You never know what you want and are confused at how some people seem so clear-minded.
Sometimes it seems so unfair, how can others be so focused.
You feel sad and angry and even question the necessity of finding your purpose.
“Do I even need one after all?” you ask.
Yet the feeling of being stuck in sinking sand, wading around in thick mud, but not getting anywhere isn’t pleasant. Isn’t there any way you could get a little clearer?
I know how difficult uncertainty is. There have been times when I’ve been unclear, knowing more about what I didn’t like than what I did.
When I first returned from teaching abroad in China, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I knew I couldn’t work in a 9 to 5, at least not five days a week, but that was about it.
It was a long journey to purposefulness, but now I know the benefits clarity brings.
You’ll feel more content in what your doing, your days will be calmer and lighter, you’ll be motivated and full of energy, and you’ll have a deeper understanding of yourself.
You may not find one purpose. But you will be more explicit about what projects you might enjoy.
Get Back to a Time of Peace
Contrary to popular belief, knowing our minds isn’t easy.
When we ask ourselves what our purpose is, the answer is imprecise. We get feelings and inclinations, but that’s all.
- A sense of wanting to be creative.
- A notion of desiring be useful.
- A draw toward something meaningful.
These are useful starting points, but they’re also vague. To understand ourselves further, we need to take a step back.
During childhood, we naturally engaged in activities less hindered by societal expectations. We had no thoughts of career, money, or what we might do in retirement.
This unencumbered state contains clues which we can use as our guide.
Try to recall three things you enjoyed doing as a child.
1. Where did you like to play?
2. What was it like to be in this place?
3. What would you do there?
Describe these activities in more detail
Maybe you were an early computer programmer, learning code and creating animations. They were crude, and a far cry from what computers can do now, but there was pleasure in learning the process and making something work.
Or maybe you were always in the garden, exploring the undergrowth and building castles from the mud. Dad would call you in, but you were still hesitant to leave, outside contained too many mysteries, inside seemed dull in comparison.
Try to recall what in particular you liked about these activities.
Was it the satisfaction of being in control, or the exploration, or the process of putting things together?
Was it the connection with others or animals, or the idea of instructing and helping?
Tease out what type of person you are.
Are you someone who likes order, working with others, helping others, building things, being in charge?
Or are you someone who likes exploring, having a destination, watching others fulfil their potential.
Use Jealousy as Your Guide
Thus far, we’ve only looked at activities we enjoyed as a child and the feelings they brought us, now it’s time to bring it to the present day.
Let’s stay with feelings, though, and explore what we envy.
All-consuming envy destroys, but mild flickers of jealousy can guide us. It’s not something we usually think of as good, but envy is a wonderfully instructive tool.
We are seldom envious of a whole person, just some aspect of what they do.
I envy authors, for example, a clue that I might enjoy writing. In fact, I envy anyone’s who’s published a book or even a popular blog post, a sure sign that writing holds some appeal.
Yet I don’t envy publication deadlines, book tours, or creating headlines in the early hours of the morning, which are often parts of an author’s stock and trade.
Try to imagine a person your envious of, what is it that triggers the feeling.
- They influence other people?
- They are always calm, kind and well-composed?
- They are making the world a better place?
- They are confident and wealthy?
Make a note of the exact things you desire. They may not always be what they first appear. For instance, for me, when it comes to writing, there’s a sense it’s not writing per se, but something about sharing, influencing and helping other people.
Take the specific things you envy and consider how you might bring them into your life. Maybe not on a grand scale, but in a smaller humbler way.
1. What would your life be like if you could have some of these things?
2. What small practical steps can you take to achieve them?
Avoid All Your Minds’ Ambiguity
Childhood interests and envy can only take us so far. Next, you need to explore the specifics of things you think you enjoy.
It’s another exercise in digging a little deeper, exploring the specifics behind what you proclaim to want.
Often the things you enjoy are wrapped up in some other notion. Our minds’ ambiguity easily misleads us. To get clearer on what might contribute to your contentment, you must examine your desires more carefully.
Make a list of the activities you think you might enjoy.
Write freely; don’t worry about if the things seem achievable or not.
Don’t hold back. Write down everything and anything that comes to mind even if it seems strange or silly.
In the next step, we’ll refine your thoughts.
Most likely, the list will be very vague.
- I like helping people.
- I’m interested in international relations
- I love history.
- I like working with animals, especially horses.
- I think politics might be appealing
- I want to learn a language, maybe French.
- I’d like to travel more
- I would like more money
- I’d like to work as a consultant in a large company
- I’d like to start my own business
Think of the images or scenes by each of the points that interest you.
For example, if you said you like history what images come to mind. Is it reading history books in a dusty library, is it graduation day from a university, or is it visiting museums and attending battles?
If you imagined being a politician, was it giving a speech to a large crowd, was it the feeling of power and control, or was it an image of you meeting locals and listening to their needs.
Step # 3
Use the images and scenes above to pin down what the real appeal of certain activities might be. This exercise helps us with specificity, avoiding the vagueness of before. It’s also an exercise in error avoidance, making sure you base your conclusions on concrete evidence.
You thought you might want to work with horses. Now you realise the images that came to mind were of stroking and patting one, and of riding freely in canter across an open field. All the things you could get with regular lessons.
None of your images involved cleaning out stables, teaching, or any form of veterinary care. Nor years of reading about horse anatomy and welfare. Perhaps the career you thought you wanted, isn’t the one you want after all?
Or you’ve always wanted to be a DJ, but the images are of a dark nightclub and a massive crowd of ravings fan. And of mixing the decks at home in your garage. It seems what you want is some form of applause, a sense of being desired.
But you didn’t factor in the travel and the sense of being unsettled, and whether the benefits outweigh the cost. Is it something you still want?
Go through your list of underlying experiences and images and describe in more detail what they are really about. Are you clear why you were excited in this way?
Try to think of any other ways you could meet those needs.
As a practising therapist, I daily meet my need to influence, share and help others; maybe I don’t have to publish a book after all?
Get Out into The World
You now have a list of authentic needs and a second list of ways to meet them. It’s a promising start.
But it is only that.
Fortunately, or unfortunately, the only way you will know if these will make you content — and give you that sense of satisfaction and purpose you desire — is to try them.
It’s a myth that you should know what you want, that your purpose will arise fully formed within you.
You can seldom derive from speculation alone what only practice can provide.
The activities you have imagined thus far may involve many facets you have not fully understood. Nor do you yet know the full range of emotional responses your new activities will elicit.
Make a list of all the ways you could test the activities you think will interest you. Think small at first, you can always expand later.
Want to travel more, perhaps you could:
- Start by reading about travel on the web
- Buy a travel memoir
- Join a local travel club
- Find some travellers and informally ‘interview’ them about their experience
- Plan an extended trip to test the water
Want to learn a language:
- Look into the steps and the amount of time required (be careful of any programme that offers quick results)
- Buy a foreign language dictionary; how will you feel spending hours sitting memorising words?
- Attend a foreign language class, ask the teacher how many hours a week are genuinely required to make progress
- Take a short holiday to a place where they speak the language, how does being in that country make you feel?
- Research and buy some good textbooks, do you have the time and the commitment to see this through?
Begin to try things out on your list from the steps above. If you have several interests, then try different things for each one, no need to restrict yourself.
Don’t let time or money get in the way. If you’re short of either, then start with the smallest step that’s possible. Most cities and towns have a public library where you can surf the internet and do some extensive research.
Repeat again and again.
Getting clear about what you want is a process of trial and error.
Keep trying different things, following your feelings and doing more of what you enjoy. By starting small, your risks are low, and you allow plenty of room for pivots and new revelations.
Better to experiment now, rather than find two weeks into an around the world trip, several years into a career, or after having purchased a tonne of history books, that none of this is for you.
Bonus: Facing Down Your Fears
Two common hurdles can stand in the path of us making progress towards clarity — negative thinking and perfectionism.
In this section, we’ll explore ways in which we overcome these, ensuring we don’t derail our efforts.
Exercise #1: Understand Your Inner Critic(s)
This exercise aims to take an audit of our inner voices:
Shine a light on how you speak to yourself, by writing down what you say when you:
- Fear something bad will happen
- Asses how things have been going
- Find someone annoying
- Find a task tricky
- Realise someone is late
- Have something to do you don’t want to
- Achieve something
Many of the things you say to yourself may be so familiar that you don’t often notice.
Make a note of which things are positive and which are harmful.
Can you relate any of these voices to people from your past? Which ones?
Find the kindest one: imagine if it spoke more loudly and more often. What would it say to you and on which occasions?
Exercise #2: Perfect is not Done
Consider someone you envy or admire in your areas of interest.
What are their achievements?
What do you think their failures were?
You don’t know the details, but can you imagine the projects that didn’t work, the schemes that failed, books and movies that weren’t so good.
If you imagine the last decade of this persons’ life, how much do you think was successful, and how much failure?
Check that you are not afraid of failure.
· How do you define failure?
· Is it similar to how other people define it?
· What is the worst that can go wrong if you start to experiment with your chosen activities?
Don’t let perfectionism and negative thoughts stand in the way of you experimenting and learning more about what activities you might enjoy.
The End of Ambiguity
Clarity has always seemed distant.
You’ve been confused for a long time about which steps to take to move forward. Angered and disorientated by all those who seem to have it figured out.
But now your one step closer to finding your purpose or purposes.
You’ve looked into your childhood and explored the activities that brought you delight during a time when you were more carefree than you are now.
You’ve explored your envy and tried to highlight the specifics of what it is that certain people trigger in you — noting that jealousy can be a wise tool, as long as you don’t dwell on it.
And you’ve explored the things you think you might like in greater detail, moving from ambiguous notions to more concrete understandings of what it is about specific activities that appeal.
Finally, you explored why action and experimentation are the only ways to develop our understanding further, and you looked at two of the common obstacles that hold people back — a lack of confidence and perfectionism.
Clarity of purpose is not a one-time task, though, but an endless exploration of how you meet and engage the world.
And it’s worth it.
A strong sense of purpose is an excellent motivator.
It challenges us to do better, commits us to action and spurs creativity within us. It allows us to pull on our resources and develop ourselves in the direction we need to go.
Once we’re engaged in activities we enjoy; time seems to flow. Once we’re working toward a vision aligned with our needs, challenges seem more manageable. And once we’re comfortable with the idea of learning by trial and error, we won’t let any uncertainty stand in our way.
Go through these activities as many times as you need. Grab your list of things to try. Look at the small steps that you can take right now.
Get out there.
Purposefulness is not something you find within yourself.
The clues are within you, but the reality is out there in the world where you and society collide.
It’s waiting for you, the question is:
Are you willing to give it a go?
- Templeton: https://www.templeton.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/Psychology-of-Purpose-FINAL.pdf
- NCBI: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5455779/
- Harvard Health: https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/finding-purpose-in-life
- University of Pennsylvania Scholarly Commons: https://repository.upenn.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1061&context=mapp_capstone