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On Destiny, Meaning, and their Career Destroying Implications

The notion of destiny (or fate, or predestiny, or any other variant) shut down my career prospects right up to the age of 25. Even more seductive was its close companion, “meaning” – there’s a dangerous allure behind the idea of a grand plan, a me-shaped hole in the universe, which we were each born to fulfill.

Sword in Stone

On Destiny and Meaning

Here’s what I refer to when I talk about destiny and meaning. Conventional use of these words may differ, because destiny and meaning are such vague concepts; but keep in mind this is what I mean.

Destiny to me is the belief that each of us is put on this Earth to fulfill a purpose, and that the fulfillment of that purpose is inevitable (in this sense, I loosely associate destiny with predestiny and fate. I am aware of the differences, but I want to stick to familiar terms).

The universe, if you believe in destiny, operates like a machine or a hidden plan. Everything that happens drives you toward an end point, and even when your life’s events are unpleasant it’s for your own good.

Meaning as I refer to it is essence, innate purpose. Just as the “meaning” of a clock is to tell time for its creator, there is a belief out there that each person exists to meet a certain purpose. This is different from destiny, in that you can believe in it while still thinking destiny is a load of crock.

For example, you might feel your meaning in life is to heal the sick. But you can believe that while also believing you could fail at it. You might know you won’t become a doctor just by sitting back and letting “destiny” happen.

Either of these beliefs can be equally damaging. While they’re often touted as motivational forces, I have always found them to have the opposite effect. Not just on me, but among several friends and acquaintances.

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The Inherent Fallacy of Destiny and Meaning

I want to begin with the most obvious and crippling fallacy of this belief.

The reason you’re different from objects is precisely because you don’t have inherent meaning. A clock is made to tell the time, and if it does then it’s a good clock. Same with a computer, car, or shovel. An object has inherent meaning, because it is created to fulfill a specific purpose. Its success is easily judged by how well it fulfills its purpose.

People don’t work the same way.

We don’t ponder what our industry needs, and then specifically decide to birth and raise a cab driver, shoe designer, or account manager. Childbirth is not a response to a job posting. People are born without meaning, and in the process of living, create meaning for themselves.

The implication is that none of our purposes are part of a cosmic plan. There is also no magic force in the universe that will help us attain our invented purpose.

Some of us embrace the freedom this provides. If there is no grand plan, there is also no restriction on what we can be. The less fortunate half flee in terror, and beg for others to invent a meaning for them. The latter live out mediocre, inauthentic lives, clinging to a meaning that’s no less imaginary than what they could cook up by themselves.

Career wise, the implications of firm belief in destiny and meaning are:

  • Lack of ambition
  • Lack of personal responsibility
  • Retroactive self-delusion

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1. Lack of Ambition

When you accept meaning and destiny, a great sense of contentment falls upon you.

That comes from knowing (however fictional the belief) that you are in the place you’re “made for”, and that everything will be alright because the universe / god / magic elves are on your side. This great sense of security and contentment comes from a complete and total lack of ambition.

My favourite story from the Odyssey is when Odysseus meets the lotus eaters – a race of people who have access to a potent herb, that when eaten fills them with contentment. As a result, the entire race gets nowhere; they lounge around doing nothing. Had Odysseus succumbed to their way of life, he would have abandoned his wife, child, and kingdom.

(If you want a biblical example, it’s the servant who buries the talents and does nothing with them.)

Content people are lazy people. They don’t crave more. They don’t make the effort to imagine themselves, or their world, being better than it is now. They are the death of progress, and they worship mediocrity.

These people end to stay put in their careers, rarely moving from employee to business owner. This is the kind of person who, if they had a million dollars, would lose money by parking it in a fixed deposit and letting it waste away. If they’re politicians, they don’t envision a better tomorrow; they just want a tomorrow that’s like today.

This is what happens when you’re 100% sure you’re where the universe wants you, and that you have a divine mandate to never move your ass.

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2. Lack of Personal Responsibility

A rock has no say in whether it’s part of a landfill, or an award winning landscape design. A brick has no say in whether it’s part of an outhouse, or a grand lighthouse. Corn has no responsibility on whether it lives to become pig feed, or as an ingredient in a Michelin star dish.

You are none of these things.

Whatever your job or your place in life, it’s up to you whether you just accept it or do something about it. But it is not the fault and responsibility of divine powers – it is wholly on your shoulders.

Another dimension of personal responsibility:

When you believe in destiny and meaning, atrocities are within close reach. Countless war criminals were fulfilling the “destiny” of their nation, or were just following orders, determined by their purpose in the military machine. Destiny and meaning provide great fuel for fanaticism, because they take away any form of self doubt.

The easiest way to silence your conscience is through faith –  through unquestioning belief that whatever you do, it’s right because its part of your (or your organisation’s) destiny.

This is also how employees of forest-burning palm oil companies convince themselves they’re guiltless – their place or purpose is just to listen to the boss. So if they wreck a forest and pollute the air, then it’s the management’s fault.

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3. Retroactive Self-Delusion

Destiny and meaning are often used to destroy learning opportunities. How? By convincing the believer that a serious mistake, which should never be repeated again, was “a good thing”.

Believers in destiny love to attribute failings to a universal plan. “Oh, I lost my job by hanging around on Facebook instead of working, but I guess it was meant to be! And now I’ve found my place in life as a beach bum living off dad, so everything’s worked out!

When you believe strongly enough in destiny, any disastrous outcome can be glossed over – along with your personal responsibility (see point 2) for that outcome.

What’s even more amazing is the “flip flop” ability that comes with this. Some people can believe they’re destined to be a surgeon at first, but when they flunk out of school and end up selling illegal cigarettes, they’ll say their true destiny all along was to help oppressed smokers.

The good thing – the only good thing – about failure is that it helps you learn and progress. But when you dismiss it as part of your “destiny” and what was “meant to be” you deprive yourself of even that.

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So what’s the alternative?

There are plenty of powerful driving forces for any career, but that’s a subject for another day. Like me on Facebook and you’ll see it when I post it. In the meantime, I can offer a frank opinion on what doesn’t work: living on destiny. You don’t whip out a set of tarot cards for a business decision (I hope), so don’t rely on occult forces to inform your career choices.

Agree? Disagree? Want to pelt me with psuedo-theological / mystical arguments? Do it on Facebook!

Image Credits:

jkmaree, divot agency, Smarter Egg, Dan Hilbert, Rank Mountain, BirdsEye Consulting

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