When talking about meaning, Victor Frankl notes that one can find meaning through loving others. William Damon suggests that a purpose must include an outward action that benefits something beyond the self. Thus, it is also important to note that we are talking about a positive purpose here. There are some people who feel that they have a negative purpose — in my work with youth, I have had the occasion to meet such people. These are destructive people, those who commit crimes or make the lives of others miserable. They join gangs, sell drugs, and bully others. Extreme version of this expresses itself in mass shootings. The Columbine, Aurora and Sandy Hook shootings are examples of this.
In fact, some people seem to have a talent for doing negative activities. There are criminals who are experts at committing criminal acts. They may even be passionate about their nefarious activities. This is why we define purpose as a “unique, positive purpose.” To be sure, any talent can be used in a negative manner, to bring misery and destruction. But from our perspective, using one’s uniqueness for negativity is an aberration of purpose. Only through using your unique talents, abilities, and passions in a positive and productive manner are you fulfilling your purpose and giving meaning to your life.
The impact that fulfilling one’s purpose can have on the universe is another major motivating factor for embarking on the often-challenging task of purpose finding. Think about, for example, a famous person who is fulfilling their unique, positive purpose in the universe. Nelson Mandela is a good example of this. He was able to take South Africa directly from apartheid to democracy and ensure that there was no violent effect on the country. He created an environment for a peaceful transfer of power. Nelson Mandela exemplifies a person who used his talents and abilities in the most positive manner possible. This singular man changed the destiny of a nation; he took what was a terrible situation and one that could have become nastier and turned it into something potentially wonderful. Nelson Mandela has, thus, become an example for young people all over the world of how to behave in situations of adversity. He is an example of a person who fulfilled his unique, positive purpose in the universe and by doing so, made a massive contribution to the world.
On the other hand, there are many examples of famous people who seem not to be fulfilling their unique, positive purpose in the universe. One only has to look pages of the entertainment news to find many such people. Celebrities with that amount of money, talent, and fame could easily be having a hugely positive impact on young people. Tragically, many of them have chosen instead to have a negative impact. They are not fulfilling their positive, purpose in the universe. If purpose is innate and by following it, like Nelson Mandela, they can have a massively positive impact in the world, than we have a responsibility to find and then fulfill that unique, positive purpose.
Here is an exercise that you can do to try and internalize the concept that you as an individual have a unique, positive purpose in your life. Pick two well-known people who you feel are not fulfilling their unique positive purpose in life. This could include sports people or celebrities or anyone else who you feel are not fulfilling their unique purpose in the universe. Think about how the world would be better off if they would fulfill their unique, positive purpose in the universe. How much of a positive impact would this person have on those around them and on society in general if they would be fulfilling their positive purpose? What opportunities are these people squandering? Wouldn’t they, everyone around them, and the world in general be much better off if they would be fulfilling their unique positive purpose?
Now contrast this with someone you know who is fulfilling their unique, positive purpose in life. This could be a famous person, or it could be someone you know personally, maybe a teacher, a firefighter, or your local doctor. It could even be your parents, brother, sister, or another family member. Whoever they are, think about the contribution they are making not only to their own lives, but to the lives of those around them, and to society as a whole. Think about how the world would be worse off if these individuals were not fulfilling their unique, positive purpose in their life. Think about the difference these two types of people—those who are fulfilling their unique positive purpose versus those who are not—have on the world in general. Ponder the consequences of not fulfilling your unique, positive purpose in the world both for yourself and for society.
Imagine for a moment what the world would look like if everyone would be fulfilling their unique, positive purpose. How much of a better place would the world be? What would such a world be like to live in? Describe that world to yourself. Would you be much happier as an individual? Ask yourself what this says about your responsibility, in fact obligation, to find and then fulfill your own personal unique, positive purpose?