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Purpose and Motivation Guide

How can we best understand our needs, and set proper goals in life?

Written by
Team Pilot
Medically reviewed by
Last updated
April 3, 2024
min read
Purpose and Motivation Guide
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  • Lack of purpose or direction in life creates a lack of motivation, which translates to a lack of energy and often depression. This is particularly common in young males without families.
  • Maslow’s famous 'hierarchy of needs' sets out the things people focus on in their future, in order of what is most important.
  • Finding something you’re good at – where time flies by when you do it – is an indicator of finding thing you were meant to do. That act is creation, and that often delivers a strong sense of purpose.

Purpose Is The Meaning Of Life

“We come from another place and eventually we will return to that place. In the meantime we have a job to do; a purpose for which to strive.” David Attenborough, talking about elephants

Not many of us seem to think about life in this way, taking this approach will change the way you live.

What Might Our Purpose Be?

1) Create a better world for ourselves

You need to make sure you've got your own house in order, before you look after everyone else, or chaos will ensure.

Essentially, this behaviour ensures that our biological tissue (or, that of our kids) survives another day, giving our genes the best chance to create for others.

2) Create a better world for everyone else

Once you have your shit sorted, turn your attention to the people you can interact with and the things you can create that indirectly affect others. As old mate Steve Jobs says, to "put a dent in the universe".

This, later in life, might also mean direct creation of a family, so your impacts are multiplied biologically, too.

Wait... What If Life Is Meaningless?

Sure, cynical people might suggest life has no meaning. Or like we're living in a simulation. Or that the universe is a dark forest filled with advanced aliens, and we're toast.

This negative philosophy is called nihilism, and sure, you could buy into it.

But a smarter thing to do would be: if life has no meaning, I might as well create my own meaning. And turn life into a bit of a game, with a scoreboard.

And as I go through life, I create things, and score points. And maybe then – if it turns out that this all meant something – I contributed... so that people down the line have a better time.

That's one interpretation of the meaning of life. But sometimes it's better not to overthink this stuff, yeah? Good, let's move on.

Can $$$ be my purpose?

To a point, yes.

When humans aspire to money or possessions, we are often being driven by an innate sense of 'scarcity'. This has much to do with our basic programming as humans, driven by our amygdala (lizard brain), and our 'genetic memory'.

Remember: just two generations ago, most people on the face of this earth did not have enough food to eat, were not literate, and had no running water or electricity. Food on every corner and always on Wi-Fi is a product of the last two decades, a blink in evolution’s eye.

Many people in our society are fixated on trying to overcome their feelings of scarcity by just amassing more money, more possessions and more things.

Now, it's by no means a bad thing to be driven, hungry to create wealth for yourself and your family. Just be aware that wealth does not always equate to a sense of purpose.

The catch is that when scarcity is our primary motivator, we will probably never feel as if we have enough money or things. We will always want for more. We therefore need to find meaning and purpose in life that is based on abundance rather than fear and scarcity.

The Hierarchy of Needs

Abraham Maslow was a legendary American psychologist who, unlike many of his predecessors, wanted to focus on the positive potential of humans.

Others like the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud focused on shortcomings and illnesses, rather than on the higher achievements of human nature. As a consequence, Maslow approached psychology from a very different angle, focusing more on people’s future than on their past. He studied those who had been successful rather than those who had failed and researched the common threads in their outlook and behaviour.

He created this famous diagram:

The famous hierarchy of needs

Reaching the top of the pyramid

Maslow recognised that humans are a wanting animal. As one desire is satisfied, another typically pops up to take its place.

As lower needs are partially fulfilled, we move up the hierarchy of needs to go after those higher needs. If you’re poor, it’s food. If you’re never hungry, it might be love or self-esteem. If you're Elon Musk, it's travel to Mars.

'Self-Actualisation' is the top of the pyramid – once everything else is looked after – where we achieve personal growth and fulfilment. So when you're looking for purpose, you're looking for the top of that pyramid.

Introducing 'Flow'

When people are passionate about the thing they are doing; they enter a state which psychologists commonly refer to as 'flow'. Psychologist and 'father of flow' Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi described flow as the “psychology of optimal experience.”

Artists, sportsmen and bricklayers at the top of their games all report sensations of flow.

How to enter flow

You must meet the following conditions to enter flow.

  1. You're good at what you're doing
  2. You enjoy doing it
  3. You're focussed, and not distracted by other people or things

Why is Flow important?

Flow is a great marker for something that will contribute to a sense of purpose in the world. It's the road to success in any field that requires creation. When you think about people who are masters of anything, you will usually find they are passionate about what they do. They get past boredom and find a way to stay motivated, constantly improving their skills.

When you’re that engaged and focused, you will end up performing far better that people who may have been more naturally talented. Perhaps you have this skill already.

What is one skill you possess that others marvel over but you find easy as cake?


Also known as: doing stuff you don't want to do

If flow is doing the stuff you enjoy, motivation is the act of pushing past what you don't enjoy to get better at it, achieve long term goals and a feeling of purpose.

The human brain can be volatile, and it's worth remembering that some days you’ll feel a positive emotion, some days you’ll feel negative emotion towards your intended activity.

The trick is accepting that fact, and moving forward anyway is a critical skill for any accumulative long term goals. Plus doing the intended thing creates a cycle and forms a habit that increases motivation anyway.

What stops us being motivated?

Psychologists spend hours asking questions, digging away until they reach the 'core' of what is holding someone back. This changes from person-to-person, but it's usually a deep-seated fear that is irrational. For artists and creative people, it's often fear of criticism. For those with social anxiety, it's often social judgement.

But fear and anxiety is powerful motivator if you choose to use it to drive you and not to block you. Sometimes, remembering how things can get worse from inaction at the right times can help push you towards your intended actions.

The Importance of Specific Goal Setting

Once you're motivated towards action, you need to head in the right direction, channelling the energy into your purpose.

Take this example...

Psychologist Luke Vu, PhD outlines why defined goals are a hack for setting direction in this example conversation from his blog.

Conversation 1
Me: "Hey K, what are you planning to do after your degree?"
Mr. K: "I’m not sure, something in music."

Conversation 2
Me: "Hey M, what are you planning to do after your degree?"
Mr. M: "A classical guitarist, and I want to be playing at The Wanderer by the end of the year, not sure how I’ll get there yet. I’m going to try getting a local gig first."

Who do you think will get closer to their goal of being a musician? It's Mr. M, and here are the reasons why:

Setting a failure / success state

When you are specific about your goals, you tend to define 'failure' and 'success' states. Basically, you set the conditions under which you win, and which you fail.

Some don’t like the anxiety of knowing that they could fail, so they don't make the promise... but they miss the point! You might as well harness anxiety to drive you towards a success state.

Motivated attention a.k.a. focus

When you clarify your goals, it diverts your perception of the world into objects, people, relationships and opportunities that relate to that goal. You notice opportunities and patterns, because you've verbalised (or written down) what you're going after, so they're front of mind.

Social consistency

Humans, by our very core programming, like to be thought of as reliable and consistent (these are the very rules under which trustworthy groups of people hung together to trade and help one another). This can be harnessed in our favour – by talking about our goals, we are driven by conditions to 'save face' and act on them.

Support from mates

This one goes without saying, but by verbalising specific goals, you benefit from your network of friends and family who might help, and can act as a sounding board in moments of de-motivation.

Need a bit of motivation or help with goal setting? Talk to a therapist on LYSN.


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