The year was 2016 and I was feeling crushed by pointlessness. I’d left home on the almighty quest to ‘find my life purpose’ and had the world at my finger tips. But I was not having fun. The question on my mind when I’d left home was who am I? What is the purpose to my existence? I was ready to hang out of trains and experience raw, breathtaking adventure as the meaning of it all unfolded in front of me. I’d been in Europe for over a year doing the ‘freedom’ thing you’re meant to do in your 20s. It looked peachy from the outside. I made sure of that. But it was one big, unceasing fight up in my head – a cosmic joke, really. Little did I know that knowing what a life purpose is not is almost as valuable as knowing what it is.
Travel slowly lost its glamour. And as I clamored for things to keep me busy, a new question became increasingly frustrating. Why am I doing this? I felt alone and frankly bored after the 1000th church where another random saint was buried. Everything felt empty, meaningless. That scared me – scared the hell out of me – because up until then ‘travel’ had been my life’s purpose. I thought travel was supposed to give you the ultimate freedom and fulfillment, but it wasn’t working for me. Now what? Was there something wrong with me? I also relied on my parents for support between the few jobs I’d had. And the thought that at some point I’d have to become self-sufficient and ‘settle down’ made me want to book a one-way ticket to the north pole.
To say that I felt anxious would be the understatement of the year.
Enter the quarter-life crisis (… and life purpose)
That was the beginning of what I think of as a series quarter-life crises. They came and went for the better part of three years as I struggled to transition into the responsibilities of adulthood in a meaningful way. I only recently discovered that developmental researchers call this type of quarter-life crisis as locked-out. The other kind, locked-in, happens when you feel locked into your responsibilities and pressures of adulthood. Both relate to the transition into adulthood. Although it’s generally thought of as a time of freedom and opportunity, it’s becoming increasingly stressful and anxiety-ridden for young adults.
According to the research, I’m not alone in this experience. QLC’s tend to affect people between 25-35, occurring a quarter of the way through adulthood. Studies show that more and more of us are having them these days, with 75% of 25-35 year olds having experienced a QLC. Judging by articles and social media, a lot of people say they don’t exist. But the research is piling up, and so is the anxiety.
I don’t miss those days of wondering what to do with my life and feeling like I had nothing to offer the world. But hands down the worst part was the total pointlessness of everything as I struggled to identify a sense of meaning and purpose. It felt like there were a million things I could do. Go back to studying, become a Shiatsu therapist or continue hitchhiking to name a few. But what was the point in any of them? Part of the problem was my resistance to taking responsibility for what I needed to do to become independent. But another part is our society’s fetish with and gigantic misunderstanding of what it means to have purpose. (Never mind where it comes from and how to find it.)
6 insights about find meaning and purpose
The good news is that as depressing as that phase of my life was, I drew powerful insights about purpose and meaning from not having them. Just like sh*t, that time provided fertile soil for learning and flourishing, such that today I get to do work that is priceless for me! No matter whether you’re 25 or 55, challenging how you see purpose and meaning will help you find the fulfillment that comes with a meaningful life and pull you out of depression if you’re in one. Below are six myths about finding purpose and the turnarounds to help you eliminate anxiety and experience the flow you want and deserve.
Myth #1: Your Life Purpose is what you’re ‘meant to do’
The amount of times I asked myself what was ‘meant for me’ during my quarter-life crisis is just plain embarrassing. And you know what? It landed me exactly nowhere except feeling like anything I decided was wrong!
Trying to guess at what you’re ‘meant to do’ is like trying to guess at destiny. And that’s just absurd. Taking on this pressure is like assuming you have to do the Universe’s [substitute God, Allah, Krishna, Buddah, Jah, Xenu or My Little Pony] job for it.
Predicting what’s ‘meant to be’ is like putting pressure on yourself to be the all-knowing, almighty God itself. But destiny is not a choreography that you have to guess at. It’s an improvisation, a dance of energy; a push and pull with the guiding hand that is the song in our hearts. Destiny is something we look back on to see the pattern of our footprints in the sand. And we get to reflect on how beautifully things came together – rather than a map we need to foresee.
The only way we get those ‘meant to be’ moments is when we’re open to the plans the Universe has for us. It’s in finding our flow, not by trying to control it.
TURNAROUND: Trying asking, “What does life want from me?”
Dr. Viktor Frankl, the father of Logotherapy, posed this question is his book Man’s Search For Meaning. It’s effective for a few reasons:
- It takes the pressure and anxiety off of us to know what we want – often we don’t, and that’s ok!
- It allows us to feel connected to life and engages a sense of altruism
Myth #2: Your Life Purpose is something you need to go out and discover
I remember feeling overwhelmed by the need to get out of my life in Cape Town and discover who I was and what I wanted. I wanted to give myself the gift of an extraordinary life and I felt that it was similar to giving someone a meaningful birthday present. In order to know what to give them, I must know what they like and who they are. So I got the heck out of dodge, bought a one-way ticket to Lisbon and started, well… getting very lost.
Now that I know a bit more about meaning, purpose and most importantly, myself, I can safely say that what I really needed was a break from the patterns that kept me in a life I hated. But that ‘myself’ that I was looking for – it was already inside me all along. No country or experience or person held it. They all just brought it out of me.
Purpose has its roots in our identity, in who we are, our core values and beliefs. So if you need a break from the ordinary to get in touch with it – get out of your comfort zone! But just know that wherever you go, there you are. Your purpose is not a place or person or even a feeling. It’s already you, baby.
TURNAROUND: It’s the journey we take inside that counts.
According to purpose expert Richard Leider, purpose comes from looking inward to uncover our gifts and passions and use them to contribute to others and the world.
It’s the journey we take inside that counts. So ask yourself not what you want, but what you have to share.
Myth #3: Knowing and living a life of purpose starts with seeking
‘Seeking’ out purpose like it’s something we’re going to find buried somewhere makes it into something mystical and unattainable. But actually, living a life of purpose doesn’t start with seeking; it starts with doing!
TURNAROUND: Instead of asking “What do I want to do with my life?” try asking, “What am I GOING TO DO to make my life purposeful?”
How can you use your skills, knowledge, abilities, wealth, values, gifts and passions to impact the world and leave it in a better state?
Sharing our passions with the world allows us to feel connected and gives us meaning and a sense of purpose! So what’s the tiniest step you can take to share your passions with those around you?
Myth #4: Knowing your Life Purpose means knowing what you want to do with your life
Knowing what you want to do with your life is often a really tall ask. We’re badgered by this from the moment we pick up toys and the adults around us start guessing at what we’re going to be when we grow up. Give me a break!
As you’ve probably gathered, my early and mid twenties were turbulent. Throughout it all, my dad reassured me that it would all work itself out. I still remember what he said when I started asking these questions when I was 17 and applying to universities. “Pumpkin, I still don’t know what I want to do with my life.”
I don’t think anything has ever terrified me and given me so much comfort at the same time. The fact that there were people decades older than me asking the same questions must have meant that either:
a) This is a never-ending sh*t show; or
b) It’s totally ok not have this all figured out. So just enjoy the ride.
But he also said, “So you already know what you don’t want to do. That’s just as valuable as knowing what you want.”
I began to realize that finding what you don’t want to do is in itself a purpose. If you already know you’re probably going to make mistakes, don’t resist it. Make them knowingly with the intention of learning and growing. If you set this intention, the only failure is failing to learn.
TURNAROUND: What is your purpose right now?
If you don’t know what you want to do with the rest of your life (in other words, you’re completely normal), then how can you find meaning and purpose right now? Can you dedicate yourself to finding out what you don’t want by trying as many things as possible? Or perhaps your mission and meaning right now is making it out of anxiety and depression and finding out how to live joyfully?
Myth #5: Hyper-intention will get you what you want
Have you ever had the experience that the exact thing you’ve feared came true? In Man’s Search For Meaning, Frankl called this phenomenon anticipatory anxiety – a fear that produces the outcome you’re afraid of. He compares it to blushing when walking into a crowded room. When you’re scared of it, you’re much more prone to it actually happening.
In turns out that a similar thing happens with intention. In the same way that fear can cause exactly what you’re afraid of, a forced intention makes it impossible to get what you want. Frankl called this excessive intention hyper-intention, which is usually accompanied by excessive attention or hyper-reflection.
That’s a lot of words. Put simply, you want something so bad you ruminate and pour all your focus into it, leading to a sort of self-defeating anxiety loop.
So that purpose, joy and fulfillment you’re after? If you’re forcing your intention, it’s probably running away from you. You’re feeling anxious, wondering why you can’t get it right, why it hasn’t happened already, comparing yourself to every Tom, Dick and Jill in her yellow bikini somewhere in the Philippines, wondering why your life can’t be like that and probably getting lost in a long downward spiral.
The good news is that Genius Frankl prescribed a cure called paradoxical intention. In this, you intend, even for just a moment, the exact opposite of what you were trying to force. That’s right. You intend for the opposite of what you want to happen.*
It sounds nuts, but it really works. Paradoxical intention relies on your ability to detach from your circumstances even just briefly. It’s this detached observation (the same as what we find in humour) that is the key to self-awareness and self-management.
Ready to beat anxiety?
TURNAROUND: Intend, even for just a moment, the exact opposite of what you’ve been wishing. By doing this, you replace your fear with the opposite wish and hack anxiety.
If you feel anxious about…
- The uncertainty around what to do with your life; experiment with intending, even just briefly, that you won’t find what’s ‘meant to be’.
- Getting your business up and running – your sole purpose and focus right now – experiment with the intention that you will take as long as you can.
- Not knowing what direction to choose; experiment with the intention that you will pick the wrong one.
Can you feel how liberating that is? The pressure is gone and you’re free to just be. Maybe you even feel in control again.
Tip: It helps to be able to laugh at yourself!
*Disclaimer: I’m not telling you to choose drug addiction or to bum about for the rest of your life! Just experiment with your intentions and how it alleviates anxiety, because you’ve given yourself a break from the pressure.
Myth #6: Meaning comes from the world
Understanding this last thing was a massive turning point for me. I spent years and years running around like a headless chicken, trying to find ‘my purpose’ and piling a mountain of pressure on my shoulders. And I finally realized that in my search for happiness, I was really just searching for myself. To just be with myself condition-free, story-free without the pressure of becoming anything is the most blissful state I have ever experienced. It gave the saying ‘follow your bliss’ a whole different meaning.
Think of the way we talk about ‘finding meaning’, like it’s something we’re going to stumble upon either inside or out. Is there meaning inherent in a leaf, a road, a personality? Was there meaning in the world before there was a human with a brain large enough to perceive it and talk about ideas and concepts? Was a flower a ‘flower’ before humans came around, or only after?
The point is this: meaning does not exist without you. In trying to ‘find meaning’, we are giving meaning to the world around us in a way that makes sense and fits the story we have of the world. What this really means is that YOU are the meaning-making machine! YOU get to choose. First you must exist; then the rest of the world has meaning. And if everything is meaningless without you, then what can ever be more truly meaningful other than you?
It might seem discouraging to think that the world has no intrinsic meaning, but the opposite is true. If you are the giver of meaning, then you have absolute freedom to express your heart in whatever way it chooses to sing!
TURNAROUND: Whatever you do, YOU attribute the meaning. Not the other way around.
So if you’re free to let your heart sing, meaning or no meaning, what will you do? If everything is already gained and you have nothing to become, where is your bliss?
Struggling for meaning can be downright depressing, no matter what age you’re at. And with all the fantastic books and movies and stories that are popular today, our understanding of what it means to ‘find your life purpose’ has become a little warped. Challenging how you see purpose and meaning will help you find that feeling of fulfillment that comes with a meaningful life and direction and eliminate the anxiety that blocks the experience of flow.
- Make yourself open to experiences and what life presents you with by asking “What does life want from me?”
- Instead of coming up with places where you can find your purpose, focus on the journey within and what gifts, passions and values you have to share.
- Instead of asking what your life purpose is, ask what you are going to do to make your life meaningful.
- What is your purpose right now? Knowing your purpose doesn’t necessarily mean that you know what you are going to do for the rest of your life. If you are trying to find a direction, make your purpose finding your direction, allowing yourself to experiment, get things wrong and learn from your mistakes.
- Alleviate your anxiety and the pressure you’re placing on yourself by experimenting with paradoxical intention – replacing your wish with the opposite intention.
- Know that you are the attributer of meaning – YOU get to decide what is meaningful and that in itself is beautiful. If everything was already gained and you had nothing to become, what would you do?
Are you (or your young adult, if you’re a parent) experiencing a quarter-life crisis or feel stuck for meaning? Chat with us by booking a free 30 minute Curiosity Call or enquire about coaching at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’d love to hear from you!