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Find Purpose by Eliminating What Isn't
Chip away everything that doesn't look like David
Michelangelo famously said, “the sculpture is already complete within the marble block, before I start my work. It is already there, I just have to chisel away the superfluous material.”
When asked about the difficulties of creating the statue of David, he answered, “chip away everything that doesn't look like David.”
Purpose — the question of what am I here for, existentially? — is a lot like a marble sculpture. It already exists, it is up to us, the sculptor, to release it from the unseen.
Meaning vs. Purpose
There are two big questions in life, about life:
1) What is the meaning of my life? If I were a word in a dictionary of universal matter, what is my definition? What does it mean to live? To laugh, to suffer, to cry, to love, to do anything that is within my nature as a human?
Meaning is concerned with Being.
2) What is the purpose of my life? If I were a product, what did my product designer intend me for? What am I meant to do? What is my function in this universe?
Purpose is concerned with Doing.
∴ The relation between Being and Doing is this: Being sets the stage for Doing, and Doing defines Being. Who you are allows for what you can do, and what you do refines who you are.
Being affords Doing, Doing begets Being.
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For example, if I was born with musical talent (e.g., naturally have an ear for pitch), this allows me to learn and practice piano easier than someone who is less musically gifted. Say I went on to practice this until I became a professional pianist — my profession (what I DO) is now part of my identity (who I AM).
In fact, the word “practice” simply means to do: to perform, to employ, to put something into action. It means to refine, like water polishing a stone until it is smooth. Practice, the act of defining purpose, is about putting form into function. It’s about refining your nature, chiselling away at what is meaningless until all you’re left with is things that matter. It’s about bringing structure out or randomness.
Life itself is a practice. Life is the profession of transforming Being into Doing.
Life is a practice
Purpose is not “created”, it is found. In fact, everything that is possible already exists, it exists in the form of potential. You are capable of becoming anything, but not everything. That’s because time is finite and life is series of tradeoff. To practice is to find one path and pay for it with the opportunity of everything else you could’ve become.
To practice — that is, to refine what is already within — is to free your purpose out of a blob of potential. To practice is to free your David out of your slab of marble.
This is also why we say, “hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.” If Being is never put into Doing, if your potential is never employed into practice, David remains trapped inside the marble. Purpose is forever trapped in what you could’ve been.
Find purpose via elimination
“The meaning of life is that it ends.” — Franz Kafka
Because we can not be everything within this lifetime, we must make decisions. That means elimination, that means sacrifice. In A Theory of General Well-Being, I wrote:
“The Latin aphorism, ars longa, vita brevis, describes exactly this: skilfulness takes time and life is short. In order to become anything, you must eliminate everything else — life is about choosing your sacrifices, you don’t get to not make any, but you get to choose which ones.”
You can only create one sculpture, you can not go back in time to reverse a past decision. You can not glue the chiselled pieces back on, but you can keep eliminating.
As morbid as it may sound, keeping in mind that life ends one day is a great way of gaining clarity on what really matters to you. The great task of life is to carve something intentional out of indifferent reality.
To find your David, chip away at everything that doesn’t look like David.
To find your purpose, stop doing things that do not feel meaningful.
“The two most important days of your life are the day you are born and the day you figure out why.”
— Mark Twain
Thanks for reading Pluripotent! There’s good stuff on the way…I’ll let you know when it’s here 💌👇