Purpose vs Goals

I’m thinking today about the relationship between one’s sense of purpose in life and the goals one might set in life. I’ve long ago given up the notion that a person has a purpose assigned by some sort of god or by life’s circumstances, but I do think that whatever sense of purpose one has emerges in the context in which one is living. I’ve mentioned in an earlier entry my struggle to decide what to read next, and it occurred to me as I continued to struggle with that question that what I’m after is something like a sense of purpose. To what end am I reading whatever it is that I’m reading.

But deciding this is different from setting a reading goal. A goal is something that one might (or might not) achieve – there’s something like a measurable outcome. A purpose is something that can guide the goals that one sets.

I’m realizing now (more forcefully than I realized it before) that for much of my career my purpose was set by my decision to go into teaching. As I said in this blog several weeks ago, there was a moment in a particular classroom when I looked at the professor walking around the room as he conducted a seminar and thought something very much like “I want to be you when I grow up.” It wasn’t the joy of research that got me into college teaching. Rather, it was the joy of teaching and learning. I realized that I savored the moment when I realized that I understood some difficult concept, and I realized later that I enjoyed being the room when someone else had such a Eureka! moment even more.

Even after moving into faculty development, work in which I engaged with university faculty and graduate students as they thought about the task of teaching, I continued to teach courses myself. Then retirement came. Though I admit that there are elements in teaching that I don’t miss — I’m happy not to be grading papers any more! – there are other elements that I miss. Reading a philosophical text in community with others — whether it was a text that I’d read dozens of times before or one that was relatively fresh to me — was an experience that I found purposeful. And I savored it.

I’ve been thinking that carrying out a reading project in retirement would be facilitated by setting some goals. And goals would certainly help. But what I’m realizing now is that I need to think more carefully about the purpose that gives meaning and context to those goals. I still think Virginia Woolf is right that reading is its own reward, but I want to think more about the nature of that reward.