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How does an objectivist discover the purpose of his life (his work, profession)? How can he be so sure of his purpose? Is it possible that an objectivist may abandon his purpose? Is knowing your purpose a necessary condition to be an objectivist?

asked Jan 29 '11 at 16:57

HarPea's gravatar image


edited Jan 30 '11 at 13:27

Greg%20Perkins's gravatar image

Greg Perkins ♦♦


In case you haven't found it, let me point you to a blog post on this topic that I have found to be very useful:


This post is also quite relevant:


(Jan 30 '11 at 15:42) javert ♦ javert's gravatar image

When you know what makes you happy the anwser will be a simple one. I would say. I also have relfected on this. But I asked what is my place on earth instead.

(Mar 21 '12 at 06:22) Sage Sage's gravatar image

It might be helpful to reformulate the question a little. Instead of asking, "How can I discover the purpose of my life," try asking, "How can I choose a central purpose for my life?" This isn't just "nit-picking of technicalities" or "word-smithing." There is a real philosophical difference between the two formulations. The first version implies that "purpose" is some pre-existing phenomenon already "out there" in reality somewhere, and what you need to do is go find it somehow, like trying to figure out what tree it's growing on, or where else it might be hiding. This view reminds me of the evangelicial Christian claim that "God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life; seek guidance from Him to learn what His plan for you might be." It also reminds me of the idea of "destiny," which served as the explicit "wrapper" for the movie, "Slum Dog Millionaire," although that movie also projected a fundamentally benevolent, albeit violent, sense of life in which individual choices and initiative matter and make a difference. (The movie's view of destiny was actually more like, "You have a wondrous destiny waiting for you, but you need to work for it with patience and perseverance, and without knowing in advance what it might eventually turn out to be.")

The reformulated version of the question emphasizes that purpose is something that comes from within, by one's own conscious introspection, choices, and effort to pursue and achieve one's goals.

It must also be remembered that a "central purpose" is an extension and enhancement of the basic need for productive work (along with thinking) to sustain one's life. If one isn't already supporing oneself materially, then one will need to deal with that issue first. In the process, one can ask questions such as: "What am I good at? What skills do I have? What jobs exist that can utilize those skills? What would I prefer to be doing, if not that? What qualifications does my real career preference require? How can I develop those skills? What do I most enjoy doing for productive work? Do I work well with the other people, if any, and/or with customers? Do I like working with colleagues, suppliers and customers? Do I actually prefer a more solitary, deep-thinking kind of work? How well do I understand what I'm doing? Am I learning new skills, insights, and issues to think about? Is all this just idle dreaming, or am I going to do something about it? How can I get started, and when?"

answered Jan 30 '11 at 18:03

Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

Ideas for Life ♦

By 'discover', I meant 'realize'

(Jan 31 '11 at 09:25) HarPea HarPea's gravatar image

Based upon my observations, Objectivists have as much trouble identifying their purpose in life as most people. They do, however, have the advantage of realizing that they need one, and are able to pursue figuring it out deliberately.

Among Objectivists I know who have identified their purpose in life, many of them found it very young (before college) in at least some implicit form, and have systematically been pursuing it since then. For example, I discovered I loved computer programming at around age 8, and it became a major hobby of mine. About when I was applying to college, I realized that it could be made into an enjoyable and lucrative career, and so I was set in my life's work.

I have known other people who were less certain, or who changed their course mid-way. My wife set out to become a nurse, and found, after several years working in the field, that being a full-time mother was a more engaging and rewarding profession. Now that our son is in school, she's starting in on another path (part-time for now, but with a strong likelihood of becoming more). At each stage, though, she had a central purpose, and it focused all her goals and pursuits at that time.

Finally, if a person is new to Objectivism, it is not at all unusual to simply have no idea at first. The entire idea of even having a central purpose is a new, foreign idea, and takes some time to integrate. I don't consider people in that situation to be bad Objectivists, so long as they recognize the issue and are working to figure it out.

answered Jan 30 '11 at 02:53

Andrew%20Miner's gravatar image

Andrew Miner ♦

This is definitely a challenging issue. If I recall correctly, the excellent lecture "God Said" by Craig Biddle discusses the importance of this, as well as techniques for identifying one's productive purpose and pursuing it.

(Jan 30 '11 at 13:31) Greg Perkins ♦♦ Greg%20Perkins's gravatar image

I like Andrew's answer but would like to share another. "How" involves a long process of both introspection and extrospection. A person should know him/herself honestly and accurately, and also the world in which he/she lives. Not to perfect total certainty--that's impossible. There is a context. I would say if you are still dealing with troubling personal emotional issues (or repressing or evading them), it's a sign you haven't yet come to terms and knowledge with yourself yet adequately. You would do very well to get that sorted out first before you try and apply more introspection into your strengths, weaknesses, goals and dreams in order to determine your purpose in life.

I'll share my purpose, which I put into words my freshman year in college (the year I found my first Objectivist club, by the way) and has continued to serve me well into my 40's. And I think it's general enough that it just might work for anyone:

My purpose in life is to create my own dreams, and make them come true.

If you dissect and unpack that sentence, each word has a lot of meaning: CREATE...MY...OWN...DREAMS...MAKE...THEM...TRUE.

I could elaborate on each of them here but that's left for another time and place. I'll second what Andrew said, what seems or feels like a person's purpose in life can evolve or change over time, because we as people do that too (hopefully), within the context of our life as a human being.

answered Jan 30 '11 at 08:20

QEDbyBrett's gravatar image

QEDbyBrett ♦

I'm not the person who asked the question, but I've been thinking about the same thing myself recently. I think your comments about introspection and extrospection are really insightful. However, could you clarify your actual CPL a bit?

The CPL is supposed to be specific enough to allow one to choose between alternative areas of productiveness; to be a "ruling standard of man's daily actions," as Leonard Peikoff puts it. Your statement of your CPL seems (to me) to be too broad to meet this criterion.

(Jan 30 '11 at 18:38) javert ♦ javert's gravatar image

In my case, I have multiple "dreams" I want to pursue. I have ambitions in four very distinct areas of life and work. My central purpose is to make a big difference and achieve fulfillment in ALL of them. So hopefully that explains that I need plural "dreams." It still is a ruling standard, because I can ask myself "what am I going to do today to move myself ahead or closer to my dream in this area?" The perfect day has me moving ahead in all of them, in some way, even slight. I don't always achieve that, but if I'm productive in one area at least it's a good day. Make every day count.

(Feb 01 '11 at 06:06) QEDbyBrett ♦ QEDbyBrett's gravatar image

Thanks for the info. Do you ever find yourself conflicted between these four goals (for example, having to choose to work on one of these goals over the other)? Is it conceivable that you'd come to a situation where you have to pick between achieving two of the goals (i.e., can't have both)? And, do you actually enjoy the work you put into each goal, or is it more a situation of "this work is not that enjoyable, but it'll be worth it in the end"?

(Feb 01 '11 at 09:59) javert ♦ javert's gravatar image

Great questions, javert. As long as your goals aren't inconsistent with each other, or what inconsistent with living life a a rational being, there should be conflicts per se. But there will be trade-offs and priorities. So in many case when I was focused more on family and my primary career (two of my four big purposes in life), then the other two had to be pursued at a much lower level of effort and attention.

(Feb 03 '11 at 22:26) QEDbyBrett ♦ QEDbyBrett's gravatar image

If you are asking about a situation where you have to choose/sacrifice/surrender one major goal for another, for all time, that seems like a very false alternative to me. Unless your goals are mutually exclusive and contradictory to each other, in which case you haven't fully integrated your life and goals with reality in the first place.

(Feb 03 '11 at 22:26) QEDbyBrett ♦ QEDbyBrett's gravatar image

Regarding the enjoyment, I think visualizing and knowing the end goal is a huge factor. There is work, effort, struggle, and pain along the way. But I also believe a rational person knows, acknowledges, accepts, and even embraces that fact. What truly great things were accomplished without great effort and persistence? That realization and self-confidence makes the work a joy in itself, in my experience.

(Feb 03 '11 at 22:32) QEDbyBrett ♦ QEDbyBrett's gravatar image

I really appreciated the detailed answers.

Regardless of whether or not this is working out for you, I don't think it actually fits Leonard Peikoff's definition of a central purpose:

"A central purpose is the long-range goal that constitutes the primary claimant on a mans time, energy, and resources. All his other goals, however worthwhile, are secondary and must be integrated to this purpose. The others are to be pursued only when such pursuit complements the primary, rather than detracting from it." (more in next comment)

(Feb 06 '11 at 21:31) javert ♦ javert's gravatar image


"There is only one central purpose that can serve as the integrating standard of a man's life: productive work." (He elaborates on this, of course.)

These quotes are from OPAR.

(Feb 06 '11 at 21:33) javert ♦ javert's gravatar image

If my central purpose doesn't fit to you then I don't know what to say. I believe it does, clearly. My long range goal is to create my own dreams and make them come true (through productive work). Everything I do I strive to integrate consistently with those dreams (i.e. goals), consistent with reality as I know it, and consistent with life as a rational being as the principles of Objectivism have taught me. If you or Peikoff are saying that one's central purpose should be to engage in productive work, that begs the question--work towards what? I'll check OPAR again out of curiousity.

(Feb 06 '11 at 23:51) QEDbyBrett ♦ QEDbyBrett's gravatar image

Please don't be offended by my comments; I'm just trying to be helpful, and to learn something myself.

When you check OPAR, you'll see that Peikoff claims that one needs one central goal, based around some productive activity; other goals are hierarchically less important. I'd suspect that in your case, this has probably played out implicitly; you most likely have a "bread-winning" career around which you spend most of your time and effort, which essentially functions as Peikoff's version of a "central purpose." Hope you don't mind my speculation.

(Feb 07 '11 at 00:16) javert ♦ javert's gravatar image

You mentioned family as being one of your four big goals. If I recall correctly, Ayn Rand believed that it can be proper to have something that you're not willing to live without, but that is distinct from a central purpose. I believe John Galt felt that way about Dagny, for example, even though Dagny was not his central purpose (that would be mistaken for a multitude of reasons, including second-handedness). I would suspect that, to the degree that you are rational (and if you love your family), your family represents this kind of a value as opposed to a "central purpose" a la Peikoff or Rand

(Feb 07 '11 at 00:22) javert ♦ javert's gravatar image

No offense taken, Javert. Maybe I'm not communicating well enough, or maybe I've chosen too many goals! When I said "family", there is a specific and descriptive goal there; I didn't bother to elaborate on it for everyone here. I have a hard time understanding how a person can truly have only one central goal or purpose in life unless it is fairly broad (e.g. "live a long, healthy, successful life") and not make time and effort for things like family, recreation, friends, etc. Otherwise shouldn't someone spend every minute on their career? So for me, goals in four areas of my life exist.

(Feb 10 '11 at 23:49) QEDbyBrett ♦ QEDbyBrett's gravatar image

Having a central productive purpose doesn't preclude having other, separate goals; so, no, you wouldn't spend every minute on it. It's just that other goals should be compatible with it.

My thinking is as follows. Imagine you were to organize all man's goals as a tree diagram. The top (or "root") would be life (as a man), the metaphysical purpose, and/or happiness, the moral purpose. Below the root would be various goals like family, hobbies, and the central productive purpose. Every goal on the tree is both an end in itself, and a means to the other goals.

(Feb 11 '11 at 19:19) javert ♦ javert's gravatar image

For example, having a family (for some people) and hobbies would go along with enabling your central productive purpose; you wouldn't be very good at it if you're miserable! But it's much more fundamentally the case that the central productive purpose enables all the other values; it allows you to survive, it is your primary source of enjoyment, it's the main thing that occupies your time. If one doesn't give the central productive purpose the "role" it deserves (including the effort to find/define a central productive purpose you love), your life isn't going to be as good as it could be.

(Feb 11 '11 at 19:24) javert ♦ javert's gravatar image
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How does an objectivist discover the purpose of his life (his work, profession)?

Objectivism holds that one's highest purpose is one's own happiness, which is in turn closely associated with productive work. To translate that into a specific occupation involves a process of understanding and assessing your values.

How can he be so sure of his purpose? Is it possible that an objectivist may abandon his purpose?

It's important to distinguish between your highest purpose and a specific "implementation." You can be sure of a specific choice if you're rationally happy. If you're not, then you may want to take a look at your premises, and make sure you have correctly assessed your values.

Is knowing your purpose a necessary condition to be an objectivist?

Knowing that your happiness is your highest purpose is, in my opinion, part of what it means to be an Objectivist. Associating that knowledge with a specific occupation is something that takes effort using Objectivism, so I don't view that as a precondition to being an Objectivist.

answered Aug 03 '11 at 21:56

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Rick ♦

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Asked: Jan 29 '11 at 16:57

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Last updated: Mar 21 '12 at 06:22