Think, Reflect, Act.
A manifesto about purpose.

The Argument

Every day we make decisions, work on projects and think about what to do next. We set goals that seem impossible to achieve and oftentimes become distracted, confused, lost in thought or overwhelmed.

When this occurs, there are questions that come up and lie at the core of our every choice and action. How do we choose in what way we spend our time? How do we measure when we’ve succeeded? What is our purpose in life?

I’ve written this manifesto to explore an answer and in short it’s this:

Our purpose is to live with intention, expand our ability and gain overview. Ultimately we learn to love the process, not the results, because the process is what we will always be in.

To expound on these ideas this manifesto is split into three parts. First we’re looking at the scope of our lives to gain overview. Next, we consider the abilities needed in order to achieve our goals. And lastly we contemplate what it means to live with intention.

Part one: the scope of our lives

Dick Gordon’s intelligence, skill, discipline and mentorship helped to prepare me for the challenges of being the Lunar Module Pilot on Apollo 17. I will be forever grateful for his guidance, patience and good humor. He will be missed, greatly. “Time is relentless,” Dick was fond of telling me during our Apollo 15 training, indeed it is.

— Harrison H. Schmitt, Apollo 17 Astronaut

To get an overview of our lives we must zoom out. Imagine a horizontal band with two demarcations. Everything within those two marks are our life and our life’s experiences. Everything outside of it isn’t ours to experience. This is our lifetime and inside of it we make choices; we get to think, reflect and act.

There is one important aspect to this that makes it all precious. We can not stay within this lifetime forever. There’s a force pushing us. A relentless force marching forever forwards: Time. It is a beautiful asymmetry between the past and the future, it inspires the fundamental laws of physics for the universe we live in and for us it means that we can remember the past and think about the future.

But our experience of life happens in the moment between the past and the future. This small sliver of time which keeps on moving towards the future, is the moment we call the present. The moment that was once the present becomes part of the past; and part of the future, in turn, becomes the new present. In this way time is said to pass, with a distinct present moment moving forward into the future and leaving the past behind.

The choices we make are all linked to time: 
Thinking requires simulating possible futures.
Reflecting requires simulating past experiences. 
Acting requires the current moment.

These activities allow us to glimpse outside of our own lifetime. We can carry things from the past into the future. We can remember them ourselves or use artifacts left by others. Conversely we can create artifacts in the present that others can interact with in the future.

This manifesto, for example, was written in the past for you to experience in the future, its future, being your present. 

Gaining overview

I remember the moon primarily for its vivid contrast with the Earth. I really didn’t appreciate the first planet until I saw the second one. The moon is so scarred, so desolate, so monotonous. That I cannot recall it’s tortured surface without thinking of the infinite variety the delightful planet Earth offers. Misty waterfalls, pine forests, rose gardens. Blues and greens and reds and whites that are missing entirely on the gray tan moon.

— Michael Collins, Apollo 11 Astronaut

When astronauts see Earth from a distance in space they often realize everything is connected. The borders we draw on maps are not visible on Earth and there is nothing other than our planet for us to live on.

This is called the Overview Effect, the experience of seeing firsthand that the Earth in space is a tiny fragile little ball of life, hanging in the void, shielded and nourished by a paper-thin atmosphere. The Overview Effect often transforms the astronaut’s perspective on the planet and humanity’s place in the universe.

On Earth however, we gain overview by taking a step back and looking around us. 

Reflect on what has made your life possible. Who has helped you to get to where you are now? What have they done to inspire you? What resources do you need and use? What experiences do you treasure?

Think about the future. Is there anywhere or anything you would like to be? Are there things you want to experience, people you want to meet or places you want to go?

Part two: organize the best of our abilities

We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people…

But why, some say, the Moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask, why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?

We choose to go to the Moon… We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win, and the others, too.

— John F. Kennedy, 35th President of the United States

At the beginning of our lives our first instinct is to learn. We learn to crawl, walk, then run. We listen to the people surrounding us and repeat the sounds they make, we learn some words, make sentences and later have complex conversations. For the first few years that is enough. The skills we then learn are all things we never could imagine doing, but when our brains are still developing we don’t think about setting realistic goals.

Later when our knowledge of the world and our experiences in it grow, we have to choose what to do next. Through our environment and the skills we have learned our possibilities seem to narrow. Plus every goal that contains unknown factors can seem impossible to achieve on the outset, especially where those goals are outside our current area of expertise and skill. Whereas you can’t be skilled at everything, it is important to set goals that may seem unachievable.

When setting a goal, think of your first years on the planet when you didn’t start out running and conversing instantly. Now you are at a point where you get to choose, which are some goals that seem impossible to achieve? What is the first step you can take to get started? Embrace that it will take time to get there, and start with the small things. It is through careful and persistent work that we gain the ability to achieve them.

The value of time spent

Our moments are brief against the expanse of the universe.

— Sean Carroll, Theoretical Physicist

In school, we learn that what counts in life is being measured in grades and in passing classes; the value of our time lies in the results we get. We measure that at the end of periods with exams and if those are made well enough we pass them and succeed. If we fail we have to take the whole class over again, sometimes even the whole year, regardless of how much or why we have failed. It can feel as though we’ve wasted our time, because of the core emphasis on the result, not the process. School places no value on that sort of wasted time and makes us want to spend as little time as possible doing the work needed to succeed, ideally as quickly as possible. 

When we look at our lifetime however, we don’t want to get to the end as quickly as possible. Measuring the value of the time you spend in results becomes even more absurd when you apply it to other aspects of life, for instance, traveling and relationships.

After spending a week traveling through a different country and you miss your flight back, the whole trip isn’t ruined. That mistake doesn’t affect all the positive experiences you had. Analogously we don’t measure relationships at the end with a test. Imagine you could only consider a relationship a success after ten years of love and attention. What if your partner died after nine years? Was it all for nothing then? Have we wasted our time? No you have not, the relationship is still a success because of all the time you’ve spent together. In other words: the relationship is the time spent together. 

This means we must approach success and failure in a different way. What if we also change the way we define success in other areas of our lives? Then everything becomes the time spent, we don’t value the results but all the individual moments.

Part three: defining our purpose

I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.

― Henry David Thoreau, Philosopher

So we need goals but we never want to reach them? Then what’s the point in setting them?

The point is —going back to time— we can access the past, we can remember it. We can think about the future and set goals. But we can only experience the present moment. 

We need to think about where we want to be in the future and pick a destination. Once we have a destination we can decide what path to follow. We can change the path and even the destination, but we value the present moment.

All together this guides our purpose in life. Our purpose is to show up to each activity with a clear intention to be fully engaged with it. We work with a serene focus to be relaxed and have a sense of enjoyment in that activity. We give that one thing our wholehearted attention.

We think, choose a goal. If we reach a goal, we set a new one, the process continues and we’ve learned from it. If we fail to reach a goal, we reflect and choose a new one, the process continues and we’ve learned from it. We show up with our intention and even when we fail a goal we are successful because we have experienced.

We love the process, not the results. Because we value the time spent and the process is what we will always be in.

Thank you for your time.

Tomek Dersu Aaron Whitfield

With special thanks to the following people. Your company, knowledge and support have taught me to stay curious, question everything and inspired me in my journey to find purpose. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and opinions with me, I look forward to changing mine.

(in order of appearance)

Michael Collins, Michiel Hennus, Frank White, Chris Hadfield, Lynn Whitfield, Luke Whitfield, Sean Carroll, Jimmy Nelson, Demetri Martin, Lera Boroditsky, Samuel de Goede, Jermaine Cole, Iman Whitfield, Mac Miller, Olf de Bruin, Luuk Janssen, Yael Watchman, Jonathan de Bouter, Wiebe Rouwhorst, Thijs Kurpershoek, Joanne van Beek, Karlijn Kuin, Boudewien Chalmers Hoynck van Papendrecht.