The Four Purposes of Life: Summary and Key Takeaways

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Dan Millman is the author of a number of books on the subject of purpose. In fact, I could cover every single one of his books in this list. But in order to keep it concise, I’m going with The Four Purposes of Life, one of the books that really digs deep into “finding meaning and direction in a changing world.”

What’s great is that this is not a long book. It can be read quickly, but it is packed full of wisdom.

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Who is Dan Millman?

But first, let’s look at who Dan Millman is. He was born in 1946 and is primarily known as a personal development author and speaker. His biggest book is the 1980 novel, Way of the Peaceful Warrior, which was adapted into a film in 2006.

He has also written many other inspiring books, including Whole Body Fitness, The Life You Were Born to Live, and Body Mind Mastery.

What Are the Four Purposes?

But let’s dig into this specific book, as it is very relevant to those who are looking to find their purpose. It was also written more recently than his other books, drawing on more of his wisdom throughout life.

So what are the four purposes of life?

  1. Learning life lessons: the idea that our daily life is the best teacher.
  2. Finding your calling and career: this is about exploring our talents, interests, and how we can use those in service to the world.
  3. Discovering your life path: this is the idea of the hidden purpose that we are all called on to discover and then live.
  4. Attending to the rising moment: this purpose brings the prior three together and help us understand every moment matters, and that we should be present in every moment. Including right now.

Those court ideas form the basis for Dan Millman’s book, but let’s take a look at some of the key takeaways throughout the book itself.

Life is the Master Teacher

A lot of us want to sidestep our life in order to improve our life. We want to get away from the busy daily routine of work and children and everything else that vies for our attention.

But the reality is, life is part of the journey. In fact, it is the greatest teacher on that journey. If we are concerned that her kids are taking up too much time, we must realize that they are the substance of our life. They are part of what life is trying to teach us.

Millman puts it this way:

“Some years ago I received a letter expressing a dilemma shared by many: ‘Since reading your first book I’ve had a growing interest in spiritual practice, but how can I find the time when I have a wife and three children and a full-time job?’ I wrote back to remind the writer that his wife and children and work were his most important spiritual practices—because true practice is not separate from daily life but rather its very substance…Daily life, and the journey it represents, will remain your master teacher.”

In other words, we need to embrace everything life is trying to teach us.

12 Life Courses

If life is the great teacher, what are some of the best courses to take from that teacher? This is a topic that Millman outlines in his book. According to him, they are divided into 12 core subjects:

  • Self-worth
  • Discipline
  • Well-being
  • Money
  • Mind
  • Intuition
  • Emotions
  • Courage
  • Self-knowledge
  • Sexuality
  • Love
  • Service

If you’re interested in learning more about these 12 areas, I recommend Everyday Enlightenment, another book by Dan Millman.

Life is always testing us in all of these areas. One day we will have a pop quiz and one subject, and the next we will have another.

But, “even Olympians start with the basics.” We all start from the beginning, and as life gives us all of these life lessons we will continue to grow in wisdom, knowledge, and skill.

“Decide to Decide”

This is a concept we’ve seen in other books as well. The idea that we have to stay true to ourselves, and act on what we know is true. This is a concept fundamentally explored in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Self-Reliance.

Dan Millman puts it this way:

“Decide to decide—and when you act, do so with the full force of your being. Second-guessing yourself is a form of self-abuse. As Zen master Ummon reminded his students, ‘When you sit, sit; when you stand, stand—just don’t wobble between the two!’”

Once we have made a decision, that it is our turn to act with the full force of what we can put into it. We need to be all in, 100% committed, otherwise we will be buffeted from one idea to the other.

So let’s get clear on what we’re here to do and put all of our effort into becoming that version of ourselves.

Be Happy Now, “There Is Only Now”

“We learn life’s lessons (the first purpose), we choose our career and calling (the second purpose), and we fulfill our life path and hidden calling (the third purpose) all in this present moment. Welcome to the fourth purpose of life. You have arrived. No matter where you go, and no matter what the clock-face reads, you are always right here, right now.”

Perhaps the most profound thought in this book, which also makes up the fourth purpose of life, is this idea of living life in the now.

Our lives are nothing but a series of moments. In order to find true happiness, we must live in that moment, and find happiness today, now.

Happiness is not found in the future. The grass is not greener on the other side. Happiness is in the present moment. It can be found at any time.

It can be found now.

Great Quotes from The Four Purposes of Life

“While some of us act without thinking, too many of us think without acting.”

“Lao-tzu advised, “As soon as you have a thought, laugh at it,” because reality is not what we think. We perceive the world through a window colored by beliefs, interpretations, and associations. We see things not as they are but as we are. The same brain that enables us to contemplate philosophy, solve math equations, and create poetry also generates a stream of static known as discursive thoughts, which seem to arise at random, bubbling up into our awareness. Such mental noise is a natural phenomenon, no more of a problem than the dreams that appear in the sleep state. Therefore, our schooling aims not to struggle with random thoughts but to transcend them in the present moment, where no thoughts exist, only awareness. Our mind’s liberation awaits not in some imagined future but here and now.”

“But as we mature and begin to grasp that we are often the cause of our own difficulties, we begin a process of compassionate self-observation leading to deeper self-knowledge — denial gives way to authenticity as the light of awareness penetrates our shadow. We come to accept ourselves (and others) as we are rather than as we might want ourselves (or them) to be. And as we embrace the full scope of our humanity, we open the way to genuine growth and transformation.”

“Lessons repeat themselves until we learn them.”

“We learn and grow through challenges, and every adversity has hidden gifts.”

“But are we humans here on Earth to live the easiest possible life? Or are we here to grow stronger and wiser? I believe that St. Augustine knew the answer, which is why he said, ‘Lord, I ask not for a lighter load, but for stronger shoulders.’”

“Our greatest single challenge in every area of self-improvement is transforming knowledge into action – turning what we know into what we actually do.”

“In service we find the master key to a meaningful, purposeful life that connects us to one another, and to our world.”

“Even after we gain insight into a problem, change can be slow and difficult – two steps forward, one step back. Knowing that we have a fear of elevators or of enclosed spaces, the dark, or insects – or even discovering a key incident when it all began – doesn’t necessarily enable us to ride up to the sixtieth floor or relax in a small, dark closet with someone’s pet tarantula.”

“Each moment is a gift. And as the proverb goes, ‘One moment can change a day, one day can change a life, one life can change the world.’”