More on Central Purpose

 Posted by on 9 July 2012 at 12:00 pm  Career, Children, Ethics, Hobbies, Purpose, Work
Jul 092012

In the June 24th episode of Philosophy in Action Radio, I answered a question on parenting as a central purpose. In my answer, I suggested that Objectivists seem to have misunderstood what Ayn Rand meant by “central purpose.” In part, I suggested that based on Ayn Rand’s comments in “The Objectivist Ethics” in The Virtue of Selfishness:

The three cardinal values of the Objectivist ethics–the three values which, together, are the means to and the realization of one’s ultimate value, one’s own life–are: Reason, Purpose, Self-Esteem, with their three corresponding virtues: Rationality, Productiveness, Pride.

Productive work is the central purpose of a rational man’s life, the central value that integrates and determines the hierarchy of all his other values. Reason is the source, the precondition of his productive work–pride is the result.

That was her only comment on “central purpose” in her novels or anthologies. It doesn’t seem to imply that a person needs to have a central purpose in the sense of an overriding theme of his life, as many people seem to think.

Shortly after the broadcast, someone pointed out that Ayn Rand discussed “central purpose” briefly in her interview in Playboy. Here’s the relevant passage:

PLAYBOY: Weren’t Hitler and Stalin, to name two tyrants, in control of their own lives, and didn’t they have a clear purpose?

RAND: Certainly not. Observe that both of them ended as literal psychotics. They were men who lacked self-esteem and, therefore, hated all of existence. Their psychology, in effect, is summarized in Atlas Shrugged by the character of James Taggart. The man who has no purpose, but has to act, acts to destroy others. That is not the same thing as a productive or creative purpose.

PLAYBOY: If a person organizes his life around a single, neatly defined purpose, isn’t he in danger of becoming extremely narrow in his horizons?

RAND: Quite the contrary. A central purpose serves to integrate all the other concerns of a man’s life. It establishes the hierarchy, the relative importance, of his values, it saves him from pointless inner conflicts, it permits him to enjoy life on a wide scale and to carry that enjoyment into any area open to his mind; whereas a man without a purpose is lost in chaos. He does not know what his values are. He does not know how to judge. He cannot tell what is or is not important to him, and, therefore, he drifts helplessly at the mercy of any chance stimulus or any whim of the moment. He can enjoy nothing. He spends his life searching for some value which he will never find.

Ayn Rand’s analysis of the life of the man without a purpose is correct: such a life would be terribly disintegrated. However, I’m doubtful that a person must have one single dominant purpose — a theme of his life that trumps all other concerns — in order to live a rational, integrated, and purposeful life. Instead, my thought is that a person’s ultimate integrating purpose is his own life and happiness. Often, that ultimate purpose will be pursued via three to five major values, such as a career, a spouse, children, and a hobby.

Those major values might not be strongly connected to each other. My passion for horse training and skiing has little to do with my love of philosophy. Paul doesn’t join me in those hobbies either, but he’s hugely important to me.

Those major values will come into conflict periodically. A parent, for example, faces constant choices between spending more time at work versus spending more time with his kids. Sometimes, those choices might be painfully difficult, such as during a major crunch time at work.

Even if a person’s career is most important to him, in the grand scheme of his life, that doesn’t mean that his career will always trump his other major values. I could work more hours, for example, but I choose to spend some of that time riding my horses instead. If my horse Lila were injured, my plans for work for that day would be instantly discarded.

A person might forgo certain career opportunities in order to enhance or preserve the other major values. I wouldn’t ever move to New York City — even if doing so would hugely advance my career — because doing so would preclude my pursuit of too many other values. (Hence, I would be miserable in very short order.)

Ultimately, what should matter most to a person is his own life and happiness: that’s the ultimate purpose that properly integrates all his actions. Beyond that, a person needs to cultivate and identify the major values by which he pursues that life and happiness. He needs to know their relative order of importance to him, in the grand scheme of things. He needs to be sensitive to changes in those major values over time.

To go beyond that — to attempt to intertwine all the disparate threads of one’s life into a neat and tidy bow known as a “central purpose” — seems likely to be unhelpful and perhaps even unrealistic for many people. For them, the result of the attempt is not greater clarity or purpose, but only guilt, worry, and sacrifice of values. Obviously, that’s not good.

Ultimately, the goal should not be to force oneself to think and act in terms of a single unifying central purpose of life. The goal should be to live a rational, integrated, and purposeful life — and I see many ways to do that.

May 232012

In late April, I answered the following question on padding your application:

Is doing activities just to pad you application or resumé dishonest? Some people work on mastering playing the violin, competing in tennis tournaments, learning calculus, and other activities – not because they have any interest in them or because they think they might develop an interest once tried, but rather because they think these activities will look good on an application or resumé. Is that dishonest? Is it unwise?

I’ve already given my answer, but Rachel Garrett wrote up the following comments that I thought pretty interesting and worth posting here. She wrote:

My answer is premised on the idea that you have a purpose and a career that you’re serious about. Peter Keating, of course, was merely into architecture to gain social prestige. So he had no problem with the idea of striving to master badminton (“the game of kings and earls”) in order to kiss up to a potential client. If someone is second-handed in choosing a career, of course they will choose second-hand hobbies that will look good to the clients or colleagues whom they seek to please.

By contrast, I have a hard time imagining a career first-hander pursuing any long-term, systematic course of action (including hobbies) for the sake of a mere resumé blurb or interview talking point. Maybe that’s how they account for the origin of their interest, or they semi-joke about it in conversation (“I’m only doing it for my resumé.”) But calculus? Tennis? Violin? Seriously? I can’t see how that’s practical or effective.

“I’m going to spend hours of leisure time every week keeping advanced mathematics fresh in my mind, working problems, and reading math textbooks and journals — not because I actually want to or because the knowledge is required for my chosen career, but because at the intervals every few years when I change jobs, I think there’s a chance that the line about calculus on the Hobbies/Interests section of the second page of my resumé will make a positive impression on the HR admin who’s screening applications. If I’m lucky, maybe the person who interviews me will also notice it and think nice thoughts about me.”

*sigh* “I guess I’ll go practice that Brahms sonata again. I’m getting good at the solo on the second page. Too bad I don’t actually like playing violin. I hope I get an interview at PharmCo. I heard the vice president of the division I want to work in likes classical music. Maybe if I get interviewed, he will see that part about violin on my resumé and get a warm fuzzy. We might even casually chat about it before we get down to the actual business of the interview. Yeah, that would be real nice. Crap, I’d better buy tickets for the symphony concert next week. I hate to go — there’s a violin concerto on the program — but the VP might mention it as we’re chit-chatting, and it would look weird if I claim to be into violin but hadn’t gone to see that famous soloist when they were in town.”

Let me generalize and take the question less literally. You have an objective need to signal your positive qualities to people who will make decisions about whether they want to be your friend, marry you, hire you, etc. Is it ever OK to engage in activities for the sake of sending the right signal to people who you want to befriend, work for, etc.? I already indicated that I thought this was impractical for learning-intensive, lifelong hobbies. But what about ordinary activities that don’t take that kind of investment? Are they legitimate “padding” candidates? Some of the questions you have to answer are:

1) Are you telling the truth? E.g., are you taking on a nonprofit project in order to showcase organizational skills on your resumé, when in fact you have pitiful organizational skills and it’s your professional Achilles’ heel?

2) What’s your motive for wanting the other person to have this information about you? Do you think they really need it in order to make an objective decision? Does it open up the door to conversations about shared interests and values? Or do you merely want to bask in their approval?

3) If you think you have a positive quality, you must already have supporting evidence from your own life. Why can’t you share that evidence with the other person? Why do you have to take the indirect route? You’re proposing doing an activity in order to have evidence suitable to give to someone else about something about yourself that you already know – it’s circituitous. I’m not saying it’s impossible or improper. But you might be overlooking something or making erroneous assumptions about how well the other person can evaluate you based on already-existing evidence.

Sticking to hiring, here are some further considerations. If you are assessing your professional qualifications, and you realize that you’re deficient in some area, it’s not wrong to look for a volunteer activity or hobby to fill that gap. For instance, volunteering at a local nonprofit might result in developing your leadership or project management skills. Maybe the nonprofit will let you run a big project end-to-end, while at work you’re in a junior, coordinating role under a senior project manager.

But if you are really doing it “just for the resumé,” I would question the wisdom of that. If you want to add an activity or project to your resumé, it’s because you want to show potential employers that you have a particular skill or strength. There’s two logical possibilities:

1) If in reality you don’t yet have that skill or strength, or you haven’t reached your desired level, then you want to develop it. Naturally and secondarily, you’d follow up by putting the developmental experiences on your resumé. But if this is the case, you’re not just “doing it for the resumé” – you’re doing it for development.

2) If you do have the skill/strength already, and you feel that you have to go do something extra outside of work so that people will see it, that’s a red flag. It says that here’s a characteristic that you want potential employers to find in you, but you’re not using it in your current job. You need to find or create aspects of your job that would use that skill. Then you can figure out how to frame it on the resumé.

Thank you, Rachel!

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