I stopped looking for my purpose and started living purposefully.
I spent many years trying to find my true purpose in life – I know I’m not alone here. I wrote long, agonizing journal entries, I prayed, I chanted, I meditated, I took seminars, and pop quizzes. Whatever I did, there did not seem to be a definitive answer.
What helped the most was getting cancer, almost dying, and going through the cleansing fire of intense chemotherapy. (I don’t recommend this method, by the way). I know what you’re thinking: I am so lucky to have had a life-changing experience to set me on my path. Not everyone gets that opportunity.
Getting cancer was important for me, not because I was visited by some prophet or wise child or was struck down by a blinding light. Despite what the movies tell you, cancer does not automatically make you wise and caring. However, facing death and physical agony meant that the unimportant things in my life began to seem very unimportant. I began to understand really how little time we have to make our lives meaningful. I got rid of friends who were not supportive and started building better relationships with people who cared about me. I found work that felt meaningful to me and made the most of it until I decided on the next step. I started paying attention to how I spent my time and money. In short, I stopped looking for my purpose and started living purposefully.
8 years later I have a rich and fulfilling life full of purpose and meaning. There are always areas I can work on, but when I look back at the person I was 8 years ago, it is almost unreal how much I have changed and how much I have changed my life.
So here are my four steps to begin living a purposeful life:
1. Start paying attention to how you spend your time, your money, and your energy.
Until you know where your resources are going, you won’t know where you need to make changes. When I notice I’m more tired than usual, grumpier, when my spending feels out of control, I take some time to evaluate. I ask myself: where are my resources going and is this what I want?
2. Decide what your values are.
Is it to have a lot of money, to serve others, to help your family, to live a more spiritually attuned life? Really understanding what is important to you is key to feeling like your life has purpose. For many years I tried to ignore how important it was for me to make a difference in the world. Once I acknowledged this, it made other decisions much easier because I could quickly eliminate a lot of options. Not only that, but once I started living by this value, I became much more energized by what I did. I had a passion for my work and that made me a much more interesting and energized person.
3. Decide what your goals are.
This can be challenging if you’ve never set goals for yourself. When I first began doing it I found myself overwhelmed with “what ifs” and anxiety about the future. But if you don’t have goals, you won’t know if you’re headed in the right direction. Start with small, short-term goals to keep yourself motivated for the big ones. Celebrate each victory.
Oh, and make your goals specific. If your goal is to “eat less sugar” then how will you know when you’ve achieved less? It’s easy to track a goal like, “Eat one sweet treat per week for three consecutive weeks.” When you’ve achieved that goal, decide if you want to continue, to let it go, or to set a new goal.
With big goals, it’s best to break it down into smaller steps. Is your goal to buy a house in the country in the next five years? What would you have to do to make that happen? What money is involved, would you have to change jobs, where in the country, will you sell your house? Lots of smaller things have to happen before you reach your big goal. Make these your small goals.
Having smaller goals can make the big goals a lot less scary, too. I might be terrified of looking for a new job, but the goals of “research jobs in my area,” “ask Bob to look at my resume,” and “research companies I want to work for,” are not such scary goals.
If you really want your life to begin changing, begin having regular goal meetings with your partner. Discuss both individual and mutual goals, evaluate how you are doing in meeting those goals, and bring up ideas for changes.
Dge and I weren’t doing this on a regular basis until I heard my friend refer to her “monthly team meeting” with her husband. I loved the idea that couples are a team, working toward creating a more fulfilling life for both partners. Dge and I have been doing this for awhile now and it’s made us both feel like a more cohesive unit.
4. Continue to evaluate.
This work is never really done. In order to continually make your life more meaningful, you have to continually track your progress. As you evolve, so will your values and your goals. Remember, start with small changes and prepare to be excited as these changes add up.
Do you feel your life has meaning? How did you find or create your meaning? I’d love to hear your story.