Some people seem to be born knowing what they want out of life.
They have their career picked out before they’re out of high school, they have a plan for exactly the family life they want, they know exactly how they want to be spending their days.
Most of us are not that lucky.
Most people wind up rolling into adulthood a little lost. Maybe you never knew what you really wanted to do and have cruising along waiting for it to come to you but it hasn’t. Maybe you thought you knew what you wanted only to find, four years of university education later, that you were wrong – and now you feel trapped in a career you don’t enjoy. Whatever the reason, it’s not uncommon to find people who feel like they don’t have any real purpose in life.
If that’s the case, it’s time to start figuring one out.
Don’t Find Purpose, Figure Out or Choose a Life Purpose
First there’s a little bit of housekeeping that I think needs to be done when it comes to thinking about the concept of a ‘purpose in life’. Some people treat the idea as if there is one special thing that you were born to do. I reject that idea completely.
Not only does it require the existence of some kind of ‘higher power’ which is almost certainly not the case, it’s kind of an offensive concept in my opinion. I would find it oppressive and horrible if I were told by a parent, government official, or whomever else you want to use as an example that I had one ‘job’ or ‘calling’ or ‘purpose’ to fulfill that had been decided for me without my input or consent and I had no choice in the matter. Making the thing doing the choosing some deity doesn’t make it any better.
You and only you get to choose or even create your purpose in life. That’s why I dislike the general language that gets used most of the time when people discuss these things. It’s always ‘find purpose’ or ‘discover purpose’ and that frames things in a way that makes purpose in life out as this fixed, pre-determined thing that you have to hunt down. Your purpose in life can be built, it can change, it’s a malleable thing not a stone tablet with an unalterable decree chiseled into it.
That sense of purpose can mean different things to different people too. For our purposes I’m going by the necessarily incomplete working definition of being the thing that makes you eager to get out of bed in the morning. The thing that makes you want to hop out of bed and start your day as opposed to the things that make you have to get out of bed and start your day.
It might not be tied to your work either. Discussions of finding your ‘true purpose’ get framed that way a lot – and I genuinely do think it’s good to try to earn a living doing what you love.
I’m a realist though. One awfully close to the optimist line, but a realist nonetheless. Not everyone can make money off of the thing they choose as what gives them purpose. Sometimes it’s just not something you can monetize at all. Sometimes it’s something that will earn you some money but never let you earn enough to provide a comfortable living for you or your family. It’s all well and good to tell people to do what they love and assure them they’ll make ends meet – but that’s just not the case for most people. It doesn’t have to stop you from pursuing whatever gives you purpose though, it just means you’ll also need something to earn a living.
With all that out of the way, let’s look at some things to ask yourself that will help point you in the right direction for creating some purpose in your life.
7 Questions to Find Purpose in Life
What do you hate about your current situation?
I realize most articles like this tend to focus only on the positive stuff, but negative things are just as much an indicator of what direction you might want to go in. Hell, at times they may even be easier to tap into than the positive emotions. It’s easy to lie to yourself about what you think your hopes and dreams are, but you everyone knows it when there’s something they just hate.
This question is a little bit of a preparatory step for the others. Think about what things in your life, or aspects of your life, are there that you just can’t stand right now. It can be big things or small things. You might hate that you don’t make enough to not stress over keeping your family fed each month, you might hate that you don’t exercise like you tell yourself you want to, you might hate that you watch so much TV or spend so much time playing video games. Whatever it may be, think for a minute on all the things about your current situation that upset you.
Keep these things in the back of your mind as we you go through the rest of these questions because these are the things that you’re looking to change if you can. Anything that will help remove or address some of the things you come up with should get a little extra consideration when you’re choosing.
What pains/struggles are you willing to tolerate long term?
Now that you’ve considered what you hate about your situation now, start thinking about what things you might find unpleasant that you would still be willing to put up with long term.
The fact is everything has a shitty side to it. There’s going to be a downside to whatever you pursue as purposeful and if you can’t handle that or if the downside outweighs the positive side then it’s not a good choice as the thing to give your life purpose. If you think playing in a band would give your life purpose but don’t want to travel or hate being around crowds, it might not be a great choice. If you think it would be incredible to teach young kids and have an impact on their lives, but can’t handle early mornings / late nights, bureaucracy, or a relatively low income, then becoming a preschool teacher might not pan out.
It’s a question of what are you willing to put up with. In pursuing my writing I understand the kind of grind involved to do it. I definitely don’t enjoy the hard work of it sometimes, but it’s something I’m willing to put up with. If you don’t know where your line is for what kinds of things you can put up with long term it’s going to be hard to figure out what’s sustainable.
What reliably puts you in a flow state?
Now that you know what kinds of things you’re willing to tolerate, it’s time to think about what kinds of things or what specific activities tend to put you into a flow state.
What’s a flow state? Put simply it’s when you get so dialed into something that you would forget to eat or sleep if someone didn’t stop you. It’s when you feel like you’re ‘in the groove’ and an activity is simultaneously challenging enough to be fun but not so much that it’s stressful. If you’ve ever sat down to do something, gotten super into it, and then looked up to realize several hours had passed and wondered where the time went, you were probably in a flow state.
Being in the flow state is great for all sorts of reasons. Things that tend to put you into it are things that you’re likely to consistently enjoy, which makes them good candidates for choosing something to give purpose to your life. Things that you come up with from this question are a great place to start exploring your options.
That being said, it’s not a guarantee that something will be a good choice. I get into a flow state all the time playing certain video games, but if I tried to make playing video games my purpose in life I know there just wouldn’t be enough there for me overall to be satisfied. The odds of ever making any money off of it are also low which, while not a deal breaker, is still a consideration.
What would you spend time on if you were going to die in a year? Or, what would you do all day if forced out of your normal routine?
This is sort of two questions in one, or two questions that get at the same concept. First, if you were going to die in one year exactly – guaranteed, no escape, you will be dead – what would spend most of that year doing? Would you spend as much time as humanly possible with family? Are there things you would want to accomplish before you were out of time? Would you just want to spend that last year in a blur of sex, drugs, and parties?
Most importantly, how does what you would do differ from the things you do right now? Would you watch as much TV? Would you keep putting off learning the piano/how to dance/whatever? Would you want to make sure you’re remembered for feeding the hungry?
The second question gets at the same idea, but with less of the skew towards the wild, consequence-free options that knowing you’ll be dead in a year provide.
Imagine you were barred from doing anything you normally do everyday, or from coming home except to sleep at night. Maybe someone’s put a Battle Royale style bomb collar on you and outside of going to work if they catch you going home or falling into your normal routine through the day they’ll detonate it.
What do you choose to do all day?
You’re pretty sure if you pick ‘sit at a coffee shop and dick around on Facebook/Reddit/YouTube/whatever’ the person holding the remote is going to consider that as being too close to your normal routine and press the button that turns your skull into a fireworks display. Do you go find some classes to enroll in? Spend your free time hiking around whatever local parks or woods are available? Hit the library for some good books?
Both these questions are trying to get at what things in your life are things you actually want to do as opposed to just being a part of what I call your ‘holding pattern’ – the stuff you do to occupy your time and distract you from the meaninglessness of life in a safe, non-threatening way until the next task necessary for your continued survival comes around.
I know that sounds brutal, but it’s true. Your holding pattern (constantly checking Facebook, zoning out in front of the TV, compiling a thousand Pinterest boards, etc.) is a way for you to spend time with no risk of failure or negative stimuli that makes you feel ‘good’ by distracting you from life.
Knowing what is, and isn’t, part of your holding pattern by thinking about those two questions will help you narrow down what might be a fulfilling purpose for you. Things that are in your holding pattern won’t be a good choice for creating purpose.
What do you do, or not do, now that would piss off ten year-old you?
Imagine you could somehow pop yourself as a ten year-old forward in time to hang out with you for a single day in the present. We’ll also assume when they get popped back they’ll have no memory of it to avoid all the obvious,
“I’d spend the whole day making them memorize a list of winning lottery numbers,” type answers. What would ten year-old you think about where you’re at? What would they say about what an average day is like for you?
Think about it broadly, but then focus in on two specific aspects of it – what do you do that would upset ten year-old you, and what do you not do that would upset ten year-old you?
Would the job you have currently horrify your anachronistic doppelganger? Would they get upset that you don’t get out and do more things? Did you always used to love to draw, play an instrument, dance, or whatever else but gave it up at some point because of the burdens of adulthood?
Not everything ten year-old you wants for current you is going to be a good thing, I know ten year-old me would probably be very upset I don’t just eat ice cream all the time since there’s no one to stop me. Sometimes you have a good reason for not wanting to do something now that you loved as a kid. That’s fine, and you should be honest about it.
Sometimes though there really isn’t a good reason. Sometimes you gave up on something because you felt there wasn’t enough time, or that you would never be ‘good enough’, or you had someone discourage you from it along the way telling you it wasn’t realistic or it was a kid thing, or whatever. When you frame the question this way it makes it easier to take a look at whether you really want to be doing the things you’re doing and whether there are things you aren’t doing that you would enjoy. These can be good jumping off places for figuring out where you might want to invest more of your purpose.
What do you avoid doing because it’s uncomfortable or scary?
This is more of a general personal growth kind of question, to be honest. It helps identify areas that you might be struggling in or need to grow into, which in turn helps expand your experiences making it (hopefully) easier to figure out what you might want to choose to be your purpose.
Take a look at all the things you have to, or want to, do today, this week, this month, this year. What of those things have you been putting off because you’re scared/uncomfortable/anxious about some aspect of it?
To give a micro example, I hate talking to people on the phone. I am solidly in the ‘Just text or e-mail me, please’ generation. Sometimes though I have to call someone. I always instinctively put it off because it makes me uncomfortable. If I’m not careful I’ll avoid it so long I miss my opportunity, or bad things happen, or best case scenario I just look like an ass who doesn’t care enough to get back to people. I know if something makes me uncomfortable I have to make myself do it as soon as possible so that it doesn’t become a big problem.
On a larger scale than the daily to-do list often the things we’re most apprehensive about doing, or which make us most uncomfortable when we think about doing them, are the most important things we could do right now. Things tend to make us uncomfortable because they’re important – even if we don’t realize that’s the reason. Important things often come with stakes, with a risk, with some kind of personal investment. Those things freak us out.
When you take a look at what things you want to do that you’ve been putting off because you’re scared to get started, you get a picture of the areas that you need to focus hardest on. When you start growing in these areas it makes it easier to figure out what you might want out of life.
What would you do if you had unlimited funds?
I had to include this one, even thought to be honest I sort of hate it.
Mostly because the honest answer is probably “Accidentally destroy the global economy by buying a ton of shit I don’t need.”
So try to think of it a year in to your unlimited funds adventure. You’ve bought all the expensive stuff you wanted and won’t care about before long. You’ve burned through the crazy bucket-list type stuff like having someone fly you up to the International Space Station for dinner. Now what?
What do you do for the rest of your life now that you don’t have to work? How do you stop from getting bored out of your mind?
I put this one last because I don’t think it’s necessarily the best way to really think about it, partially because it’s unrealistic, and partially because having that kind of financial power would probably skew your choices significantly, but as a last thing it can at least provide a small amount of insight into where your personal priorities lie.
Keep Testing and Re-Evaluating
Hopefully these questions will help get you on the path to figuring out what it is you really want. This is a process that will require constant testing and evaluating. You might decide down the road that what you want out of life has changed, that your old purpose in life no longer applies and it’s time to create a new one. The important part is to always be assessing whether the trajectory you’re on is the one you actually want to be on, or one that you’ve found yourself on without realizing.
I want to note too that sometimes feelings of hopelessness, or that you’re lacking a purpose, or that the things you used to love doing just aren’t enjoyable anymore, are signs of clinical depression. It’s absolutely worth it to talk to your doctor if you’ve been feeling that way and nothing seems to help – depression is often a chemical issue and is something that can be treated, but it’s important to recognize it’s an illness and not just something ‘in your head’. Treat it like you would cancer or another serious affliction and get a doctor to help you overcome it.
If you have anything to add, or any questions about the questions, make sure to leave us a comment!