May 20, 2008

What is a central purpose in life?

[Jan. 31, 2011. My latest and final version of this post appears in the "What is a central purpose in life?" section of the Appendix to my latest book, The Power and the Glory, described here:]

In the first scene of Ayn Rand's novel, The Fountainhead, the protagonist, Howard Roark, stands on the edge of a cliff, preparing to dive into the lake below. As he looks at the world around him, elements of his central purpose in life (CPL) come naturally to mind. He sees granite, to be cut into walls. He sees a tree, to be split into rafters. He sees iron ore, to be formed into girders. In fulfilling his central purpose in life, he will take these elements and build homes and businesses. Howard Roark's CPL is to bring into reality his form-and-function designs of buildings.

Ayn Rand's CPL was the "presentation of an ideal man" in various forms of literary art--a prose-poem, short stories, plays, movie scripts, and novels.[1] At age 50, two-thirds of the way through her life, she fulfilled that purpose to the maximum degree with the publication of Atlas Shrugged. In that novel, the protagonist is John Galt, a complete portrayal of her ideal man as well as the basic elements of "the philosophy that made him possible."[2] At that point she re-examined her CPL. She decided to devote the remainder of her life to defending that ideal by further developing and then speaking and writing about the underlying philosophy, a philosophy of reason.[3] In my view, the essential elements of her CPL--portraying the ideal man--remained the same, and only particular activities changed. She continued to portray the ideal man but, as she had all along, by functioning as an ideal man in terms of the philosophical values and virtues of her own philosophy.

For a third example, consider a particular student of intellectual history. He defines his CPL as telling success stories from history. By doing so, he brings together tasks such as research, outlining, writing, and editing. He moves from project to project, from book to book, or article to article, but his CPL subsumes all of them.

THE NATURE OF A CPL. First, a CPL is a statement of action. It takes this form: "My central purpose in life is to ...," followed by an action word (for example, "design," "portray," "tell," or "write") that names a form of production. What is being produced? Something of high value to the producer and, ideally, to others in society who might wish to buy the product.

Second, a CPL is an abstraction, one that subsumes and integrates the many particular productive tasks in which a man engages to support his ultimate purpose in life, happiness. A simple metaphor for the relationship between a man's ultimate purpose and his CPL is a great tent, which is a life of happiness. Its main (but not only) tent-pole is his CPL. Other high purposes holding up the "tent" might be social relationships and a favorite leisure activity. Howard Roark loves designing and constructing buildings. He loves Dominique Francon and befriends Mike the construction worker. When time permits, he enjoys swimming.

Third, while the need for a CPL is philosophical--applying to everyone, everywhere, at all times in history--a particular person's formulation of his CPL is a personal statement, that is, it is tailored to (1) who he is as an individual, (2) what he wants to do, and (3) the world in which he lives. (A CPL is objective when it is drawn logically from all three facts, though the initial trail leading to its formulation might be a strong, persistent, positive emotional response to certain sets of activities that he later learns to state abstractly.)

Fourth, and ideally, a CPL should provide an income, thus paying one's way through life, at some level. Carpenters, architects, and some fiction writers earn an income from implementing their personal CPLs and selling their products--their labor, designs, or novels. However, for some CPLs, such as writing poetry, there may be too much competition or too little demand to provide a sufficient and steady income (at least during the first decades). In such cases, the passionate valuer might hold an intermittent, part-time, or full-time "day-job" to earn enough money to meet his minimal needs, while devoting as many hours as he can to the work he loves. A poet, for example, might work as a warehouseman because: he can mentally walk away from the job at the end of each workday and then devote his attention to his poems; he can work limited, predictable hours, freeing time for his art; and his warehouse skills are easily transferable elsewhere if he decides to move. On the other hand, a man who loves reading and critiquing poetry, but not writing it, would not need a "day job," but could develop a financially rewarding CPL as a full-time university teacher of poetry.

WHAT A CPL IS NOT. First, a central purpose in life is not primarily a statement of being, but a statement of doing. Of course, for convenience in communicating with others, a CPL might initially be stated most concisely as being a certain kind of producer: an architect (who designs and constructs buildings), a soldier (who destroys his country's enemies), a carpenter (who manipulates wood to fit human needs), or a doctor (who treats illnesses). However, a full statement of a CPL should identify the essential (causal) productive activity: portray, tell, write, construct, and so forth.

Second, a CPL is not merely a career, which is an ever-more demanding progression of jobs (or projects). A physician might progress from general science student, to medical student, to intern, to physician in private practice or a staff position in research or administration. That progression of jobs is a career. Each job, in turn, includes a combination of particular tasks such as diagnosis, treatment, report writing, and leadership. As an abstraction, a CPL subsumes the particulars of career, jobs, and tasks but it is not any one of them. As a broad abstraction, a CPL subsumes a vast number of details in a variety of circumstances and potentially over the span of one's life. In this sense, having a clear, concise, objective CPL is a tool of integration--that is, of finding "the one in the many."

Third, a CPL is not a statement of philosophical values or virtues. "Act rationally," "integrate logically," and "solve 'mysteries' in life" are not proper statements of a CPL, but identifications of what everyone needs to do in order to achieve his CPL and other purposes in life. A CPL is a personal, possibly unique, statement of productive purpose, a purpose that need not be attractive to anyone else.

CRITERIA FOR FORMULATING A CPL. What criteria should a CPL meet if it is properly formulated? First, it must be objective, that is, drawn logically from the facts of who you are, the nature of the productive activity, and the nature of the world in which you live. Second, as an abstraction, it must be broad enough to subsume a variety of circumstances, activities, jobs, and perhaps even more than one career. Third, it must be an active statement that you can expand or shrink as you need from moment to moment. A long-form statement should be specific enough to help you start planning the main steps of your career. A short-form statement of the same CPL will help you recall it quickly and thereby help you "refuel" and keep yourself on track in moments of turmoil, fatigue, or temporary loss. Fourth, it must be ambitious enough to make you "stretch" to fulfill it, but feasible enough to offer a probability of success. (If you do not succeed at your CPL, you will not be happy, though you might still earn second prize, which is the great satisfaction that arises from knowing you did everything you could have done.)[4]

A central purpose in life is not all of life, but it is the core of life.[5]

Burgess Laughlin
Author, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith

[1] For Ayn Rand's statements of her central purpose in life: The Romantic Manifesto, pp. 161 and 163 (hardback), in Ch. 10, "The Goal of My Writing." Ayn Rand also used the terms "portrayal" and "projection," apparently as synonyms of "presentation." In the title of the chapter she speaks of a "goal," and in the main text she speaks of "purpose," "first cause," "prime mover," "motive," and "ultimate literary goal." For me, here is an unresolved problem: What is the distinction between the ideas named by the words "goal," "value," and "purpose"? Do they all refer to essentially the same thing--something we want that requires action to achieve--but perhaps as seen from different perspectives? Or do they refer to essentially different things? I do not yet have an answer. I welcome one. [2] For the comment about Atlas Shrugged completing her ambitious literary quest, see her biographer's description, from which I have quoted: Jeff Britting, Ayn Rand, pp. 87-88 and 91. (Available from The Ayn Rand Bookstore.) [3] For the change in Rand's CPL: Britting, Ayn Rand, p. 92. [4] For Ayn Rand's distinction between happiness and satisfaction: Mary Ann and Charles Sures, Facets of Ayn Rand, pp. 74-76. (Available from The Ayn Rand Bookstore.) [5] For Ayn Rand's comments on CPL and subjects related to a CPL, see the entries for Purpose, Productivity, Career, Ultimate Value, and Happiness in The Ayn Rand Lexicon. (Available from The Ayn Rand Bookstore.)


C. August said...

I'm intrigued by this idea of CPL, and in thinking about it I'm trying to anticipate how I would use it in my daily life. You mentioned in your CPL examples Howard Roark and Ayn Rand. Because of my knowledge of them I can easily see how their CPLs, as you presented them, were translated into action and how those actions furthered the realization of their stated values.

In your third example, you mentioned a "particular student of history" who defines his CPL as "telling success stories from history."

Based on the rest of the post, I can see how this CPL fits into the framework you developed. It indicates action, rather than being a broad "statement of philosophical values or virtues." However, I'm curious about how one would connect a CPL like "telling success stories from history" to ones values.

Is it because you'd want to tell success stories from history in order to demonstrate that when reason guides man's actions, good things happen, in the hope of promoting such actions in the current day?

In essence, I'm trying to square an abstract notion of "telling success stories" with how that realizes specific values. I know that realizing my values necessarily leads to my happiness, and I can see how Roark's or Rand's particular projects worked towards those ends. But I'm not clear on how your third example fits. I get the sense that it does fit, but it would help solidify my understanding of the whole CPL idea if you could elaborate.

Burgess Laughlin said...

BACKGROUND. A central purpose in life is a productive purpose. It is a purpose in life which involves activities that produce things which, one hopes, are marketable. Ayn Rand's CPL, portraying the ideal man in literature, produced marketable books, plays, movie scripts, and so forth. Likewise for Howard Roark; he produced buildings and he got paid for it.

My central purpose in life (the third example in the article), to tell success stories from history, is also a productive purpose. So far, the main product is my book, The Aristotle Adventure. It is a story, that is, an accounting of elements of history.

I have two additional high purposes: to develop and enjoy friendships, and to enjoy my favorite leisure activity, "roving," which has two forms: mental (reading adventure stories) and physical (walking and biking).

My work (CPL), my friends, and my leisure activities are my three highest purposes (the "tent poles") supporting my ultimate purpose, which is happiness (the "tent"). The main pole, the one that makes the others possible because (ideally) it pays my way through life is my work. My friends are secondary to my CPL, as is my leisure.

How does one connect one's CPL to one's values? One's CPL is a value. I value (love) my work. I love doing it. I strive to do it. Because it is my highest value in the hierarchy of my values, my CPL is an integrator of all the values below it that support it. For example, to achieve my CPL as an abstraction, I do certain projects. Each is a value to me, as subsumed by my CPL. For a given project, I value the learning stage, for example. As a value, the learning stage (as well as every other stage) supports that particular project, and that particular project supports my CPL. This is a hierarchical integration of values, all the way down to deciding which books to buy. A CPL is thus a guide to and an integrator of most of my actions in life. My other actions are integrated by my two other purposes--friendships and leisure.

Why choose a particular CPL? Because it brings you joy. Because you love it. I see no need for any justification for Mr. A choosing X as his CPL beyond his love of doing it. (I am assuming here that the choice is objective.) Howard Roark would not, I assume, want to build buildings in order that others could live in them. Instead he, as a unique person, was--for whatever reasons going back into his childhood--in love with that process of seeing a design form under his hands and then seeing it become real on site.

A man like Roark might, of course, take pleasure in knowing that others would benefit and that his work might make his world a better place in which to live. But those aren't justifications; they are simply recognition of benefits.

There is no way to deduce personal values from philosophical principles or values. Start inductively: What do you want to do? What do you want to do? What do you want to do?

There is no "in order to" for a CPL, other than the broad one of paying one's way through life. (The ideal case, as discussed in the article, is that what one does for income is also one's beloved CPL. But that need not always be the case. For example, I am retired, financially, so I don't need to make an income from what I do--and good thing!)

We must pay our way through life in some form. The particular form should, conditions allowing, be something we love, or at least it should bring great pleasure, or, at a minimum, great satisfaction.

In my case, I do see some readers learning a little about the history of philosophy from The Aristotle Adventure, and I am glad of that, but that is certainly not why I chose my CPL. I chose it because I love the individual elements (researching, thinking, writing, producing) and I love them as a package (telling success stories from history).

How does a CPL "realize" values? If one is speaking of philosophical values (reason, purpose, and self-esteem), then I am realizing those values while pursuing my CPL. If one is speaking of personal values, then I am realizing my highest value (my work) while pursuing my CPL. What could be more personal than a beloved form of work? It involves my whole person.

QUESTIONS? This sort of discussion usually requires several iterations. If I have said anything unclear, more questions and comments are welcome. You see, by talking about CPL, I am, indirectly, telling a success story from history--my history, because my happiness began at the time (age 43) when I formulated my CPL and summoned the courage to pursue it with a long-range plan.

Burgess Laughlin said...

For readers familiar with Ayn Rand's novel, The Fountainhead, here are questions that might help highlight some of the issues:
1. What are Roark's highest philosophical values?
2. What are Roark's highest personal values?
3. What is Roark's central purpose in life?
4. What is the connection (integration) between 1, 2, and 3?

Another question, not tied specifically to The Fountainhead is: Why is integration--both of facts and of values--important?

Kevin McAllister said...

You indicate an inductive method for discovering your CPL, soft of dedicated thinking based on a series of self questions, these questions I suppose an attempt to make explicit your values based on every choice you've made.

And while I believe you've done a great job explaining the standards for a CPL, any further comment you can make on a method for discovering and stating your CPL explicitly would help me.

Burgess Laughlin said...

For some individuals, discovering a CPL is easy: They need only look at what they have been doing, what they are doing, and what they want to do--and then state it as an abstraction. An example fictional character is Howard Roark, in Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead. He knew implicitly from a very young age that he wanted to design and build buildings. At some point, perhaps in adolescence or in his teen years, he made it explicit: "I want to design and build buildings."

For most individuals, however, discovering a CPL is more difficult. Note that discovering is not the same as finding. Five hundred years ago, a European sailor might have sailed westward and eventually would have seen land he had never seen before. He found it, but discovery requires more.

Discovery consists in finding something, identifying its nature, and then integrating that new knowledge into the rest of one's context of knowledge. The sailor would have made a discovery, and not a mere finding, when he identified the land mass and could state in some logical manner how it fit into his view of the shape and layout of the world in which he lived. (Whether his discovery was exactly correct is another matter.)

Another example of discovery is Archimedes's discovery, while stepping into a bath, of the relationship between the volume of an object, the amount of water it displaces when submerged, and the object's density. Anyone could see the displacement of water; Archimedes also observed it, but he went further by abstracting a principle from his observations and then integrating, in one way or another, that principle with other knowledge. (I am not a mathematician or physicist or historian of science.)

Discovering a CPL involves at least three major actions:

(1) Observation. Mr. X observes that he feels elation when he is walking or driving over bridges. He loves their spare structure and their functionality.

He feels fascination when he talks to a friend who works with a maintenance crew that repairs draw bridges and the friend explains why a particular bridge is built the way it is.

When he was younger, Mr. X spent many hours sketching in pencil "designs" for airplanes, ships, cars--and bridges.

When thinking about what he wants to do in life, he begins with observations such as the three above: the introspectively observable fact of his elation, the fact of his fascination, and the fact of his long (though immature) interest in design.

(2) Integration by abstraction. What CPL might capture all three of these facts (and others too, perhaps)? Designing and building bridges. This abstract statement subsumes countless possible tasks and jobs and even potential careers.

(3) Integration by testing. Mr. X realizes he must learn a lot of science and engineering. He takes courses. If, with a full devotion to his studies and having acquired strong study skills, he learns rapidly and does well academically, he has reason to believe that he could design and build bridges.

But what if Mr. X realizes, while in his studies, that no matter how hard he tries, the mathematics is too difficult for him, making the process of using mathematics a torture rather than either a delight or at least an acceptable means to an end?

Psychologist Dr. Edwin Locke--in his lecture on goal setting, I think--discusses his own original goal of becoming a great mathematician. Unfortunately, no matter how hard he tried, he lacked something, probably subconscious, that would have enabled him to pursue that CPL in any seriously productive way. He looked elsewhere and chose psychology (for which I am very grateful).

Does not having a mathematical perspective, mean that Mr. X should abandon his love of bridges? Not at all. In continuing to take stock of the facts of his life, he realizes that he was also fascinated as a young man by reading about individuals who had designed cars, planes -- and bridges.

Mr. X identifies that activity as reading history. He then considers as a field of study the history of bridges--ancient, medieval, modern, and contemporary history. He also observes himself while considering this problem. He notes that he is feeling positive emotions at the prospect of becoming an expert on the history of bridges--even though he doesn't yet know much about how he would go about achieving it.

Does he have the mental capability to be a historian? He knows he is persistent, when engaged in a project he loves. He knows he is meticulous in developing a project he loves. He knows he is excited about going to libraries and finding new books on a subject he loves. And so forth.

Gradually, Mr. X thus abstracts and tests his CPL: To tell objective valuers about the bridges of the past and present: the problems their designers faced, the solutions they created, and the value their bridges offered. As time passes, Mr. X will polish that statement into an easy-to-recall abstraction--perhaps something like this: "My CPL is to tell the story of bridges." (Of course, life is short, so he might need to narrow his focus temporally or geographically or in some other way.)

This is the basic pattern: observe one's emotions (which are automatic guides to current values) when engaged in various actions; form an abstraction that would subsume the activities and field that are fascinating; and test the objectivity of the choice for its compatibility with what one knows about oneself and about the world.

Burgess Laughlin said...

Here is a point of confusion for many individuals: When you are observing your reactions, be sure to distinguish your reactions to various activities from your reactions to various fields.

E.g., a particular person, Ms. Z, may be fascinated with the broad theories of biology--such as the theory of evolution--but detest the extremely tedious labor required to perform long-term biological experiments.

She need not abandon her love of biology as a field. She can focus on developing a CPL that involves other activities: studying the experimental results of other researchers, looking for a pattern among them; historical research and writing; teaching; writing ABC books about biology for laymen; and so forth.

Every CPL subsumes one or more fields and (usually) many activities. E.g,, a historian engages in the following activities while remaining in one field (history): researching; thinking; discussing preliminary conclusions with colleagues; outlining a book; writing a book; editing a book; proofreading a book; and giving a lecture on some aspect of the book after the book is published.

All CPLs subsume various activities. Most CPLs involve one field (history, business, and so forth), but some CPLs can combine fields--e.g., someone who is fascinated by science and by learning languages. He could become a scientific translator.

You can even create your own field, as Arthur Lovejoy, author of The Great Chain of Being, did when he pioneered the field now called "history of ideas." (His seminal book was about the idea--ancient, medieval, and modern--of a metaphysical hierarchy, e.g., starting with God at the top and worms at the bottom, with man in the middle.)

Of course, every CPL involves some activities that are sometimes boring and sometimes agonizing. They might be something to simply accept and minimize if they are an integral element subsumed by a beloved CPL. An example for me is proofreading (and double-checking) a thousand footnotes in the manuscript of a book. B-O-R-I-N-G. But it needs to be done, so I do it.

Kevin McAllister said...

Thank you for your very detailed, well organized and quite helpful response.

Burgess Laughlin said...

The weblog Trey Givens at has published a continuing series of posts about one man's search for a CPL. In chronological order, they are:

"Career Change," and the comments at

"Seeking a Central Purpose in Life," and the comments at

"Pay Attention to Yourself," at

"Continued musings over CPL," and the comments at

"A Fun CPL from a Marketing Peopleguy," at

. . . and perhaps later ones.

Burgess Laughlin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Burgess Laughlin said...

Here is an example (in the main post and in the comments) of someone who is zeroing in on his CPL but is also wondering about a related issue: How much time should one invest in gaining knowledge outside one's field.

Burgess Laughlin said...

Following is the main part of a comment I left on Amy Mossoff's weblog, The Little Things, in a post on Peikoff on raising children as a career, on February 10, 2011.


On a side note, I think that “central purpose in life” (CPL) and “career” are not synonyms. A CPL is a broad abstraction that covers a vast range of productive activities, including a career. A career is a logical upward progression of levels of work. A CPL subsumes the career, just as a career subsumes particular jobs, and particular jobs subsume particular tasks.

An example of a CPL is to portray the ideal man in fiction or to design and build buildings. An example of a traditional career (in medicine) is pre-med school, medical school, internship, and so forth (in becoming a physician).

In an analogy (with all the pitfalls of analogies) to a novel, one could say that a person’s CPL is the productive “theme” of his life. His career is the productive “plot” of his life.

Unknown said...

I know it's been a long time since you've written this, but if you're still interested in responding to comments could you please talk more about finding the one in the many, when someone has many things they think they'd like to do, because that's what I'm having the most trouble with.

For example, I'm interested in interactive design (such websites, software, maybe even games), product design (the design of physical products, sometimes called industrial design), but I'm also interested in tracking what others are doing in those fields and writing about what I think about it.

How do I abstract a CPL that's broad enough to subsume any activities in those interest but narrow enough to zero in on a career path?

Thanks for your help!

- Robert

Burgess Laughlin said...

I can offer only general observations. As you know, I suspect, only a person who understands a field, such as web design, can knowledgeably form an abstraction about it. We abstract from particulars, so we must be familiar with the particulars—which, in this case, I am not.

The good news here is that you are already close. All of your major interests, the ones that make your pulse beat faster, are at least related. A second piece of good news is that, as far as I can tell, none are in conflict with the others.

I would ask myself: Stated as an abstraction, what action subsumes A, B, and C (the interests you have named)? If I understand the situation correctly, I would suggest that "create interactive products" (or some similar statement) subsumes all the activities and interests you named. That includes even the writing of reviews of others' products. By reviewing them you are helping create, indirectly, because your feedback to the designers helps them create better products. Or, alternatively, your reviews of others' work helps you became a better designer and producer of such products.

To then define a career path is mainly a matter of asking oneself, "What do I need to learn and do in a logical sequence in order to do that?" In this case, the primary seems to be learning design, both interactive and industrial. (Apparently you are intrigued by whole products.) The reviewing and writing about others' products is a natural outgrowth of learning to design such products. It is not in conflict with design.

I am going to stop here, for now. Does what I have said so far make sense? If so, we can discuss it further if needed.

(Of course, you may embark on a pursuit of your newly defined CPL and then discover somewhere along the line that you love most one aspect of that CPL. If that happens, you would need only to narrow your CPL. For example, an architect might start with "design and build buildings" but realize later that he loves designing and building residential buildings. So he narrows his scope without fundamentally changing his CPL as an abstraction. That is the beauty of being guided by an abstraction. It subsumes a huge range of possible actions and gives us freedom to make more refined choices.)

Unknown said...

Yes, that makes a lot of sense. It seems almost obvious now that you've laid it all out, but I didn't see it before because I wasn't thinking quite broad enough.

Thanks again for your help.