So far we have looked at two kinds of factors in choosing a purpose to pursue in society – individual (physical and mental) and environmental (geopolitical and temporal). Today we examine the third class of factors related to purpose – intrinsic or structural considerations. There are five such facets: size, quantity, proportion, measurability, and likelihood of success. While these are affected by individual and environmental factors, they are nonetheless sufficiently discreet for separate analysis.
Size refers to the magnitude of impact and/or persistence one wishes to aim for. Should one follow Lao Tze in refraining from calculated action, thereby facilitating the flow of natural reality or perhaps Voltaire’s Candide who discovered after much searching that one need only tend one’s own garden? Or should one devote oneself to the struggle for world peace as the prelude to future exponential human progress? Each of us must determine for ourselves that magnitude of effect on our community or on civilization that defines sufficient consequence in a meaningful life.
Quantity refers to the number of different societal purposes that offer ample opportunity for aggregate success or that meets our particular standard of self-depletion over a lifetime. This likely changes as one lives longer – consider Ronald Reagan with his changing social roles as actor/entertainer, union executive, politician, world leader, and historical figure. Presumably a meaningful life is more secure with multiple changing and increasingly expansive purposes over an extended lifetime.
Proportion refers to the degree of contribution one can make to a specific purpose. No individual can hope to solve global climate change alone, so purpose is shared and incremental in that endeavor. Meanwhile the great poet typically creates alone and thus secures the value to society of her efforts as an undiluted source of meaning. Tangibility or measurability references concrete or visible outcomes. The administrator of a foodbank can count the number of meals provided to the needy while the philosopher can only speculate on her influence or benefit on current and future readers. Last is likelihood of success, which is fairly predictable for more concrete pursuits such as agriculture, factory work, or construction, but uncertain for creative writing, politics, or scientific research.
A deliberative process based on a careful evaluation of these intrinsic factors combined with a candid assessment of one’s capabilities and tolerance, one’s environment, and one’s beliefs about the trajectory of human history and the ultimate destiny of mankind offers the best approach to perhaps the greatest decision one makes in a meaningful life. It depends on a level of knowledge, maturity, and vision which hopefully one reaches before a final pursuit is selected. This writer can only offer the reader his sincere wish of good luck.
Next time we look at success factors in bringing that choice to fruition.