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Why can't I find my purpose?
I want my life to matter, but how do I know I'm on the right path?
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Now on to this week’s post . . .
This post dives into a reader’s recent question. My hope is that sharing these Q&A’s will serve others, too, because many of us are asking the same questions about who we are, why we’re here, and how to fulfill our potential. If you have a question you’d like to submit, feel free to email me or reach out via Substack Notes.
I’m an entrepreneur and have accomplished many of my goals, but I feel stuck. I know there’s a bigger purpose for my life, but it feels out of reach. How do I go about figuring out why I’m here, so I can be happier? I’m on a spiritual path right now, and am hoping that will lead to some answers. Any insight?
Welcome to the great human quest for purpose, my friend. From my perspective your question—Why am I here?—is everyone’s question.
In fact, it might even be the only question we’re all asking. Who doesn’t want to experience a deeper sense of purpose in life, and the happiness we believe it will bring?
After all, isn’t our pursuit of purpose really a search for happiness through our work, relationships, and experiences? If we thought those things would ultimately lead us to unhappiness or a sense of meaninglessness, we would never bother with anything.
What then is the key to discovering your life’s purpose and happiness? If you distill millennia of conversations, books, debates, and philosophies to their essence, two pre-dominant answers to this question emerge. These two answers create two distinct orientations toward Life.
Your purpose is out there.
This is the predominant narrative on Earth right now, and has been for quite some time. It equates our life’s purpose, and the happiness we believe it brings, with acquisition and doing.
What are you acquiring?
If you believe the salesmen, the answer is always More and Better: more experiences, more influence, mo’ money (preferably passive income), more achievements, a better house, a better job, better sex, or, for the more evolved and discerning, a better spirituality.
It’s always More and Better than you have right now.
Let’s call this the Gospel according to Don Draper.
More and Better never satisfy, of course. Just read the Book of Ecclesiastes. (For those who don’t have time to read it, here’s a synopsis in the writer’s own words: “Meaningless! Meaningless! Everything is meaningless! But…life is still amazing.”)
This isn’t even an open secret. Don knew this, and we intuitively know this, too. Yet, the marketing campaigns still somehow convince us time and again. So we go one more round believing it will be different this time. All we need to do is find the new job, relationship, or meaningful experience.
Yet, notice how it is always based on a future promise: “Once I _______ (fill in the blank), then I will find purpose/happiness/meaning.”
Once I find different work, then I’ll be happy.
Once I find my soulmate, then I’ll finally know love.
Once I manifest more money, then I’ll be okay.
Of course, it’s a future that never comes.
It’s like that sign on the side of the bar: “Free Beer Tomorrow”. Every day you walk in and ask for your free drink, and the barkeep tells you to come back tomorrow. So you do, and he tells you the same thing. No matter how often you return, Tomorrow never comes.
This is the truth behind Answer #1, which is why the “hedonic treadmill” will always wear you down. It’s ultimately taking you nowhere.
There is a second answer, though.
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Your purpose and happiness is here, now, because you are your purpose.
As you might guess, this one doesn’t perform well in focus groups or exit polls. It is not a sub-cultural answer. It is a counter-cultural one. In a consumerist society, it is the equivalent of saying “down is up and up is down”.
The mind doesn’t like this one bit.
The answer is so simple it doesn’t seem believable, which is why mystics and sages make terrible marketers. They say, and have been repeating for millennia, that purpose cannot be found “out there” and happiness cannot be acquired. They are not things at all, and you cannot really find them because you already are what you seek.
That’s why you can never truly find a lasting sense of purpose or happiness in any vocation, person, or experience. All of these things come and go, and can be taken away. But you do not come and go.
What if the truth really is that simple: You are your purpose. You exist so you may know and be your Self.
Pause for a moment and read that line again. 👆🏻
Right now, you are here inhabiting a life for the sole purpose of expressing your boundless, creative Self fully, freely, and fearlessly.
Everything else—what you create, how you create, and who you dance with through life—are simply byproducts of you being your Self.
Put another way: knowing and being your Self is the answer to the question, “What is my highest purpose and the source of my deepest joy?”
The only problem is you do not clearly know who and what you are. You do not know your Self because, from an early age, we were all handed a blueprint for the Good Life. We’ve all been told who we should be, what we should want, and what a successful existence looks like.
Then we spend our lives trying to copy that blueprint. Along the way we develop a case of mistaken identity. We forget Who we are. The early, fitful stages of remembering are the cause of all quarter-life, mid-life, and late-life crises.
I’ll invoke the sages once more, who tell us to stop chasing after More and Better and slow down enough to recognize the truth of our essential nature. Simply see who and what you are. Then go live your life instead someone’s else’s idea of it.
For years I felt a kind of low-grade confusion about this because it’s a slippery concept for the mind.
Be my Self.
What does that even look like? There’s not much to grab onto, and so the mind dismisses it as aspirational or outright woo-woo BS because we’ve been hardwired to think purpose comes through hustling and finding a part of us that’s been missing.
Sounds like non-sense to the mind, I know, but do the words resonate with you? Can you feel or sense whether or not they’re true?
You can’t ultimately think your way to happiness or freedom, nor can you look to anyone else to tell you who you should be. You have to discover that for yourself.
But how do you begin to do that?
Begin by embracing disillusionment.
If you’re feeling disillusioned by life, you’re in the perfect starting place. Disillusionment is inevitable even if you fully enjoy your achievements and successes (which, by the way, you should) because achievements come and go. The shine always wears off, as it must.
Know this. Own it and see that there is great wisdom in disillusionment. The pain of disillusionment can be the doorway to real freedom and new possibilities.
Consider what the word disillusionment means. It means to be de-illusioned or to no longer be caught in the illusion itself. In other words, you’re seeing the truth. In your case, you’re seeing through the cultural story of achievement to the truth it veils, which is that nothing outside of you can create a lasting sense of purpose or happiness.
You’ve checked the boxes and achieved many of your goals, which is wonderful. But, how long did the satisfaction last? How long did you wait before you redirected your frustrated energy toward spiritual goals?
There’s nothing wrong with spiritual goals—I have my own. Yet, notice how it’s human nature to try to escape feelings of disillusionment or discomfort.
In the short term, it feels better to divert our attention from life’s big questions by launching a new project, starting a new self-improvement routine, or entertaining ourselves to take our minds off things. Eventually, though, we all come back to the same core questions.
No matter how far you go, or how fast, you always take you and your questions with you. There is no escaping them, which is good because you don’t truly want to escape them. They’re leading you somewhere.
Disillusionment is an invitation into a new way of seeing and being. Just as physical pain is the body’s intelligence trying to get our attention, disillusionment is our True Self’s way of nudging us toward the truth.
Don’t seek to escape disillusionment. Embrace it and all the questions that come with it. But don’t stop there.
Re-frame your idea of Purpose.
Judging by the rising tide of mental illness of all kinds, the epidemic of loneliness we’re facing globally (especially in the U.S.), and the sheer numbers of people quiet (and loud) quitting, the way we work and live isn’t working, and the way we have defined purpose and happiness for so long is crumbling.
This idea that our purpose is “out there” is what keeps us stuck, individually and collectively. It’s an idea that’s impossible to avoid. We’re bombarded with the messages of More and Better every day, but we’re becoming more aware that it’s the Pursuit of Happiness itself that is making us miserable.
The Game of Life is now nothing more than a Comparison Game against impossible ideals that sell a lot of products, but do little for the human soul.
Eventually, every system evolves and ideologies shift as cultures evolve. We’re in a period of time now where many people are challenging the status quo around what it means to play the Game of Life.
Rather than asking how to hack, beat, or bend the rules of the Game, it seems we’re asking en masse if we want to play this Game anymore at all.
If you’ve become de-illusioned enough to see that our current view of Purpose doesn’t work, begin to re-frame the idea completely. Everything is an idea, and ideas are flexible.
Begin to see that, perhaps, what you’re really looking for—and what you’ve always been looking for—is how to be the truest expression of your Self.
Perhaps the sages and mystics are right. You were never looking for a job, relationship, or experience. Not really. All along, you’ve only been looking to find out who you are and what you’re capable of being.
That’s really the question, isn’t it? Who are you?
Or, rather, what are you?
Find out what you are.
If your identity, purpose, and happiness isn’t “out there” then you must turn your attention around and discover your essential nature. Traditionally, this is the domain of spirituality, philosophy, and psychology, although I’ve simply come to see it as Reality.
What is our essential nature?
It is what remains after everything non-essential to our being is stripped away. It is the fundamental truth of You. Everything else—your thoughts, feelings, identities and roles—are simply wrapped around (and obscure) that truth. (I’ve written about that before, and the simple way to begin peeling back what hides it.)
Once you begin to recognize who and what you truly are, you will shift your perspective in important ways. You’ll see that, because being your Self is why you’re here, happiness is immediately available to you. You don’t have to wait for it or work for it. It doesn’t requires anyone or anything outside of yourself because you’re already fully you. Already. Right now.
Then, from that clear perspective, you no longer need to do or create anything in order to be whole. You’re already whole. You are the happiness you’ve been seeking. But now, from that place of wholeness, life (and work) become creative play. Your work, relationships, and pursuits simply become a creative expression of your joy.
You’ve become like a child again, playing in the sandbox, except that the entire world is your playground.
Don’t take my word for it.
Most of this is non-sense to the modern mind. I get that. We’re conditioned, especially in Western society, that life is a problem to be solved and that the answers can be found in More, Better, fame, wealth, and influence. There was a time (around 40) when I was a skeptic who drifted into cynicism, and then flirted with nihilism for a bit.
Then I hit my own identity crisis and started asking questions. I burned the ships of my forefathers’ on the beach—the ships of inherited thoughts, beliefs, and actions—and set out to find what I really am. I haven’t turned back since, and I’m not sure I could find my way back to the beach even if I wanted to (which I don’t).
These questions you’re asking are the only ones worth asking, in my opinion. Humans have asked them for time immemorial. The good news is that the answers are right under our noses.
But don’t take my word for it. Take the spiritual path you said you’re on now. It will likely bring you to the same conclusion every other path will, which is that you are the one you’ve been searching for all this time.
If I were to ask you to stand up and take a step toward yourself, how many steps would you need to take? That’s how short the journey really is, and it’s also the longest one most of us will ever embark on in life.
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