View art in video

The following is a transcript of this video.

“Sooner or later something seems to call us onto a particular path. You may remember this “something” as a signal calling in childhood when an urge out of nowhere, a fascination, a peculiar turn of events struck like an annunciation: This is what I must do, this is what I’ve got to have. This is who I am.”

James Hillman, The Soul’s Code

The discovery of a life purpose is a crucial ingredient in a life well-lived. For with a “why” to define our existence it is far easier to remain strong amidst the turbulence of life, and to move forward despite the blows of fate which cross our path.

“The man without a purpose is like a ship without a rudder.”

Thomas Carlyle

But finding a purpose is also vital in the production of a good life for the simple reason that when we discover a career or a mission to which we feel an inner calling, which is the essence of a life purpose, we free ourselves from the unenviable situation of spending the majority of our waking life in a job we do not care for and which we cannot wait to end. 

“What man in the world would not find his situation intolerable if he chooses a craft, an art, indeed any form of life, without experiencing an inner calling? Everything on this earth has its difficult sides! Only some inner drive—pleasure, love—can help us overcome obstacles, prepare a path, and lift us out of the narrow circle in which others tread out their anguished, miserable existences!”

Goethe, The Essential Goethe

Some of us are lucky in that we stumble upon a purpose at a young age. A fascination grabs hold of our youthful mind and a favourable environment provides us the means to nourish this curiosity until it flowers into our life purpose. For the majority of us, however, a purpose does not arrive in this fortuitous manner, instead we must go searching for it. Yet on this search we do not need to travel blind, rather, we can turn to guidance from those whom the psychologist James Hillman calls “exemplars of calling”, that is, the great men and women of history whose greatness consists in having found and fully devoted themselves to the purpose they were uniquely suited for. 

“Extraordinary people display calling most evidently…they are extraordinary because their calling comes through so clearly and they are so loyal to it. They serve as exemplars of calling and its strength, and also of keeping faith with its signals.”

James Hillman, The Soul’s Code

The reports of these “exemplars of calling” converge on one curious point. Many claimed that what guided them towards their purpose was not rational deliberation, but a force or impulse which was felt to have come from beyond the threshold of consciousness. This force has been called many names, but most notably it has been referred to as the daemon. 

Socrates is reported to have been inhabited by a daemon which in crucial moments warned him what not to do. Goethe credits his daemon for his poetic and scientific feats. The poet Rudyard Kipling wrote: “When your Daemon is in charge, do not try to think consciously. Drift, wait, and obey.” Carl Jung stated bluntly: “There was a daimon in me, and in the end its presence proved decisive.” (Carl Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections) In an 1871 letter written to an acquaintance Nietzsche confessed: “I just don’t seem to have a compass to tell me what I’m destined for…And yet in looking back everything seems to fit so well that it’s as if a guiding spirit has been showing me the way.” (Nietzsche, Letter to Rhode) Given the ubiquitousness of these reports, it is not surprising that the word vocation, a commonly used synonym for purpose, means “to be called”. Or as Jung explained:

“Who has vocation hears the voice of the inner man; he is called. And so it is the legendary belief that he possesses a private demon who counsels him and whose mandates he must execute.”

Carl Jung, The Development of Personality

It is not necessary to believe in guiding spirits to make sense of this phenomenon. For the daemon can be conceptualized in psychological terms. We can view it as an unconscious psychological complex, a functional cluster of ideas, emotions and associations which exist beyond our conscious awareness and which influence our conscious mind through irrational means. The daemon guides us in the direction of our purpose through intuitions, fantasies, sudden urges, synchronicities, and dreams. 

“For the daimon surprises. It crosses my intentions with its interventions, sometimes with a little twinge of hesitation, sometimes with a quick crush on someone or something. These surprises feel small and irrational; you can brush them aside; yet they also convey a sense of importance, which can make you say afterward: “Fate.””

James Hillman, The Soul’s Code

The daemon is stronger in some than others. The genius, for example, is the individual possessed by his daemon – he feels its presence so strongly that he cannot do otherwise but obey its commands. In most of us, however, our daemon is buried deep in the depths of the unconscious. After years of following a life-path for reasons of ease, security, and the need to please others, our daemon has been silenced. But we can awaken the intuitive wisdom of this unconscious helper if we cultivate a conscious relationship to it, which we can do through a series of actionable steps. 

Firstly, we need to differentiate our authentic values and interests from those we cling to merely for reasons of social validation. We must, in other words, discover the skills and activities which offer us the spark of joy and the internal rewards which are the defining mark of a suitable life purpose. This process of self-discovery is best facilitated by regaining a sense of childlike wonder and remembering how to play. 

If we integrate into our daily routine sessions of exploration and experimentation in which we allow our attention to be guided by our natural curiosity, over time we will gravitate towards certain activities around which a life purpose can be built. We should not, however, go in search of a “true” passion, for in many cases we only become passionate about a field or activity after we begin to excel in it. If we are unwilling to settle on a field unless we are certain it is our “true” passion, we may embark on an endless search and never discover a purpose. We should therefore set our standards lower and seek out a field or domain which sparks our curiosity. For at least initially it is likely our daemon will be weak; it will not supply us with overwhelming assurance regarding whether we are on the right path. Yet even in uncertainty we still need to act – we must listen to the subtle clues our daemon provides and select a field which, at least roughly, corresponds to our interests. 

Settling on a certain field, however, is only the first step to finding a purpose – next we must devote ourselves to attaining mastery in our chosen field as only then will we become truly passionate about what we do and only then can we grant ourselves a realistic chance of supporting ourselves financially through the activities we have chosen.

To the many who fear that they are not capable of attaining mastery, it should be remembered that in most fields excellence is more a product of the time spent in deliberate and focused practice, than it is dependent on innate talent. Nietzsche provides the inspiring example of the short writer who starts as a nobody, but who composes anecdotes each day and becomes an ardent observer of the intricacies of human psychology all in his quest to form the greatest tales of which he is capable.

“In this diverse exercise, let some ten years pass: and then what is created in the workshop may also be brought before the public eye.”  

Nietzsche, Human, all too Human

This is the level of sustained seriousness we must grant to our own purpose to give ourselves the best chance of success. 

As the cultivation of a life purpose, in the manner we have presented it, is a task which takes years or even decades, there is an ever-present danger we will flee from it and be led astray by our want of security, social validation, money or comfort. We must always be wary of the temptations of these wrong roads, for if we succumb to them our daemon will turn demonic – it will shame us for our cowardice and punish us with pain.

“Illness is the answer every time we begin to doubt our right to our task – every time we begin to make things easier for ourselves. Strange and at the same time terrible!”

Nietzsche, Assorted Opinions and Maxims

Or as Robert Greene echoed: 

“No good can ever come from deviating from the path that you were destined to follow. You will be assailed by varieties of hidden pain. Most often you deviate because of the lure of money, of more immediate prospects of prosperity. Because this does not comply with something deep within you, your interest will lag and eventually the money will not come so easily. You will search for other easy sources of money, moving further and further away from your path. Not seeing clearly ahead of you, you will end up in a dead-end career. Even if your material needs are met, you will feel an emptiness inside that you will need to fill with any kind of belief system, drugs, or diversions. There is no compromise here, no way of escaping the dynamic. You will recognize how far you have deviated by the depth of your pain and frustration. You must listen to the message of this frustration, this pain, and let it guide you…It is a matter of life and death.”

Robert Greene, Mastery

To avoid the wrong roads which elicit our daemon’s wrath, patience is prudent. For as Schopenhauer noted, when we are

“…led by [our] daemon [our] path will not be a straight line, but wavering and uneven.”

Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation

But we also need to be careful not to confuse patience with laziness and fear. For we are masters in self-deception; we have an uncanny ability to construct convincing justifications for our procrastinations. Patience is needed to see our labours bear fruit, but we need a sense of urgency in the planting of the seeds that will bear these fruits. If we know where our purpose lies we must fight against the pull of procrastination and pursue it now. Time is not on our side and so we should devote time daily to the work that must be done. For whether we heed the call of our daemon or whether we flee from it, can make the difference between a life of heroic success, and a cowardly life that is tragically wasted.

“…neurosis is…a defence…or an attempt, somewhat dearly paid for, to escape from the inner voice and hence from the vocation…Behind the neurotic perversion is concealed his vocation, his destiny: the growth of personality, the full realization of the life-will that is born with the individual. It is the man without amor fati [love of fate] who is the neurotic; he, truly, has missed his vocation.”

Carl Jung, The Development of Personality

Further Readings

Art Used in this Video

Anker Der Gemeindeschreiber
Иван К. Айвазовский - Корабль Мария во время шторма (1892)
A. L. Leroy - Interior with a Man Reading at His Desk - Google Art Project
MatsumotoShunsuke Factory ca1944
Albert Anker - Schulmädchen bei den Hausaufgaben
Cariani - Portrait of a Young Man with a Green Book, ca. 1510–1520
Emerson, poet and thinker (1904) (14741037806)
1764 Fragonard Der Philosoph anagoria
Félix Nicolas Frillié - le baiser de la muse
Socrates teaching Perikles-Nicolas Guibal-IMG 5309
Tischbein d.Ä. Graf v Stadion@Goethe-Museum Frankfurt a.M.20170819
Friedrich Nietzsche-1872
The Calling of Saint Matthew
Unknown maker, French - (Ingres Painting of Maria Luigi Carlo Zenobio Salvatore Cherubini and his muse) - Google Art Project
Polyhymnia, Muse of Eloquence - Charles Meynier
Leo Tolstoy02
Charles Frederick Ulrich - The Glass Blowers (1883)
Domenico Morelli Portrait
Илья Е. Репин - Исследование для ‚Парижских кафе‘
Nölken, Reger
Simon Glücklich Junge mit Segelboot
WijckAlchemistSchwerin
Mattheus van Hellemont The Alchemist
Målning. Vetenskapsman i sitt arbetsrum. Thomas Wyck - Hallwylska museet - 86746
Retrato de Bulhão Pato (1883) - Columbano Bordalo Pinheiro
Domenico Fetti - Portrait of a Scholar - WGA07862
William Hayley, writer, seated. A tutor and pupil stand. Wellcome L0038419
Charles Frederic Ulrich - Sculptor in Studio
Samuel van Hoogstraten - Zelfportret
Valentin de Boulogne - Saint Paul Writing His Epistles - BF.1991.4 - Museum of Fine Arts
Honoré Daumier - Avant l'audience - Google Art Project
Scheffer, Faust dans son atelier 2
Robertfleury girl
Ramon Martí i Alsina - The Siesta - Google Art Project
Caspar Netscher 002
Death found an author writing his life (5037141816)
San Judas Tadeo Ribera (Museo Prado)