When Western society to a large extent was religious, Christianity offered a ready-made framework for meaning and purpose. The promise of an eternal afterlife offers a powerful incentive to live life in a way that contributes to the community you’re part of. Humans have an internal moral framework and religion aligns with that framework in a way that gives most people a set of guardrails that worked well.
When we “killed God,” to use Friedrich Nietzsche’s quote, we lost much of that framework. Instead, we were now forced to create our own sense of purpose and reason for being. Humanism filled that gap by a focus on the individual. The idea is that by focusing inside yourself and seeking to uncover your deepest feelings, emotions and desires, you can get connected to your true self and use that as a guide for making decisions in life.
Of course, one of the main traps is that turning inside yourself may very well lead to a realization that there isn’t much there. There’s no deep, quiet voice telling you what to do. Instead, it may easily become an echo chamber that just repeats the thoughts you’ve been thinking already. That may lead to an amplification of those thoughts and a vicious cycle where negative thoughts simply get reinforced until you start to live in a constant state of despair.
In the worst case, we end up in a state of nihilism where we may conclude that there’s no purpose in anything. That everything is meaningless and that nothing we do will mean anything. This either leads to a state of apathy as there’s no reason to take action as there’s nothing meaningful to accomplish or a state of hedonism where we simply follow whatever our instincts or impulses tell us. When nothing means anything anyway, we might as well focus on immediate pleasure and satisfaction of the senses.
My experience and view are that humans need a purpose. We need to strive toward something. To achieve a goal. To accomplish something that means something. Humans are wired to compete with others in hierarchies to get higher up the food chain. Millennia of scarcity have hardwired a win-lose behavior where we instinctively believe that when someone else gets something, we’ll have to do without.
Many, especially early in their career, are focused on these extrinsic motivators. Getting promoted, making more money, having a bigger car or house, and so on. All these are examples of people focusing their life energy on competing in a win-lose context. And you can keep going on this treadmill for the rest of your life as there’s always a next level to achieve. To use a Dutch saying, the lake is never full.
Most of us have realized the emptiness of the continuous pursuit of a career, money or social status. We need more and, surprisingly, we need a purpose beyond ourselves. When I turned 50, I organized a whole bunch of lunches with people claiming they’d broken out of their comfort zone. Everyone had their own fascinating story to tell, but the common theme was that everyone wanted to die knowing that they’d contributed to making this world a slightly better place for humanity.
For all the talk about competition and outperforming others, in the end we’re innately social beings that want to contribute to the community we’re part of. And in my experience, contentment and satisfaction with that life that you live come from putting yourself in service of a goal and purpose that’s bigger than yourself. We all want our life to mean something and as we’re all going to die, the focus has to be on something outside of ourselves to even have a chance of having a lasting impact.
To make it concrete and provide an example, this is how I think about my purpose. Life is full of suffering. Some of that suffering is unavoidable, such as death and incurable diseases. Other types are avoidable. When we look at the progress humankind has made over the last decades and centuries, we can see that technology has been at the heart of most of it. Technology has changed types of unavoidable suffering into types of avoidable suffering and then developed the tools to remove that suffering from the world. For instance, all of the diseases we were vaccinated against as children used to kill or maim many. With vaccines, we’ve managed to remove that suffering from the world, at least in most places.
Focusing on technology, the digital technologies currently have enormous potential to improve life for humankind. Software, data and artificial intelligence offer endless opportunities to reduce and remove suffering in the world. Just the development of advanced driver support solutions and autonomous driving systems has the potential of saving tens if not hundreds of thousands of deaths in traffic accidents.
In my view, the main problem isn’t the initial development of these technologies, but rather their adoption. As William Gibson wrote, the future is already here; it’s just not evenly distributed. So, my purpose is to do what I can to accelerate the adoption of digital technologies in industry and society. This is why I run Software Center, consult with companies and work with and invest in startups. It’s what I believe is the best I can do to reduce suffering in the world and improve humankind.
It took me a long, long time to get a clear understanding of this and to be able to formulate it. And yet, when I look back, I believe that this has implicitly been my basic drive for a big part of my career. Being able to formulate it explicitly has helped me structure my thinking and my actions to ensure they’re more in line with what I aspire to accomplish and contribute to.
Whether life has an absolute purpose or you view it as meaningless in and of itself, you need to find or select a purpose and define it in actionable terms for yourself. It has to go beyond yourself and something you put yourself in service of. What purpose you choose is entirely up to you, but failing to choose a purpose may easily cause you to waste your life. You need to own it and put your time and energy into it. In the end, your life depends on it. As Richard Leider so eloquently said, the purpose of life is to live a life of purpose.