What do you do when you’ve lost your purpose (or never had one to begin with)?
An alternative way to lead a meaningful life
It seems like every self-help blog and their mother harps on the idea of finding one’s purpose. Without it, it seems like you lead a pretty meaningless life. At the end of my sophomore year of college, I remember finding myself in existential bouts trying to figure out exactly what my “purpose” was.
I found a lot of things interesting. I thought virtual reality was cool. And the implications of blockchain were fascinating. Climate change is certainly bad and we should be doing everything in our power to stop it. But, I wouldn’t say I had a particular purpose centered around any of these concepts.
When I left college for a year, one of my goals was to find my calling. I had read blogs upon blogs, (and maybe a few pages of books before I started getting sleepy), and I eventually stumbled on a definition of purpose that seemed doable.
Purpose is “a stable and generalized intention to accomplish something meaningful to the self and consequential to the world,” -Dr. Bill Damon, Director of the Stanford Center for Adolescence
I even found a nifty Venn diagram to help me out.
Add to that something you can also get paid for and you’ve basically hit the jackpot.
And for a certain period of time, I thought I had found my purpose: to help young millennials (cause of course I had to help the millennials) find more fulfilling and financially secure careers (or in other words, I thought my purpose was helping others find their purpose. How meta).
Facing the truth
In reality, I ran towards helping others find their purpose because I failed to truly think about my own. It’s not that one’s purpose can’t be to help others and be of service to others. But I found it easier to hide behind that idea than to actually think, is this really what I want to do?
I worked towards realizing this so-called calling of mine. Heck, I started a whole business around it. But when life got in the way and I realized that editing resumes and cover letters and getting people jobs at large financial firms wasn’t actually what I wanted to spend my time doing, I thought I had failed. And that feeling of failure killed me.
When you miss the leap towards materializing what you think you’re meant to be doing in your life, you find yourself in a perpetual limbo.
Not achieving my purpose sent me into a spiral of depression. Then when I was in the pits of depression, I just kept feeling sad that I wasn’t being able to make my purpose work. So I continued deeper down the spiral.
What was even stranger was that I had become blind to the fact that I actually didn’t like the work I had to do to “achieve my purpose.” I was so hellbent on making it work that I ignored all the signs that I wasn’t really happy.
Because at least having a purpose is better than being purposeless, even if it’s so obviously the wrong purpose.
It wasn’t until a mentor of mine (highly recommend getting one of those) saw what I was doing. She called me out on the purpose I had set for myself and essentially told me to scrap it. She painfully pointed out to me that I was really hiding from myself and some of my demons.
Instead of facing my struggles head on, I resorted to helping other people face theirs. And while there is nothing inherently wrong with that, it only pushes aside the real work I had to do with myself.
Before I went back to that Venn diagram (because I still thought I needed to figure out what my purpose was), I started somewhere more fundamental. I asked myself who am I. I asked myself what are my values. What am I willing to stand for and what am I willing to not tolerate in my life?
It took me five hours of sitting on my bedside and looking at these generic lists of “values” I had Googled before I felt like I had made some progress. Some words seemed wishy washy. Some lit up brighter than a Christmas tree. But words mean nothing if you don’t define them.
I picked a list of about 10 words that carried some weight with me. I started to define what they meant for me. How they would guide my life. How I would not compromise on them.
Writing down my values gave me a North Star that I could always look to when I wasn’t sure if I was going the right way.
Some of my values included:
Authenticity — The activities I do everyday to be inline with who I am. They have to correspond with the values I created for myself. If it’s not a fuck yes, it’s a no.
Creativity — It’s important to have a creative outlet in my life and just create. Without any singular purpose. It helps me get the ideas out I have in my head and feel like I’m contributing to the world.
Ambition — I have a desire to help change this world for the better because I’ve been given so much. It’s the drive that never lets me be complacent.
Empower — Not everyone has a voice. So how I can go out and give them a platform, a service, a product for them to make better decisions, speak out their truth, or live better lives?
Growth — I always want to be learning and stretching myself. To see what’s out there. It’s what makes me a better person and keeps me on my toes.
Adventure — What’s life without a little fun?
Writing these were difficult. Some seemed like values I was supposed to have but didn’t actually believe. Some values seemed nice to have but I had to admit to myself that I really didn’t care about them. But once I was done and looked at all the worlds, it all felt right.
Now that I had my foundational values, I thought the next step was taking a stab at that Venn diagram again to find my purpose. Yet life seemed to have other plans. Almost seemingly scripted, I went to two philosophy talks on campus.
One was about the meaning of life. The other was about stop trying to find yourself. Perhaps life was trying to tell me something.
The meaning of life
The speaker broke down and debunked various arguments of what different people thought the meaning of life was: service, love, death, family, no meaning at all, etc etc. As I listened in closer and closer, I was waiting for that profound meaning at the end.
She said, “The meaning of life is to find the moments of awe.”
At first, I didn’t get it. What is awe?
She said awe could be holding your baby child. Awe could be looking out at nature. Awe could be the feeling of “yes” after you’ve finished a hard project.
Awe could be whatever you wanted it to be.
Then it hit me.
The little moments of awe are the little moments in between life’s events that tie all the dots together.
It’s the pauses you take between sentences. It’s the moments of silence when you’re watching the rain outside. It’s the moments where you breathe. It’s the moments where you can be human.
If the meaning of life was to experience more awe, then all I had to do was stand still, watch and listen to the world around me. There is awe everywhere.
Okay I know this is starting to sound a little wishy washy. Bare with me here.
The main takeaway I got from this lecture was that life’s meaning shouldn’t be predicated on a singular, big, giant, all encompassing thing, which if you don’t have, your life becomes meaningless. That’s a lot of pressure to place on one idea.
Rather, life’s meaning should be placed in experiencing life itself.
Life is made up of those little moments of awe and wonderment. It’s made up of the conversations between friends and family. The spark you feel when you meet a lover. The excitement in your brain when you finally get a topic. One can find meaning in all of these things.
Stop trying to find yourself
This lecture was by a popular Chinese philosophy professor at Harvard, Michael Puett. While admittedly I got lost in some of the various Chinese philosophers’ theories he presented, I did have some takeaways that I found useful.
The first is that in our pursuit to find ourselves, we box ourselves into these labels and don’t think we can change them in the belief that we are being authentic. I found a quote from Michael Puett that best explains this idea.
“‘I should try to find myself — my true authentic self, and once I find myself, I should always be sincere and authentic to who I really am, loving myself and embracing myself for who I really am, loving my good sides and embracing my bad sides too and part of that loving and embracing means making decisions in life based on what’s best for me, and who I am, and how I will fit in with the world.’
All of this sounds great — we think this means we’re living a liberated life according to what’s best for us, but part of what’s intriguing about these ideas from China is they would say that this isn’t just a wrong way of thinking, it’s a potentially dangerous way of thinking. They would argue that there is no true single self — that we are complex, messy beings filled with many different emotions, dispositions, faculties, with many different possible sides of us that could play out in different situations, so from this point of view, the argument is that as messy beings, we can often fall into patterns and ruts of behavior that tend to define us as human beings, but the goal is to break out of these limited patterns and ruts, to try to overcome these limited patterns and ruts and open up possibilities we couldn’t even imagine. So they [the ancient Chinese philosophers] would say: ‘No, don’t look within and love what you find, because what you find is probably a bunch of very limited patterns and ruts.” -Michael Puett
Another way of thinking about this through the lens of a fixed mindset. With me, I just assume that I’m always going to be stressed, that I really will never get coding no matter how much I try, and that I’m going to struggle with existentialism forever.
I’ve adopted these beliefs or patterns of behavior as Puett has described it. And because I believe these traits are so fundamental to who I am, I shouldn’t try to change me. Because why would I want to be anything but me?
Instead, Puett suggests recognizing that we’re ascribing identity to idiosyncratic patterns, and that we do have the ability to break out of them. We are not defined by these patterns or anything for that matter. Therefore, we should stop trying to find ourselves.
Instead, we should just be.
Disclaimer: I think it’s important to recognize that Chinese philosophies don’t really acknowledge mental health issues. We can’t just “positive think” our way out of anxiety or depression. Sometimes, you do really have to seek help. There is a difference between having a down day and something altering your brain chemistry.
So I don’t actually need a purpose?
Almost. I am not opposed to anyone attempting to find their purpose. But being so hellbent and tunneled vision on trying to find it can often be limiting. We fail to recognize the moments of awe around us. We don’t become present in our day to day. And we ascribe our entire identity and purpose to arbitrary words and patterns of behaviors that generally have no grounding.
Additionally, seeking purpose is fluid. In life, people will move from purpose to purpose as they find their ways to new experiences, interests, skills and people.
So why devote your entire existence to a static idea when we very well know that humans are dynamic, ever-evolving creatures?
So what should I do instead?
The answer came to me from a networking call with one of my mentor’s mentees. I remember asking her how she goes about pursuing her career interests amongst the many options out there. She commented that some people have that one thing that really lights them up on fire but she never really had that. I asked what she did instead.
“I follow my curiosities and see where they take me.”
Everything clicked when I first heard that. I realized that a life led by curiosity is so much more liberating and freeing than the one I had tried to force myself to pursue. Following my curiosities meant I had the freedom to pursue whatever I found interesting at the time without the need of anything more.
Additionally, my entire value wasn’t predicated on whether I achieved my purpose or not. Curiosity allowed me to follow diverse paths, none more right than the other. It meant I could write, I could paint, I could pursue history, I could start companies. I could do whatever the heck I wanted. Now, that’s the kind of life I was down to live.
So have you just lost your purpose or never had one to begin with?
Try following your curiosity.
Still not sure where to start? Answer some of these questions and see where they take you.
What’s something you want to learn?
What’s something you’d be doing in your spare time?
What do people always come to you for help with?
What’s a problem you can’t not solve?
What do you love to do?
What do you want to do less of and more of?
Notice that some of these questions come from that purpose Venn diagram. If you do manage to find the intersection and get yourself a purpose, awesome. But if you don’t, don’t sweat it. You’re moving in the right direction.
As long as you’re enjoying what you’re doing (and doing something about it if you don’t) and letting your curiosities guide the way, I’d say you’ve got the opportunity to lead a really meaningful life.