In The Right Question, I go into some detail about the fact that searching for your reasons – in other words, trying to discover “why” you’ve failed or “why” you might succeed – is a waste of time. This may lead some to conclude that I’ve dismissed the idea of having a purpose in the first place. But having a purpose and a reason are two entirely different things, as a few simple examples will illustrate.
Let’s say you’re in bed. It’s three in the morning. The dog starts barking like crazy, and you wake to find the room full of smoke. Within minutes the smoke alarm goes off.
You’ve got a pretty compelling reason to get out of bed. Your reason is to either discover the source of the fire and deal with it, or if you’re the timid type, to hurl yourself out the door. Either way, you’re not going to stop and think about your reasons, because in this case they’re pretty clear. The reason is because where there’s smoke, there’s fire, and you don’t have any interest in dying from either.
Now let’s say you’re in bed at three in the morning and you’re unemployed, broke, your spouse left you, your dog ran away, and the lender is foreclosing on the house. Many people who have been in similar situations have not felt any compelling reason at all to get out of bed. This is a stressful situation, one that tests self-esteem, willingness and resolve. It’s tough to get out of bed when it seems that there’s no reason to do so other than to waste another day pointlessly surfing the internet or playing video games or lying on the couch staring out the window.
The difference between looking for a reason (a “why”), and having a purpose, is night and day. I have no problem with a more mystical or religious approach to living (a la The Purpose Driven Life) but I’m all about results, and showing you how you can get them in your life today. Mystical methods can make you feel great, but once you’re done the book your life is still exactly the same as it was before. I want to help you actually advance, not just feel good about a bad situation.
Imagine you’re a pilot shot down over enemy territory. The force of the ejector seat breaks a bone in your back, and when you land you break a leg. You’re captured and beaten by the enemy, and forced to spend the next seven years as a prisoner. You’re in solitary confinement for four of those years. You are regularly beaten and tortured, kept in the dark for years at a time, and are told that your family is dead and your wife has married another man and speaks ill of you. With all this against you, you’re going to need a lot more than a reason to not just end it all by cutting yourself with whatever rusty metal object you can find lying around. You’re going to need a purpose.
This is exactly what happened during the Vietnam War to Admiral James Stockdale. He made it out and became an inspiration to generations of people because he found a purpose in his life – to inspire others to resist and show them it was possible to be strong in the face of a tyrannical enemy.
The same can also be said of Viktor Frankl, who wrote Man’s Search for Meaning. A prisoner of the Nazis during World War Two, Frankl decided that the one thing that his captors could never take from him was his choice to remain alive, to make his own decisions in his mind. The prison guards could beat him, break his bones, pull out his teeth, but could never make him decide to think anything other than what he chose.
Your circumstances may be nowhere near as trying as the above two examples, but the point is the same. Even if you’re in danger of losing your house to foreclosure, in the middle of a divorce, while unemployed and estranged from your own children or parents, you are still in complete control of the choices you make in your own mind to decide upon your purpose, your overall ambition to continue on through it.
Power is Choice
If the distinction still isn’t clear, think of it this way: A reason is more of a temporary and specific motivator in a given situation. A purpose will clarify those reasons and elevate your conduct so that you can better choose your reasons, in alignment with your dreams. Out of all the words that the Right Question could be, it’s worded the way it is because it takes advantage of the subtle differences in language to paint exactly the right picture for you. The reason you fill the tank in your car is because it’s running out of gas, and the purpose of that is to get where you want to go. Purpose helps you remember that filling the tank might be more expensive than buying a bus ticket, but you are in control of where you go, how fast, and when. In other words, having a purpose allows you to choose your reasons. And because power is all about choice, having a purpose for your life gives you a tremendous amount of power.
A common complaint about self help and motivation and success books is that they encourage the reader to expand their material success and make more money but they avoid the issue of what happens next. It’s easy to come up with reasons to want more money – you’ll be able to travel, buy a nicer car, a bigger house, all the things we commonly think of that will make life easier – but it ignores the fact that there are equally compelling reasons to stay exactly where we are. We love the familiar, and the unknown is frightening. Let’s face it, if you suddenly had another six figures in your bank account and you were able to pay off your mortgage with it, a large part of you would be sitting around saying, “Now what?” This is because a large part of your life, a constant part of your daily thinking and a consistent motivator, is suddenly gone. And now you have to replace it with something. If you don’t believe me, think of all the people who die within a year or two of retirement. With nothing else to fill the space in their lives that was occupied with paying the bills and working, down they go. They had a reason to live but no overall purpose, let alone a desire to ask the Right Question.
Here’s a link to a short video of Viktor Frankl giving a talk in 1972:http://www.ted.com/talks/viktor_frankl_youth_in_search_of_meaning . In it he demonstrates how it’s noble to be idealistic about humanity in general, and how a higher purpose for us all can lead us to achieve what we’re capable of. I suggest you apply this to yourself. Ask the Right Question in the context of creating a purpose for yourself. It isn’t set in stone, it doesn’t have to be eloquent, but it should give you some satisfaction that it’s in line with who you know yourself to be at this point. It will also help you when confronted with trying circumstances.
Remember, to live the life of your dreams, you must become the person who could have that life. And no matter what your circumstances around you are right now, the person who could have your ideal life has a purpose. It doesn’t have to be grand and magnificent. You don’t have to set “saving the world” as your purpose. It’s enough to want to be loving, a good parent, to make a difference to animals or your favorite charity. But your purpose must make sense to you and be compelling enough for you to choose good reasons that will propel you towards your ideal life, and once there, keep you going. If you choose to pursue material abundance, you won’t be asking “Now what?” when you’re writing the last check to your mortgage company and packing your bags for a celebratory holiday.
Besides, you’ll always have The Right Question in the back of your mind to help you out.