Listening to your gut and finding your way

Four lessons I’ve learned about living with purpose

I created my first company when I was sixteen and spent the next decade building stuff on the internet for myself and for clients. It was not a huge success by any means, but it gave me a flexible lifestyle, allowed me to dabble in other interests, get a masters degree, and travel a bit.

Most people around me kept telling me that I had to focus more if I really wanted to be successful. Doing ten different things at once was apparently not an “acceptable” choice. But something inside of me knew that it was more important to keep exploring until I found the right thing to focus on — rather than just picking something because others told me to.

It’s challenging to listen to a voice inside when other people have opinions about what you should or shouldn’t do.

Lesson #1: It’s ok to not know what your purpose is.

I don’t subscribe to the prevalent idea that each of us must know what our own personal purpose is, as if it’s a singular and static fact. For me, a huge part of living a life with purpose is the search for what that purpose might be. To see how it manifests itself. And how it evolves and changes over time. Allow yourself to gradually discover it, and notice how it can subtly shift.

It’s become a dominant narrative in our society that we all must know our personal purpose as if it’s a singular and static thing, and if you don’t know your purpose, something is wrong. I don’t buy into that.

For the first 26 years of my life, I didn’t know what my purpose was. Or at least I couldn’t express it clearly in this crude form of communication that we call language. But my purpose was still there. I was exploring. Trying. Testing. And most of all learning. If you feel guided by something inside of you that defies the logic and rationale of other people, don’t worry if you can’t explain it in words right away. See where it leads you. It might only makes sense in hindsight.

— Søren Aabye Kierkegaard (19th century Danish philosopher and theologian, considered to be a founder of Existentialist thought and Absurdist traditions)
“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” — Søren Aabye Kierkegaard

When I was 26, I left my native Denmark and moved to NYC to seek new adventures, but also because I was drawn to the city as a place that felt like home. I felt I could belong here. After the first year, however, it was clear that my floating lifestyle — dancing from opportunity to opportunity — was no longer viable. Now I needed the focus.

Lesson #2: What do you actually want?

Until this point, I had been guided mainly by the question “what can I do?” And letting each opportunity lead to the next. But I had never tried to answer the question “what do I really want to do?”

At first the question was really hard to answer because it’s not like picking from a range of given opportunities. In order for me to really understand what I wanted, I had to also imagine all the impossible and merely implausible things I might want to do.

I tried to imagine that I had $1 billion in the bank and never had to work. What would I do then?

I tried to imagine ten years into the future. How would I want to see myself?

I couldn’t quite get a clear and coherent vision but I began writing down and drawing out the specific and clear fragments of a vision that I could see.

When I tried to ask myself what I wanted, I initially saw fragments instead of a coherent vision.

The first thing I knew was that I wanted no more screens in my life. I had lived with push email and a laptop in my bag since I was a teenager and I felt like it was a chain around my ankle. Always on. Always available. I wanted out. The second thing was airplanes. Perhaps the idea that my work was not tied to a country or city but was all over the world. And third, I saw people. Working directly with people. Face to face. Small groups. Intimate. Ongoing. High trust.

Lesson #3: Share your visions with as much specificity and detail as you can.

None of these three vision fragments gave me much clarity on what the actual work I might do would entail. But I started sharing my ideas with people around me. And within one month, someone I knew hired me to help one of his companies. He didn’t know exactly what I would do either. But I think he sensed an opportunity to try something different. We ended up working together for almost four years and along the way, we became very close friends.

I didn’t know what would come of sharing my ideas, but I learned there’s no risk in trying.

Lesson #4: Don’t rush.

Sometimes the hardest part for me is feeling that I must achieve my purpose by getting to a certain future state. And I better do it now. It feels urgent. So I rush forward and exhaust myself. I stress too much. Worry too much. And I begin to prioritize short-term gains over long-term opportunities.

With purpose there is no rush. Whenever I get frustrated, I always have the same realization: It’s because I’m rushing, and trying to get it over with and get to the destination.

But it’s not a journey from A to B. It’s a dance and it doesn’t need to end.

I try to imagine that my life is not bound to this body or this human existence. I imagine that my soul will keep coming back to work on this purpose through multiple human lifetimes. I imagine this work going on for 10,000 years. And I try to set the pace according to that. To make room for self-care. To do things that might not seem immediately productive, like personal reflection or connecting with people I care about. Recently this has been the most difficult part for me—to not feel guilty about doing things for myself. Taking breaks. Working slowly. I don’t have the answer here. But I know that it’s what I need to work on.

Where are you in your journey? What are you struggling with right now? What do you need? I would love to hear from you.

Mathias Jakobsen is a serial entrepreneur currently working on Learning & Development at SYPartners in NYC. He is the creator of Think Clearly, gives talks about #digitaltransformation and teaches design thinking at Parsons. You can listen to him on this podcast or reach him on Twitter or Whatsapp: +1.347.987.5098.