37. The illusions of the advice-giver
Why discussions of 'purpose' suck so often
I think every person has a purpose, or at least something worthy of the name. I believe I’m finding mine, and I want to help others find theirs.
But a recent tweet by @lisatomic5 reminded me that this topic can be pretty frustrating to talk about:
It’s true. So much advice is awful. ‘Finding yourself’ discourse can be radioactively cringe, shallow, and unhelpful. It’s almost enough to make you disavow the topic entirely.
Alas, ‘finding your purpose’ appears to fall under one of the prime directives of philosophy itself, which I am under strict metaphysical instructions to obey. The skellyton can say it first, since it’s Halloween month:
Pausanias reported such an inscription above the door to the Temple of the Oracle at Delphi. In 1999, it was hung in Latin above the door to the Oracle of Neo:
Know Thyself includes knowing your purpose. But before I try to provide some thoughts on this, I want to take today’s post to accept, without caveat, how bad the usual discussion of purpose can be. Perhaps by noticing things we don’t want, we can start to get a sense of what we do want, when investigating that most sacred topic: why we’re ultimately here.
I promise no remedies in this post—only the beginnings of a diagnosis.
Why Abe’s advice sucks
Abe has been stuck for years in an attempt to find his ‘purpose’, but it has always felt awful to think about. Why?
Taking a God’s-eye-view, we may notice something interesting: when Abe thinks the text string “
have a purpose”, this calls MentalAction1:
<force-compare your career and accomplishments to those of other people, and if you feel lower status on comparison, tell yourself you're bad and that you have to do better>.
Of course, Abe doesn’t know he’s running MentalAction1 every time he thinks about fulfilling his purpose. He’s just familiar with this phrase “
have a purpose” and its emotional consequences. When the words come to mind, he beats himself up, somewhere out of view—and then he feels bad.
But as Abe meditates on the train home from his spoken word poetry group, he finally has a breakthrough. He catches MentalAction1 in the act! In horror he watches a sadistic effort to change himself, but instead of beating himself up for beating himself up, he feels compassion, and then regret, and eventually a hope that he can learn to be kinder. In a moment of catharsis, MentalAction1 melts away, never to return. Warm healing spreads through Abe’s chest, and he feels better than he’s felt in months.
Betty also wants to understand her purpose. She tells this to Abe. Abe wants to impress Betty, and also wants to help. So he tries to transmit his new insight:
ABE: “‘Having a purpose’ is honestly a load of crap, Betty. To be honest, it's a form of self-abuse. It stems from trauma around parental approval, and is always infused with sadism. Really, purposelessness is what it's all about. Life is about letting things go.”
Betty can see Abe’s sincerity and conviction. It’s actually kind of hot. But somehow she’s not quite convinced by what he said.
Taking the God’s-eye-view, we start to see why: for Betty, the text string “
have a purpose” doesn’t call MentalAction1, but something else entirely:
<return to a slow, sophisticated, and gentle contemplation of the available evidence of what your spirit is trying to become>
When Abe says “having a purpose’ is sadistic crap”, Betty doesn’t hear Abe saying what he believes—which is that MentalAction1 (
<brutalize yourself with ideas of status>) is sadistic. She’d certainly agree with that. Rather, she hears Abe claiming that MentalAction2 (
<slowly contemplate the clues to who you are>) is sadistic. And the latter doesn’t really seem true.
In fact, MentalAction2 has been crazy helpful for Betty. While she doesn’t have final answers just yet, she’s been writing more than ever, picked watercolor back up after a break of six months, and is having scary but thrilling thoughts about a potentially fruitful career change.
God forbid Betty listen to Abe!
Why these discussions are so bad
The Abe and Betty case is meant to evocatively capture some of the phenomena described below: my incomplete list of reasons ‘discussions of purpose’ are bad so often:
People tell other people to do what helped them. But, other people are different from them.
People tell other people to do what they're telling themselves to do. People frequently aren’t even offering advice that worked in their own case—they may not have a success case in hand.
They might say: “It's not about looking inside yourself, it's about doing things!!” because they're trying to get out of their own heads and do more things. Or they say the complete opposite, because they’re trying to learn to listen to themselves instead of pursuing another unsatisfying external marker of success.
People are ideological without knowing they're being ideological. They might say: “life is about letting go”—not knowing they’re repeating a precept of Barnes & Noble American Buddhism. Or they tell you: “life is about finding ways to serve others”—not knowing they’re pushing 0.001 gram/liter Christianity.
Ideology isn’t always poison, but unstated assumptions from unnoticed ideological context can be part of why a Betty doesn’t get much from an Abe.
Even true ideas are hard to share helpfully. Expressing things is hard.
I suspect cliches—abstractions of insights that have occurred to many people over time—are particularly hard to receive without having had a relevant experience yourself.
Without a unique curiosity about our interlocutor, and high ability to articulate our thoughts, we’re faced with a choice of remaining silent, or saying something useless and abstract.
People give totalizing advice, where balanced advice is better. What helped someone else find balance might be an insane overcorrection for you. Fresh out of a state of obsessive parental obedience, Dana says: “never listen to your parents!” But maybe you need to listen to your parents, like, 15% less often.
True-ish but irrelevant philosophical points become distracting rabbit holes. Enrique says: “I’d like to better understand my true values and goals.” A friend responds: “What do you mean by TRUE values and goals? It's all confabulated anyway!” What might have been an interesting discussion of Enrique’s hopes and dreams has become an abstract discourse on the epistemics of introspection and the replication crisis.
Another friend chimes in: “Isn't it relative?” It may be reasonable to point out that people can want different things, but in doing so we may have shunted Entrique into a bramble of untimely philosophical inquiry into the existence of other minds or the subjectivity of value.
It’s not that these questions don’t deserve good answers. They do, and good answers can be provided. But more philosophy isn’t always the most burning need.
There are authentically important and confusing philosophical and psychological questions at play. What is a purpose? How would we know if we had one? I think ‘purpose’ can be operationalized, grounded, and methodically approached—but it took me a long time to get to a framework I found satisfying.
Efforts to ground ideas like ‘purpose’ run contrary to many people’s intellectual instincts. Many materialists and positivists, for example, are on a philosophical project to deconstruct what they see as superstitions about the soul and the self. While I have major disagreements with many versions of materialism, atheism, and positivism, I consider these philosophies mostly worthy of respect and argument—and all that arguing takes time.
‘Purpose’ is cradled in legitimate questions on the nature of man, the epistemics of the self, the structure of the mind, and so on. For some, this will be important—though I suspect most people can skip 80% of it.
People are understandably bitter about the crappiness of available advice. People are habitually misled by parents, by school, by society, and so on. The world is confused and unhelpful on questions of fulfillment and meaning. I saw one person mocking the trope that “the true self is one eurotrip away”.
Out of frustration, rather than philosophy, many people forswear the entire endeavor of self-understanding, and encourage others to do the same.
It’s hard to even know what we’re talking about. One guy desperately wants his friends and family think he's a decent and respectable guy. He calls this ‘having a purpose’. Another guy will follow the subtleties of personal instinct to the gates of Hell, regardless of how others see him; he also calls this ‘having a purpose’. The words are identical, but the ideas couldn’t be further apart.
Mental instructions, even when helpful, are hard to provide. It must be rare, if it ever occurs, for a single introspective event to reveal a person’s whole ethos for being. Even Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad needed several revelations.
At the same time, introspective or psychological work (or mystical contemplation) can help over time—and what helps one person may be useless or harmful to another. It’s exceedingly difficult to say what we mean to say, when it comes to guiding the action of the mind.
I want to be able to provide helpful and positive recommendations on the ‘purpose’ thing, but I thought it could be worth starting by noting the awfulness of the baseline. However little we know about what we should be doing, we’ll get further if we prevent other people’s confusions from taking us off track.
And with that—Zarathustra, take us home.
Away from the market-place and from fame taketh place all that is great: away from the market-place and from fame have ever dwelt the devisers of new values.
Flee, my friend, into thy solitude: I see thee stung all over by the poisonous flies. Flee thither, where a rough, strong breeze bloweth!
Flee into thy solitude! Thou hast lived too closely to the small and the pitiable. Flee from their invisible vengeance! Towards thee they have nothing but vengeance.
Raise no longer an arm against them! Innumerable are they, and it is not thy lot to be a fly-whisk.