Armina Dobrică

In 1972, Viktor Frankl gave a lecture in Toronto in which he quoted Goethe:

“If we take man as he is, we make him worse, but if we take man as he should be, we make him capable of becoming what he can be.”

By that time, 27 years had passed since the Nazi camp that held him prisoner had been liberated. Frankl married in 1942, but in September of that year, he, his wife, and his entire family were all arrested and taken to a concentration camp. When he was moved to Auschwitz, his manuscript for “The Doctor and the Soul”, a book that sets forth the principles of existential psychiatry, including the meaning of life, was discovered and destroyed. His desire to complete this work, and his hopes that he would one day be reunited with his loved ones, kept him alive. Succumbing to typhoid fever, he would stay awake by reconstructing his manuscript on stolen slips of paper.

After he returned to Vienna, when the war was over, he published the book. And in only nine days he dictated another one, that would become his masterpiece – “Man’s search for meaning”.

His wife, mother, father and brother did not survive the holocaust.

Man’s search for meaning

Contrary to popular belief, Frankl did not discover the power of purpose while being held prisoner. On the contrary. It was the power of his purpose, his belief that life is not futile that prevented him from losing his mind, his hope, and ultimately, his life. If anything, the years he spent in the concentration camp served as one big research laboratory. He was not only walking the talk, he was living the talk every second, of every minute, of every day.

Here’s where things get tricky. It was “The Doctor and the Soul” that kept him awake, alert and alive during his imprisonment years. An amazing work, no doubt. But the words that poured out of him in those nine days, writing “Man’s search for meaning”, would make him forever famous. Was that really his purpose? Lying in bed at night in Auschwitz, cold, starving, not knowing what tomorrow would bring…was he dreaming about becoming a best-selling author? Is that even a purpose or just a goal?

I think the challenge is to step out of what’s apparently real, material, into a universe that’s harder to grasp. As inspiring as having a sense of purpose might seem, we still tend to focus more on the purpose than the sense. The conventional model to having great success is setting and relentlessly pursuing big, hairy, audacious goals (BHAGs). But true purpose is rarely hairy and audacious for the one who’s sensing it. In fact, it’s the most natural, authentic, almost instinctive feeling in the world. It’s not something that one decides to do, but something one cannot not do.

Purposes can change throughout one’s life, the sense doesn’t. It just finds different ways of manifesting. And there is nothing more limiting for meaning than the struggle to contain it in a single, steady stream. Meaning flows freely, chaotic at times. But chaos is just the beginning of a new order, one we cannot yet understand. And a sense of purpose is merely a sense of being.

How to turn on the light

While working as a newsboy for the railroad, Thomas Edison saved the life of a station official’s child who had fallen onto the tracks. As a way of thanking him, the father taught science enthusiast Thomas how to use the telegraph. He became so good at using the machine, that he got a job sending signals between the United States and Canada. He began experimenting with ways to improve the telegraph, which led to his invention of the automatic telegraph, duplex telegraph, and message printer.

By 1878, Edison and his associates were working on at least three thousand different theories to develop an efficient incandescent lamp. It almost sounds humanly impossible. He tested 6.000 filaments (some made from the beard hair of two of his employees) before finding one that would not melt when electrified. Imagine suggesting that during a brainstorming session or a meeting.   

“The electric light has caused me the greatest amount of study and has required the most elaborate experiments,” he wrote.

“I was never myself discouraged or inclined to be hopeless of success. I cannot say the same for all my associates.”

Of course, he cannot. While he was driven by purpose, his associates had goals. And in theory, we’re supposed to find just ONE big goal and focus all our efforts on achieving it. Well…then I guess Edison failed big time. Before he died in 1931, he patented 1,093 of his inventions. That’s almost one thousand one hundred, not one point 09.

It’s easy to spot purpose when thinking about some of the greatest minds in history. And yet when we analyze it and break it down into baby steps, we get this crazy idea that purpose is a very specific thing you look for, and eventually find out there, somewhere. But I think there was nothing specific, isolated, in the way Edison’s mind worked. I believe his thoughts and interests were non-linear, moving freely in a constantly expanding environment. In fact, pick anybody – Leonardo da Vinci, Nikola Tesla, Marie Curie, Albert Einstein, Immanuel Kant, Stephan Hawking. Now picture stepping inside their minds for a second. Does it look like a to do list – buy a house, hit sales target, go to Hawaii on vacation? Or is it more like a web, a network, a spinning galaxy of thoughts, ideas, theories bouncing off of each other, merging, splitting only to come together again in a different form.      

“The successful inventor asks where can we get from here, rather than how can we get there”

Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned, Kenneth Stanley & Joel Lehman

I mentioned chaos earlier for a reason. My belief has always been that purpose is never intimidated by chaos. On the contrary. Purpose uses chaos to create what has never been created before, embracing the endless opportunities that come with change, while maintaining a steadiness of mind, a confidence that allows things to unfold naturally.


Until last year, I couldn’t explain it. Now I can.

The surprise of the stepping stones

In their book, “Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned” Kenneth Stanley and Joel Lehman begin with a surprising scientific discovery in artificial intelligence that leads ultimately to the conclusion that we erroneously cling to the objective obsession. Many (especially motivational speakers and rich businessmen) support this idea that if we correctly set our target, the only obstacle standing in our way is the necessary amount of desire and effort. But as Lehman and Stanley point out, for truly challenging issues, the path to achieving success is rarely a straight line and requires so called stepping stoned – people, events, discoveries and resources that are hard to imagine, let alone anticipate or plan.

They make the case that great accomplishments can’t be bottled up into step by step strategies; that innovation is not driven by narrowly focused heroic effort; and that success would come quicker and with less effort if instead we took a more subjective approach, guided by intuition, unforeseen discovery and playful creativity. Kind of like putting together the pieces of a puzzle in a way they weren’t intended.

However, the notions of success and accomplishment are just as subjective as the paths that will take us there. Looking in the outside environment for a universal definition is just as futile as trying to cook a dish everyone will find delicious. Before embarking on a quest to finding purpose and fulfillment, we should be capable of perfectly describing what they mean to us, not in terms of possessions and facebook milestones, but in terms of feelings, inner states and ways of being.    

And while reaching a verdict is easy in the case of Thomas Edison, how about the people whose lives don’t change the entire Planet? Let’s think of someone close to him – his mother. As Edison himself put it: “My mother was the making of me. She understood me; she let me follow my bent.” But was she a successful woman? Is giving birth to and raising one of the greatest minds in history enough? The truth is we’d have to ask her to know for sure.

So if you still haven’t found your purpose, talk to yourself. Understand yourself. Allow yourself to follow your bent. Stop judging and start exploring. Create some chaos. Let your intuition flow freely. Follow your curiosities, even if they seem to lead nowhere. Say yes to the things your soul is longing for. Say no when it doesn’t feel right. And remember that change is the only constant in life. Purpose follows you, while you follow your heart.