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Nike and the Purpose of Life

May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Nechemia Coopersmith

What is the purpose of existence? Let's first answer: What is the purpose of the Nike shoe factory?

What is the purpose of the Nike shoe factory? Is it to make shoes? Or to make money?

Each of these answers a different question.

Question #1: What is the function of the shoe factory? To manufacture shoes.

Question #2: What is the motivation behind the creation of the shoe factory? It could be to make money, to keep the owner's son out of trouble, to create jobs.

Both of these questions are implied in "What is the purpose of the shoe factory?" Their respective answers require knowing different things. Any Martian can tell you what the function of the Nike factory is. Just go look at the product.

Any Martian can tell you what the function of the Nike factory is. Just go look at the product.

But understanding the motivation behind the creation of Nike is a little more complicated. There could be a bunch of reasons. To get the answer, we need to know Mr. Philip Knight, the co-founder and CEO of Nike. In the seat of his soul lies the underlying motivation.

But you don't need to get to know Mr. Knight before buying a pair of Nikes. Motivation is irrelevant to knowing the function.


When approaching the issue, "What is the purpose of existence?" it is important to separate these two questions.

  • What is the function of our existence? What are we supposed to be doing here?
  • What is the motivation behind creation? Why did God want to do this? What does He get out of it?

To fulfill our purpose, it is essential to understand our function and role in being created. Without knowing it, we live aimless lives and, not knowing the direction we are going in, we can often find ourselves frustrated and unfulfilled, spinning around in circles.

However comprehending God's motivation is irrelevant to fulfilling our purpose, just as knowing Mr. Knight's underlying motivation behind the creation of Nike is irrelevant to buying a pair of running shoes.

No finite being can comprehend the inner workings of God. Not even Barbara Walters.

And while we could interview Mr. Knight to see what really makes him tick, it is impossible to know God's motivation. To uncover what is really driving God requires going beyond our finite limitations to perceive the totality of God's absolute essence. No finite being can comprehend the inner workings of God. Not even Barbara Walters. [see: "Making Contact"].

My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are My ways your ways." (Isaiah 55:8)

Furthermore, the very word "motivation" cannot apply to God. Motivation implies a need. We need the things we lack, whether it's money, prestige or meaning. Motivation itself is a finite concept associated with finite creatures who have needs. But God is infinite. Everything is contained within Him, and there is nothing He doesn't have already. God is complete, perfect in every conceivable way. He has no needs.

So when discussing the issue of life's purpose, we can only speak about function, not motivation.


When I was eight years old, my parents went out one evening celebrating their anniversary. My oldest sister was babysitting, and somehow the idea of making a surprise anniversary dinner came up. We sprung into action -- setting the dining room table for two with romantic lighting, quickly cooking up some concoction. No matter that they were probably out for dinner and about to come home to another meal fussed over by five kids. It was a spontaneous act of giving, one of the first times I can remember getting out of myself to give without any thought whatsoever of what I was going to get in return.

We had a special yearning to give them something precious, even though, looking back, it must have been one nauseating meal.

This was, and still is, a moment filled with love.

Love means giving with no strings attached, only because we care.

Love means giving with no strings attached, only because we care. It's getting outside of ourselves and focusing on another.

Love is the pillar of all existence.

The world is built on kindness. (Psalms 89:3)

Since God is perfect and has no needs, He cannot take; He only gives. Creation is not for His benefit. It is one continuous gift of pure altruism, an act of complete giving without getting anything in return.

"God's purpose in creation was to bestow of His good to another." [Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, The Way of God, 1:2:1]

The function of creation is to give mankind meaning, fulfillment and pleasure. Attaining these is our life's purpose.

This is intrinsic to being human. Just as a pen cannot be anything but a pen, a human being cannot be anything but a pleasure-seeker. Everything we do stems from this innate drive.

A Martian observing mankind could easily discern our purpose by watching what we do all the time. We make decisions that we believe, rightly or wrongly, will lead to some kind of gratification. Even the person who hurts himself does so because he mistakenly believes this will give him some perverse form of pleasure.

Try this exercise: ask yourself why you yearn for any specific thing in your life, whether it's good health, taking a course in creative writing or a drinking a steaming cappuccino. Pick three longings or activities you do in your day, big or small, and keep asking why, until you have reached your underlying motivation.

One rule to this exercise: do not answer in the negative since it deflects you from articulating your forward drive behind your actions.

Let's try one example:

"Why do I want a cappuccino?"

"It makes me feel peaceful."

"Why do I want to feel peaceful?" "Why not?" or "Because I don't want to feel unsettled" are negative answers. Instead give your positive underlying drive: "I want to feel peaceful because it makes me feel whole."

Then ask further: "Why do I want to feel whole?" "Because it gives me meaning."

"Why do I want meaning?"

"Because I can't live without it." This is a negative answer.

"Why do I want meaning? Well ... because ... it's meaningful." At this point, most people start going in circles and cannot go any further. When you have hit this wall, it means you have uncovered a root drive, which in this case is the drive for meaning.

Here are three more quick examples:

the beach relax recharge batteries to accomplish meaning
give wife present express love give pleasure it's my pleasure fulfillment
New car freedom to accomplish meaning

Get a pen and paper, and try this exercise yourself. Write down three different goals, activities or longings and keep asking why you want them until you have reached your underlying motivation. It doesn't matter whether they are mundane or important.

I have done this with hundreds of people from all walks of life and the same core list of drives inevitably come up: satisfaction, fulfillment, pleasure, meaning, happiness. Try this exercise with a group of friends or family and see for yourself. This is our indelible raison d'etre.


We are designed and programmed to attain lasting pleasure. That's our function.

God is not stingy. He wants us to have the premium -- the greatest possible pleasure, just like most parents want nothing less for their children. Anything less than the very best would smack of imperfection, in contradiction to God's perfect essence. This is the best possible world since it is a reflection of God's perfection.

"Since God desired to bestow good, a partial good would not be sufficient. The good that He bestows would have to be the ultimate good that His handiwork could accept." (The Way of God, 1:2:1)

By now you're probably flooded with a number of questions. Questions like: How can this be the best possible world when there is so much pain and suffering? What is the greatest pleasure God wants us to have? How do we attain fulfillment?

These are all important questions – which we'll be addressing in upcoming articles.

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