Following the footsteps of the great Greek philosopher Socrates, I started my mission by questioning the very core statements regarding purpose in our society. Socrates believed that by doing so, we can more easily access universal truths in life. What I found with the use of this ancient technique was quite remarkable…
But let’s start from the beginning, with a simple question:
I think it’s safe to assume that we all are familiar with this thought. Find your specific purpose, the thing you’re meant to do in this world and live a beautiful life. According to William Damon, the world’s leading scholar in developmental psychology and a professor at Stanford University, the purpose should be both: meaningful to the self and valuable to society.
He further breaks it down into three elements:
There is absolutely no denying the fact that we, humans, are meaning-making machines. It’s in our very nature to look for higher meaning, to embody our values, to discover our ultimate fate. We have a prominent need of belonging, of knowing our specific place and destiny in this world. Simultaneously, finding purpose with a capital “P” sounds like a heroic, noble, grand idea. Combining it with your passion and ‘never having to work a day in a life’ seems practically unattainable as if trying to pursue it would be equivalent to setting oneself up for failure.
Remembering Socrates, I asked myself: “Why are the standards around purpose so unrealistic? Where does this elusive idea come from?“
The almost impossible-to-meet expectations are a byproduct of our society’s fixation on success. There’s a whole industry built around this phenomenon of living your purpose and fulfilling your specific mission. It’s hardly surprising if we consider the many backed by science benefits of having a sense of purpose. It has been linked to lower levels of stress and anxiety as well as induced overall happiness, resilience and even longer life expectancy. Anywhere you look, people are obsessed with having their purpose figured out. Personal coaches, career bloggers, entrepreneurs, influencers, social media, self-help books – it’s all filled to the brim with, as Jordan Harbinger calls it in his article, the cult of purpose.
The modern understanding of purpose comes dressed in a lot of assumptions and ridiculous expectations. The societal norm of a meaningful life requires us to have a precise, limited set of skills and abilities. Furthermore, according to all of the gurus and social media specialists, each of us should follow one specific path in life with a very narrow focus and just a couple of hobbies. Lastly, we should perceive the world linearly, just like we do when going from one place to another with success as the destination.
With all these external sources telling us what to do and how to do it, it can absolutely feel like everyone has their life figured out and organised while we are somehow left out and the only ones to miss something important here. However, I’m here to tell you that this is definitely not true. A 2010 study (Rosemarie Kobau, Joseph Sniezek et al.) revealed interesting results regarding a sense of purpose and wellbeing. In the research, only 20% of participants stated that they have a clear understanding of their purpose, and about 40% of participants claimed to be lacking a satisfying sense of life on purpose. What does that tell us? Most of us don’t have it all under control, easy peasy and worked out. On the contrary, a big chunk of society struggles with finding their purpose, their special place of belonging in the world.
That uncomfortable, sometimes painful struggle has its own name – purpose anxiety. It refers to all the negative feelings like stress, fear, frustration, worry, etc., linked to the individual’s search for purpose in life. This condition can impede our mental wellbeing. Larissa Rainey studied the topic, and in her paper, she mentioned a survey in which “91% of participants reported experiencing purpose anxiety at some point in their life“. It only further proves that almost all people, sooner or later, experience difficulty in their relationship with purpose.
What, however, not so many of us decide to do, is change the faulty mindset produced mainly by today’s society. What if we chose to search for universal truth not in the external environment but within each of us? What if we decided to spend every single day purposefully taking actions that help us to be the best version of ourselves? What if we choose to live a life on purpose?
As opposed to finding this one thing you’re destined to do, living your life on purpose offers an entirely different dynamic. It boils down to showing up every morning with the intention to spend the day purposefully, to aim at self-improvement and commit to it. Day after day. Week after week. The rest will follow. We don’t have to expect ourselves to know it all and have a deep understanding of our place in the world. We can, however, make a conscious choice to bring the value of purpose-driven actions into our daily existence. In this way, we are liberating ourselves from the immense pressure of having to be in the right niche. Simultaneously, we open up to choosing whatever we feel is meaningful to us.
When we want to achieve something, we first sit down with a pen and a notebook, brainstorm, write out our ideas, plan it thoroughly, and at last, we commence an action. This can work for many goals, but not so much for knowing one’s purpose.
Reverse this process and dive into deep waters. Commit to action. If there’s something that you gravitate towards, don’t overthink it, “just do it”. Only by gaining experience through discovering, trying and failing and trying again will we understand what we are good at, what we enjoy the most, and what makes our lives meaningful.
Let’s add a little twist to the quote of Marc Anthony. Doing what you love and transforming your passion into a profession is a great idea, but definitely not the only one. The vision is so idyllic, and being the realist I am, I can’t help but point out some inconsistencies…
What if your passion cannot bring you money?
What if turning your passion into work will make you despise it?
What if you don’t like spending an excessive amount of time on your passion?
If you have a passion and you’d like to turn it into your profession, give yourself a little trial period. See for yourself if you’re willing to work hard for it. Do you still enjoy your interest when you have to perform it every single day? Is it still worth it, even if it requires some sacrifices?
Keep working on it for a couple of months, maybe even a year. Only then you are indeed ready to commit to doing what you love as a way of supporting yourself financially.
To all the lucky ones who do not have a defective sight: having a blurry vision and no glasses means having a blurry day and an even more blurry mindset. It feels less secure, more chaotic and even hostile to move throughout your day when you cannot see properly.
Correspondingly, not having a clear vision of your values, identity, your ‘why’ can impede the quality of your life. “Why?” is a guiding question that we need to ask ourselves every day, throughout the day. Rather than searching for purpose in external sources, seek the answer within your wise self. Knowing one’s true purpose means keeping it real, honest and authentic.
You can live your life on purpose only by gaining clarity of YOUR values, dreams, beliefs, passion, and goals, not anyone else’s. Once you figure that out, it’s easier to follow a particular direction. Maybe still not knowing the ultimate destination, and that’s good. It creates a unique opportunity to truly enjoy your journey, free of expectations and pressure.
Create your personal motto, an overarching principle, a mantra linked to your values and dreams. Let it keep you in check, let it calm your mind, support your motivation and encourage your decision to live on purpose.
Start each day by reciting it. Ram it in your head. Imprint it in your mind. Treat it as your personal point of reference. Return to it in challenging times. Find comfort in it. Think of your mantra as a safe space. Whenever you feel anxious, frustrated, or defeated – recite it and keep pushing forward.
It is super important to remember one very crucial thing at the end of the day – we are only human. Shedding the mainstream expectations can be a stressful process. After all, it means breaking out of a typical pattern, making yourself an outsider who goes upstream, who thinks differently. That will, sooner or later, take its toll on us.
That’s where mindfulness can immensely help us cope with stress and counteract purpose anxiety. Cultivating mindful posture through meditation, sitting in silence, breathing techniques, taking a solo walk in the park etc., increases overall wellbeing. It also has a beautiful grounding effect that anchors us in the present moment, removing our focus from a past we cannot change or the future we cannot control.
With our attention on the ‘here and now’, it is much easier to see the point in our lives, even if there’s still no clear sense of purpose. When we live on purpose, we are more attuned with our feelings, which can guide us towards the things we enjoy doing.
“Don’t believe everything you see on TV” – or in other words, don’t conform to society’s expectations so easily. Instead, dig deeper, like Socrates, and find a universal truth within yourself.
What are your thoughts on living your life on purpose? Share your thoughts with the Dwen-Day community!
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