A purpose journal 1: the child

influences on life memory professional wellness purpose reflections for professionals Mar 15, 2024
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This post is a personal reflection, not advice or a call to action. It ends with a question and my aim is to provoke your own reflections and perhaps uncover new answers.

Do I have a history of 'purpose'?

How does a child develop an approach to the world that looks like purpose? Adults feed their kids' souls & minds with some kind of sense of purpose. What happened for me? It's tricky at this late stage of life to get a handle on this, but important, because each idea we form, especially early in life, underlies everything that follows. It helps or hinders the task of this moment; we may try to get rid of the influence, but it's always there.

First memory

My first memory is one of wonder, when I saw up close, shockingly, a tiny red Blood Spider on my grandparents' rose trellis. But a memory of 'purpose'? That's more elusive.

Purpose, for me, started to emerge when at school, encountering the world outside the family for the first time. I didn't feel I had to be a teacher or a fireman, just that school was a place where you did something. You learnt. I liked learning; learning sparked a sensation, something I do know I've enjoyed all my life, an almost physical sensation in the brain when some idea connected, or the smell of a problem that was within grasp.

So a first sense of purpose was 'to learn' in a very fundamental, undirected, way.


Is that sense of purpose still active? Does it underlie everything I do? Is that notion, of learning as purpose in itself, true for me? And has it been fulfilled?

That's a tough set of questions. I've had the opportunity to interview thousands of people and sometimes explore a notion of purpose with them. For some people the primary sense of purpose was clear and set early. To paint. To dance & sing. To act. To make.To solve problems. To win. The arts seem to come first, when we're connecting to our body and soul.

For others, it was to make things right. They had experienced an imbalance, an injustice of some kind early in their lives. 'Things right' could turn into law, medicine, accounting and the professions. For others it was to fight for something good, which translated into military or political life.


I'm thinking out loud (on the page) here, trying not to take anything for granted; perhaps my lists & connections above don't ring true for you. Memory & our own formative years are tossed around by life, by our parents and friends who fabulate for us, tell us our stories as they see them. We absorb those perspectives and the weight of desire behind them. Purpose feels easier to fumble than fix. 

And so our sense of purpose is rarely pure. It's weighted and shaped by those influences. My parents' education was disrupted. Does that mean they idealised 'learning' and I simply picked up on this? If they had been gardeners would I now be a horticulturalist or a spider breeder? We all have that question, especially at our turning points. We don't all address it. The question of nature vs nurture is wrapped up in there somewhere, though I think there are other dynamics at play too. The moment when purpose is first framed, when you get that feeling that there is a thing - a nameable thing - to do in life, and it's clearly the best thing for you to do, that moment you frame your future is the result of past. It results from the people who matter, other unremembered experiences, natural ability, and language.

That fundamental purpose is first based on a child's language, feelings and capacity to experience. Should we dismiss it in favour of something more developed, more 'sophisticated'?

Sharp memories

Other memories matter. I was able to read and write quite well when I was very young, and soaked up everything I could. I was once challenged by a friend of my parents to spell a difficult word. Exaggerate. (I think I was six years old.) Talking to myself I said, 'well, it starts with (the sound) 'x''. She stormed off! Saying 'don't be ridiculous, no word starts with x!'

I knew that! She hadn't let me finish. That event was a very long time ago, that's the memory I had and the memory I've retained. No one else has that memory. No one else could verify it. I never had the chance to revisit it with her as an adult. It was formative also of a sense of unfairness which can still trigger me, not just for myself but for others. It might have turned my approach to learning towards those areas where you could demonstrably be 'right'. Like maths and sciences, which I ended up doing at University.

Who knows?

The answer to the source of our sense of purpose is not a calculation after all. I now know that being right, even in the sciences, is more elusive than I thought. Being wrong is necessary!

So how can I use this reflection to help with my question of purpose, now that Shakespeare's allocation of 'three score years and ten' is almost up?

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