Principles and Purpose - The Purposeless Life of Joe

In my last article I mentioned a young man who was stalled out in life, waiting for his purpose to find him. I don’t know the rest of that young man’s story, but I know how the story often looks for someone who fails to ask the Big Questions, and just lets life happen.

Do you know where you are going?

Do you know where you are going?


Let’s consider what is often the standard growing up procedure for many young people. 

Around the age of 15-16 it suddenly dawns on Joe (we will call this mythical, but very typical person Joe. Joe could just as easily be Josephine, this example applies equally to guys or girls) and those around him that Joe is no longer a child, but not yet a fully mature adult. I would argue that he is indeed an adult, and in the process of developing full maturity. Our culture has a different view and will instead consider Joe a "teenager". Having labeled Joe a teenager our culture will subsequently relieve him of most expectations of responsibility, the very things that are essential for him to become a mature adult. 

College or Bust

Joe will be expected to get as good of grades as possible in school so that he will "get into a good college" and to participate in several extracurricular activities. The perception is that these activities will also be important to "get into a good college", and the hope is that they will also keep him entertained and out of trouble. There will usually be no real consideration of how any of these activities relate to the rest of Joe's life other than the connection to getting into college.

Joe will spend his high school "teenager" years working on his grades, participating in some activities, and using his additional free time doing low responsibility "teenager" things. These additional activities can range from the frivolous (video games), to the destructive (substance abuse), to the mildly constructive (a summer job), but all of these additional activities are usually marked by the lack of any kind of thought about how they prepare Joe for his life.   

The result will be that when Joe hits his senior year of high school, and has reasonably good grades, he will view attending college as his only real option. This isn't because he is hungry for higher education and deeper knowledge. It is not because he has a passion and certainty about a particular career that he needs advanced training for. It will be because he thinks college is the next thing you are "supposed" to do. If he is honest with himself it will also be because he is desperately hoping that somewhere, somehow college will provide him with his "aha!" moment when his purpose and what he will do with his life, will all of a sudden become blindingly clear.

College and Then…?

The truth, of course, is that college is really good at saddling young people with crippling debt, and college can be good at teaching people who know what they want to do some of the things that they need to know, but colleges and universities are usually terrible at teaching people about how to figure out what they should do with their life. This isn't necessarily their fault. Colleges aren't designed to teach that sort of thing. 

The result is that Joe will graduate from college with a degree, but very little idea of how or where to use it. If the economy is really bad he may have to return home and live in his parent's basement while working part time jobs delivering pizza and waiting tables, but let’s give Joe some credit. He has always been a hard worker; just never sure of what he should be working on. Since necessity is the mother of invention, and living in his parent’s basement isn’t very attractive, Joe will find some kind of job that requires a degree and pays enough to cover his student loans and the cost of living on his own. 

The Real World

His first job will lead to the next job, and little by little Joe will acquire some unique skills and experience that allow him to continue to make modest advancements. He doesn't love his work, but he can do it to a satisfactory level and it pays the bills. Waking up on Monday's is always mildly depressing, and Friday afternoons are much anticipated. In fact, it's the weekends that Joe is really living for. It's then that he does his living, has his fun, and does things he cares about. That and the 3-5 weeks of vacation he gets a year.

This sort of mildly contented life will move forward mostly unquestioned by Joe until he's closing in on forty years old. If he takes time to question his situation he will look around and see that most of his colleagues are in the same place, and he will conclude that his situation is normal. There are a few really high performers that he knows, mostly bosses he reports to. They're "special" and "different" and got to their positions in life by some strange alchemy of good fortune, special connections, and other mostly unfathomable processes. Some are just born fortunate. He knows a few people from college and high school that did crazy things like started their own businesses, joined the SEALs, or this one guy that teaches mountain biking for living. Must be nice, but that was never really an option for him. He didn't have the right opportunities like they did when he was young, and now, with a family, and student loans, and a mortgage, and responsibility, that kind of thing really isn't an option. Besides, he's doing fine, there's always the weekend, and his buddy has tickets to the big game. That's something to look forward to.   

The Mid Life Crisis

When Joe turns forty things change. At forty Joe looks around and finds he can no longer ignore the questions that are shrieking in his head, "Is this it?!" "Is this all there is?" "Is retirement really all I have to look forward to?" Increasingly he finds himself looking around and thinking, "How did I get here?" "This isn't where I wanted to be. You know, I always wanted to do..."

At this point a lot will depend on Joe's moral and spiritual character, because now is the time of the mid-life crisis. Now is when an extra-marital affair looks like a good idea, at least it's something exciting! Now is the time that a divorce becomes an option, it's time for a change! Now is when bad investments are made, I need to take a risk and do something! 

This is often the contours of a life without purpose. This is what happens when the Big Questions aren't asked or answered. Usually this is the inevitable result of living a life without being deliberate. This is a life without vision. 

It's not necessarily a bad life, nor is it always an unhappy life. In can be a life of misery and discontent, but usually it's not, because misery and discontent usually spur change. The tragedy of a life like Joe's isn't that it is miserable or bad, the tragedy is that it is just good enough to not be great. It is a life that fails to reach its potential. It is a life that settles instead of strives. That rests instead of risks. That wearies instead of works. 

This is the life of Joe. Sound good? Or are you interested in something better? Perhaps you would prefer the life of Jack (or Jacqueline) that we will examine next time…