In this article you will learn:
- Why a strong purpose is the ultimate motivation.
- How to distill your purpose into an emotionally charged anthem.
- How to cultivate your purpose so that it acts as a constant source of motivational fuel.
The Power of Purpose
Authors of Peak Performance Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness write, “For a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers used fMRI scans to examine what happens inside the brain when people are presented with threatening messages. Individuals who were asked to reflect deeply on their core values prior to receiving a threatening message showed heightened neural activity in a part of the brain associated with “positive valuation.”
This positive valuation meant that people who reflected on their core values felt a desire to approach threatening situations as a challenge. In contrast, the participants who didn’t reflect on their core values felt threatened and avoidant of the same stimulus.
This is an important discovery that gives scientific credence to the common-sense wisdom that purpose is a powerful motivator.
Nietzsche said it best, “If you know the why, you can bear almost any how.” Imagine you decided to run a marathon two months from now. Your motivation is to win a $2,000 cash prize. There’s nothing wrong with this motivation, but compare it to this hypothetical scenario: For whatever absurd reason, your family has been kidnapped, and if you finish the marathon, your family will be freed. if you fail, they will be killed.
Obviously, this example is extremely hyperbolic, but it illustrates an important principle. Anyone would run a marathon to save the lives of their family, and while many would attempt to do so to earn a cash prize, not everyone would succeed, that motivation doesn’t have the same visceral power.
In an interview with Julien Blanc, best-selling author Robert Green said that hustlers (he uses 50 Cent as an example) have so much motivation because their backs are against the wall. These people have little hope for a bright future, so they are willing to do whatever it takes to get rich enough to change their destiny.
When you come from a hopeless background, it’s natural to do whatever it takes to succeed. Many of us don’t have our backs against the wall. We are guaranteed a relatively comfortable life in which we don’t have to worry about becoming homeless or getting arrested. Although this is obviously an advantage, there is a downside: it’s easy to be lazy when you don’t have to work hard to avoid a terrible fate.
Because of this, purpose is especially important to cultivate in the modern first world. We live in relative comfort: we have access not only the necessities like food, clean water, and a safe environment, but we also have access to an infinite amount of distraction, varying from easily obtainable drugs to Netflix shows.
The human brain developed over millions of years of evolution. Your brain works essentially the same way as a caveman’s did a hundred thousand years ago; this means the supercomputer between your ears was designed to function in a very different environment from the one we live in today.
The environment our caveman ancestors lived in was incredibly dangerous. Death lurked at every corner. Food was scarce, disease was common, and predators abounded.
Because your brain evolved to survive in a dangerous environment, as far as your brain is concerned, if you are well fed, safe, and reproducing, you’re nailing it. Of course, in first world countries today, we have our survival needs taken care of, and our goals are no longer limited to meeting those basic needs. Yet, our brain isn’t designed to spend energy on pursuing self-improvement, it’s designed to conserve energy and to stay alive.
This means that by default, you are going to feel a lot of emotional resistance to pursuing substantial goals because your brain doesn’t think the exertion is necessary to your survival. Purpose is the counter to this resistance. With a strong enough purpose: a sense that your goal must be pursued at any cost, you can override your brain’s inherent bias to conserve energy. A powerful purpose will essentially tell your brain that your goal is as essential to your survival as food or safety are.
In superhero origin stories, the purpose behind the actions of both heroes and villains is often driven by some traumatic event. Batman, for example, witnessed the death of his parents. This event motivated him to center his life around vigilante crime fighting.
Unfortunately, you’re not Batman. Most real people don’t have a traumatic origin story guiding us towards our goals. For us, our purpose must be developed and reinforced through a constant cultivation of the values that matter most us.
Our purpose is derived from the values we choose to live by. These values are infinitely variable and completely unique to each individual. To develop the strength of your purpose, the first step is to identify the values that you want to guide your life.
Here are some examples of powerful values:
For more, there’s a good list of values on this page: https://scottjeffrey.com/core-values-list/
Now, you’re not choosing these values so much as you’re identifying them. You’re selecting the values that matter most to you so you can bring clarity to your purpose.
The next step for cultivating your purpose is to write a purpose statement. The authors of Peak Performance describe it like this, “Your purpose statement should reflect your customized core values and should be anywhere from one to three sentences.
Here are a few examples:
- Help people discover how they can get the most out of themselves in a healthy and sustainable way, and prevent the next case of burnout, dissatisfaction, and unhappiness.
- Be ready for someone when they need me—because I’ve had so much help and love from other people when I needed them!
- Give the children in my school a clean building.
- Study and understand nature, then give this knowledge to others.
- Be more engaged with my partner.
- Be the best athlete that I can be so that others are inspired to push their own limits.
- Make beautiful art that makes people smile, cry, connect to one another, and connect to the earth.
Your purpose statement is something you can expect to reiterate upon over time, what’s important is that you put something down now that you can work with and improve.
Simply having a purpose statement written down isn’t enough for it to have a consistent impact on your life. Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness made a few useful suggestions for how to remind yourself of your purpose to cultivate it over time.
First, they suggest that you write your purpose on paper and put it in places you will regularly see. This could be on your laptop, on your bathroom mirror, your refrigerator, etc.
Second, they suggest turning your purpose into a mantra, a phrase that you repeat to yourself silently. This habit will help reinforce the importance of your purpose statement over time.
Third, they suggest reflecting on your purpose every night through journaling. Simply write down your purpose statement and reflect on how well you lived up to your purpose each day. The authors also suggest rating yourself on a scale of 1-10 so that you get a sense of progress and competition with yourself throughout this process of journaling.
Using these strategies will help you become increasingly aware of your purpose, this awareness in itself will be motivating. As you routinely remind yourself why you’re pursuing your path, you will develop an emotional charge that will magnetically pull you towards your goal.