A Philosopher’s View on Passion and Purpose

When discussing about work meaning and purpose come up often. We asked an expert, a philosopher, to explain why meaning is so important for Grownups .Lauri Järvilehto is a Helsinki based philosopher, writer, trainer  and  an ‘endlessly curious Lego builder of starships’.

Question: As a philosopher what you see behind all this discussion about passion & purpose, finding meaningful work?

There are several reasons to this discussion.

First is that we have now in the West the first adult population that has not factually suffered from war or another big national crisis such as a famine. This has led to the shift of focus in relevant questions from immediate survival to questions of greater human significance. The Generation Y is the first generation that has neither suffered a war nor had parents who have, and who have grown up in relatively significant material abundance. To this end, they do not consider the question of immediate survival and its corollaries such as making ends meet as important as the preceding generations.

The second is that these are universally significant human questions even if we tend to forget them from time to time owing to the pressing nature of daily tasks. We are all going to die one day, and we all wish that at least at that point we would be able to look back and think that our time here has been meaningful. That we have made a difference.

The third reason is that recent research has shown quite emphatically that generating a sense of purpose and meaning not only contributes a great deal to well-being and health, but also to productivity and performance. Here, it is passion that can fuel the discovery of purposeful and meaningful work that in turn can also contribute to generating greater material resources, as is argued by eg. the economics Nobel laureate Edmund Phelps.

Question: From the philosophy point of view, what the age, the lifecycle stage of a grownup, can mean in this context of meaningfulness?

Age is a two edged sword. On one hand, age brings about experience. On the other, it locks us into best practices, which can be detrimental when the world changes. Now, it looks like the world is changing faster each day, and to this end we should find ways to leverage the greater experience without locking ourselves to proceses and practices that are no longer viable. As Eric Hoffer said, “In times of change, learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.”

In a sense, creating a grownup startup culture could be the very key to solving this problem. Combining the startup ethos – high number of experiments, permission to fail, sense of purpose and exploration – with the high experience of a grownup could bring about a best of both worlds scenario. Of course, for a grownup, the volatility of a startup may seem more intimidating than to a twenty-something, and this is why the question of personal purpose and meaningfulness are so important.

Even scary things are worth doing if they are done in pursuit of personally meaningful goals.

Question: How  could a Grownup crystallise his or her passion & purpose? Any methods or tools?

One of the most universally functional methods of figuring out one’s passion is the Vocational Map. It’s a method I originally developed to figure out my own direction, and we have successfully used it with people ranging from high school students to 50+ years old unemployed people. It’s key significance is to switch the focus in everyday life from money or status to the actual activities that you feel are significant to pursue, either because they are fun, interesting or meaningful.

The Vocational Map works like this: first, write down every such activity that you enjoy doing for the sake of itself. This can mean anything from reading to tending horses, from lecturing to playing the recorder. Do not differentiate hobbies and job-related tasks at this point – just write down all possible activities you can think of that you feel worth doing without the need for a reward.

Then, score each activity from one to three. Score three for each activity that you get to do right now as much as you like. Score two for each activity that you’d like to do more. And score one for such activities that you don’t get to do almost at all.

Now this is a map of two things: first, what your vocational life would look like: a life, where every single item on your list gets scored three. And second, where you stand now in relation to that life.

The next step is to figure out how you can produce value for other people from those activities you enjoy for their own sake. A vocational reader and performer might enjoy teaching elementary school children – or work as an actor, for that matter. A vocational horse-rider and car driver might employ herself as a bus driver and ride horses as a hobby in the weekend. And so forth.

Once you have the map laid down, the possible combinations just ten different activities allow is very high, in the range of several thousands. Out of these options, it is practically certain you can discover where you can produce genuine value by doing what you love. And in a market economy, producing genuine value will almost without exception lead to some kind of a transaction mechanism, hence creating the needed material resources you need for your life.

I believe every single person – be they grownups or youngsters – has a vocation.

The vocation is where your passion and the needs of the world intersect.

Lauri Järvilehto, PhD
Extended Mind


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