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The settler colonialist roots of "purpose"

When I first started coaching five years ago, the words that felt the most resonant in describing what I focused on were work and purpose. At the time I was in community with so many fantastic people who were doing such beautiful organizing and community work, and who were stuck in paid jobs that at best were really draining for all the reasons paid work can feel really draining, and at worst asked these brilliant humans to do work that was harmful to the same people they were trying to organize with. I remember thinking, surely this can't be the best we can expect for each other under capitalism. So I started coaching people on finding and creating meaningful work and lives, despite and within the pressures and structure of capitalism.

There's a huge amount of writing, programs, thinking, theorizing, and teaching out there about purpose, calling, vocation - a whole host of terms that surround the question: why am I here, now, and what the heck am I supposed to be doing with my life? When we are asking these questions about why we're here, we're often searching in some way for a sense of purpose or meaning in our lives - through work, a relationship, creative practices, living in a particular place or particular way, community, the list goes on.

Some of us feel pretty content about the shape and direction of our lives, and some of us spend our whole lives trying to find a good answer to this question. And a lot of us move in between and among these two experiences, maybe having seasons where we delve deeply into this question of why we might be here and for what purpose, and other times where we feel pretty good, all things considered, about where we are and what we're doing. These questions are of course complicated by the pressures of capitalism and neoliberalism, which shape our lives and thinking in so many ways, and require a lot of us to structure our lives around accepting a certain level of extraction in order to get enough money to live.

If you look at the coaching and the books and the podcasts and the writing about purpose, the guidance and advice tends to follow a particular kind of story. I don't use this story anymore in my coaching, and I'll say more about why after I describe it.

The story goes something like this: once upon a time, there was an unhappy person. They wanted to change their life, find the meaning of why they were alive at this particular time. Nothing in their current life was reflecting that to them. In fact, the more they contemplated where they were and listened to the longing of where they wanted to be, the more they felt sure that somewhere out there, far in the distance was something else - something that once achieved or discovered, would provide them with a sense of their purpose.

So the person says goodbye to everyone back home, gathers their supplies, and sets off alone into the wilds to seek and find the thing that's going to give them that feeling of meaning again. They feel unprepared but also excited - and pretty sure that they're meant to find this thing they're seeking, and that all the obstacles they encounter will be worth it, in the end, wherever that end might be. So, they undertake their arduous journey — fighting their way through unfamiliar landscape, against the people who are in their way or who try to stop them from fulfilling their dream. At this point in the purpose story there is usually a gesture towards some of the structural barriers people face that get in the way of doing this kind of seeking (in one particular case a single paragraph in a 200 page book on following callings), but the story quickly pivots to focus on all of the ways people might fail or get stuck or overwhelmed by the obstacles in front of them during their journeys, and ways to keep going through the most difficult parts of this process.

And then, one day, the purpose-seeker finally begins to see the place where they're trying to get to. They see their purpose. And in these last few miles, knowing that their purpose is so close and not yet in their grasp, they have to fight extra hard to get to the place where they're going. But, like a fairy tale, their work pays off - they find the work, or the kind of life, or the values system that gives them a sense of purpose, the thing they have been on the hunt for this whole time. They feel fulfilled, and they bring something new and great into the world - the kind of work that the world is hungry for, and needs.

There are a couple of pieces that these purpose books don't always talk about, and that show up more in the realm of life and purpose and business coaching, which is, once you find the thing that gives your life a deeper sense of meaning, a trajectory, often when you arrive there someone else is already there, doing the same thing. And you need to find a way to carve out your own place, your own unique point of view, or at the most extreme edge of this kind of approach, make a program or project so good that it not only stands out but outcompetes everyone else, takes over the whole field.

You may already see where I am going with this: we can pretty easily map this story of purpose onto the ideology of settler colonialism. Somewhere out there, far in the distance (the wilds, maybe) is my purpose. And in order to get there, I have to journey — fighting my way through unfamiliar landscape and against people who don’t want me to get where I'm going. And then when I get there, if anyone else is there, doing the same thing I’m doing, or was there already, I need to find a way to kick them off, take their land, make it mine. Because I have been called here, or because I've put in the world to journey to this place, and it's been really really hard, and I deserve to succeed at this thing I worked so hard to get.

I've really simplified this story to make it catchy and to make the origins of it more clear. It's rarely this simple or clear in the living of it. I’m attempting to say this both with clarity and accuracy, and a lot of compassion, because for many of us, this narrative of settler colonialism is baked into us — whether because our ancestors directly participated in the violence and "deservedness" of settler colonialism, or the ways we all adapt to, or are brought up in, the logics of capitalism, individualism, and manifest destiny.

I stopped calling myself a purpose coach, or using this story of purpose in my work, not just because of its connections to settler colonialist thinking, although that is reason enough of its own. But I also stopped because there is so much missing from the settler colonialist story of purpose: the knowledge that our purpose, the meaning of our life, might not even be one central thing. That as we grow and change, our desires of how to be in the world, and the requests our communities and relationships make of us, change too. The only relationships in this model are adversarial, when so many of us know that we are constituted and shaped and sustained by our relationships of all kinds. There's a certain kind of pressure on us too, an emphasis on individual behavior that puts the blame mostly on us if something goes wrong - we didn't trust enough, or believe enough, or risk or sacrifice enough. I've watched the impacts that kind of pressure can have on people, and have felt it myself.

These days, my work focuses a lot on helping people untangle our dreams of meaningful lives from the stories of colonialism and capitalism and whiteness. The scripts and patterns of these systems are imprinted very deeply on us - and they're harmful, for us and for the earth. My desire and dream is that all of us remember that we can have many purposes, many reasons to be here, many meanings of life. That our purpose might be to share what we know and learn, with our relationships and communities, over and over, deepening our connections to each other. That we don’t have to fight for our purpose to exist, that it does, as complex and simple as breathing, as walking in the woods.

If this resonated with you and you want to chat more about this, I'd love to talk with you!

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