A life with segmented purpose

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From the moment I hit my point of realization, I frequently thought about ways to achieve quality of life through fulfillment in the things I do. We are likely to limit ourselves through our entire lifetime by constraining the things we seek fulfillment in.

As of the date of this writing, my home page describes me as a Creative Technologist because it is the best umbrella term that describes me. A downside to that title is the vagueness in what I do. But what’s the alternative? It will be using a term that curbs what I am supposedly capable of. Something like Frontend Engineer. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being a frontend engineer and I could have that title for work if it were the position I applied for at a company. Constraining titles like that fit right into the way organizations work because a lot of times, we are nothing more than the role we were hired for. As bad as that may sound, I think it is a good thing to respect and leverage the constraints of our work positions. It means we are not overworking beyond the roles we were assigned. It does not mean we choose to be stuck in that position forever. We should definitely work towards promotion as stagnation breeds boredom and deterioration1.

Beyond the boundaries of work, I do not think we should hold the same titles we hold at work because work constraints do not apply to our life. I once valued being a specialist over a generalist so much, then I realized that although they may be antonyms of each other, it does not make them mutually exclusive. So, how does one simultaneously be a generalist while being a specialist? Through distributed specialization. I wrote on this 7 years ago but it was less articulate.

The thing with centralized specialization is that it creates this myth of purpose that people end up chasing throughout their lifetime and never feeling fulfilled about, as seen in the Pixar movie - Soul. If you haven’t seen the movie, here’s a short explainer video I would really recommend you watch.

A wrong interpretation of this movie will be concluding that we do not need purpose as it can only lead us to feeling lost and dissatisfied in life. Finding purpose is only really difficult when we focus on finding a singular source of satisfaction and happiness for our multi-phased life.

Decentralization destroys monoliths

As different forms of decentralization destroy monolith, we go from looking up to an unreachable, mighty entity, into seeing possibilities that might have been otherwise unnoticeable. A distributed purpose might seem like having no purpose at all and that’s good because it lowers your expectations, which leads to lowered disappointments.

Distributing your purpose

We have established that distributing your purpose can help shatter the myth of purpose while retaining purpose. I do this by having segments for each purpose, and allowing for a cascade among purpose. Here is a definition of cascade I like in this context:

A process whereby something, typically information or knowledge, is successively passed on.

Just like waterfalls cascade into bigger bodies of water, we do not have to begin our life chasing after a big purpose. Be the waterfall!

It is 2021 and I am called a software engineer in my full time job, and an adjunct instructor in my part-time job, but here is how I got here: I got computer security certifications, loved every bit of security and prepared to be a licensed penetration tester, but I only went as far as being an instructor for various cohorts pursuing the same certification I had once acquired. I loved Linux machines as they were where I spent the most of my time as a security professional. I was once into drawing comics in my school notes while in middle school and memories of that made me think I wanted some association of art with what I did. As unrelated as drawing comics is to managing a Linux machine, I got caught somewhere in the middle and started trying to address the ugly user interface of my powerful Linux operating system. From trying to create my own fancier KDE desktop, to building GUI in Qt, GTK, and writing what is still my most viewed article on this blog about building GUIs in Python. I thought it only made sense to be a backend software engineer with the things I already knew and liked when security was not working out for me in Nigeria. After a few years of working as a backend engineer, I had to freelance and find people to pay for design and frontend work for my gigs. This led me into learning those skills to be able to deliver myself as a full package to my clients. I am also currently into playing basketball and cooking.

From that short story, here are some life niche I can extract: Comic artist, OS GUI developer, Security professional, Designer, Chef, Frontend engineer, Backend engineer, Writer, Teacher. In all these explorations, I never felt like I was switching from one thing to another and starting over. They all flowed into each other. After observing this, I decided it was up to me to prepare the plunge pools I want to flow into as a waterfall. Then I started scheduling things to do at certain ages.

Between 25 and 30 (I am somewhere in between) I will get a little more into evolutionary art and more generative art. At 38, I will be getting into woodworking and sculpture, at 45 I will get into painting. At each of these breakpoints my goal is to do these more, and reduce my time on other things that I may still have to do either for work or for personal businesses. I can be a specialist painter at 46 and still work as a software engineer, while dialing down the time I spend on software outside work and dialing up a very specific branch of painting.

We are met with the myth of purpose when we try to narrow down just one out of the things that define us, and base our entire life on that one thing. A better alternative to that will be to amplify specific life purposes across different time periods of our life.

The quandary of being a generalist is that you only get to scratch the surface of everything in your horizon. To have the specialist kind of impact in a job that requires you to be generalist, you might need to have once lived as a specialist in at least one of your areas of generalization. As a full-stack software engineer, I think the areas I have specialized in the past help me do a better work as a generalist. You might find me describing myself as a specialized generalist.

I will like to hear your thoughts. Have you limited yourself by a title? Have you been told to do something a little different from what you do and outrightly replied that you are not capable without trying? Are you like Joe from the Soul movie that only talks about Jazz at the barber shop, that your barber wishes he could talk about something else with you, and you just care about the one thing you feel is your sole life purpose.

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  1. Stagnation leads to the result of doing nothing about a broken window. ↩︎