their goal must be to make the racism so visible to the whites watching television that it would strike their consciences, and with a growing sense of outrage, pressure would be placed on the Kennedy administration that it could no longer resist. Most of all, King was counting on the cooperation of Bull Connor in his plans—his overreaction to the intensity of their campaign would be the key to the whole drama they were hoping to enact.
In April 1963 King and his team put their plan into action. They attacked on multiple fronts with sit-ins and demonstrations. Although reluctant because of his fear of jails, King got himself arrested. This would garner more publicity and stir the local population to emulate him. But the campaign had a fatal weakness that became apparent only as it evolved: local black support for the movement was tepid. Many blacks in Birmingham resented Shuttlesworth’s autocratic style; others reasonably feared the violence Connor would unleash. King depended on large and boisterous crowds, but what he got was far from that. The national press, not smelling a story, started to leave.
Then one of the leaders on his team, James Bevel, had an idea—they would enlist the participation of students in local schools. King had his fears and argued they should not bring in anyone under the age of fourteen, but Bevel reminded him of the high stakes and the need for numbers, and King relented. Many of those inside the organization and sympathizers were shocked that King could be so pragmatic and strategic in using such young people, but the campaign had a higher purpose, and it was no time to be so delicate.
The students responded with great enthusiasm. It was just what the movement needed. They filled the streets of Birmingham, more daring and boisterous than their parents. Soon they were filling up the jails. The press returned en masse. Out came the high-pressure fire hoses, the attack dogs, and the night sticks, striking teenagers and even children. Soon television screens around America were broadcasting the tense, dramatic, and bloody scenes that ensued. Enormous crowds now showed up for King’s speeches, drumming up support for the cause. Federal authorities were forced to intervene to lessen the tension.
King had learned his lesson from before—he had to keep up the pressure to the very end. Representatives of the white power structure reluctantly opened negotiations with King. At the same time, he sanctioned the demonstrators to continue their downtown marches, coming from all directions and stretching Connor’s police force to the breaking point. Frightened local merchants had had enough and asked the white negotiators to work on a comprehensive settlement with the black leaders, essentially desegregating the downtown stores and agreeing to the hiring of black employees.
It was his greatest triumph so far; he had realized his ambitious goal. It did not matter now if the white authorities backtracked, as they inevitably would; Kennedy was caught in the trap, his own conscience pricked by what he had seen in Birmingham. Shortly after the settlement, he addressed the nation on television, explaining the need for immediate progress in civil rights and proposing some ambitious new laws. This led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which paved the way for the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It made King the undisputed leader of the civil rights movement, and soon a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. Money now poured into the SCLC, and the movement seemed to have ineluctable momentum. But as before, the troubles and burdens for King only seemed to increase with each new victory.
In the years following Birmingham he sensed a powerful reaction forming among conservatives and Republicans against the gains of the movement. They would work to halt further progress. He learned that the FBI had placed listening devices in his hotel rooms and had spied on him for years; they were now leaking stories and rumors to various newspapers. He watched as America descended into cycles of violence, starting with the assassination of Kennedy.
He saw a new generation of black activists emerge under the banner of Black Power, and they criticized his adherence to nonviolence as weak and antiquated. When King moved the campaign to Chicago to try to stop discriminatory housing practices there, he brokered a settlement with local authorities, but black activists around the country harshly criticized him—he had settled for far too little. Shortly after this, an audience at a Chicago Baptist church loudly booed him, drowning out his talk with chants of “Black Power.” He grew depressed and despondent. In early 1965, he saw images of the Vietnam War in a magazine, and it sickened him. Something was deeply wrong with America. That summer he toured the Watts neighborhood in Los Angeles after the violent riots that had scorched the area. The sight of so much poverty and devastation overwhelmed him. Here in the heart of one of the most affluent cities in America, the center of the fantasy industry, was an enormous neighborhood where large numbers of people lived in poverty and felt no hope for the future. And they were largely invisible. America had a cancer in its system—extreme inequalities in wealth, and the willingness to spend vast sums of money on an absurd war, while blacks in inner cities were left to rot and riot.
His depression now mixed with growing anger. In his conversations with friends, people noticed a new edge to him. In one retreat with his staff, he said, “All too many people have seen power and love as polar opposites. . . . [But] the two fulfill each other. Power without love is reckless, and love without power is sentimental.” At another retreat, he talked of new tactics. He would never abandon nonviolence as the means, but the civil disobedience campaign would have to be altered and intensified. “Nonviolence must mature to a new level . . . mass civil disobedience. There must be more than a statement to the larger society, there must be a force that interrupts its functioning at some key point.” The movement was not about integrating blacks into the values of American society but about actively altering those values at their root.
He would add to the civil rights movement the need to address poverty in inner cities and to protest the Vietnam War. On April 4, 1967, he expressed this widening of the struggle in a speech that got lots of attention, almost all negative. Even his most ardent supporters criticized it. Including the Vietnam War would only alienate the public from the cause of civil rights, they said. It would anger the Johnson administration, whose support they depended upon. It was not part of his mandate to speak so broadly.
He had never felt so alone, so attacked by his many critics. By early 1968 his depression had become deeper than ever. He felt the end was near—some among his many enemies were going to kill him for all that he had said and done. He was exhausted by the tension and felt spiritually at a loss. In March of that year, a pastor in Memphis, Tennessee, invited King to his city, hoping he could help support a strike by black sanitation workers, who had been treated horribly. There had been marches, boycotts, and protests, and the police had responded brutally. The situation was explosive. King put them off—he felt depleted. But as so often happened in these circumstances, he realized it was his duty to do what he could, and so he agreed. On March 18 he addressed an enormous crowd in Memphis, and their enthusiastic response cheered him up. He heard that voice once again supporting and urging him forward. Memphis would have to be a key part of his mission.
For the next few weeks he kept returning to Memphis to lend his support and assistance, against the fierce resistance of the local authorities. On Wednesday evening, April 4, he addressed another crowd: “We got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. . . . Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. . . . But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain, and I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land.” The speech left him revitalized and in a good mood. The next day he expressed some concern about an upcoming march that could turn violent but said fear should not stop them from proceeding. “I’d rather be dead than afraid,” he told an aide. That evening, he dressed and prepared for a dinner at a restaurant with his aides, and running late, he finally appeared on the balcony outside his motel room when a rifle shot rang out and a single bullet pierced his neck. He died within an hour.
• • •
Interpretation: Martin Luther King Jr. was a complex man with several sides to his character. There was the pleasure-loving King, who loved nice clothes, food, dances, women, and mischievous behavior. There was the practical King, always wanting to solve people’s problems and think things through thoroughly. There was the sensitive, introspective King, a side that increasingly inclined him toward spiritual pursuits. These sides were often in conflict from within, as he succumbed to passing moods. This was what often caused him to agonize over decisions. Associates would often be troubled by how deeply he considered his options and how often he doubted himself, imagining that he was not worthy of the role that he had been called upon to play.
His relationship to his father reflected this complexity. On the one hand, he truly loved and respected him, enough to consider becoming a minister and emulating his style of leadership. On the other hand, he became aware from a very early age of the dangers that would ensue if he allowed himself to be overwhelmed by his father’s dominating presence. His younger brother, A.D. King, lacked such awareness, a fact that caused him much pain in his life. A.D. became a minister, but he never could assert his independence. His career was erratic as he moved from one church to another. He developed an alcohol problem and later in life revealed a definite self-destructive streak that troubled his older brother. A.D. lived in their father’s shadow.
Something from deep within Martin Jr. impelled him to create some distance and autonomy. This meant not mindlessly rebelling against his father, which in the end would simply have revealed how defined he had been by him in reverse. It meant understanding the differences between them and using these differences as levers to create space. It meant taking the best from his father—his discipline, his high sense of principle, his caring nature. And it meant going his own way when something from deep within urged him to do so. He taught himself to listen to such intuitions, which led to his decision to begin his public career in Montgomery and to accept the MIA leadership position. In such moments, it was as if he could foresee his destiny and drop his habit of overthinking things.
Then, a few weeks after becoming the MIA leader, as he began to feel the increasing tension that went with the position, the many sides of his character suddenly took over and led to an inner crisis. There was the self-doubting King, the fearful King, the practical King frustrated by the endless obstacles and infighting, the King who yearned for a simpler and more pleasant life. This inner conflict paralyzed him. And as all of that reached a peak the night he entered his kitchen, suddenly those inclinations and intuitions that had guided him before in his life transformed into an actual voice, the voice of God, clarifying his destiny and offering continual support. He could hear this voice so clearly from within that it would echo and reverberate throughout his life.
From then on, in conversations and speeches, he would continually refer to this “voice” that now guided him. And with this voice the doubts, fears, and debilitating inner conflicts would disappear. He could feel integrated on a whole new level. Certainly the moods and anxieties would return, but so would the voice, making his mission clear to him.
People were often surprised, and sometimes perturbed, by how strategic he had become as his leadership role expanded to a national level. During and after every civil rights campaign, he would conduct deep analysis of the actions and reactions of the other side, learning lessons and honing tactics. For some, this did not square with his position as a spiritual leader—for instance, his decision to use children and teenagers in Birmingham as a means to fill the city jails. Ministers were not supposed to think like that. But to King, such pragmatism was intimately connected to his mission. To merely inspire people with speeches was sentimental, and he hated that. To not think deeply about results was to merely seek attention for appearing righteous, and to gratify the ego. He wanted to effect change, to dramatically and palpably alter the conditions of blacks in the South.
And so he came to understand that the game was about gaining leverage against the whites in power, who resisted change at every step. He had to use sit-ins and boycotts to maximize the pain they felt, even during the negotiating process. He had to maximize the attention from the press and bring into the living rooms of white America the ugly reality of life in the South for blacks. His strategic objective was their conscience. He had to keep the movement unified in the face of the increasing desire for violence among younger blacks. And as the voice reminded him of his ultimate purpose, to stand up for and bring about real justice, he naturally felt compelled to widen the struggle into a mass civil disobedience campaign.
In a sense, King would serve as the voice for black America, assuming a role similar to that of the voice that had guided him. He would strive to bring unity to the cause and keep the movement focused on practical results instead of debilitating infighting.
His bouts of depression, which became more intense in the later years, stemmed from his deep sensitivity not only to the people around him (the envy and continual criticisms he faced) but to the zeitgeist. Before others did, he sensed the mood in America, the grim reality of the war in Vietnam, the despair in the inner cities, the restlessness of the young and their hunger to escape reality through drugs, the cowardice of the political leadership. He linked this with his own sense of doom—he knew he would be assassinated. Such moods would overwhelm him. But the voice he had heard so many years before in Montgomery allowed him to squelch his fears and rise above the depression. Whenever he felt connected to his mission and purpose in life, he would experience a profound sense of fulfillment. He was doing what he was called to do, and he would not have traded this life for any other. In his last days, the connection grew deeper: he would bring change to the people of Memphis, but his fate would cut this short.
Understand: In many ways, the dilemma that King faced is the dilemma that all of us face in life, because of a profound element in human nature. We are all complex. We like to present a front to the world that is consistent and mature, but we know inside that we are subject to many different moods and wear many different faces, depending on circumstances. We can be practical, social, introspective, irrational, depending on the mood of the moment. And this inner chaos actually causes us pain. We lack a sense of cohesion and direction in life. We could choose any number of paths, depending on our shifting emotions, which pull us this way and that. Why go here instead of there? We wander through life, never quite reaching the goals that we feel are so important to us, or realizing our potential. The moments in which we feel clarity and purpose are fleeting. To soothe the pain from our aimlessness, we might enmesh ourselves in various addictions, pursue new forms of pleasure, or give ourselves over to some cause that interests us for a few months or weeks.
The only solution to the dilemma is King’s solution—to find a higher sense of purpose, a mission that will provide us our own direction, not that of our parents, friends, or peers. This mission is intimately connected to our individuality, to what makes us unique. As King expressed it: “We have a responsibility to set out to discover what we are made for, to discover our life’s work, to discover what we are called to do. And after we discover that, we should set out to do it with all the strength and all of the power that we can muster.” This “life’s work” is what we were intended to do, as dictated by our particular skills, gifts, and inclinations. It is our calling in life. For King, it was an impulse to find his own particular path, to fuse the practical with the spiritual. Finding this higher sense of purpose gives us the integration and direction we all crave.
Consider this “life’s work” something that speaks to you from within—a voice. This voice will often warn you when you are getting involved in unnecessary entanglements or when you are about to follow career paths that are unsuited to your character, by the uneasiness that you feel. It directs you toward activities and goals that mesh with your nature. When you are listening to it, you feel like you have greater clarity and wholeness. If you listen closely enough, it will direct you toward your particular destiny. It can be seen as something spiritual or something personal, or both.
It is not the voice of your ego, which wants attention and quick gratification, something that further divides you from within. Rather, it absorbs you in your work and what you have to do. It is sometimes hard to hear, as your head is full of the voices of others telling you what you should and should not do. Hearing it involves introspection, effort, and practice. When you follow its guidance, positive things tend to happen. You have the inner strength to do what you must and not be swayed by other people, who have their own agendas. Hearing this voice will connect you to your larger goals and help you avoid detours. It will make you more strategic, focused, and adaptive. Once you hear it and understand your purpose, there will be no going back. Your course has been set, and deviating from it will cause anxiety and pain.
He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.
Keys to Human Nature
In the world today, we humans face a particular predicament: As soon as our schooling ends, we suddenly find ourselves thrown into the work world, where people can be ruthless and the competition is fierce. Only a few years before, if we were lucky, our parents met many of our needs and were there to guide us; in some cases, they were overprotective. Now we find ourselves on our own, with little or no life experience to rely upon. We have to make decisions and choices that will affect our entire future.
In the not-so-distant past, people’s career and life choices were somewhat limited. They would settle into the particular jobs or roles available to them and stay there for decades. Certain older figures—mentors, family members, religious leaders—could offer some direction if needed. But such stability and help is hard to find today, as the world changes ever more quickly. Everyone is caught up in the harsh struggle to make it; people have never been so preoccupied with their own needs and agendas. The advice of our parents might be totally antiquated in this new order. Facing this unprecedented state of affairs, we tend to react in one of two ways.
Some of us, excited by all the changes, actually embrace this new order. We are young and full of energy. The smorgasbord of opportunities offered by the digital world dazzles us. We can experiment, try many different jobs, have many different relationships and adventures. Commitments to a single career or person feel like unnecessary restrictions on this freedom. Obeying orders and listening to authority figures is old-fashioned. Better to explore, have fun, and be open. A time will come when we will figure out what exactly to do with our lives. In the meantime, maintaining the freedom to do as we wish and go where we please becomes our main motivation.
Some of us, however, react the opposite way: Frightened of the chaos, we quickly opt for a career that is practical and lucrative, hopefully related to some of our interests, but not necessarily. We settle on an intimate relationship. We may even continue to cling to our parents. What motivates us is to somehow establish the stability that is so hard to find in this world.
Both paths, however, tend to lead to some problems further down the road. In the first case, trying so many things out, we never really develop solid skills in one particular area. We find it hard to focus on a specific activity for too long because we are so used to flitting around and distracting ourselves, which makes it doubly hard to learn new skills if we want to. Because of this our career possibilities begin to narrow. We become trapped into moving from one job to another. We might now want a relationship that lasts, but we haven’t developed the tolerance for compromise, and we cannot help but bristle at the restrictions to our freedom that a lasting relationship will represent. Although we might not like to admit it to ourselves, our freedom can begin to wear on us.
In the second case, the career we committed to in our twenties might begin to feel a bit lifeless in our thirties. We chose it for practical purposes, and it has little connection to what actually interests us in life. It begins to feel like just a job. Our minds disengage from the work. And now that smorgasbord of opportunities in the modern world begins to tempt us as we reach midlife. Perhaps we need some new, exciting career or relationship or adventure.
In either case, we do what we can to manage our frustrations. But as the years go by, we start to experience bouts of pain that we cannot deny or repress. We are generally unaware of the source of our discomfort—the lack of purpose and true direction in our lives.
This pain comes in several forms.
We feel increasingly bored. Not really engaged in our work, we turn to various distractions to occupy our restless minds. But by the law of diminishing returns, we need to continually find new and stronger forms of diversion—the latest trend in entertainment, travel to an exotic location, a new guru or cause to follow, hobbies that are taken up and abandoned quickly, addictions of all kinds. Only when we are alone or in down moments do we actually experience the chronic boredom that motivates many of our actions and eats away at us.
We feel increasingly insecure. We all have dreams and a sense of our own potential. If we have wandered aimlessly through life or gone astray, we begin to become aware of the discrepancy between our dreams and reality. We have no solid accomplishments. We feel envious of those who do. Our ego becomes brittle, placing us in a trap. We are too fragile to take criticism. Learning requires an admission that we don’t know things and need to improve, but we feel too insecure to admit this, and so our ideas become set and our skills stagnate. We cover this up with an air of certainty and strong opinions, or moral superiority, but the underlying insecurity cannot be shaken.
We often feel anxious and stressed but are never quite certain as to why. Life involves inevitable obstacles and difficulties, but we have spent much of our time trying to avoid anything painful. Perhaps we didn’t take on responsibilities that would open us to failure. We steered clear of tough choices and stressful situations. But then they crop up in the present—we are forced to finish something by a deadline, or we suddenly become ambitious and want to realize a dream of ours. We have not learned in the past how to handle such situations, and the anxiety and stress overwhelm us. Our avoidance leads to a low-grade, continual anxiety.
And finally, we feel depressed. All of us want to believe that there is some purpose and meaning to our life, that we are connected to something larger than ourselves. We want to feel some weight and significance to what we have done. Without that conviction, we experience an emptiness and depression that we will ascribe to other factors.
Understand: This feeling of being lost and confused is not anyone’s fault. It is a natural reaction to having been born into times of great change and chaos. The old support systems of the past—religions, universal causes to believe in, social cohesion—have mostly disappeared, at least in the Western world. Disappearing also are the elaborate conventions, rules, and taboos that once channeled behavior. We are all cast adrift, and it is no wonder that so many people lose themselves in addictions and depression.
The problem here is simple: By our nature we humans crave a sense of direction. Other living organisms rely upon elaborate instincts to guide and determine their behavior. We have come to depend upon our consciousness. But the human mind is a bottomless pit—it provides us with endless mental spaces to explore. Our imagination can take us anywhere and conjure up anything. At any moment, we could choose to go in a hundred different directions. Without belief systems or conventions in place, we seem to have no obvious compass points to guide our behavior and decisions, and this can be maddening.
Fortunately there is one way out of this predicament, and it is by nature available to each and every one of us. There is no need to look for gurus or to grow nostalgic for the past and its certainties. A compass and guidance system does exist. It comes from looking for and discovering the individual purpose to our lives. It is the path taken by the greatest achievers and contributors to the advancement of human culture, and we only have to see the path to take it. Here’s how it works.
Each human individual is radically unique. This uniqueness is inscribed in us in three ways—the one-of-a-kind configuration of our DNA, the particular way our brains are wired, and our experiences as we go through life, experiences that are unlike any other’s. Consider this uniqueness as a seed that is planted at birth, with potential growth. And this uniqueness has a purpose.
In nature, in a thriving ecosystem we can observe a high level of diversity among species. With these diverse species operating in a balance, the system is rich and feeds off itself, creating newer species and more interrelationships. Ecosystems with little diversity are rather barren, and their health is much more tenuous. We humans operate in our own cultural ecosystem. Throughout history we can see that the healthiest and most celebrated cultures have been the ones that encouraged and exploited the greatest internal diversity among individuals—ancient Athens, the Chinese Sung Dynasty, the Italian Renaissance, the 1920s in the Western world, to name a few. These were periods of tremendous creativity, high points in history. We can contrast this with the conformity and cultural sterility in dictatorships.
By bringing our uniqueness to flower in the course of our life, through our particular skills and the specific nature of our work, we contribute our share to this needed diversity. This uniqueness actually transcends our individual existence. It is stamped upon us by nature itself. How can we explain why we are drawn to music, or to helping other people, or to particular forms of knowledge? We have inherited it, and it is there for a purpose.
Striving to connect to and cultivate this uniqueness provides us a path to follow, an internal guidance system through life. But connecting to this system does not come easily. Normally the signs of our uniqueness are clearer to us in early childhood. We found ourselves naturally drawn to particular subjects or activities, despite the influence of our parents. We can call these primal inclinations. They speak to us, like a voice. But as we get older, that voice becomes drowned out by parents, peers, teachers, the culture at large. We are told what to like, what is cool, what is not cool. We start to lose a sense of who we are, what makes us different. We choose career paths unsuited to our nature.
To tap into the guidance system, we must make the connection to our uniqueness as strong as possible, and learn to trust that voice. (For more on this, see “Discover your calling in life” in the next section.) To the degree we manage to do so, we are richly rewarded. We have a sense of direction, in the form of an overall career path that meshes with our particular inclinations. We have a calling. We know which skills we need and want to develop. We have goals and subgoals. When we take detours from our path or become involved in entanglements that distract us from our goals, we feel uncomfortable and quickly get back on course. We may explore and have adventures, as is natural for us when we are young, but there is a relative direction to our exploring that frees us from continual doubts and distractions.
This path does not require that we follow one simple line, or that our inclinations be narrowly focused. Perhaps we feel the pull of several types of knowledge. Our path involves mastering a variety of skills and combining them in highly inventive and creative ways. This was the genius of Leonardo da Vinci, who combined his interests in art, science, architecture, and engineering, having mastered each one of them. This way of following the path goes well with our modern, eclectic tastes and our love of wide exploration.
When we engage this internal guidance system, all of the negative emotions that plague us in our aimlessness are neutralized and even turned around into positive ones. For instance, we may feel boredom in the process of accumulating skills. Practice can be tedious. But we can embrace the tedium, knowing of the tremendous benefits to come. We are learning something that excites us. We do not crave constant distractions. Our minds are pleasantly absorbed in the work. We develop the ability to focus deeply, and with such focus comes momentum. We retain what we absorb because we are engaged emotionally in learning. We then learn at a faster rate, which leads to creative energy. With a mind teeming with fresh information, ideas begin to come to us out of nowhere. Reaching such creative levels is intensely satisfying, and it becomes ever easier to add new skills to our repertoire.
With a sense of purpose, we feel much less insecure. We have an overall sense that we are advancing, realizing some or all of our potential. We can begin to look back at various accomplishments, small or large. We got things done. We may have moments of doubt, but they are generally related more to the quality of our work than to our self-worth—did we do our best job? Focusing more on the work itself and its quality than on what people think of us, we can distinguish between practical and malicious criticism. We have an inner resiliency, which helps us bounce back from failures and learn from them. We know who we are, and this self-awareness becomes our anchor in life.
With this guidance system in place, we can turn anxiety and stress into productive emotions. In trying to reach our goals—a book, a business, winning a political campaign—we have to manage a great deal of anxiety and uncertainty, making daily decisions on what to do. In the process, we learn to control our levels of anxiety—if we think too much about how far we have to go, we might feel overwhelmed. Instead we learn to focus on smaller goals along the way, while also retaining a degree of urgency. We develop the ability to regulate our anxiety—enough to keep us going and keep improving the work, but not so much as to paralyze us. This is an important life skill.
We develop a high tolerance for stress as well, and even feed off of it. We humans are actually built to handle stress. Our restless and energetic minds thrive best when we are mentally and physically active, our adrenaline pumping. It is a known phenomenon that people tend to age more quickly and deteriorate more rapidly right after they retire. Their minds have nothing to feed on. Anxious thoughts return. They become less active. Maintaining some stress and tension, and knowing how to handle it, can improve our health.
And finally, with a sense of purpose we are less prone to depression. Yes, low moments are inevitable, even welcome. They make us withdraw and reassess ourselves, as they did for King. But more often we feel excited and lifted above the pettiness that so often marks daily life in the modern world. We are on a mission. We are realizing our life’s work. We are contributing to something much larger than ourselves, and this ennobles us. We have moments of great fulfillment that sustain us. Even death can lose its sting. What we have accomplished will outlive us, and we do not have that debilitating feeling of having wasted our potential.
Think of it this way: In military history, we can identify two types of armies—those that fight for a cause or an idea, and those that fight largely for money, as part of a job. Those that go to war for a cause, such as the armies of Napoleon Bonaparte fighting to spread the French Revolution, fight with greater intensity. They tie their individual fate to that of the cause and the nation. They are more willing to die in battle for the cause. Those in the army who are less enthusiastic get swept up in the group spirit. The general can ask more of his soldiers. The battalions are more unified, and the various battalion leaders are more creative. Fighting for a cause is known as a force multiplier—the greater the connection to the cause, the higher the morale, which translates into greater force. Such an army can often defeat one that is much larger but less motivated.
We can say something similar about your life: operating with a high sense of purpose is a force multiplier. All of your decisions and actions have greater power behind them because they are guided by a central idea and purpose. The many sides to your character are channeled into this purpose, giving you more sustained energy. Your focus and your ability to bounce back from adversity give you ineluctable momentum. You can ask more of yourself. And in a world where so many people are meandering, you will spring past them with ease and attract attention for this. People will want to be around you to imbibe your spirit.
Your task as a student of human nature is twofold: First, you must become aware of the primary role that a sense of purpose plays in human life. By our nature, the need for purpose has a gravitational pull to it that no one can resist. Look at the people around you and gauge what is guiding their behavior, seeing patterns in their choices. Is the freedom to do what they please their primary motivation? Are they mostly after pleasure, money, attention, power for its own sake, or a cause to join? These are what we shall call false purposes, and they lead to obsessive behavior and various dead ends. (For more on false purposes, see the last section of this chapter.) Once you identify people as motivated by a false purpose, you should avoid hiring or working with them, as they will tend to draw you downward with their unproductive energy.
You will also notice some people who are struggling to find their purpose in the form of their calling in life. Perhaps you can help them or you can help each other. And finally, you may recognize a few people who have a relatively high sense of purpose. This could be someone young who seems destined for greatness. You will want to befriend them and become infected with their enthusiasm. Others will be older, with a string of accomplishments to their name. You will want to associate with them in any way possible. They will draw you upward.
Your second task is to find your sense of purpose and elevate it by making the connection to it as deep as possible. (See the next section for more on this.) If you are young, use what you find to give an overall framework to your restless energy. Explore the world freely, accumulate adventures, but all within a certain framework. Most important, accumulate skills. If you are older and have gone astray, take the skills you have acquired and find ways to gently channel them in the direction that will eventually mesh with your inclinations and spirit. Avoid sudden and drastic career changes that are impractical.
Keep in mind that your contribution to the culture can come in many forms. You don’t have to become an entrepreneur or figure largely on the world’s stage. You can do just as well operating as one person in a group or organization, as long as you retain a strong point of view that is your own and use this to gently exert your influence. Your path can involve physical labor and craft—you take pride in the excellence of the work, leaving your particular stamp on the quality. It can be raising a family in the best way possible. No calling is superior to another. What matters is that it be tied to a personal need and inclination, and that your energy move you toward improvement and continual learning from experience.
In any event, you will want to go as far as you can in cultivating your uniqueness and the originality that goes with it. In a world full of people who seem largely interchangeable, you cannot be replaced. You are one of a kind. Your combination of skills and experience is not replicable. That represents true freedom and the ultimate power we humans can possess.
Strategies for Developing a High Sense of Purpose
Once you commit yourself to developing or strengthening your sense of purpose, then the hard work begins. You will face many enemies and obstacles impeding your progress—the distracting voices of others who instill doubts about your calling and your uniqueness; your own boredom and frustrations with the work itself and your slow progress; the lack of trustworthy criticism from people to help you; the levels of anxiety you must manage; and finally, the burnout that often accompanies focused labor over long periods. The following five strategies are designed to help you move past these obstacles. They are in a loose order, the first being the essential starting point. You will want to put them all into practice to ensure continual movement forward.
Discover your calling in life. You begin this strategy by looking for signs of primal inclinations in your earliest years, when they were often the clearest. Some people can easily remember such early indications, but for many of us it requires some introspection and some digging. What you are looking for is moments in which you were unusually fascinated by a particular subject, or certain objects, or specific activities and forms of play.
The great nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century scientist Marie Curie could distinctly recall the moment when she was four years old and entered her father’s office, suddenly mesmerized by the sight of all sorts of tubes and measuring devices for various chemistry experiments placed behind a polished glass case. Her whole life she would feel a similar visceral thrill whenever she entered a laboratory. For Anton Chekhov, it was attending his first play in a theater as a boy in his small town. The whole atmosphere of make-believe thrilled him. For Steve Jobs, it was passing an electronics store as a child and seeing the wondrous gadgets in the window, marveling at their design and complexity. For Tiger Woods, it was, at the age of two, watching his father hit golf balls into a net in the garage and being unable to contain his excitement and desire to imitate him. For the writer Jean-Paul Sartre, it was a childhood fascination with printed words on a page, and the possible magical meanings each word possessed.
These moments of visceral attraction occurred suddenly and without any prodding from parents or friends. It would be hard to put into words why they occurred; they are signs of something beyond our personal control. The actress Ingrid Bergman expressed it best, when talking of the fascination she had with performing in front of her father’s movie camera at a very early age: “I didn’t choose acting. It chose me.”
Sometimes these moments can come when we are older, as when Martin Luther King Jr. realized his mission in life as he got pulled into the Montgomery bus boycott. And sometimes they can occur while observing other people who are masters in their field.
As a young man, the future Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa felt particularly aimless. He tried painting, then apprenticed as an assistant director on films, a job he hated. He was ready to quit when he got assigned to work for the director Kajiro Yamamoto in 1936. Watching this great master at work, suddenly his eyes were opened to the magical possibilities of film, and he realized his calling. As he later described this, “It was like the wind in a mountain pass blowing across my face. By this I mean that wonderfully refreshing wind you feel after a painfully hard climb. The breath of that wind tells you you are reaching the pass. Then you stand in the pass and look down over the panorama as it opens up. When I stood behind Yama-san in his director’s chair next to the camera, I felt my heart swell with that same feeling—‘I’ve made it at last.’” As another sign, examine moments in your life when certain tasks or activities felt natural and easy to you, similar to swimming with a current. In performing such activities, you have a greater tolerance for the tedium of practicing. People’s criticisms don’t discourage you so easily; you want to learn. You can contrast this with other subjects or tasks that you find deeply boring and unfulfilling, which frustrate you.
Related to this, you will want to figure out the particular form of intelligence that your brain is wired for. In his book Frames of Mind, the psychologist Howard Gardner lists certain forms of intelligence for which people usually have one particular gift or affinity. This could be mathematics and logic, physical activity, words, images, or music. We could also add to this social intelligence, a superior sensitivity to people. When you are engaged in the activity that feels right, it will correspond to that form of intelligence for which your brain is most suited.
From these various factors you should be able to spot the outline of your calling. In essence, in going through this process you are discovering yourself, what makes you different, what predates the opinions of others. You are reacquainting yourself with your natural likes and dislikes. Later in life we often lose contact with our own preferences for things, deeply influenced by what others are doing and by the culture. You are subtracting such external influences. The deeper you make this connection to your calling, the more you will be able to resist the bad ideas of others. You will engage that internal guidance system. Put some time into the process, working with a journal if necessary. You are developing the habit of assessing and listening to yourself, so that you can continually monitor your progress and adjust this calling to the various stages in your life.
If you are young and just starting out in your career, you will want to explore a relatively wide field related to your inclinations—for instance, if your affinity is words and writing, try all the different types of writing until you hit upon the right fit. If you are older and have more experience, you will want to take the skills you have already developed and find a way to adapt them more in the direction of your true calling. Remember that the calling could be combining several fields that fascinate you. For Jobs, it was the intersection of technology and design. Keep the process open-ended; your experience will instruct you as to the way.
Do not try to bypass the work of discovering your calling or imagine that it will simply come to you naturally. Although it may come to a few people early in life or in a lightning-bolt moment, for most of us it requires continual introspection and effort. Experimenting with the skills and options related to your personality and inclinations is not only the single most essential step in developing a high sense of purpose, it is perhaps the most important step in life in general. Knowing in a deep way who you are, your uniqueness, will make it that much easier to avoid all of the other pitfalls of human nature.
Use resistance and negative spurs. The key to success in any field is first developing skills in various areas, which you can later combine in unique and creative ways. But the process of doing so can be tedious and painful, as you become aware of your limitations and relative lack of skill. Most people, consciously or unconsciously, seek to avoid tedium, pain, and any form of adversity. They try to put themselves in places where they will face less criticism and minimize their chances of failure. You must choose to move in the opposite direction. You want to embrace negative experiences, limitations, and even pain as the perfect means of building up your skill levels and sharpening your sense of purpose.
When it comes to exercise, you understand the importance of manageable levels of pain and discomfort, because they later yield strength, stamina, and other positive sensations. The same will come to you by actually embracing the tedium in your practice. Frustration is a sign that you are making progress as your mind becomes aware of higher levels of skill that you have yet to attain.
You want to use and embrace any kind of deadline. If you give yourself a year to finish a project or start up a business, you will generally take a year or more. If you give yourself three months, you will finish it that much sooner, and the concentrated energy with which you work will raise your skill level and make the end result that much better. If necessary, manufacture reasonably tight deadlines to intensify your sense of purpose.
Thomas Edison knew he could take far too long to realize his inventions, and so he developed the habit of talking about their future greatness to journalists, overselling his ideas. With publicity, he would now be put in the position of having to make it happen, and relatively soon, or be ridiculed. He would now have to rise to the occasion, and he almost always did. The great eighteenth-century Zen master Hakuin took this further. He became greatly frustrated by the particular koans (paradoxical anecdotes designed to spark enlightenment) presented to him by his master. His lack of progress made him feel desperate, so he told himself, in all seriousness, “If I fail to master one of these koans in seven days, I will kill myself.” This worked for him and kept on working for him, until he attained total enlightenment.
As you progress on your path, you will be subject to more and more of people’s criticisms. Some of them might be constructive and worth paying attention to, but many of them come from envy. You can recognize the latter by the person’s emotional tone in expressing their negative opinions. They go a little too far, speak with a bit too much vehemence; they make it personal, instilling doubts about your overall ability, emphasizing your personality more than the work; they lack specific details about what and how to improve. Once recognized, the trick is not to internalize these criticisms in any form. Becoming defensive is a sign they have gotten to you. Instead, use their negative opinions to motivate you and add to your sense of purpose.
Absorb purposeful energy. We humans are extremely susceptible to the moods and energy of other people. For this reason, you want to avoid too much contact with those who have a low or false sense of purpose. On the other hand, you always want to try to find and associate with those who have a high sense of purpose. This could be the perfect mentor or teacher or partner on a project. Such people will tend to bring out the best in you, and you will find it easier and even refreshing to receive their criticisms.
This was the strategy that brought Coco Chanel (see chapter 5) so much power. She began life from a position of great weakness—an orphan with little or no resources in life. She realized in her early twenties that her calling was to design clothes and to start her own apparel line. She desperately needed guidance, however, particularly when it came to the business side. She looked for people who could help her find her way. At the age of twenty-five she met the perfect target, a wealthy older English businessman named Arthur “Boy” Capel. She was attracted to his ambition, his well-rounded experience, his knowledge of the arts, and his ruthless practicality.
She latched onto him with great vehemence. He was able to instill in her the confidence that she could become a famous designer. He taught her about business in general. He offered her tough criticisms that she could accept because of her deep respect for him. He helped guide her in her first important decisions in setting up her business. From him she developed a very honed sense of purpose that she retained her entire life. Without his influence, her path would have been too confusing and difficult. Later in life, she kept returning to this strategy. She found other men and women who had skills she lacked or needed to strengthen—social graciousness, marketing, a nose for cultural trends—and developed relationships that allowed her to learn from them.
In this case, you want to find people who are pragmatic and not merely those who are charismatic or visionaries. You want their practical advice, and to absorb their spirit of getting things done. If possible, collect around you a group of people from different fields, as friends or associates, who have similar energy. You will help elevate one another’s sense of purpose. Do not settle for virtual associations or mentors. They will not have the same effect.
Create a ladder of descending goals. Operating with long-term goals will bring you tremendous clarity and resolve. These goals—a project or business to create, for instance—can be relatively ambitious, enough to bring out the best in you. The problem, however, is that they will also tend to generate anxiety as you look at all you have to do to reach them from the present vantage point. To manage such anxiety, you must create a ladder of smaller goals along the way, reaching down to the present. Such objectives are simpler the further down the ladder you go, and you can realize them in relatively short time frames, giving you moments of satisfaction and a sense of progress. Always break tasks into smaller bites. Each day or week you must have microgoals. This will help you focus and avoid entanglements or detours that will waste your energy.
At the same time, you want to continually remind yourself of the larger goal, to avoid losing track of it or getting too mired in details. Periodically return to your original vision and imagine the immense satisfaction you will have when it comes to fruition. This will give you clarity and inspire you forward. You will also want a degree of flexibility built into the process. At certain moments you reassess your progress and adjust the various goals as necessary, constantly learning from experience and adapting and improving your original objective.
Remember that what you are after is a series of practical results and accomplishments, not a list of unrealized dreams and aborted projects. Working with smaller, embedded goals will keep you moving in such a direction.
Lose yourself in the work. Perhaps the greatest difficulty you will face in maintaining a high and consistent sense of purpose is the level of commitment that is required over time and the sacrifices that go with this. You have to handle many moments of frustration, boredom, and failure, and the endless temptations in our culture for more immediate pleasures. The benefits listed above in the Keys are often not immediately apparent. And as the years pile up, you can face burnout.
To offset this tedium, you need to have moments of flow in which your mind becomes so deeply immersed in the work that you are transported beyond your ego. You experience feelings of profound calmness and joy. The psychologist Abraham Maslow called these “peak experiences”—once you have them, you are forever changed. You will feel the compulsion to repeat them. The more immediate pleasures the world offers will pale in comparison. And when you feel rewarded for your dedication and sacrifices, your sense of purpose will be intensified.
These experiences cannot be manufactured, but you can set the stage for them and vastly increase your odds. First, it is essential to wait until you are further along in the process—at least more than halfway through a project, or after several years of study in your field. At such moments, your mind will be naturally filled with all kinds of information and practice, ripe for a peak experience.
Second, you must plan on giving yourself uninterrupted time with the work—as many hours in the day as possible, and as many days in the week. For this purpose, you have to rigorously eliminate the usual level of distractions, even plan on disappearing for a period of time. Think of it as a type of religious retreat. Steve Jobs would close the door to his office, spend the entire day holed up in the room, and wait until he fell into a state of deep focus. Once you become adept at this, you can do it almost anywhere. Einstein would notoriously go into such a deep state of absorption that he would lose himself in the city streets or while sailing on a lake.
Third, the emphasis must be on the work, never on yourself or the desire for recognition. You are fusing your mind with the work itself, and any intrusive thoughts from your ego or doubts about yourself or personal obsessions will interrupt the flow. Not only will you find this flow immensely therapeutic, but it will also yield uncannily creative results.
For the time period that the actress Ingrid Bergman was engaged in a particular film project, she poured every ounce of her energy into it, forgetting everything else about her life. Unlike other actors, who gave greater importance to the money they earned or the attention they received, Bergman saw only the opportunity to completely embody the role she was to play and bring it to life. For this purpose, she would engage with the writers and the director involved, actively altering the role itself and some of the dialogue, making it more real; they would trust her in this, because her ideas were almost always excellent and were based on deep thinking about the character.
Once she had gone far enough in the writing and thinking process, she would go through days or weeks feeling herself fuse with the role, and not interacting with others. In doing so, she could forget about all the pain in her life—the loss of her parents when she was young, her abusive husband. These were the moments of genuine joy in her life, and she translated such peak experiences to the screen. Audiences could sense something profoundly realistic in her performances, and they identified unusually intensely with the characters she played. Knowing she would periodically have such experiences, and the results that went with them, kept her moving past the pain and sacrifices that she demanded of herself.
Look at this as a form of religious devotion to your life’s work. Such devotion will eventually yield moments of union with the work itself, and a type of ecstasy that is impossible to verbalize until you have experienced it.
The Lure of False Purposes
The gravitational pull we feel toward finding a purpose comes from two elements in human nature. First, unable to rely on instincts as other animals do, we require some means of having a sense of direction, a way to guide and restrict our behavior. Second, we humans are aware of our puniness as individuals in a world with billions of others in a vast universe. We are aware of our mortality, and how we will eventually be swallowed up in the eternity of time. We need to feel larger than just the individuals we are, and connected to something that transcends us.
Human nature being what it is, however, many people seek to create purpose and a feeling of transcendence on the cheap, to find it in the easiest and most accessible way, with the least amount of effort. Such people give themselves over to false purposes, those that merely supply the illusion of purpose and transcendence. We can contrast them with real purposes in the following way: The real purpose comes from within. It is an idea, a calling, a sense of mission that we feel personally and intimately connected to. It is our own; we may have been inspired by others, but nobody imposed it upon us and nobody can take it away. If we are religious, we don’t merely accept the orthodoxy; we go through rigorous introspection and make our belief inward, true to ourselves. False purposes come from external sources—belief systems that we swallow whole, conformity to what other people are doing.
The real purpose leads us upward, to a more human level. We improve our skills and sharpen our minds; we realize our potential and contribute to society. False purposes lead downward, to the animal side of our nature—to addictions, loss of mental powers, mindless conformity, and cynicism.
It is critical that we become aware of these false forms of purpose. Inevitably all of us at some point in our lives fall for them because they are so easy, popular, and cheap. If we can eliminate the impulse toward these lower forms, we will naturally gravitate toward the higher, in our unavoidable search for meaning and purpose. Here are five of the most common forms of false purposes that have appealed to humans since the beginning of civilization.
The pursuit of pleasure: For many of us, work is just an irritating necessity of life. What really motivates us is avoiding pain, and finding as much pleasure as possible in our time outside work. The pleasures we pursue can take various forms—sex, stimulants, entertainment, eating, shopping, gambling, technological fads, games of all sorts.
No matter the objects of the pursuit, they tend to lead to a dynamic of diminishing returns. The moments of pleasure we get tend to get duller through repetition. We need either more and more of the same or constantly new diversions. Our need often turns into an addiction, and with the dependency comes a diminishing of health and mental powers. We become possessed by the objects we crave and lose ourselves. Under the influence of drugs or alcohol, for instance, we can temporarily feel transported beyond the banality of our lives.
This form of false purpose is very common in the world today, largely because of the cornucopia of distractions we can choose from. But it goes against a basic element of human nature: to have deeper levels of pleasure, we have to learn to limit ourselves. Reading a variety of books for entertainment, in rapid succession, leads to a diminishing sense of satisfaction with each book; our minds are overwhelmed and overstimulated; and we must reach for a new one right away. Reading one excellent book and absorbing ourselves in it has a relaxing and uplifting effect as we discover hidden riches within it. In the moments when we are not reading, we think of the book again and again.
All of us require pleasurable moments outside work, ways to relieve our tension. But when we operate with a sense of purpose, we know the value of limiting ourselves, opting for depth of experience rather than overstimulation.
Causes and cults: People have a profound need to believe in something, and in the absence of great unifying belief systems, this void is easily filled by all kinds of microcauses and cults. We notice that such groups tend not to last very long. Within ten years they already seem passé. During their brief existence, their adherents will substitute extreme conviction and hyperbelief for a clear vision of what they are after. For this purpose, enemies are quickly found and are said to be the source of all that is wrong in the world. Such groups become the means for people to vent their personal frustrations, envy, and hatred. They also get to feel superior, as part of some clique with special access to the truth.
We can recognize a microcause or cult by the vagueness of what its disciples want. They cannot describe the kind of world or society they desire in concrete, practical terms. Much of their raison d’être revolves around negative definitions—get rid of these people or those practices and the world will become a paradise. They have no sense of strategy or defined ways of reaching their nebulous goals, which is a clear sign that their group is merely about the release of emotions.
Often such groups will depend on large public gatherings in which people can become intoxicated by numbers and shared feelings. Wily rulers throughout history have used this to great effect. People in a crowd are highly suggestible. Through short, simple phrases, with lots of repetition, they can be made to chant back slogans and swallow the most absurd and irrational ideas. In a crowd people can feel relieved of any personal responsibility, which can lead to violence. They feel transported beyond themselves and not so puny, but such enlargement is an illusion. They are actually made smaller by losing their will and their individual voice.
Allying ourselves with a cause can be an important part of our sense of purpose, as it was for Martin Luther King Jr. But it must emerge from an internal process in which we have thought deeply about the subject and are committing ourselves to the cause as part of our life’s work. We are not simply a cog in the machinery of such a group but active contributors, bringing our uniqueness into play and not mimicking the company line. We are not joining out of a need to gratify our ego or to vent ugly emotions, but rather out of a hunger for justice and truth that springs from deep within our own sense of purpose.
Money and success: For many people, the pursuit of money and status can supply them with plenty of motivation and focus. Such types would consider figuring out their calling in life a monumental waste of time and an antiquated notion. But in the long run this philosophy often yields the most impractical of results.
First, more often than not such types enter the field in which they can make the most money the fastest. They aim for the biggest paychecks. Their career choices have slight or no connection to their actual inclinations. The fields they choose will tend to be crowded with other insatiable hunters of money and success, and so the competition is fierce. If they are zealous enough, they might do quite well for a while, but as they get older, they begin to feel restless and ever so slightly bored. They try different avenues for money and success; they need new challenges. They have to keep finding ways to motivate themselves. Often they make big mistakes in their obsessive pursuit of money because their thinking is so short term, as we saw with those who went all in on the derivatives frenzy leading up to the crash of 2008.
Second, money and success that last come from remaining original and not mindlessly following the path that others are following. If we make money our primary goal, we never truly cultivate our uniqueness, and eventually someone younger and hungrier will supplant us.
And finally, what often motivates people in this quest is to simply have more money and status than other people, and to feel superior. With that standard, it is difficult to know when they have enough, because there are always people with more. And so the quest is endless and exhausting. And since the connection to their work is not personal, such people become alienated from themselves; the pursuit feels soulless; they are workaholics without a true calling. They may become depressed or manic, and they will often lose what they have gained if they become manic enough.
We all know the effects of “hyperintention”: If we want and need desperately to sleep, we are less likely to fall asleep. If we absolutely must give the best talk possible at some conference, we become hyperanxious about the result, and the performance suffers. If we desperately need to find an intimate partner or make friends, we are more likely to push them away. If instead we relax and focus on other things, we are more likely to fall asleep or give a great talk or charm people. The most pleasurable things in life occur as a result of something not directly intended and expected. When we try to manufacture happy moments, they tend to disappoint us.
The same goes for the dogged pursuit of money and success. Many of the most successful, famous, and wealthy individuals do not begin with an obsession with money and status. One prime example would be Steve Jobs, who amassed quite a fortune in his relatively short life. He actually cared very little for material possessions. His singular focus was on creating the best and most original designs, and when he did so, good fortune followed him. Concentrate on maintaining a high sense of purpose, and the success will flow to you naturally.
Attention: People have always pursued fame and attention as a way to feel enlarged and more important. They become dependent on the number of people applauding, the size of the army they command, the crowd of courtiers that serve them. But this false sense of purpose has become greatly democratized and widespread through social media. Now almost any one of us can have the quantity of attention that past kings and conquerors could only dream about. Our self-image and self-esteem become tied to the attention we receive on a daily basis. In social media, this often requires becoming increasingly outrageous to capture eyeballs. It is an exhausting and alienating quest, as we become more of a clown than anything else. And each moment that the attention ebbs ever so slightly, a gnawing pain eats away at us: Are we losing it? Who is siphoning off the flow of attention that was ours?
As with money and success, we have a much greater chance of attracting attention by developing a high sense of purpose and creating work that will naturally draw people to it. When the attention is unexpected, as with the success we suddenly have, it is all the more pleasurable.
Cynicism: According to Friedrich Nietzsche, “Man would rather have the void as purpose than be void of purpose.” Cynicism, the feeling that there is no purpose or meaning in life, is what we shall call having “the void as purpose.” In the world today, with growing disenchantment with politics and the belief systems of the past, this form of the false purpose is becoming increasingly common.
Such cynicism involves some or all of the following beliefs: Life is absurd, meaningless, and random. Standards of truth, excellence, or meaning are completely old-fashioned. Everything is relative. People’s judgments are simply interpretations of the world, none better than another. All politicians are corrupt, so it’s not really worth it to get involved; better to abstain or choose a leader who will deliberately tear it all down. People who are successful get there through gaming the system. Any form of authority should be naturally mistrusted. Look behind people’s motives and you will see that they are selfish. Reality is quite brutal and ugly; better to accept this and be skeptical. It’s really hard to take anything so seriously; we should just laugh and have a good time. It’s all the same.
This attitude presents itself as cool and hip. Its adherents display a somewhat apathetic and sardonic air that gives them the appearance that they see through it all. But the attitude is not what it seems. Behind it is the adolescent pose of appearing to not care, which disguises a great fear of trying and failing, of standing out and being ridiculed. It stems from sheer laziness and offers its believers consolation for their lack of accomplishments.
As hunters for purpose and meaning, we want to move in the opposite direction. Reality is not brutal and ugly—it contains much that is sublime, beautiful, and worthy of wonder. We see this in the great works of other achievers. We want to have more encounters with the Sublime. Nothing is more awe-inspiring than the human brain itself—its complexity, its untapped potential. We want to realize some of that potential in our lives, not wallow in the cynical slacker attitude. We see a purpose behind everything that we experience and see. In the end, what we want is to fuse the curiosity and excitement we had toward the world as children, when almost everything seemed enchanting, with our adult intelligence.
The whole law of human existence consists in nothing other than a man’s always being able to bow before the immeasurably great. If people are deprived of the immeasurably great, they will not live and will die in despair. The immeasurable and infinite are as necessary for man as the small planet he inhabits.
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