Desperately Looking for a Purpose in Life
"Do you know what the scariest thing is? To not know your place in the world. To not know why you're here. That's just an awful feeling."Some people receive the Call to Adventure, but others are left waiting by the phone. Some will be lucky enough to quickly find a thing they can do. There are others who have to search a little bit more. The fellow who is Desperately Looking for a Purpose in Life is searching for what he could be good at or what would spiritually satisfy him, and will try every possibility, even the most outlandish and odd. Obviously, with little or no success. If, for some reason, he succeeds in his new field, he will still feel empty, and will quickly abandon the effort at the first chance, going back to the pursuit of his "destiny." Alternatively, the character indeed had found that satisfactory goal of life in the past, but life circumstances had irrevocably separated him from it. Broken-hearted, he tries with other things, often without success. In this case, he will abandon whatever he's doing if there is even a minimal chance of going back to the way it was. If it's a musical, expect this to be expressed with an "I Want" Song or a Wanderlust Song. As the first tab below may suggest, there seems to be a specific Japanese variant of this trope, the '(Male) Ordinary High-School Student burdened heavily by ennui at the lack of individual freedom and excitement offered by the modern Japanese lifestyle,' who usually gets swept up into wacky hijinks and this frames a Wish Fulfillment fantasy for the audience to relate to, but occasionally he has to cope with that dull world in some way. This variant of the trope is particularly likely to display overt symptoms of clinical depression without them being considered in that light. This is what happens when those that Just Wanted To Be Special and would have Jumped at the Call never get the opportunity. They just never found their Goal in Life. Compare with Living Is More Than Surviving, the basis of this trope where a purpose beyond survival is necessary for life. Contrast with Straw Nihilist, who believes there is no purpose to find in life. Compare and contrast Allergic to Routine.
— Elijah Price, Unbreakable
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Anime and Manga
- Medaka of Medaka Box was the perfect human. Everything she tried she could do, she could outdo any adult in any academic study, at the age of three, she had and could read entire libraries and she aged physically faster than her older siblings. This of course meant she had no clue how normal humans worked and didn't understand what failure even was, having never experienced it. By the time she was three, she was dangerously close to losing all connection with humanity, not being able to see a reason for anything anymore. Than she met Zenkichi, who told her that she existed to make people happy. This became her entire reason for existing from than on. When she fails for the first time when Zenkichi beats her in the school president election, she nearly snaps and breaks down on the spot, thinking her reason for existing is no longer there and is literally unable to function without it.
- Hisashi Mitsui from Slam Dunk, who was a talented basketball player until a knee injury got him out of the courts. He eventually becomes a delinquent and gang leader out of pure grief; but when circumstances (and the messianic intervention of a certain professor) give him a second chance to came back, he willingly and gleefully abandons the thug lifestyle. Perhaps too willingly.
- Yusuke Urameshi from YuYu Hakusho is a bit of darker example in that ultimately only fighting ever seems to bring happiness, but even that feels empty. He finally dies saving a kid and becomes a "Spirit Detective" but even then he still does not know.
- Eventually he builds up a network of allies, revolutionizes demon politics for at least a while, opens a ramen stand, and gets married. Somewhere in 'having loads of buddies,' 'being a major political presence due to being able to punch mountains to death,' 'starting a family,' and 'not needing to worry about spending his time wisely because he's probably immortal,' he seems to find a happy place. And yes, there is a very bad case of Power Creep, Power Seep going on here. In the first volume, he got blasted into outer space by the ghost of a little girl.
- Note that this is a guy who began the series with only one friend (the girl he ends up married to) and she spent most of their interactions yelling at him. The moments when he started treating Kuwabara as an ally, saved Kurama's life, and trusted Hiei for no good reason respectively set him up to completely change everything at least as much as dying and getting superpowers ever did. And he'd never have survived long enough to recover from his second death without his team.
- This comes full circle in the Anime, where during his final fight of the series with Yomi, Yusuke realizes that he still doesn't have a purpose beyond his anger, and that this is a problem since he is no longer angry. It takes a scolding from Raizen for Yusuke to finally realize what his purpose is: protecting his friends and reconciling his identity so he can be happy with Keiko.
- BlackWarGreymon spends most of his time in Digimon Adventure 02 running around and destroying things for this reason, though this is mostly stemmed from his agonising over What Measure is a Non-Digimon?. Eventually he does find a purpose... if a very short-lived one.
- Nozomi, from Yes! Precure 5, is like this at the start of the series, though she finds something to do by the end of the first episode. She's mentioned to have joined a series of different clubs, always ending in disaster. This is mostly credited that she has a rather short attention span, but when she actually decides that she's doing something, she'll go through it to the end.
- The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. Haruhi's titular melancholy comes from the fact that she's desperate for something so fun and exciting that it'll shake up her life. She's joined every club, dated every boy who asked her out (however briefly), and never lasted more than a week with anything but the SOS-dan, which she started herself. The irony here is that the things she's searching for are right there, and trying to keep her from finding out.
- Subverted by Kyon. The novel opens with him claiming he wanted espers, aliens and time travelers to exist, but closes that speech by saying he's given up and is fine with school and normal stuff.
- The heroine of Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha was like this when we first met her (and very much like this in the manga supplement of the cinematic adaptation), despite the fact that she was nine years old. When a
boyferret from another world asked her for help, she rushed to help him. Hers isn't so much a case of Jumped at the Call as it is already at the springboard looking for it. By the end, she's found her place in life and we now know her as the most Badass Magical Girl in history.
- The ecchi anime series Golden Boy has this with the hero's lust for women. Every episode he meets some new ridiculously attractive woman, and goes on an epic-level mission to win her favor. It inevitably ends with him having somehow managed to win her heart, leaving her ready and wanting... and watching him as he heads off into the sunset, off to win his next prize without even having claimed the last. (Oh, Japan.)
- In the manga one of the girls of the week shows the dark side of this trope. During her arc she gradually falls out of love with with her master, and in love with Kintaro because he will not break no matter what she does to him. So after he leaves because he has learned what he wanted to that arc she decides to chase after him to find a new purpose. In her efforts to track him down she runs across some of the people he helped in the past. She systematically broke them to find out if the purpose they gained from meeting him could be one she could use.
- Autor from Princess Tutu starts to do this when it turns out he's not "chosen" to be Drosselmeyer's heir. He even lampshades it in one scene, when he marches through the streets of his town grumbling to himself "What was I born into this world for?!"
- Lelouch Lamperouge in Code Geass was shown to have elements of this in the first episode, before he got his Magical Eye. He even threatened suicide early on when the prospect of becoming an Ordinary High-School Student again was almost forced upon him by the person who gave him the initial opportunity to change his fate. When his memories were rewritten by the Emperor in the beginning of R2, he was shown to have reverted to this feeling of crushing boredom, tired of high school but convinced the adult world wouldn't afford him any opportunities to live up to his potential, since important jobs were generally reserved for nobility. In both cases, he resorted to high-stakes gambling in order to make things interesting. Luckily, encounters with C.C. changed all that.
- Actually, this is more of an inversion, as he already had his purpose to rebel against Britannia, it's just that at the time he didn't feel capable of doing so until C.C. handed him his Geass. He wasn't looking for a purpose in life, he was looking for a way to fulfill that purpose.
- Rather a subversion - he really was looking like having no purpose in first episode, only to reveal he does have one later. He's just deep under cover.
- Actually, this is more of an inversion, as he already had his purpose to rebel against Britannia, it's just that at the time he didn't feel capable of doing so until C.C. handed him his Geass. He wasn't looking for a purpose in life, he was looking for a way to fulfill that purpose.
- The titular character of Puella Magi Madoka Magica has this as her fundamental character problem. Though it gets eclipsed by later events, she was quite willing to become a Magical Girl just to have a purpose.
- Homura was also this, being a socially isolated orphan who spent half her life in the hospital. Part of the reason she protects Madoka so adamantly is because- painful as the task is- it gives her a purpose to strive for and center her identity around. (In the finale, when this goal is actually achieved, she freaks out and starts crying.) Homura's character arc ends with her finding a meaningful purpose that isn't dependent on Madoka or anyone else and asserting it as she fights Wraiths.
- Hachiken Yugo from Silver Spoon has this as one of his major problems.
- In Neon Genesis Evangelion, Shinji gets assigned to save the world from aliens starting in the first episode, but he still feels like he doesn't know what his purpose in life is. Pretty much the entire show becomes about this. Midway through the show, he discovers that piloting the Eva gives him purpose, and the last two episodes are all about him now trying to find meaning without it. Other characters have arcs like this too.
- A darker example happens in Zombie Loan, where Reiichirou Chiba becomes so jaded with his boring life and how predictable his future will be that he kills himself. At which point he comes back to life as a superpowered zombie and becomes a serial killer. So... he did kind of get his wish.
- He is an extremely happy character. So, yeah. Cruel, psychotic bastard, but quite happy.
- In A Certain Magical Index, the main character Touma bemoaned his lack of ability, with his power not able to fight thugs, help his test scores, or get him a girlfriend. That is until Index falls onto his balcony and he is suddenly thrust into a world were his ability is the only thing keeping him alive as he desperately tries to save people.
- Maon from Tamayura has this, making her hop from one hobby to the next.
- Bleach: Kurosaki Ichigo experienced this during the Time Skip after sacrificing his powers to defeat Aizen. Despite assurances to his friends and family that he was happier as a normal person, all of them understood he was lying to himself. It's no surprise to anyone when he blindly latches onto the first opportunity to gain power again.
- This is Yagami Light's state of being as Death Note opens. He despises the state of the world, finds no challenge or meaning in anything, has no hobbies, views his highest ambitions as a matter of the course of time, and yet always does everything perfectly, like laughing at jokes that aren't funny told by people he may even loathe because good, clean-cut students socialize, and studying for exams he could pass in his sleep. He shows symptoms of a clinically depressed possible psychopath, with reputation-defense and control issues to beat the band. And his egomaniacal tendencies begin to dominate his personality after he finds his purpose in conquering the world by fear and murder once he got his hands on an Artifact of Doom that removed the consequences from hurting people.
- This trope is what at least Niikura Shou was experiencing when he discovered his origins and Akumetsu the clone army was born. Most other Shous are only shown after a lot of brainsharing, body-replacement, and Akumetsu's launch, so they aren't really individuals anymore, but him at least, and probably Hazama too.
- Shibuya Yuuri (Harajuku Fuuri) of all people, was like this before stepping into his role as king of Shin Makoku. Typified by his not actually playing any baseball even though he likes it and trying to walk away and let Muraken get bullied, but not being able to go through with it once he realizes he's been recognized. Then he gets himself swirlied into another dimension while Murata apparently cravenly abandons him, presumably runs straight for the cops, and in reality must have stood right beside the toilets facilitating the dimensional leap from his side to make it possible.
- But he doesn't take the kingship because they're offering him power and meaning; the whole deal freaks him out, until he can only influence whether there's war by accepting. It takes him a while after that to adapt, and even then it's largely less him 'growing up' than him forgetting to whne or worry about himself because he MUST SAVE THE WHOLE ENTIRE WORLD AS SOON AS HE NOTICES EVERY PROBLEM IT HAS. If he weren't such an unobservant moron, he'd work himself to the bone. As it is, he almost-dies way too often for his retainers' comfort.
- Sorata of The Pet Girl of Sakurasou is surrounded by geniuses and hard workers with clear goals in mind (if a tad... eccentric) while he himself doesn't know what to do with his life.
- Hinted to be a common trait of Ashikabi, prior to meeting their Magical Girlfriends in Sekirei. The majority were in one manner or another failing in life, and lacked direct or purpose prior to meeting their Sekirei, but this is best exemplified by Minato and Mikogami. Minato was the Ordinary College Student type that was failing at life, and feeling lost until destiny literally fell on him, while Mikogami was a Lonely Rich Kid with controlling parents, who desperately wished for "something amazing" to happen.
- The main theme of Mewtwo's story in the Pokémon animé. After concluding that his early life was not at all to his liking, he decides to make his own purpose - first as a genocidal supervillain hellbent on world domination, then, when that turned out to be a bad idea, he settled as guardian of the clones he created. The last we see of him, along with various cameos in the opening credits of other seasons and movies suggests he's taking up traveling the world.
- Serena didn't know what she wanted to do for her Pokemon journey for most of XY's first season — her mother pushed her to be a Rhyhorn Racer, but she didn't really like it. She eventually decided to be a Pokemon Performer after meeting Shauna.
- Destruction, the prodigal of The Endless in Neil Gaiman's The Sandman, decides he wants to try creation for a change, but despite enthusiastic dabbling in painting, poetry, sculpting, flamenco guitar, sidewalk chalk art, gourmet cooking, etc. the results are invariably mediocre: he can't seem to find his callingnote . Subverted by him still being cheerier than most of the other Endless save Death, and far more content than he was before he left his office.
- Parodied in one Far Side strip, where a man pulls a bizarre object, complete with springs and brooms, from between the couch cushions. The comic's caption reads: "Edgar finds his purpose." In the collected edition, Larson said this was based on someone he knew whose girlfriend's father accused him of not knowing what his purpose was.
- Donald Duck has "found and mastered his true purpose in life" about a billion times now. No matter if it means facing danger or going against common sense, he will keep trying again, and again, and again, convinced the next time will be it. What if that doesn't work? Next time surely will!
- Jay Garrick of Earth 2. He barely graduated college and his girlfriend left him to follow her dreams. While he sits on a hill thinking what to do with his life, the roman god Mercury lands by the hill. With his dying breath, Mercury transfers his powers to Jay; giving him the speed of a god and he becomes The Flash.
- Kate Kane, after being discharged from the army under the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy spends years of her life aimless until she is inspired by Batman to become a vigilante.
- Annihilation: This is part of the reason Gamora is upset when saved from the Phalanx, since being part of them made her feel like she had a purpose again, after being spurned by the cosmic higher-ups under undisclosed circumstances. Her ex-boyfriend Richard Rider uses this to convince her to join the Guardians of the Galaxy.
- The two main characters in Lost in Translation have this problem, which they express by moping. So much moping.
- In Guillermo del Toro's Hellboy II: The Golden Army, most of humanity's folly originates from this; the beginning mentions humanity was created with a hole in their hearts. It's implied this leads to do whatever in search of purpose.
- This is the problem of the main character from Mike Judge's Office Space: he's completely unhappy about his job, but has no idea what else to do with his life.
- ... And of course, Luke Skywalker in Star Wars A New Hope! Constantly complaining about being shut in the door of Uncle Owen's house, he wants to seek to do something significant to change the crapsack reality of the galaxy produced by the Evil Empire. Fortunately, meeting Obi-Wan Kenobi grants him his wish at last (along with the death of his uncle and aunt), and he has consequently been kicking the empire's sorry ass for the rest of the Star Wars saga.
- Mr. Incredible in The Incredibles after the super hero ban.
- In Ikiru, Kanji Watanabe realizes after being diagnosed with stomach cancer that he never accomplished anything worthwhile during his thirty years as a lifeless petty bureaucrat in City Hall. He sets his sights on pushing a park through the Obstructive Bureaucracy he is so familiar with so he could die having done something.
- Both the protagonist and the antagonist in Unbreakable are revealed to be struggling with this, only finding their purposes (to be a hero and a villain, respectively) at the film's end.
- Part of Wesley's Character Development in Wanted. Stuck at a dead-end job that he hates and is driving him slowly insane...until he finds out that there's other options available.
- In The Wolverine, Logan is essentially a wandering hobo when the film starts, mostly just living in the wilderness and avoiding contact with people as much as possible. Only when he meets Mariko does he start to have a renewed hope to go on living.
- In Kingsman: The Secret Service, before meeting Harry again, Eggsy had resorted to drugs and petty crimes, didn't have a job and had dropped first gymnastics and then his training for the Marines despite excelling at both. Harry saw that he still wanted to do something good with his life and gave him the opportunity to become a Kingsman.
- In the Hurog duology, the increasingly bleak prospects with regard to him becoming the Hurogmeten of Hurog, make Ward irritated and grumpy - which he doesn't notice until after he found himself a new purpose in life. He was desperately looking for a purpose without even knowing that that was what he was doing.
- Subverted in Vorkosigan Saga. Mark states that his only purpose in life was to kill Miles and Aral, and now that Ser Galen was dead, he had no purpose in life anymore. Cordelia reassures him that almost no one has any purpose in the first place.
- Mr. Toad of The Wind in the Willows has constantly shifting obsessions that always seem to get him in trouble. First it's boating, then a road trip in a gypsy-style caravan, but his most famous (and infamously disastrous) craze is motor-cars.
- In the beginning of Black Legion, most of its founders are looking for a reason to be and Abaddon brings them together, giving them a purpose.
You're a warrior without a war.
- Telemachon strives for something more than Emperor's Children's rampant sensation seeking, although he hides it beneath mask of contempt.
- Falkius and his Sons of Horus, after having Horus' body stolen, is pretty much adrift with no identity nor purpose to speak of.
- Khayon mostly travels from place to place, working for whoever pays him and simply trying to survive. His daemon Gyre lampshades it:
- The chief preoccupation of Pierre Bezukhov and Andrei Bolkonsky, two of the main characters of War and Peace.
- Arthur Dent of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy fame. From his initial vague unease and doubt about working in BBC radio, to the end of the universe, and beyond.
Slartibartfast: ...the only thing to do is to say, "Hang the sense of it," and keep yourself busy. I'd much rather be happy than right any day.Arthur: And are you?Slartibartfast: Ah, no. Well, that's where it all falls down, of course.
- Slartibartfast has this problem. He finds some temporary fulfillment in creating fjords, but will readily admit that it's just something to keep himself busy. Later on he gets into the universe-saving business, but doesn't ultimately seem all that much more enthusiastic about it when it comes right down to it.
- And Zaphod Beeblebrox at the beginning of "Life The Universe And Everything", having finished his mission from the first two books is sitting around on the Heart of Gold ship feeling bored with his lack of purpose.
- Little Bran thought his future was essentially set in A Song of Ice and Fire; grow up, become an honorable knight, and everything else expected of a younger son to a great families with ties to the nobility. Then he was crippled for seeing too much. His storyline for the next few books focuses heavily on finding his purpose in life.
- The antagonist of Dean Koontz's From the Corner of His Eye is a man named Enoch Cain who spends the entire book searching for a purpose in his life through the various decadent social movements of the 1970s. Since Cain is also a sociopath with no qualms about killing, Hilarity Ensues. He ultimately fixates on finding and killing the main character, Bartholomew, after a series of genuine coincidences lead Cain to believe that Bartholomew is his great enemy.
- Shada D'ukal after leaving the Mistryl in the Hand of Thrawn series.
- The protagonist of Biting the Sun is bored out of her mind with the endless-sex-drugs-and-partying lifestyle of her society.
- In the Dale Brown novel Flight of the Old Dog, Patrick McLanahan is bored by the repetitive running of exercises and is thinking of leaving the service for the outside world where he believes he can make an actual difference. If you started Brown's books from anywhere else, you'll know that he eventually finds his purpose.
- The Protectors in Larry Niven's Known Space universe are biologically hard-wired to give up and die if they have no living descendants... unless they can find some project that gives them a sense of purpose by advancing the interests of the Pak race as a whole.
- At the start of Cate Tiernan's Immortal Beloved, the immortal main character has been going from party to party with her immortal friends because she had absolutely nothing better to do, and is kind of getting sick of the whole thing.
- The book of Qohelet (a.k.a. Ecclesiastes) involves Solomon trying all sorts of things, but finding them vanity. He eventually comes to this conclusion:
Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.
- Kirei Kotomine from Fate/Zero expands his motivations and backstory behind his actions in Fate/stay night and is ultimately revealed to be this trope. In his entire life, he has excelled in several fields, climbing up one field then quickly dropping it for something else. Even his marriage and child were simply parts of trying to find what he was lacking. He says that he has no desire for the Holy Grail, and questions why the Grail would choose him, since he has no desires whatsoever. Then Gilgamesh comes along and tells him to "seek pleasure" in watching the actions of other people. By the end of the prequel novel, he has realized that what he likes the most is watching people suffer, but he's not happy because he still has a conscience and knows the one joy in his life is wrong.
- In Michael Stackpole's Age of Discovery, Nirati Anturasi spends much of the first book desperately looking for her special talent, which she theoretically could become a mystic at. She later decides that the only thing she ever accomplished was "dying really well", and fortunately for her, there a vacancy in the God of Death position.
- The Exile's Violin: Clay volunteers at Jacquie's detective agency because he has nothing to do and it was driving him crazy. Before that all he did was waste time and money at auctions he didn't care about because of his family's status dictated he do so.
- The entire group in Of Fear and Faith have shades of this, but Phenix and August are the most pronounced.
- This trope is thoroughly Deconstructed in The Moviegoer. The main character Binx is quite content to be an ambitionless movie goer, making money and going on dates.
"What is the nature of the search? you ask. Really it is very simple; at least for a fellow like me. So simple that it is easily overlooked. The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life."
- Violet Macrae in Ari Bach's Valhalla is utterly without purpose, as per the first sentence in the novel.
"Of the million people in Kyle City, there was none so aimless as Violet Mac Rae."
Live Action TV
- Cheers: Diane Chambers has this as one of her main sources of angst—leading to a major Heroic BSOD in Season Five's "Everyone Imitates Art". This ultimately leads to Sam convincing her to call off their wedding in the season finale, telling her to instead go off and take the opportunity that has opened up for her—thus ending the "Diane era".
- John Watson is sad to be in this position at the start of Sherlock. Then he meets the titular detective and quickly ends up with more purpose than he knows what to do with.
- He tearfully admits this at The Reichenbach Fall.
- "I was so alone, and I owe you, so much."
- "I-I am nothing."
- And winds up getting a wife, and finds out that he already does have a purpose, as well as the fact that his best friend cares for him and will help out without any hesitation should John need it.
- Series arch-villain Sylar goes through this in his storyline in Volume 4 of Heroes, including a road trip to find his biological father and an identity crisis where he starts having conversations with his dead adoptive mother. With some prodding from dead mommy, he ultimately decides to Take Over the World and attempts to become President of the United States (It Makes Sense in Context).
- Lost: John Locke is so blinded by his need to be special and needed that he ends up getting duped both off-island and on by anyone who tells him that he is important, eventually leading to his demise.
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer:
- Both Xander and Giles in season 4. Xander goes through a series of McJobs before finding something he's good at and enjoys, and Giles is totally at loose ends, even going as far as watching daytime TV to entertain himself.
- Buffy looks like she's slowly turning bonkers in Season 9 after everything she lost.
- In Season 9, Andrew reveals to Buffy at the party that he's set up a disaster relief fund with some other slayers, much to her dismay as he has made something of his life and she, as yet, has not without being The Slayer.
- Angel in Season 9, after his Heroic BSOD in Season 8 having killed Giles. What brings him out of his Heroic BSOD is the hope that can find a way to resurrect Giles.
- Liv in the first episode of Series/Izombie.
- This is a recurring theme for Commander Sinclair on Babylon 5 during the first season. It doesn't get resolved until his third season reappearance where it turns out his true purpose is to go back in time and become Valen.
- Garibaldi points out in an early episode that Sinclair goes about looking for his purpose by putting himself into suicidal situations. Garibaldi's theory is that Sinclair is doing this because "it's easier to find something worth dying for than something worth living for." In another episode, Delenn implies that this trope is the reason she didn't tell Sinclair about her decision to go down to Epsilon 3 to try and get the Great Machine working. She feared that if Sinclair had gone with, he would have plugged himself into the Machine, and she felt his destiny lay elsewhere.
- On Person of Interest John Reese was soldier who gave up the woman he loved to serve his country. When she needed his help, he could not get to her in time because his superiors betrayed him. Despondent he becomes a homeless bum living in the streets of New York. Then Finch finds him and offers him a chance to do something good with his life once again. Instead of focusing on the 'big picture' they are going to save lives one person at a time.
- In the Supernatural episode "All Hell Breaks Loose, Part Two" (S02, Ep22), we see that Dean has only ever seen himself in relation to his role to other people in his family and without his father or brother he sees his own life as worthless.
- In Parks and Recreation 's 7th and final season, April seeks out a 'purpose' through finding a job that suits her wants (and, in a hilarious scene, looks for this in a visit to the morgue with Ben).
- On The 100, Jaha gets this problem in Season 2. In the Season 1 finale, he sacrificed himself to save his people and atone for his sins. Except he didn't die, and is left to find a new purpose for himself, convinced he must have a grand destiny to fulfill. He convinces Murphy to join him in looking for a purpose in life, but for Murphy, it's not really done "desperately", but with a tired shrug and a comment that "I just got nothing better to do."
- Christian rock artist Michael W. Smith's first hit in the early 1990s was "Place In This World", whose chorus is thus:
looking for a reason
roaming through this night to find
my place in this world
my place in this world
nothing left to lean on
I need your light to help me find
my place in this world
my place in this world.
- Uruguayan rock band El Cuarteto de Nos satirizes the trend in their song "Ya no sé qué hacer conmigo" ("I don't know what to do with myself anymore"). The song carries the trope to the logical extreme: when one tries too many (often contradictory) things, one tends to end as a Stepford Smiler of the mask-only type.
And I hear a voice who without a reason says"You always changing; now you wont change anymore"And I am becoming more the sameI don't know what to do with myself anymore
- "The Righteous Path," by the Drive-By Truckers
- The Beatles once got bored with the void life of a superstar, so they went to India (or somewhere) looking for a spiritual guide to give them the purpose of life. It failed. The result was the song "Across the Universe" from Let It Be:
Jai Guru Deava Ommm (Which means "Thanks spiritual master" in Sanskrit)Nothing's gonna change my world.
- In part the subject of Arcade Fire's song "Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)" from The Suburbs'':
These days my life it seems to have no purpose
But late at night the feelings swim to the surface.
- "Wide Wide River" by The Fugs from It Crawled Into My Hand, Honest:
I've been floating in this river of shitOver twenty years and I'm gettin' tired of itBut I've got to keep swimming in this river of shit, 'cause I don't want to die
- The archetypal example here is Willy Loman, the salesman who dies looking for success and the American Dream in the business world, when his true talent lies in mechanics and carpentry and he's long since turned down the opportunity to go work in the outdoors. Also his son, Biff, who ends up rejecting the dream his father had worked for and decided to make his own way in life, no matter how humble and small it might have been.
- Avenue Q: Princeton, a 22-year-old English major, spends the entire musical looking for his "purpose". He finally thinks he's discovered it when another 22-year-old English major turns up on Avenue Q. His purpose? To write a musical to help people like this kid find their purpose and learn about life, except the idea's shot down by everyone living on Avenue Q. As his neighbor Brian asks, "Are you HIGH?".
- This seems to be part of Nina's problem in In the Heights. Nina is incredibly smart and talented and is the first person in her neighborhood to go to college. But college was a major struggle and after she loses her scholarship she finds herself wondering how exactly she's going to fulfill her goals in life.
- The entire plot of Pippin is the main character's struggle to find his "Corner of the Sky". This being a Stephen Schwartz musical, it's a massive subversion: the players explain to him the end that his search for purpose was "doomed from the start", and try to get him to kill himself in a blaze of glory. Pippin declines, but does he find his purpose? Nope - he gives up, deciding that love is purpose enough.
- Seymour in Little Shop of Horrors.
PoorAll my life I've always been poor.I keep asking God what I'm forAnd he tells me, "Gee I'm not sure."
- Company: In her song The Ladies Who Lunch, Joanne describes different sorts of rich, middle-aged women who wile away their time with different sorts of activities to avoid facing how empty and meaningless their lives are. By the third verse, she is describing herself.
- Over the course of Telltale Game's Sam and Max: Season One, Sybil Pandemik, the pair's neighbor, has a different business in her former tattoo parlor every episode. She's been a psychotherapist, a tabloid publisher, a professional witness, operator of two different dating services (romantic and radiocarbon), a beta tester, and Queen of Canada. In that order.
- Dreamfall: The Longest Journey is basically all about this, with both Zoe and April being obvious examples though their respective endings differ.
- In Final Fantasy X-2, the character Clasko says "I've got to find my place in this world". If you do a sidequest for him, he eventually finds his knack for chocobo ranching. There is some exploration of this theme in the case of the Youth League, New Yevon and the Ronso as well.
- In fact, it's a theme for the main characters too. Yuna having completed her supposed suicide mission is left with a lifetime of summoner training and no ability to use it. Paine is looking for a purpose, any purpose to distract her from what happened on the Crimson Squad, and Rikku (unbelievably, but accurately the most well adjusted of the three) just wants to have fun.
- All of Spira seems to be have fallen into this after Sin's downfall. It's still an improvement since the only "purpose" they had when Sin was around was simple survival.
- Vaan from Final Fantasy XII is like this in the middle of the game. After shifting Out of Focus following the first Act of the game's story, he admits to Ashe that even with his hatred of 'The Empire'' he had no purpose in life, making up stories like "I want to be a Sky Pirate" simply to stave off the feeling of being hollow and alone. He sticks with the party because he's hoping he will find his purpose in life with Ashe.
- The Persona series:
- Somewhat grimly done with Mitsuo is Persona 4 who becomes a copycat serial killer in a vain attempt to feel like he's doing something important or satisfying. When the party enters his section of the TV world, it turns out to be a NES style RPG dungeon, aptly titled "Void Quest." Along the way, we get some delightful narration along the lines of "Mitsuo slays Television Anchor (referring to a real murder in the outside world). Mitsuo gains a level. Mitsuo gains 2 Emptiness points." His shadow (the repressed part of himself) tells him that he has no purpose in life and that he'll never feel satisfied with anything. Unlike everyone else thrown in the TV world up to that point, he doesn't conquer his shadow and merely gets arrested while still in denial.
- Persona 3 has Junpei Iori, who struggles with the knowledge that defeating the Shadows will mean having to face this trope head-on. It also has Yuko Nishiwaki facing the same problem, with her Social Link revolving around her discovering that purpose. It is also treated negatively; Jin Shirato turned evil because Takaya gave him a purpose in life.
- Persona has Ill Girl Maki Sonomura, who puts on a brave face but swiftly becomes apparent that she hates her life stuck in the hospital with reading and painting as her only escapes - but she really doesn't know what she'd do with herself because she's not sure she'll be healthy enough to ever do anything. By Persona 2 she has started working in psychiatry and finds fulfillment in helping others find their own fulfillment and purpose.
- Tatsuya Suou, the protagonist of Persona 2: Innocent Sin, can be read like this. Though a Heroic Mime, others such as his Shadow describe him as someone lost and without a purpose, not knowing at all what he wants to do with his life and unable to connect meaningfully with others. Eternal Punishment has Ulala Serizawa, who has become consumed with her quest to find a husband, yet her relationships keep falling through (or worse), leaving her completely adrift and unable to figure out what she should do with herself.
- In Heavy Rain one of Norman's endings is this He fails to help catch the origami killer and leaves drugs, ARI and the FBI behind to look for purpose and 'see what the real world's like'.
- Grunt in Mass Effect 2 is simply trying to figure out what he wants out of his own life, since he is supposed to be a strong Krogan but feels nothing for the information imprinted in him by Okeer. Shepard helps Grunt find a purpose by helping him get accepted into clan Urdnot.
- Carver in Dragon Age II, who feels inferior to his Mage sister Bethany and more capable older sibling Hawke, and desperately wants to prove himself to be a skilled fighter. Assuming he survives Act I, this can lead to one of two things happening: Either he contracts the Darkspawn taint and is forced to become a Grey Warden to survive, or he chooses to join the Mage-hunting Templars. Ironically, despite having it forced upon him, he finds work as a Grey Warden fulfilling. The Templar order, on the other hand, he turns out to not quite have the stomach for...
- Viscount Dumar's son Saemus finds the Qunari extremely attractive due to their absolute certainty of purpose in life compared to his own wanderings. Not that this ends well for him, as it alienates his father and others. Plus he winds up being killed by Petrice to kick off a war with the Qunari.
- Canderous Ordo of Knights of the Old Republic was once a respected Mandalorian soldier. His people's defeat led to him being desperate enough to take a job cracking heads for a petty crime boss. When he finds the Player Character, he teams up with them to find better prospects. At the end of the game, he admits that he needs more in his life than fighting for fighting's sake. And he certainly finds it by the second game by becoming Mandalore the Preserver, and rebuilding his people.
- Desmond gets hints of this in the Assassin's Creed series. Ran away from the Assassin's compound as a kid, living under a fake identity until he got picked up by the Templars and rescued by the Assassins, it's actually mentioned in the first game that he initially lacks the purpose and self-confidence to use the Animus properly.
- This is Tom's motivation for going to the titular school in Starswirl Academy. While his childhood friend Tai seems to know just what she wants, Tom isn't so sure, so he hopes going to such a prestigious school will help him figure it out.
- This trope is why Fate/stay night's Shiro Emiya and Kirei Kotomine are Not So Different. Neither of them has any sense of self-worth and can only find purpose in other people. The difference is that Shirou's is helping people, while Kotomine's (as noted above) is causing people suffering. And even then, Kotomine still isn't happy, because while the suffering of others is the only thing that makes him happy, that in and of itself makes him unhappy because he knows it's wrong.
- Larry Butz in Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney has two reasons for jumping from job to job: one is to chase after women, and the other is because he has no idea what to do with his life.
- It even extends to the Gaiden Game Ace Attorney Investigations: Miles Edgeworth. He winds up playing the Steel Samurai in Investigations after giving up on art.
- However, his cameo in Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney may indicate that he eventually goes back to painting. Hard to tell from a few pixels, but he is wearing his Laurice Deauxnim colors and standing in front of easel. It's later confirmed in Ace Attorney Investigations 2 where he goes right back to being an artist, and his art surprisingly improves. It's a good theory that Larry will probably be an artist for the longest time. After all, in the third game, he wasn't lying when he said that Elise motivated him.
- Fetch Quest: Saga of the Twelve Artifacts: Lionel is searching for a purpose in life that eludes him, what with his half-elf blood making him outlive his friends and love interests.
- In the first episode of Hexenringe, Cadi is bored with her job as a background extra in action comics and is looking for a purpose in life.
- In Sinfest, God has the Satan puppet talk about the purpose of his life.
- In Worm, Scion, the first and most powerful superhero in the world, is actually one of a pair of Sufficiently Advanced Aliens, but the other entity died, leaving it unable to finish its lifecycle, and it became aimless. It eventually came across a man name Kevin Norton who told it to help people, but felt no satisfaction from doing so. After Norton died, Scion found Jack Slash, who convinced it that killing people would be more fun.
- Mister Bickles in The Fairly OddParents, who seems to have a new lifelong dream every time we see him.
- The Simpsons: Homer Simpson has tried every job possible, often because he feels like he wants to try. A recurring gag on the show is Homer protesting to Marge that this new job is his lifelong dream, only for Marge to bring up another "lifelong dream" Homer had which he'd already accomplished or failed miserably at. Inevitably, he either gets fired for his incompetence, or abandons it for the sake of his family.
- In The Angry Beavers episode "Fancy Prance," it's revealed Dagget has had several thousand "lifelong dreams," and he adopts a new one ("crusty-but-lovable manager") in the pursuit of helping Norb with his lifelong dream.
- Audrey in Little Shop (the Little Shop of Horrors cartoon) had a new life's ambition in each episode.
- Skull Boy, from Ruby Gloom. Each episode, he discovers a talent he didn't know he had, and believes he is part of that heretic. In a musical special, he temporarily runs away to find his place in the world.
- Peri from Spliced.
- My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic: "Call of the Cutie" reveals that ponies gain their cutie marks after discovering their purpose. This tends to occur around a certain age, leading to Apple Bloom desperately trying to discover her purpose because she doesn't want to be the last young pony in her class left 'blank-flanked'. The episode ends with Apple Bloom and two classmates forming a Power Trio called the Cutie Mark Crusaders, specifically devoted to carrying out this trope. They spend various episodes trying to get their marks and while they might not have gotten the desired results yet, at least they're having a lot of fun trying.
- This trope is also used to a lesser extent in "Winter Wrap-up", with Twilight spending most of the episode singing and attempting to find a way to help in the titular event that specifically forbids her using magic.
- Depressingly played with in the animated short "The Monk's Purpose," which aired on Liquid Television. A pilgrim comes to a stone idol in the desert, and asks it, "What is my purpose?" the idol comes to life and eats him, then spits out his staff onto a nearby pile of similar staffs.
- An episode of Little Bill played this lite, with Bill going around trying to "find my thing", the thing he's good at.
- Betty Staines from Staines Down Drains, who is shown starting a new job at the beginning of every episode.
- Avatar: The Last Airbender: At the beginning, Zuko's purpose is quite clear: capture the Avatar and regain his honor. As he begins to question his goals, however, this trope comes more and more into play, culminating in the first half of season 3.
- Nearly every person who has ever lived has gone through this at some point. For some, their purpose comes easy. Others, however look so long and find so little, that they may assume their life is meaningless.
- This is a common state for people who have undergone a massive change in their lives recently, such as divorce, loss of a long-time job, or a sudden lifestyle change like leaving the military.
- People with depression or suicidal thoughts will sometimes feel this way, searching desperately for something that will help them to feel their life has meaning. Made worse by the fact that clinical depression actively makes the sufferer unable to perceive that meaningfulness: whatever he or she tries is doomed to fail. Medication and/or therapy is necessary to break out of the depressed state first.