In Pursuit of Purpose

Posted on June 08 2019

In Pursuit of Purpose

A common refrain among veterans is that post-military, they feel as though they’ve lost their sense of purpose. Second perhaps only to losing a brother, this loss seems to have more impact on their happiness, attitude and well-being than anything else. And without purpose, the thought often becomes “what is the point of all this?” “Why are we here?” “Does any of this matter?” As these questions take root, alcoholism and depression begin to germinate. But what is purpose? It seems to take different forms for each of us and this post would like to explore one possible meaning.

Merriam-Webster: Purpose | per-pes
  1. Something set up as an object or end to be attained
  2. A subject under discussion or an action in course of execution
  1. To propose an aim to oneself

Purpose, in this sense, is entirely selfish and is the antithesis of the status quo. The status quo is a stable job, family, the dog and white picket fence. This is “normal.” This is generally expected of everyone. But some of us never wanted to be everyone. Our aim was always a bit more.

Elite level athletes and a large percentage of the military are similar in mind. They strive for something extraordinary and are not content being another cog in this machine we call life. I recently watched a short documentary on Matt Hughes, arguably the best Welterweight Mixed Martial Artist Champion to have lived. After retiring from the UFC, his wife explained that he would mope around the house saying he no longer has a purpose. With frustration in her voice, she explained that she didn’t understand this; that his purpose should have been his family.

But family is what American culture suggests everyone should have. That is the status quo. That’s what you’re “supposed to do” and is not beyond attainable (you can order a bride if you have to). For Matt Hughes, he wanted to be the greatest fighter in the world, seemingly an impossible feat and one that I’m sure many people said he could never do. And yet he got there. Then his purpose was to hold onto it. When he retired, what was he striving for? What impossibility was there to overcome? What was there to prove, to himself or to anyone anymore? Was he really expected to be content doing what millions of other had done and are doing?

For a lot of military members, purpose was just getting in. This is particularly true in the Marine Corps. A common marketing phrase employed by the Marine Corps, complete with a Marine in full dress blues, sword in hand, “Earned. Never Given.” For those that want to operate outside the status quo, this is incredibly appealing. When I first made the decision to join, I sought to join what I was told was the finest fighting force, the Marines, and I knew it had to be earned. I applied to be an officer and after a year of training and studying, I was actually told that my running time wasn’t good enough and perhaps I could try again at some later date. Apparently they were serious that it was earned and never given. I broke down and told the recruiter over the phone, “Don’t erase my info. I’ll be back.” A co-worker told me that I could easily get into the Air Force. This was like a slap in the face. If anyone could do it, then I don’t want it. After a few more months, I went back to the Marine recruiters, ran another Physical Fitness Test, and fell a few points short of perfect. I was in.

Once in, I had five distinct goals I wanted to hit within my military career, one of which was becoming a part of either Recon or Marine Special Operations Command (Marine Raiders). At the 6 ½ year mark, I received orders to 1st Marine Raider Battalion. After doing two deployments to Afghanistan with them, I had accomplished all five of my objectives and my inner drive seemed to dissipate. This started to reflect in my attitude and motivation and thus I made the decision to leave. Brandon Lilly states in Westside vs The World, a powerlifting documentary about Westside Barbell, that being at Westside was like reaching the peak of Everest. He states, “so what the f* do you do after Everest?” I’d felt like I’d reached my personal peak in the Marine Corps. So now what?

For veterans, there are literally hundreds of nonprofits that help veterans find a new job, with the goal of “helping them find their new mission…or purpose.” According to a Gallup Poll from 2017, 70% of people in the United States reported HATING their job. Yes, hating it. Subconsciously, I knew this but participated in a program anyway as I had a family to feed. And as predicted, I found a job that I ended up hating. For many, a job really is their purpose and I applaud them for it. But for me and many veterans, that is just the status quo. This isn’t a new purpose. It’s just what adults do; get a job, provide for their family. It’s in some contract somewhere that you don’t remember signing.

To be clear, some do find purpose in their work. There are plenty of people doing amazing things in their work. And for others, working at a company like Google or Apple, such as to a developer, is their form of “Everest.” So they strive to refine their work and be sought after by these companies. Perhaps that’s the 30% of Americans that still like their job. But even if you get there, there’s still a difference between working a 9-5 at Google and walking into a cage to fight another human in front of millions of screaming fans; or being sent to the other side of the globe in a life or death struggle on behalf of an entire nation. At that point, Google is just a search engine. Maybe it impresses your friends but you’re not sure if it impresses you. And that’s the problem. It doesn’t impress you. And a “has-been” does not sound appealing to someone like you.

Merriam Webster: Has-Been | haz-bin
  1. A person or thing considered to be outmoded or no longer of any significance

 So what to do about it? Following the schema we’ve presented so far, consider a few key points. For Matt Hughes, there are millions who practice martial arts across the world. In 2018 there were 499 men fighting in the UFC. Only one Welterweight Champion. And once he got it, there were hundreds of thousands trying to make it to the UFC and hundreds already in that wanted to take it from him.

For Marines, 0.5% of the population serves in the Armed Forces. 14.5% of that 0.5% is in the Marines. 0.01% of that 14.5% serve in Marine Special Operations.

In both cases, looking at the numbers alone, those riding the status quo would might say:

  • Uh, good luck
  • Can’t be done.
  • You’re just a ____ from ____.
  • Do you realize those guys have to ….?
  • God didn’t give you the genetics for that
  • You’d better have a plan B
  • Maybe you should find something more realistic

 For many people, those phrases are defeating. They hang their heads and toe the line, blending into the status quo. For others, it ignites a fire within them. They go internal with a burning passion that says “F’ you. Just wait and see.” And some have the work ethic to do it. It was hard. They had setbacks. They questioned themselves. They likely got injured. They were at times scared. And yet they did it anyway, proving to all the doubters that it was indeed possible.

For those few, that fire never dies. It may be that those that have that fire feel the most loss of purpose after they’ve reached the peak of Everest. Perhaps the fire itself is their purpose.

So how to find that fire again?

Well you shouldn’t start a business. 20% fail in their first year. 30% of what’s left fails in their second. 50% of those left fail in five years. By the 10th year, 70% of those left fail. You’ll have setbacks. You’ll constantly question yourself. If you go that route, you’d better have a Plan B.

Don’t think you’ll do anything athletic. 4 million people claim to do Crossfit. Less than 300 make it to the games. That’s 0.000075%. Powerlifting? Only 1% of Powerlifters reach Elite status. Your knees probably hurt too much for that. So you played football in high school? Only 0.09% of high school players make it to the NFL and they probably had the genetics for it, unlike you. Injury could derail your entire career anyway. After all, your high school team sucked and you’re just a guy from nowhere.

You could always go back to school and figure it out from there. Of course only 9% of people in the United States have a Masters Degree and 2% have a doctorate. That’s too much for you. After all, you’ve got a family and house to take care of. Just get the Bachelors. That’s hard enough as it is and that’s all you really need anyway.

Don’t write a book. Less than 1% of submitted manuscripts are actually published. Think about how long that takes and your spelling is sub-par. Maybe you should find something more realistic.

And climbing Everest? Well there’s only been around 4000 people who have successfully done that and remember that more than 300 people have died trying.

But then again, you could go do all of those things.


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