The Crisis of Purpose
Why it feels like you’re the only one who hasn’t figured out your life.
I’ve been obsessed with this idea of “purpose.” I’ve seen it on billboards and tshirts, blog posts and business cards. I’ve brought it up at dinners and work, and there are pages and pages in my journal about it. I worked with a coach and I traveled the world trying to find mine. I still haven’t found it, but it’s been on my mind. Maybe it’s been on yours, too. For me, it started four years ago when I first started to experience my own Crisis of Purpose...
I was still in college, interning at my first “real” job at an advertising agency. Sitting at my desk, I opened a link to a short film that Google made called “Parisian Love” and it blew my mind.
I love great storytelling and for a long time, I looked for the best stories in advertising. I was an aspiring art director and now, I had my vision set on working on the Google account.
Fast forward. 2013.
I checked off everything on my short term career plan. I was at a fast-growing agency with free beer and snacks, I made my first Superbowl commercial, and we were about to win US Agency of the Year for the second year in a row. Best of all, I was working on Google. Check. Yet somehow I wasn’t happy. What I thought I wanted wasn’t at all what I actually wanted, and it took getting it to discover that fact.
So I did what any normal 27 year-old would do in this situation: I quit without a new job lined up, ready for adventure…
What is the Crisis of Purpose?
It feels like imposter syndrome in every part of your life. It’s the reason you swore off dating once and why you’ll marry a partner that isn’t good for you. The Crisis of Purpose is landing your “dream job” and then eventually realizing that you don’t want your boss’s job. It’s the fear that comes with realizing you’re turning into your parents. It’s flipping through Facebook to read stories about people you don’t care about and liking Instagram photos of people you want to be friends with; questioning your own friends, feeling insufficient, and insecure. It’s hearing all this talk about passion x purpose and instead of feeling inspired, feeling lost. Everyone else has a job doing something they love. Right? Everyone else is in a great relationship. Right? Everyone else is living debt-free and saving money and living in a better apartment than you making more than you. Right? Why does it seem like everyone else has their shit together… except you?
The Origins of Purposelessness
We spend the first decades of our life in a phase called mimicry (according to Mark Manson). We survive in the world because we’re good at copying what everyone else is doing and fitting into the group. As cavemen, it’s how we used to literally and physically survive, and today, it’s how we survive socially. The key part of this survival is the creation of cultural norms. These norms are the expectations that we understand as “normal” that give us a sense of safety and belonging and the guidelines to act as an independent adult. The paradox is that the community that teaches you these guidelines for independence also strengthen these stories in a way that discourages independence.
Cultural norms get stronger through the stories we hear and subconsciously buy into, moving us to pressure each other to stay within the guidelines and “on-track.” Everything from how we communicate or act, to who we’re supposed to marry and the careers we’re supposed to want. They’re all over our social feeds, shared among friends, fed to you by your parents and rampant in the media.
Here are some of the easier examples of stories that we’ve bought into:
There are literally thousands of these norms that we live our lives subconsciously following, subscribing to the stories and pressuring each other blindly to accept. We’re all guilty of it, whether we’ve asked our friends about who they’re dating or made an offhand comment to someone who chose not to eat a piece of birthday cake.
The Nagging Story
Think of your life in those 8 categories mentioned above. They’re interconnected and systemic– each one affecting the other. On a wheel like this, each one could be rated and filled out based on satisfaction.
In my experience, the level of fulfillment in each slice changes on an ongoing basis, and no one’s wheel of life is ever completely full. Each of us has gaps to overcome and fulfillment to aspire towards. What ends up happening is that during this time in your life is that one story, or a collection of stories, nag and nag at you, always coming up in conversation and making itself the only thing you pay attention to. You start noticing that everyone else has that thing that you’re missing. The synchronicity in the universe starts to play tricks on you and people seem to only be posting and sharing and talking about that thing that is nagging you.
Maybe you have a frustrating day or week at your job and start to question your whole career path. Or maybe that friend who you secretly thought would get married after you, calls to tell you she got engaged. And from there, you start to replay all of the stories about what you’re supposed to have, or supposed to want, or what will make you happy once you obtain it.
That story adds to that gap and the feeling of not being fulfilled starts to get contagious. It eats into the surrounding categories. It’s like a kindergartener with chicken pox. Suddenly, you’re not just unhappy about your relationship, you’re rethinking your career. Or your living situation. Or your heath. Or all of it.
You’re suffering from a full-blown case of a Crisis of Purpose.
So you seek to escape from this crisis in any way you can. I quit my job and tried to change industries. You might escape in other ways: take a vacation. Travel the world. Break up with your partner. Sleep around. Swear off dating altogether. Move. Cut your hair. Go on a cleanse. Sign up for a class. Cut ties with friends. Tidy up (it’s life-changing, I heard). Any way you can, try and escape. But escaping this crisis is so hard because these stories are so strongly embedded into our lives.
Remember 5th grade science? These norms are like planets. The more you hear each one, the bigger it gets, and its hold on you gets stronger and stronger.
So how can you escape such a strong force?
Well, the good news is that you can. No matter how big these stories get, no matter how strong their gravity holds you down, there’s a concept in astronomy called escape velocity. It’s the least amount of motion it takes to escape the gravitational pull of an object. The bigger the object, the more action and momentum it will take to build enough movement to finally escape. So now the question is, how much action and momentum will it take for you to escape?
Which brings me back to today. After years of thinking about it, I put together a weekend retreat to discuss and work through some of the ideas I’ve learned, and hear from other people on their own paths. Three weeks ago, 15 of us journaled, meditated, laughed, and played. We started to tackle some of these issues, started these kinds of conversation, helping build a community, and gain momentum towards our own personal escape velocities.
Here are some of the takeaways from the retreat about subverting cultural norms and overcoming the Crisis of Purpose.
1. Less, But Better
Some of the things we want, we want because we’re supposed to want it, that somehow we’ve been convinced it will make us happy (see: more money, more stuff, more sex). Having more makes us want more. Instead, we can aim for less, but better.
For more, read Greg McKeown, “Essentialism,” watch “Hell Yes or No” by Derek Sivers, or subscribe to Mr. Money Mustache’s blog
2. Don’t Play On Default
Newsflash. The internet is not built with our best interest in mind. We live in an attention economy– every site, every app, every person is competing for our attention and the one with the most, wins. Well, financially, anyway. Every website and app that we use most likely makes money from advertising. Which means their goal is to drive as much traffic as possible. That’s why *ALERT* you can’t use the *NOTIFICATION* internet or your phone without *UPDATE* being coerced to *COMMENT* open something else up. *ARE YOU SURE?* So customize your phone and hack your computer. Change your notifications and alerts. Move things around so non-urgent apps and notifications aren’t the first thing you see. Buy a watch. Check your emails and tweets and texts on your own time, when you’re ready. Rebuild it for what you need. Whatever you do, just don’t play on default mode.
3. Find Better Stories to Live By
At my first job out of school, I worked at an ad agency as an art director– basically coming up with ideas for ad campaigns and designing them. I worked with this guy Bernie who was in his 40s, and had the same job as me. At the time, I thought it was so weird that someone his age wasn’t running a company, or making tons of money. But looking back, I see it now. Bernie had kids and loved to skateboard. Because he wasn’t managing clients or dealing with running a department or company, he could enjoy the best parts of his job that I loved too. We don’t always have to buy into the stories we hear. While it may be exciting to read about this year’s 30 under 30 or to look for some guy online just to have a boyfriend, you don’t have to like or follow the norms. Call out the stories you don’t want to live when you hear them. There are people like Bernie in our lives writing their own stories, they’re just a little quieter. Find them and help strengthen their stories. Live them and share them.
4. Do the Work That Comes with Self-Awareness
As we’ve seen, it’s really easy to get caught up in the stories of cultural norms and adopt them as our own values, goals, and visions of our own future. When we wake up and realize something it off, it will take some work to be aware of what we actually want and what is actually right for us. For me, the work came in several forms. I worked with a life coach for several months, did some serious journaling, focused my attention to only a narrow group of friends, started a very light meditation practice (5–10 minutes a day, 3x/week) and going on more runs and bike rides and less weightlifting. Whatever is right for you, I’ve learned it’s important to create space for your brain to work through unlocking itself and opening up. Most importantly, I’ve learned that this work is uncomfortable in how vulnerable it makes you feel. And the most growth comes from being in that space. Get comfortable being uncomfortable. And then move to the next uncomfortable.
When you were 8 years old, you did things because you were curious. Because it felt good. Because you genuinely didn’t know what was going to happen. As we get older, we get better at predicting & analyzing, at assessing risk. When we think we know what the outcome is going to be, we’re less likely to do it, especially if it involves “play” because cultural norms tell us that we shouldn’t be playing.
You might live by the motto “work hard, play hard” but we learned at the retreat that play is not the same as having fun. Play can be connective, competitive, and collaborative. Play can be surprising and silly. Do things for no reason other than because it feels good. Do things because you don’t know what’s going to happen. Do it because you can. Your 8 year old self knew more about living a good life that you realize. So be silly and play. Unless you’re too much of a grownup.
6. Sustained Inquiry
Google and Siri have turned us into people who ask bad questions. Your 3rd grade teacher might have convinced you that there’s no such thing as a bad question, but I’m here to tell you he’s wrong. A bad question, in this context, is one with a single, simple answer. “What year was…” “Who was that actor who…” “What time is…”
It’s important that we ask questions with more complex and layered answers that take time to discover. These questions will create deeper conversations, more meaningful interaction, and better work–both personally and professionally. One exercise we did is rather than creating a “to do” list, create a “to learn” list which can easily be turned into questions and guide you towards learning more. If you need inspiration for questions, look no further than the life list and the gaps between where you are and where you want to be.
Ask good questions, write them down, talk them out, and just hold on to them. Questions like “what do I value” and “how do I measure my time” “what does enough mean to me” and questions that force you to take the time to think through the meaning behind it give direction and purpose. The root of the word “question,” after all, is the same as the word “quest”: to seek. It’s not about finding. It’s the search.
7. Find Your People and Take Care of Them
With more people moving away from their families to the city, we’re forced to find our own communities in new ways (thanks, internet). I’ve seen tons of communities pop up all over the country and specifically all around us in NYC. Whatever you’re passionate about, there’s not just a meetup group that is too, but an engaged community. It takes some effort, it takes some time, but when you find them, engage with the community and help be a part of something you couldn’t do on your own. This is part of that “something bigger than yourself” idea you’ve surely heard of that’s part of “purpose.” Maybe you have your community or a group of friends that all challenge and support each other.
Whoever your people are, take care of them. Build stronger relationships through deeper conversation, longer meals, shorter “catch-ups.” With our time so limited and our attention so spread, we need to be more intentional with our time and with our love.
8. Shift Your Rudder
The Crisis of Purpose can often feel like you’re dropped in the middle of the ocean. It’s overwhelming and the choice is debilitating. You can choose to swim one way, but if you commit, you may be missing the closest chance at survival in the exact opposite direction. Except that the analogy is not a completely true and fair one. The ocean may overwhelm you, but you’ve got years of momentum behind you pushing you along. You’re in a small motorboat. You have things that you have loved *grr* and things that you’re good at *grrrr* and things that people know you for *GRRRRRR* (those are engine noises). You’re not starting from scratch. Rather than swimming across the ocean, you’re cruising along, maybe a little lost, but moving. And when you’re lost at sea, all you have to do is shift your ruder and correct your course. You’re not as far off as it seems. Fix the things that aren’t working, try to identify the things you’re good at and the things you love and use that as fuel to wherever those things may take you.
Maybe you’ve heard the story of the creation of the world. Religious or not, believer or not, we know the story. 6 days of creating and then on the 7th day, rest. We often think about creation and doing work as an always-on situation where we can never unplug, never stop, or we’ll fall behind. But from the very beginning, we’re taught an important lesson in the creative process– that rest is essential to doing our best and most important work. It’s not only okay to take a break and rest, but it’s imperative to doing your best work.
For more, read “Wake Up And Rest” by Jan Birchfield in Forbes or maybe you should just take a walk. Or better yet, a nap.
Our Crisis of Purpose is better understood as an ongoing Pursuit of Purpose. We want it solved immediately, but my experience is that this all takes work. Be patient. Talk about this stuff, because we rarely do. Make better habits and work towards a more complete wheel of life, knowing that it will never be completely full. You don’t always have to be your best self.
It’s ok to have a bad day or a bad week. It’s ok to be sad. The more you can live to know where you’re feeling weak and to understand why, the more you can work on closing the gap. It takes time to understand who we are and what we need.
The challenge of our lives is to experience the process, embrace the chaos and enjoy the ride.
If you have any thoughts, I welcome your opinions and discussion. If you’re interested in hearing more of my thoughts, sign up for my Email Refrigerator (because “newsletter” sounds like spam).