Why Searching for Purpose is a Danger to Millennials
“There comes a point on man’s search for meaning where he realizes there are no answers and he either accepts it or kills himself”
Man’s search for meaning is a long arduous journey that ends in the dismal realization there is nothing. This can be enchanting but not without months of torturous contemplation. For better or for worse, this journey has come to define the millennial generation, a group of young adults who were force-fed higher education with uncertainty as to why or what to do next.
What truly catalyzed Millennial’s Search for Meaning was the hordes of internet influencers, business persons, and artists who touted the value of following your ‘innate passion’ and ‘god-given purpose.’ With the ubiquity of media, this message became saturated among the generation and the sole life quest for millions.
“What is my god-given purpose” some would ask, and wonder, and start to look.
Unfortunately, there’s nothing to find. If you dig deep enough, be it through philosophy or science, you reach the same conclusion: there’s no innate reason to the universe, why we are here, and there are certainly no answers as to why each individual is here.
Anyone who’s taken this quest and appropriately asked enough questions when the questions are due will agree with this: it’s a random and absurd existence we have, and most everything else is our attempt to make sense out of it.
As stated, Man’s search for meaning generally begins with one’s desire to find their individual purpose and arguably what kind of life that individual wants to lead.
For some on this quest, they identify an activity they really enjoy such as basketball and call it quits there. Shooting a rubber ball into an iron circle is their purpose. They see it fit that it is the reason for the universe, it is the reason why billions of particles from the stars coagulated into human flesh. To shoot ball.
Beyond my pretentious analysis here, there’s actually nothing wrong with finding something you love and owning it as your life’s purpose. One will actually avoid a lot of pain if they let their quest for their purpose end here because if they keep asking questions about what it is and why it is, they’ll just get to a dark dark place (but I think it’s deeply worth the struggle + adventure, sort of).
Supposing someone wants to quest beyond that initial jolt of fun they had on the court, this is their likely quest: The short version is that they continuously ask questions until eventually, there are no more answers. Consider this example representative of the millennial quest.
Suppose a young man might love to cook, he loves it blindly, but just having fun cooking isn’t enough for him, he wants a life of deeper meaning, his job is fun but he wants to make contributions to the world. He’s read enough through the media these days to know you should follow your purpose, so he’s started to think about it more deeply.
On his commute home, his brain will start running and may say, ‘I cook, I make good food for people, it is fun, but what’s the point? Does food really make a contribution? why is cooking food important?’
From this, his answer might be, “Well, food is really good. People come to this restaurant for special occasions. They celebrate birthdays around my cakes. They enjoy graduations around my steaks. I bring families together. I make people happy... but why is this not enough?”
Continuing down this path, he may continue to probe, “But what does that serve? Happy families mean better relationships, a happier world. For what? What are we being happy for? Why do we have to be happy? Why is it a good thing to be happy? What’s wrong with other emotions? My work makes families happy, but are the passing stars affected by that? What about humans as a whole? Happy or sad, the universe remains unchanged. Nothing in the universe says to be happy. Why are we even here? How is our being happy important to the universe?”
Quickly, our young chef friend is walking in circles of confusion.
Thinking deeper, he reaches a conclusion that seems to be objectively true that is constructed by biology and science, “Okay, while the importance of happiness is unclear, we at least need food to survive, I help people survive. By eating, we prevent death. I keep people alive.”
After a few moments satisfaction, though, he would stop and think… “but why do we survive? What is the point of surviving? What are we surviving for?”
For a moment, he thought he had it figured out. Unfortunately, though, just more questions. Very quickly, our neighborhood chef’s quest to find his purpose in the universe has turned into a quest figuring out the purpose of humans.
He wonders why we have a biological disposition to eat food and prevent death. We are surviving for something, I mean we clearly want to survive and not die. But why? He studies evolution and learns that all of our most primitive and foundational motivations as people are to survive. But why? He considers how we live in an advanced society with coffee shops. Big cities with fancy suits and cool shoes. Everyone waking up every day to go build companies and products for seemingly… no apparent reason. What is it all for?
This question and quest will begin to eat up our young chef friend. It bothers him that there is no reason for everything. There’s conflict in his heart. Friction waiting to be released, what is the answer?
As this continues for months, to years, our chef friend has begun trudging his feet to work. Making food makes no sense anymore. Why are we eating? Why do we want to survive? What was once a fulfilling fun job, now seems pointless, he sometimes wishes he never asked for something deeper.
Despite this all, he keeps showing up to work believing that he will soon find an answer, and it will all make sense. Unfortunately, this will not be the case.
Eventually, our chef friend will look far enough and wide enough and realize he’s not alone in his quest. He will discover many famous movies and songs had been relating to the same pain and the same question this whole time. He will learn many of the great philosophers became great by discussing this question.
He will realize humans have no significant role in the universe. He will realize religion is man-made and there is no god. He will realize we are alone, a random creation of chance by chemicals isolated to a rock floating in a vast darkened abyss of space. He will realize that he will live and then die and only be a microscopic smear on the timeline of the universe.
He will consider that humans themselves are an irrelevant development, likely to be extinct at some point, no more relevant than the development of wheat on earth. He will consider the universe, being finite or infinite, neither of which is comforting. He will consider his own life and consciousness, either it ends or goes on forever, again, neither of which is comforting.
Remembering what began as an innocent desire to find his purpose, our young chef friend has come to the only conclusion that exists for those who embark on the journey of purpose: there are no answers.
One simply cannot start with that goal and not end up at these conclusions as long as they honestly follow truth and objectivity.
These are not pleasant conclusions. I am aware. People grapple with this in a lot of ways. Usually, for most, it’s definitely a wave of depression at first. How can anyone be motivated to show up to work when nothing matters?
Phasing in and out of this, one usually comes to an optimistic outlook and says, “okay, there is no meaning or purpose to me, to humans, or to the universe, that sucks but this just means that I can create my own purpose… What do I care about most?”
As one who’s done this, this is an appropriate reaction I think, but there is a grave mistake that can be made here. When I realized there was no meaning to the universe, I chose to create my own, the big flaw though, was that I tried to delude myself that what I cared about was the meaning to the universe instead of what I had generated for myself.
This is like building a house of cards. There’s no real foundation to it. When I ran this process, I determined bringing people together and reducing conflict was more important than anything. This motivated me, but I tried to lie to myself, I tried to tell myself this was the meaning of life, that this was the end all mission for humans as a collective.
A noble goal but deep in my chest, I was still hollow and unmotivated. This is because no matter what I told myself, deep down, I knew there was no meaning. I was lying to myself and I knew it.
As a recommendation to those on this quest, one must boldly and courageously accept the truth: you can have goals, motivations, and activities you love, but there will never be a reason to any of it, there will never be a higher purpose or meaning behind anything you do.
That’s hard to swallow but thankfully, one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century tackled this pain with incredible precision making it easy to sleep with, sort of.
Albert Camus’ career had been defined by grappling with randomness, absurdity, and the meaninglessness of life and the universe. Most famously, Camus once wrote a short story that investigated the core discovery we (and millions of millennials (and others)) have made above: there is no meaning or higher purpose to anything.
The story was called the Myth of Sisyphus. As it goes, a man named Sisyphus is banished by the devil to push a rock up a hill for the rest of eternity. The twist in the story is that Sisyphus never makes it to the top of the hill as the boulder continuously rolls down, essentially banishing Sisyphus into the most torturous of punishments, an eternal task that plays host to no meaning and no progress. An eternity enslaved to a fruitless task. You can see where this is going.
Camus symbolizes Sisyphus and the boulder as representatives to all of human existence. He says humans live no differently. He argues that we spend a lifetime existing for no apparent reason. We go through the motions of surviving but we don’t entirely know why and that that is no different than the boulder. We just exist aimlessly with no progress.
Depressing, a bit. However, in the story, Camus provides a frame of mind for Sisyphus to find some degree of contentment in life, it is a realization that Sisyphus has no alternatives to the meaningless life/banishment he has received.
As is quoted, “Our fate only seems horrible when we place it in contrast with something that would seem preferable,” and that, “one must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
Camus says that, while we are stuck living in a meaningless world, it is only miserable if we compare it to a preferable way to live. In other words, a meaningless world only sucks when we imagine the alternative of a meaningful world, but since we cannot control the universe, a meaningful world is not an option, so we have no alternatives. Therefore, when stop fantasizing about mythical alternatives to your life, you will start to accept what you have.
This is a profound mindset and critical to every purpose seeker.
When I first heard this story, it gave my life exactly what Camus had outlined, contentment. I could even extrapolate it out to other life moments such as, for example, if I was stuck on a smelly crowded bus. Once there, on the bus, my discontentment would only begin with my wishing it wasn’t smelly or crowded i.e. an alternative I didn’t have.
Camus’ philosophy gave me not just calm in the face of existentialism but even more so an all-around improved quality of life. For all millennials and those seeking a higher meaning, this story, I believe, is the pinnacle of living with the meaninglessness of it all.
Unfortunately, though, I began to feel the weight of Camus’ philosophy began to wear off on me after about six months. Camus had a good point, the only option we have is to live in this reasonless world, but to me, that didn’t get me motivated about that reasonless world.
Having a job, going to work and going through the day still to me seemed like a meaningless endeavor just to have money to feed myself so I can continue existing. I still kept asking myself, I know I don’t have an alternative but I am literally just living each day with the goal of maintaining my personal existence.
For what? What did it matter if I existed or not? At the end of the day, it didn’t matter. I could survive and contribute to humanity, write books and make art, but it always came back to the thought, ‘so what?’
For me, this sense of meaningless accelerated while traveling abroad in Peru. Every tourist and backpacker around me was hustling every day to see lots of Incan ruins. Or, to me, rocks.
I could not muster the motivation to care. I kept asking myself, “what does it really matter if I see this rock or that rock? They are cool and unique, they tell a story, but really, who cares?” Even with the Myth of Sisyphus in mind, I was, for days, waking up lethargic half hoping I’d die to just end the existential misery I was living.
It got to the point where I began to Google how certain philosophers, who had reached the same conclusions that I had, had never killed themselves.
It became clear to me that there is a fundamental flaw in the philosophy presented by Camus in the Myth of Sisyphus. Camus posits that there is no alternative to this reasonless life we experience.
And then, I realized there is one alternative, actually. To kill yourself.
So while this is certainly not a politically correct conclusion, it is the truth. Purpose seekers are truth seekers. For one to come this far, they will have had to have admitted, by logic and honesty, religion is man-made. For a truth seeker, the truth is the utmost and absolute bar all things should be held to. And in this case, the truth of the matter is that in life we actually have two options: accept the reasonless world or kill yourself.
That’s why I argue the quest for meaning is dangerous. For any honest purpose seeker who puts truth first, this is the crossroads they will reach one day. If one considers everything on the table objectively, this is where they will arrive. It’s just how it goes. You don’t have to be a brilliant genius, it’s laid out pretty clearly.
To the original point, considering that millennials are flocking to purpose-driven lives by the millions, it’s a frightening consideration to know that if they remain honest to themselves, millions of them will arrive at this conclusion and reach a frightening crossroads.
But the thing is, this is the end of the road. This is the conclusion of it all, the final crossroads, and it’s kind of freeing because you kind of in a way do figure it out.
When I approached this, I asked myself boldly: “am I going to kill myself? Is this an activity I realistically see myself doing?”
The answer was no.
With killing myself taken off the table, it circled me back to the mindset of Sisyphus: there are no alternatives. If killing oneself is not a real option, then there is once again one option, to accept it. And in a twisted way, it kind of sets you free, and you’re like, “okay, well then, I guess I might as well make it not suck if I am going to stick around.”
It’s a dangerous conclusion, though, because the alternative to kill oneself is never gone. One can always re-evaluate the crossroads. In reality, you will just live the rest of your life standing at that crossroads. But something I urge to anyone reading this is that if that’s a legitimate alternative you consider, know that it is permanent and there is no going back.
For me, it wasn’t realistic. I think in this world, even if we are deeply alone, there is much to live for. I think being alone in itself is something beautiful to live for (and I have written about it here and how to thrive in solitude).
One of Camus' main points essentially argues that meaninglessness isn’t bad and that it shouldn’t even be a perception battle you have. Instead, it’s like having a blue sky versus a green sky, whatever that outcome, it shouldn’t effect how you live your life.
However, as someone who’s gone through this mental warfare now, I know how hard it can be. It isn’t a logic battle sometimes. Never forget the toughest moments become what help us shine most down the road, even if the road is unclear. As I mention in another piece, no one said thinking differently and seeing the world differently would be easy.