Mission: defects and obstacles

This page is outdated. The text below is from the first, 2007 draft of Meaningness. My understanding of the material has changed since then, and the style I write in too. Someday I would like to rewrite this; but I hope the 2007 version may be adequate for now.

The two aspects of mission—the fixation of higher purposes and denial of mundane purposes—both cause unnecessary suffering.

Fixating a higher purpose causes suffering in the search for it, suffering if the one you “discover” is bogus, suffering as you overlook other opportunities, and suffering as its suitability wanes. Denying mundane purposes leads to unrealistic actions, neglect, ineffectuality, failure, and consequent pain for oneself and others.

When events make these defects obvious, they become obstacles to maintaining the stance—however committed to it you may be. Like all confused stances, mission is inherently unstable. It typically alternates with mission in our lives.

Finding your mission is, apparently, difficult. Some people devote enormous amounts of time and energy in searching for it. This can last years, or for a lifetime. At times, you believe that you have gotten “signs,” or have had flashes of profound insight, and perhaps have even finally discovered your true mission. Then you are excited, and you pursue that mission. But in a few months, you don’t seem to have made much progress, and “God wouldn’t have given me a purpose if he didn’t mean me to make progress, would he?” Maybe you misidentified the purpose.

Or maybe you’re just not up to the task. Or maybe you’re being weak and dithering when you should be pursuing your mission. Perhaps you should whip yourselve into pursuing it harder. So you do that for a while, but then suddenly find you can’t remember what your mission was after all. Maybe you weren’t meant to follow this path after all? You look back in your diary to see what you wrote down when you had the revelation, and it seems to fall flat. Why did you think that was your mission? Why doesn’t the Cosmos give you another sign? Oh, misery. It must be time to do some intensive psycho-magical work again.

Mission is a scam. It is inherently selfish: it is about “the perfect rôle for me,” not about “things that need doing.”

Authentic eternalism frees you from the responsibility of choice. Mission wants freedom from eternalism’s imposition of higher purposes, but simultaneously to preserve certainty by avoiding choice. The myth that you can discover your mission rather than choosing it (existentialism) or accepting it (eternalism) is a sleazy attempt to have it both ways. It allows you to pretend to be in accord with the eternal ordering principle, but it’s really all about self-righteousness and self-justification while doing as you please.

Fortunately, it doesn’t work.

The reason you can’t finally find your mission is that there is no such thing. That is not to say that higher purposes are not meaningful, but that they are nebulous. Accordingly, there is no higher purpose that is inherently and permanently the single one you should pursue. If you search for that, confusion and disappointment are certain. Then you are liable to fall into nihilism, concluding that there is no purpose to life after all, and perhaps become suicidally depressed. Or you may fritter away years doing things you know to be meaningless, paralyzed and anxious, waiting and hoping that your mission will finally reveal itself. At best, you may jump back to materialism when mission shows no progress. At least, with materialism, there clear cause-and-effect involved, no unreliable psycho-magic is required, and you can tell if you are getting somewhere. Besides, you’ve got to eat.

Imagining that you have found a mission can quite as bad.

If a supposed “mission” is sufficiently concrete, it becomes a practical project at which we can succeed or fail. Then if you complete your mission successfully, what else is there to live for? If you fail at it conclusively, what else is there to live for? You supposedly had only one mission; you’re all used up.

If the supposed mission is not sufficiently concrete, it is no guide to action. People often come up with “personal mission statements” like “I will always live in complete integrity for the benefit of others.” An attractive sentiment, that, but useless.

The “non-ordinary methods” used to find “authentic missions” examine your psychology: both what you “truly” want to do (“in your heart”), and on what your resources are (talents, personality traits, and so forth). But the problem with psychology is that the self is nebulous: insubstantial, ambiguous, changing.

If you follow your psychology, your idea of what your mission is may change every few months—or even moment to moment. But a mission is supposed to be the guiding principle of your entire life. Frequently changing your ideas about your mission avoids both failure and success. Avoiding failure preserves the comforting illusion that you will eventually find your mission for real, and then everything will come out right. But avoiding success means that you drift or bounce from one project to the next without ever accomplishing anything of significance. You are led like a pig with a ring in the nose by the rope of your ever-changing psychology.

The idea that you have one definite mission that you can definitely discover can lead you to seize on something quite wrong and pursue it with far greater determination than it deserves. I once acted as a business consultant to Fifi, who had decided that her mission in life was to create the world’s first mobile beauty spa. She was going to outfit a large motor home as a combined live/work space. She would park it in downtown financial district parking lots, sleep in the back, and offer services out of the front. Fifi’s own expertise was in color consulting (advising people on what color clothes to wear). She recognized that this business didn’t require the use of the motor home; she could, and did, color-consult in her clients’ own homes or offices. So she would hire make-up artists and masseuses to create the actual business. She presented this as a glorious vision of selfless service to unmet needs of busy female executives.

During the development of a detailed business plan, it became at each step more obvious that this project was stupid. The world does not need a mobile beauty salon—and neither did Fifi. Mobility produced no significant convenience benefit to potential customers; it was not a cost-effective way of providing the services; there were government regulatory problems with using parking lots as a place of business; a motor home large enough to both live and work in was unreasonably expensive. But she was convinced that this was her true life’s purpose. Fifi herself was not stupid, but she was using the myth of mission to avoid having to genuinely look at her situation. In fact, her “vision” was an incoherent fantasy based on a mishmash of unrealistic solutions to problems in her personal life: conflicts and disappointments in her housing and work situations.

Even if the mission you fixate on is initially sensible, over time it can diverge increasingly from the reality of what you can do, what you want to do, and what is useful, due to the nebulosity (ambiguity and mutability) of both yourself and your circumstances. If your life’s mission is “to elevate the world’s consciousness through song,” and you develop nodules on your vocal cords that make singing impossible, then what would be a serious practical set-back for a materialist becomes an existential catastrophe. If your life-mission is “to bring the benefits of natural herbal remedies to everyone who is ailing,” then you have a more serious problem than a career change if herbal supplements go out of fashion or are banned by the government.

Paul Graham’s insightful essay “How to Do What You Love” has this advice:

Don’t decide too soon. Kids who know early what they want to do seem impressive, as if they got the answer to some math question before the other kids. They have an answer, certainly, but odds are it’s wrong.

A friend of mine who is a quite successful doctor complains constantly about her job. When people applying to medical school ask her for advice, she wants to shake them and yell “Don’t do it!”… How did she get into this fix? In high school she already wanted to be a doctor. And she is so ambitious and determined that she overcame every obstacle along the way—including, unfortunately, not liking it.

Now she has a life chosen for her by a high-school kid. [That is, her former self.]

Identifying a single mission can be helpful in bringing focus to a difficult long-term project. But it also means you may overlook other opportunities that could be pursued in parallel. The careers of highly-productive and highly-creative people are usually marked by opportunism, in a positive sense: they change directions repeatedly when their interests and circumstances change. That keeps them from getting stale, and makes the best use of their abilities and alternatives. That is the way to dance with nebulosity and pattern.