Have you ever sat down and thought, “What is my purpose in life? What is my passion? Where do I go from here?”
These are some of the most common questions we have all struggled with. And I am not in a position to answer it – all I can offer in this article is an opinion, slightly different from the typical response.
This statement is everywhere, and yet it is ignored so often that it bears repeating: Your purpose is your own. No one can cramp themselves into another person’s definition of happiness and success and, well, expect to be happy and successful.
The difficulties arise at this point, because of our natural reactions: “Of course I am pursuing my own passion!” But are we?
Where do our ideas of success come from? Our parents, or the media, perhaps. Maybe society in general. Be rich; be handsome; be beautiful; be famous. Are these really your goals? Where did they really come from? Can you be absolutely sure that these things will make you happy? I’m not saying yes or no, I’m just asking. It is possible that these things truly do make you happy.
The Internal Goal
But why do I mention happiness and success in the same breath? The true goal behind what we pursue is often internal – and most of the time, this internal goal is simply to be happy. If you don’t believe me, try something simple: Look at a current external goal you have, and then begin to trace it down.
For example: You want a new job. Ask yourself why. Perhaps a higher salary, or to get away from a nasty employer? What then? An easier work environment or more free time. What then? What will you have? And simply repeat this process until you can’t get any more answers. Almost always, you will find that what you are left with is an internal goal.
One of my favorite stories – you might have heard it before. There was a big city businessman who once went on holiday to a faraway beach. One day he walked past a local fisherman who was lazing around, with his fishing rod in the water, enjoying the sun and a beer.
The city man’s mind went to work immediately. The fishing spot was a gold mine, and a serious fishing business would thrive in the area. “Why are you so stupid?” he asked the fisherman. “Get some boats, hire some extra hands, and in a few years you will turn your little shop into a million-dollar business!”
The local man asked him. “And what would you do once you have a million dollars?”
The city man stared back blankly. “Why, I would have so much free time I could sit around in the sun all day and drink beer!”
Again, this idea might seem so basic that it doesn’t need repeating. And yet it is resisted by many people as a knee-jerk reaction. I remember a speaker at a seminar once, who simply stated that one can be happy even if they are financially poor. That statement was met with a lot of sarcastic comments from the audience. And yet is it really so hard to believe?
A basic level of material resources are needed, yes. But beyond that, it really makes no difference. So why do we resist it or even feel the urge to attack such a statement? What does it challenge inside us? If one honestly tries to answer these questions, the answers can be revealing.
Turning Our Goals Around
And then what? Once we see our internal goals, try one thing. Turn the goals around – achieve the internal goals first. And if, after that, you still want the external goal, you’ll find it that much easier.
Do any of these sound familiar? Once I have money, I’ll be independent. Once I find a lover, I will have higher self-esteem. Once my spouse quits drinking so much, I will be happy.
Does the opposite not seem more logical? Develop your self-esteem first, and potential lovers will find you more attractive. Grow your independence and you will find it easier to make money. And perhaps if you are happier, your mate will not see the need to drink as much.
This road becomes easier to tread when we realize that internal goals are always achievable if we put in the time and effort. External goals can be subject to limitations that cannot be overcome, no matter how hard we try. It would be almost impossible for a sickly fifty year old to become a professional boxer, for instance. But if the man’s true, internal, goal was to build confidence, it does not matter how frail or old he is – it is always possible.
For those who don’t have an external purpose in mind, try seeking out an internal goal. Look to become happier, for instance, and as you begin to take steps, you might find that an external goal begins to reveal itself.
The Impermanency of Purpose
This becomes more important when we realize outer purposes are ultimately impermanent. Our external purpose changes to reflect our inner. Purposes are not permanent. Nothing is. Stop looking for something to do for the rest of your life – it might be possible to find something that lasts forever; but most likely it will simply change in accordance with your internal state and needs.
When I was younger, I put all my energies and time into the sport of boxing, even sacrificing work and study opportunities for my obsession. Boxing was a strange choice for me, because I didn’t have much talent, and I was the quiet, introverted type. But when I think back to it now, it made complete sense – it was to fulfill an intense inner need. I had to become stronger, more confident. I needed a safe outlet for my anger and frustration. When I achieved those goals, my obsession with boxing just dropped away on its own.
Deeply realizing that goals are impermanent will also contribute to our inner peace. Here is one to stimulate thought – if you are seeking fulfillment through your external purpose, what happens when it comes to an end? It is certainly admirable to aim to be the best parent you can be, for example, but what will happen when one day your children become old enough to leave the house? When that happens, one can cling to the purpose, resist, and suffer. Or one can simply let it go, and continue in peace.
The Need for Action
Naturally, there is a time for planning and thinking, but there is also a time for action. Many people who are seeking or rethinking their life purpose stay stuck in the introspection. Maybe they do this to avoid taking risks, for fear of leaving their comfort zone, to avoid disapproval, or any other fear. And in doing so, they remain stuck in a rut.
Sometimes, the best way to find a purpose in life is to go out there and take action, even if we don’t know what we are doing!
My favorite tool at this stage is the 5% statement, created by Nathaniel Branden, who is widely considered to be the father of the self-esteem movement. It works by allowing you to take steps in small increments. Trying to change completely overnight, as some might suggest, often creates fear, uncertainty, and resistance.
A 5% statement is split into 2 halves. Examples would be:
If I were to be 5% more responsible today, I would ___________.
If I were to be 5% less lazy today, I would ___________.
The first part of the statement doesn’t have to change. But every morning when we wake up, we think of something that fills in blank, and then do it! As you can see, 5% is small and harmless enough to let us overcome our fears and procrastination. Being flexible enough to do different things everyday in pursuit of the same goal also keeps us from boredom and routine. Even better, it encourages us to think of new ideas to try (although we can simply do the same activity 5% more each time).
You can use this for anything you plan to do – begin a new exercise routine, reduce procrastination, improve your workflow, or even your personal relationships. And if 5% seems too little, don’t worry – it builds up rather beautifully.
Once momentum begins, sometimes the difficulty comes in stopping!