Noble Purpose: Summary and Key Takeaways

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Noble Purpose by William Damon is probably not a book that you are familiar with. It is not a bestseller, you will not find it plastered all over the shelves at Barnes & Noble, but it is one of the most profound books on the subject.

William Damon is a professor at Stanford University, and one of the little leading scholars in the world on human development. He is written many other books on the subject of purpose, including The Path to Purpose, which we will discuss next.

In 2020, he was named one of “The 50 Most Influential Psychologists in the World”, and he has received multiple awards and honors throughout his lifetime. In other words, he someone we should listen to.

With Noble Purpose, Damon dives into what makes a true purpose, one that makes us feel noble. He goes deep into how we can live this purpose every day, even if it might not seem like we are being particularly heroic. All of us can have a noble purpose in our daily lives.

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What is Noble Purpose?

So let’s start by defining the phrase “Noble Purpose”. The word “noble” probably evokes images of the brave knight fighting the fearsome dragon. But that is not the case of the word noble here.

Having a noble purpose does not mean that you were off fighting dragons all the time. Your purpose doesn’t have to be the same as Martin Luther King Jr. or Gandhi. Instead, you can live a noble purpose in everything you do, in your everyday life.

Damon says it can be found in ordinary existence, such as a parent caring for a child, a teacher instructing students, doctors healing the sick, and other such acts of kindness and service to the world.

So what is purpose? William Damon defines it like this: “Purpose is a stable and generalized intention to accomplish something both meaningful to the self and of consequence to the world beyond the self.”

Formula: Skill + Service + Interest = Noble Purpose

So what exactly does a noble purpose look like? William Damon has a formula, that is probably similar to many other formulas that you have seen surrounding this topic.

If you were to draw this out, it would look like a Venn diagram with three circles intersecting in the middle. These three circles are:

  • Skill, or our “God-given abilities”
  • Service, what the world needs
  • Interest, or what we enjoy doing

For me, I love storytelling. I also love personal development. That is why my business is centered around using stories to help people improve their lives.

What is this for you? What are you good at? What do you enjoy doing? And most importantly, how can you use those things to improve the world around you?

Find that, and you will find your purpose.

How to Create a Noble Purpose

In his book, Damon gives us nine tips on how to cultivate our purpose throughout our lives. Let’s look at each of these:

1. “It is never too early to begin a life of purpose—and it is never too late.”

If you are young, understand that you are never too young to start living a life of purpose. Likewise, if you feel you are too old, that doesn’t apply either. The greatest good you can do will always be ahead of you, not behind, so even if you find yourself near the end of your life, and feel you haven’t found a noble purpose, that can still change, and it is never too late.

2. “Although purpose is everywhere, it may be most readily found in places that are familiar to you.”

Most of us already have an idea of what our purposes. It becomes evident in the things that we are attracted to, the things we like to do, the acts and people that bring us joy. It’s important to take a look around you, to see if your purpose isn’t already before your eyes.

3. “Look around for mentors—‘purpose exemplars’—people who represent models of noble behavior in service of good causes.”

No matter what your purposes, chances are there somebody else that has the same purpose. Look for those people. You will find them throughout history, and throughout the world today. A great way to find these people is to start reading, searching for those whose missions in life resonate with you.

4. “When possible, get support from like-minded individuals.”

You don’t have to pay a coach exorbitant amounts of money in order to find your purpose or excel in your life. Instead, you can spend more time with people that you know who can act as an “purpose exemplar” for you. And if you know of no such people, then simply read books, watch YouTube videos, or listen to podcasts from people who could be great mentors for you. This will have a similar effect.

5. “Be prepared for occasional disillusionment, and resist it mightily. Anyone who harbors a lofty goal inevitably will fall short of completely attaining it.”

Failure is going to happen. That is a foregone conclusion. However, we must resist it and push on, because any goal worth achieving is going to be hard to achieve. And for some, the goals will be so lofty, that they are impossible to achieve in one lifetime. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try. In fact, the loftier our goals, the more we are likely to accomplish in their pursuit.

6. “Stay humble. When passion for a noble purpose turns into self-righteousness, we lose our capacity to learn from our mistakes or even to notice when we are making mistakes.”

This is a critical step. Whatever our purposes, you can’t have it with the intention of gaining fame and fortune. Those things might come anyway, depending on what your purpose is and how you live in your life, but it must not be the goal. In order to have a truly noble purpose, our end goal must not be centered in pride or selfishness. It must be selfless. It must be noble.

7. “Be sure that your purpose stays noble by paying attention not only to the ends that you seek but also to the means by which you pursue it.”

The ends do not justify the means. While it’s important to keep the end goal of your noble purpose in mind, it is equally important to remember how you will arrive at that goal.

8. “Celebrate your purpose, and be grateful for it.”

This is my favorite tip of the bunch. We must celebrate our purpose, we must be grateful for it. To do so is to feel an immense gratitude for the gift of a life of meaning. We need that.

9. “Pass on your purpose to others, especially to the young. Set up apprenticeships. Get young people engaged in the noble causes that inspire you.”

Lastly, we must “pass on what we have learned” in the words of Master Yoda. If we want to change the world for the better, we have to do it by influencing others. This can be as simple as teaching our children to live a fulfilling and prosperous life. But it can also be used in other ways, all of which will vary depending on your circumstances, your profession, whatever it is.

Great Quotes from Noble Purpose

“To live in this way means finding large-scale purposes that concentrate your talents, skills, thoughts, and energies in an enduring manner. It means finding something that you truly believe in, something so worth accomplishing that you dedicate yourself to it wholeheartedly, without qualm or self-interest. It means devoting yourself to a cause, or to many causes, that you consider noble purposes.”

“‘Noble does not always mean ‘heroic,’ if we take ‘heroic’ to mean pursuing daring, life-endangering adventures, like the mythical knights who fought dragons in days of yore. Noble purpose can mean this, and our history books are full of dramatic accounts of courageous acts that saved the day. But noble purpose also may be found in the day-to-day fabric of ordinary existence. A mother caring for her child, a teacher instructing students, a doctor healing patients, a citizen campaigning for a candidate for the sake of improving society—all are pursuing noble purposes. So, too, are the legions of people who dedicate time, care, effort, and worldly goods to charity, to their friends and family, to their communities, and to God.”

“The idea of a ‘calling’ is an ancient notion with religious roots. Max Weber wrote that a calling is a ‘task set by God.’ All individuals have their own particular callings, reflecting three realities: (1) their own God-given abilities; (2) the world’s need for the services their callings provide; and (3) their enjoyment in serving society and God in their own special ways. Much like any noble purpose, a calling is both meaningful to the self and important to the world beyond the self. Christian theologian Frederick Buechner writes, ‘The kind of work God usually calls you to do is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done. . . . The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.’”

“How can you cultivate noble purpose in your own life? Where do you find it, and how can you be sure that this is the right way to spend your time and energy? You can start by impressing upon yourself how important it is to pursue a purpose. The case for purpose that I have made in this little book is substantiated by centuries of scientific and religious writings. Dedicating yourself to a noble purpose not only is beneficial to the world that needs your gifts, it is also essential for your own mental and spiritual health. Remind yourself of this well-documented bit of wisdom daily, and stay determined to do something about it.”