I wrote this blog post to keep a promise to Amelia and Melinda and Judi and Mary and Catherine and Janet and maybe one other person, probably more, that I can't remember off the top of my head because I'm getting old and my brain is shrinking. I also wrote it for you. If you want. No pressure. It's not like I spent a ton of time on it or anything.
(There's a cheat sheet at the end for the time poor, and the dazed and confused).
Your life's purpose, huh? Seems like a hot-topic of conversation with the cool kids these days, and there aren't many things that get me as simultaneously interested and furiously knicker-knotted as people discussing their life's purpose. There is so much bad advice out there, and so much pressure to BE AWESOME! REACH FOR THE STARS! LIVE WITH JOY AND BREATHE DELIGHT! I know, because it's the kind of nonsense I say all the time. I believe it too, in the right context and with much less capitalisation, the right context being my unending astonishment that any of us are here at all. Because seriously, conscious existence is kind of amazing.
So, first up, let us get a couple of those rampant cultural memes out of the way that I think trip people up a lot more often than they help them. We're influenced (all of us) a great deal by the popular beliefs of the moment and if we don't pull them out from the dusty corner of our brains and take a look at them in the sunshine every once in a while, we're really just acting out a script rather than making an informed choice.
Except, you know, cry and poop and stuff. It's my biggest life-advice peeve, the whole idea that you were born for a specific glorious purpose in this crazy random free-will existence of ours. Even people who tell you they found the thing they were meant to do with their life, are really just saying that they found a way to pass the time that is meaningful to them because it is a great match to their values, aspirations, skills, and abilities, and as such they find it quite affirming and can't imagine swapping it for anything else (yet, she adds, most cynically). That's super cool and super rare. It's not the same thing as being born for a specific (and hence pre-destined) purpose though. What happens if, for instance, the vagaries of fate (war, pestilence, a Trump presidency) rip that one thing out from under their feet for all eternity? How devastating would that be? How anxiety inducing is it to wonder if you'll ever discover this one and only reason for existence, and how depressing to imagine that you could have already missed any chance you may ever have had at achieving it?
Shoot me dead then kill me.
Look. As a species we like to tell stories about the meaning we've made out of the experiences we've had. These stories are coloured by a lot of things, including the culture we live in and the house we were raised in and the people we meet along the way. We are, after all, thinking man. (Well, some of us are). Our brain is always busy, and its job is to make sense out what it comes across in its day, in light of what it already knows. Thus, the sun that warms our planet and keeps us all alive can be either a fascinating ball of fiery plasma or a manifestation of divine blessing, depending on the person doing the thinking. (I like to think of it as an inter-dimensional exhaust pipe emanating from some mega-giant refrigerator in an entirely different universe, but never mind me).
We could argue about which version is 'true' and 'fact' if we want, but let's not. It's boring and isn't, in this instance, the point. Let's instead try examining our beliefs as either helpful or unhelpful, and see where that takes us. (To infinity and beyond! Or at least to the supermarket because I've run out of milk.) Take it from a rank amateur with nice hair, believing that your purpose in life is to uncover and manifest your one true self is not in the best interests of your long term mental health. Aside from anything else, it's just much too large a burden.
Apologies to Ms. Crisp for stealing her fine English phrasing here, but it brings us nicely to an equal and opposite problematic theory of our time. Autonomous choice. If living up to your very best most passionately joyous (and sugar free!) life is a heavy burden, then adding abundant possibilities to the mix is a sure recipe for neurotic meltdown. This is my own personal quagmire, one I was lost in for twenty odd years. True story. Only just escaped, it was a close run thing. I still get the nightmares.
Human beings, bless us, are a lot happier with choosing one thing out of two or three options, than one thing out of three hundred. It's been scienced and everything. It doesn't matter if they're only theoretical things - obviously the practical realities of our day to day life can make some options vastly more realistic than others - it matters that we've all been exposed in some degree to this idea that we can be anything we want. It's hard to be satisfied when we've been fed the idea we can do anything.
Let's repeat that for effect: It's hard to be satisfied when we've been fed the idea that we can do anything.
We'll get to how to make satisfying choices from the options available to you later, but the point I am trying to make here is that the blessing of choice comes with its own problems, and that there are enormous cultural expectations around finding and living with purpose. Whether you consciously believe any of them is a different matter entirely, they are part of the societal soup in which you swim and they can make things harder for you than they need to be. The angst you might be feeling does not all originate from inside of you, and you should probably return most of it to sender.
Before we move on, can we please take a moment to admire the impossible trap all of these impossible expectations can put us in? Live your best life! You can be anything you want to be! Add in the related philosophies of having a right to live a creatively fulfilling existence, and a right to be paid abundant monies for such a privilege, it's amazing we're not all insane. (Unless we all are? If the DSM categories are anything to go by, we actually all are). Predestination meets self-determination meets capitalist privilege and, wait for it ... BOOM and KA-BLOOEY! It's enough to 'splode anyone's brain.
Best thing I learned as a psychology undergrad was that whenever you have a question that needs answering, always, always, define your terms first. (Second best thing was to sit next to Andrea in statistic tutorials). You just can't be sure what a relevant answer looks like if you don't fully understand your question. If you're looking for some meaning, some purpose, to your days, you need to ask yourself, what the heck's a 'purpose' anyway?
Me, I like to look back to the word's etymology because it sounds smart and happens to coincide with what I think our purpose should be. Lucks! Via Old French, it comes to us from the Latin word porposer, which means "to put forth". Doesn't that anxious knot in your stomach loosen just a little when you think about what sort of thing you'd like to put forth, rather than what you should achieve? Mine does. Perhaps that's just me. Perhaps it's all the extra fibre I've been eating.
I love it because it cuts through the cultural white noise, and it removes any outside measures of validation. How old or young or wealthy or educated or smart or talented you may be becomes utterly beside the point. It also takes the emphasis away from defining purpose solely around how you earn a living, and it karate chops the assumption that you may need to wrap all your disparate hobbies, likes, loves, interests, obsessions into one enormous money-making vocational bow. Or that you have to choose between them. Or that even that you have to choose one of them at all. You get to say exactly what the things are that you want to put out into the world, and they can be as abstract or as concrete as you like.
Best of all? The world doesn't have to take a blind bit of notice of it for your life to be a raging triumphal triumph. I mean, I hope they will. Your BFF sure will. It's just handy to know that success is not about them, it's about you.
You don't have to accept my definition for what purpose is (though it is rather fabulous). Hunt out and qualify your own if you'd rather. Look around, search the Google, consume entire swathes of thesauri. Write it all down, circle words and phrases and ideas that spark something inside of you, make connections. Come up with a word, or phrase, that resonates deep inside your mortal soul. Question the assumptions you've been making all these years. It's your life, sweetheart, and you get to define its terms of engagement for yourself.
I only have one rule that I insist every conscious being in all possible universes must follow in defining what the heck a purpose is: whatever definition you decide to adopt, it needs to leave you feeling less depressed or anxious rather than more, and it must offer the possibility of practical, do-able, solutions that fit your own circumstances. It's a simple enough formula. Decreased psychic turmoil + practical possibilities = good; increased psychic turmoil + impossible standards = bad.
(See also: passion, mission, bliss, etc. Question the assumptions behind them all. I dare you. I double triple no-backsies dare you).
If you think about the definition of what 'a purpose' means to you as a black and white outline, then your purpose becomes about how you choose to colour that outline in. We can take life's big fat box of metaphorical crayons and brighten that sucker right up, in any way that takes our fancy. The fun! The pressure!
In this grand metaphor I very cleverly thought up (or perhaps stole from a passing wizard, it's hard to say) our values are the crayons, and our talents (aptitudes, ability, personality) are what we use to draw with. Here's a handy idea to tattoo on your forehead: The route to living a satisfying existence lies in your values, not your talents.
They're both a part of the deal, sure. But most people concentrate on their talents (aptitudes, ability, personality) almost exclusively when thinking about What To Do With Their Lives, then end up wondering why they're sitting in a deep puddle of soul-sucking monotony, or living in the perpetual fear of being a stranger in a strange land who is getting it all disasterously wrong. Our talents just aren't meaningful in and of themselves; they are what we do, not why we do it. That why acts as a motivator when times are hard and/or mundane (and times are often hard and/or mundane). It allows us to get to the end of the day, even a Frodo-in-Mordor sort of a day, and feel some kind of satisfaction that we remained true to our better selves.
Don't underestimate the power of such a thing. Spending a whole bunch of days feeling some kind of satisfaction that we remained true to our better selves means that at some point we will reach that inevitable last day and be content in that moment that we kept remaining true to our better selves. That we lived as we believed.
FYI, people who live as they believe are eternally wrapped in a magic cloak of awesome.
It takes a bit of digging to uncover the things we most value. The key is to notice times in your day when you're feeling stronger and more connected to what is going on than you usually do, when you're feeling a sense of satisfaction with your efforts, or proud of how you handled yourself. What were you doing? What was worthwhile about that experience for you? Keep taking notes over a week or two, notice the similarities, and again, write it all down. (You think you'll remember, but you don't remember).
You need to get really specific. Something like "I value my family" is too vague to be of practical use. Most of us value our families. Very few of us want to spend every single minute of every day solely dedicated to them entirely. I mean, bless 'em, but no. However, we can use a statement like this as a starting point to dig out something closer to meaningful.
I'll use myself as an example. The times that I feel most connected to my family is when we're making each other laugh. But 'making each other laugh' is still way too general; it's also not the only thing I value about us as a family. I like sharing entertaining gifs, movies, books, information I know they'll appreciate; I enjoy the mutual piss-taking of what might politely be called humanity's capacity for irrational thinking. I deeply and truly adore the general household atmosphere of calmness and kindness. Looking back at this list, I can see a strong theme of analytical appreciation (what is humour, after all, but a playful analysis?) and consideration for the individual. I go back and forth with other ideas, but they all come back in the end to these two. So, I put them in a sentence together to see how they fit.
I value the appreciation of critical thought within an atmosphere of playfulness and respect for the individual.
That took me four goes to write down in a way I felt captured the essence of what I wanted to say, but it kind of really rings my bells. It likely won't ring your bells, it isn't meant to. Note also that it's not a manifesto of how I want my family to behave, but a description of values that I want to put forth within it. And though I was thinking specifically about my family, I notice than I have, in fact, written something down that can be more generally applied to many other areas of my life equally well. Specificity is funny that way. You will find that the more specific you are about your values, the more generally useful they will turn out to be.
You can apply the same process to any other value that comes to mind. You'll notice a pattern emerging after a while, a few recurring themes that should form the backbone of your life's purpose. Don't get all concerned about finding your most perfect top three all time values, the ones you notice over the coming week are just fine and dandy as a working hypothesis. If it's meaningful to you, it's meaningful. Don't get worried that you might change your mind later, it's perfectly fine to change your mind later. In fact, if you're growing and learning as an individual, you probably will.
If you find yourself overwhelmed or confused, sleep on it for a few days. If there is just no spark at all, it may be that what you've written down are things you think should be a value for you but actually aren't. It's easy to take on other people's values as your own, easy and toxic to a life of purpose. Perhaps you don't trust the small spark you do feel, perhaps you don't think it's grand or big enough to be important. It's like that childhood game of Hunt the Thimble, just move towards warm and away from cold. Trust yourself, and be completely honest. There are no wrong values if they are genuinely held and reflect aspects of your character that you find truly gratifying. We're not defensive about true and useful values, we don't need anyone else to adore them too. (But don't be a schmuck. It's no-one's purpose in life to value selfishness and cruelty, this exercise is not a license to suddenly dump your spouse and go running off to Bali with your jointly amassed fortune).
If you are honestly feeling that you don't experience anything of value in your day after a couple of weeks, there could be something deeper going on that is dampening your responses. You might want to go visit a trusted mental health professional to figure out what that something is.
We could stop there quite happily, if we wanted. Getting as far as defining your values and making an effort to live them puts you pretty much into the ballpark of a fabulous life already; it's certainly the core of what living with purpose means for you.
I'm pretty sure if you're reading a blog post on living with purpose, you have some idea in your mind about finding a career, vocation, avocation, mission, passion, thing. Preferably paid. I like to think of paid work as the icing on the cake of purpose; okay if you like that sort of thing, but not strictly necessary. However, if you do like that sort of thing, what you need to learn is how to ask yourself the right questions.
(Yes, of course the capacity to pay your bills is not any kind of icing on any kind of cake; it is life's necessary meat and potatoes, and an honoured and honourable goal all of its own. There is no glory or romance or virtue in poverty. What work isn't, though, is the necessary focus of what living with purpose might mean. This is good news. You can loathe your job and still live a life of meaning. You might also want to formulate a future escape plan, who wants to loathe their job?)
A right question is a question whose answer provides you with forward momentum. Think about that for a minute. Think what a crucial qualifier forward momentum is. Forward momentum is an absolute key to any kind of sense of achievement, of self-efficacy, of mastery, of goal attainment. Forward momentum is where it's all at.
Does asking what you're good at move you forward? Doesn't me, can never be sure if I'm good or rubbish, and there's always a learning curve where I'm rubbish, so wrong question. Does asking what your passion is move you forward? Makes me nervous and anxious, and any possible answer changes almost daily, so wrong question. Does asking what you enjoyed doing as a child move you forward? I liked making mud pies, not helpful. Wrong question. Does asking what you should do with your life move your forward? I think that's far too big an overwhelming bite of an infinite apple. Wrong question.
The right question is more likely to be along the lines of something like what are you willing to sacrifice? I don't know what your unique circumstances are, but I do know that anything worth your while is hard. Raising kids, retraining for a new career, starting a business, looking for a job at all. Hard. We can all do hard things, it's just that we can't all tolerate the same kind of hard things. I am not going to be any kind of sports person ever. Continually pushing my physical limits is not a sacrifice I'm willing to make. Same re. party planner, receptionist, chairperson of the PTA.
But as a graduate student, I am willing to sacrifice many of my days to the discomfort of having to read a thousand research articles in an absurdly short period of time, and sacrifice my lolcat time in order to write many thousands of words more. I like the feeling of mastery these activities bring me, even if I don't like the activities themselves. Took me years to feel that sense of mastery, but I was also willing to sacrifice those years in the first place in order to make it here. I really value critical thinking, remember? And I super value learning stuff.
I don't have a definitive list of what other questions might be right for you, but I can tell you there are clues in the obstacles you think you're facing. Any objection you might make can be twisted around into a potentially helpful question.
Believe you're too old? Ask yourself what your experience might be useful for (and keep an open mind, you're not too old for more than you think). Believe you're stuck in dead-end employment because you have to pay the bills and can't risk everything on a new career? Ask yourself what you can risk. Are you willing to sacrifice a day of your weekend to a small business, to study, to growing a lovely extravagant big garden that makes everything else worth the while? Are you confused by the extent of your possible choices? Ask yourself what is one thing you've been thinking you might enjoy, and just go try that thing. You might hate it, but that's just fine. You're after nothing more than forward momentum.
Keep asking questions until you find a right one. When you do, don't pass it by in search of another, more perfect one. Therein madness lies. If it provides you with the opportunity to express some of your most resonant values, if it feels possible given your current circumstances, and you're willing to do the hard things that it will most certainly require of you? That's possibility gold right there.
I came close many times to deleting this blog post, apologising to my friends for not keeping my promise, and hiding the above thoughts inside myself for the rest of all forever. That's a long time. And who's to say it wouldn't have been a wiser idea? For all I know I'm spouting smelly mouldy excrement, and no-one in the history of the world should take it at all seriously. Ever. And if it isn't quite that bad, what if the friends I wrote it for find nothing useful in it whatsoever? The shame. Sucks to the shame.
But I didn't delete it. I suspended all my judgement on whether it was a worthy post, and just kept writing what I know, as best I know how. To do otherwise would have increased my own sense of fearfulness, when a meaningful life requires us to be brave. Putting my stuff out there makes me vulnerable to rejection, and rejection is a deeply painful human experience. It sure feels to me like my heart has been ripped out through my intestines and cruelly chucked on a lonely pile of worthlessness whenever I experience it. It's understandable we'd want to avoid such a thing. It's also understandable that we might be scared. Scared is normal; all new things, all change, have an element of scared. Talk the scared through with a wise counsel, and if it's genuine overwhelm, ratchet down the plans a little until it returns to plain old scared. But don't avoid the feeling entirely, that'll keep you small and hiding in perpetuity. You're much too precious for that.
Define what purpose is for you, write down some things about being alive that you truly deeply value, plan ways you can work those values into your daily life. Take yourself seriously, but don't be a schmuck. When contemplating work that more accurately reflects your values, keep asking yourself questions until one of them provides you with an answer that offers forward momentum. And then, my darling wee butterball of astonishing existence? Leap, jump, hop a little, step gingerly forward holding someone's hand. Do something, anything, I don't care. Just move.
So, you did all that. Tick, complete, done, and finished. Felt good for that day, week, year, but now that thing you tried is over, or has gotten too boring, too stressful, or tragic life circumstances have befallen you and it seems like you are right back where you started.
You're not back where you started. You've learned a lot of useful information about yourself, and that's enormously valuable. That's Socrates' examined life. And now what you do is take a break, have a sleep or twenty, look at what worked, revisit your values, ask yourself some new right questions, and rinse and repeat.
The thing that the passion/mission/big-dream gurus routinely fail to mention is that life is very messy. It's difficult, mostly ordinary, and very messy. Every day we must make the choice anew to have the courage to put something meaningful on the line. The world owes us nothing, and there is no guarantee that anything we do will yield us the kind of fruit that we long for. And the people who seem to wildly succeed, who seem to be somehow qualitatively different from you and I, who jump with abandon from their corporate careers into instant bestseller novel writing? They often tell a story of passion and bliss and risk taking, and forget to mention the financial backing, spousal support, Plan B's, cultural privilege and great good luck that they have encountered, along with their undoubted grit and hard work. And that their lives are still difficult, mostly ordinary, and very messy. No-one lives in happy ever after.
Screw your courage to the sticking place. Scale heights, fall down, have a cry, take a break, get back up.
And keep moving forward.
Shalom, friends. Travel well.
- Your clever human brain is compelled to make sense out of what you experience in your life by squishing it somewhere into the framework of what it already knows and believes. This process is influenced a great deal by the times and environment in which y0u live. Instead of sweating too much over whether or not you have one very best life to live, try questioning whether cultural memes like this are helping or harming you.
- We're also not wired to be content to choose between many different options; it's super hard to feel satisfied when you've been fed the idea that you can do anything. Don't accept any angst or shame that comes from this, or any other, impossible standard.
- You can't answer the question of what living with purpose means for you, if you don't first define the word 'purpose'. I use the Latin origins to define purpose as to put forth, that is, our purpose is what we chose to put out into the world. If that doesn't work for you, define it for yourself, just make sure your definition lowers your psychic turmoil and offers a sense of practical possibilities. Question your assumptions, always. Meet life on your own terms.
- The key to a satisfying existence lies in your values, not your talents (aptitudes, ability, personality). Our values describe what we find meaningful in our lives, increasing attention on them increases our sense of meaning. The more specific we are about what we value, the more generally useful we will find them. There's no need to worry about whether the values you choose are the best possible ones, moving toward warm is all you need to do. If it's meaningful to you, it's meaningful.
- If you want to develop a career, vocation, avocation, mission, passion, that is more suited toward your values than one you currently have, you need to learn how to ask yourself the right questions. The right question is one that moves you forward. "What sacrifices are you willing to make?", is an excellent one for starters, as is flipping any perceived obstacle into a question too. Not "I'm too old, but "what sort of things can my experience be useful for?" Keep on asking until you find a question whose answer provides you with forward momentum.
- Don't keep the ideas and possibilities sparked from the above in the realm of theory, do something, anything, to move forward.
- Then keep moving forward. Everyone's life is messy, and no-one lives in happy ever after. Screw your courage to the sticking place. Scale heights, fall down, have a cry, take a break, get back up. And keep moving forward.