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When You’ve Lost Your Sense of Purpose

 “Tell me, what is it you plan to do/ with your one wild and precious life?” ~Mary Oliver

I was always the child with armfuls of books and big dreams. I wanted to be a writer. When the limit at the local library was six books, I borrowed all six, and then talked my sister into letting me borrow some of her weekly ration.

While I had many friends, most lived several minutes away, and public transportation wasn’t available. When I couldn’t arrange a sleepover, my sibling and my books were ever at the ready to play school.

My parents were not academics, but they heartily encouraged my own goals which always included a clear objective: college. Step-by-step, from AP English courses, SAT preparation, catalogue perusing, and campus visits to placement testing, that long-held goal became a reality.

My life burgeoned with canvas backpacks of Brit lit, philosophy, and cultural anthropology texts; club meetings; and hours hunkered in the campus newspaper office, ordering pizza at 10 pm and pulling all-nighters with fellow staff writers to make morning deadlines.

While I knew upon graduation that I would ultimately go back to school for a masters, first I’d chip away at student loans and work first jobs for the resume notches. As one year post-graduation stretched into four, then five, the time had arrived for my return to backpacks, midnight study sessions, and heady discussions unraveling literary criticism.

So I brushed up with a borrowed GRE workbook, made campus visits, and applied to my favorite. I was going back to school! 

Grad school proved to be an extension of my childhood dream—hanging out at the university watering-hole discussing line edits and narrative structure, and drafting my thesis manuscript before the hopes of agent shopping.

This time, I had become that writer with not one diploma but now two for my wall! Never mind that I had little practical notion of what followed, beyond another day and a student loan.

The years since walking across that stage to the cheers of fellow literary friends and family have proven a challenge intellectually and spiritually. There have been times I’ve felt unmoored.

How, I’ve frequently wondered, can I make this life worthwhile without the focus of school, where I’ve always fit in best? What will motivate me now—workaday Mondays and my five-figure debt balance? Hardly.

How can I lead a life of fulfillment again when many days feel without a center or a greater purpose?

Maybe you can relate to feeling a loss of purpose, and it doesn’t have to be the end of school. It might be that you’ve just lost a job, or your children might have just left home for college and you’re unsure how to proceed with your newfound empty nest.  Or maybe you’ve earned the promotion you’ve worked toward for years, and keep wondering how you’re going to top that success. 

If you’re also starting over, remember:

1. Resist the urge to idealize where you were.

How easy to recall the pinnacles of school years, when I didn’t have the annoying reality of the 6 am alarm or the discomfort of writing friends living a thousand miles away.

If I am completely honest with myself, though, those years weren’t so stable either. With break-ups, mid-terms, and the RA who locked up the kitchen for three weeks because someone had taken another student’s yogurt from the refrigerator and wouldn’t fess, there was ample discord and struggle in the process of earning both degrees.

Just because you enjoyed your past, that doesn’t mean it will definitely top your future. If you resist the urge to idealize what you had before, it will be easier to focus on where you are now.

2. Remember that you are more than the sum of your accomplishments. 

I now have two advanced degrees, but I am so much more than that. The degrees represent past efforts, but education can’t determine whether I choose to uplift a neighbor’s day by dropping by to visit or make a friend’s daughter smile while teaching her to play Shoots and Ladders. Matters of kindness are up to me each moment.

When you’re not guided by a clear professional purpose, it’s immensely helpful to remember we are all so much more than what we produce.

3. You don’t need an extensive plan. You just need to take a step.

More than once, I considered going back to get a PhD. Ultimately, though, the prospect of another four years and more student loans made me concede that while it may be possible, it’s not exactly the right fit for me at this time. But what is next?

Beyond continuing to write, much of my future is inscrutable, even in my mid-thirties. What my degree dream really provided all those years was a false feeling of surety.

Did the scheduling, reading assignments, and syllabuses really spell out control? In reality there is no person, place, event, or schedule that will guarantee prolonged fulfillment.

So focus on the step you’re taking. Don’t worry about having it all figured out.

4. Remember that you are still growing.

What I’ve missed the most about grad school, besides the regular community of academic, literary companionship, is the comfort of a seemingly clear finish line. When days were dull or hard, I could always anticipate what it’d feel like to walk across that stage, to publish the manuscript I’d been workshopping so diligently for two years.

What I’ve found most troubling and difficult since school is the feeling of doing the same thing (working, paying bills, a bit of cleaning, a bit of cooking and laundry, then sleep and the same cycle all over again), without forward momentum.

On down days, I’ve reminded myself that I am still moving forward, even if it may not always feel like it. I’ve also learned that making tiny changes—trying a new recipe, taking different streets on my daily ride—can center me and focus my thought patterns. Moods, like life circumstances, are transitory.

Even if doesn’t always feel that way, we are continually learning and growing.

5. Believe that each moment leads to the best possible outcome. 

“You’ll remember these days all your life. Better enjoy them now,” my paternal grandfather was fond of warning. While there’s much joy in the energetic first blush of youth’s accomplishment, there is an equal truth in savoring each moment—right here, right now.

For this moment, I can value the knowledge I carry with me and use it in service of any jobs, communications, and acquaintances in my everyday life. For this moment, I can celebrate having strong legs to pedal my bicycle, healthy lungs to breathe during my morning meditation, a clear, curious mind to seek new books in subjects I savor, from fiction to spirituality and behavioral sciences.

Who knows what awaits—overcoming illnesses, starting to write the next novel, perhaps the challenge of marriage or the adventure of an adopted child, even a new job in a field I haven’t yet considered.

Until then, I don’t want to waste this day, this hour, even this minute feeling bereft that my purpose has already been met. It hasn’t yet.

And neither has yours.

Photo by namestartswithj89

Avatar of MK Miller

About MK Miller

MK Miller has two degrees and limitless curiosity. She has written about a wide array of topics– including the cultural significance of go-go boots. She rides her bike almost daily, pays bills monthly, and collects books and shoes perennially.

Announcement: Wish you could change your past? Learn to let go and create a life you love with the Tiny Buddha course!
  • Anonymous

    I’m in a similar position. Spinning my wheels and forging on. Some days are easier than others. Thanks for the advice.

  • Guest

    Thank you for this. I feel like I am at the crossroads. After reading this, I don’t feel that pressure to decide where to go next. Enjoying where I am now is what matters. Thank you, again.

  • Guest

    Thank you, I’m going to take it one day at a time, and try my best

  • Antparty

    I’m in the same boat. Professionally, I’ve been a freelance copywriter for 15 years, but I am now burned out. It doesn’t hurt that the recession took away about 60% of my income. And I just suffered a break up so my heart is kind of open for both positive and negative reasons. My focus is on the day to day. I’m interviewing for a different kind of writing job today, one that doesn’t help promote a product or service. I’m excited about that. May 2012 be a year of peaceful presence for each of us.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=639265801 Jigsha Desai

    What a timely blog post. Thank you!

  • http://www.dontwastelife.com Shani

    This couldn’t have come at better timing for me! I was just thinking how I needed to refocus my energies on not being annoyed with hating my job but focus on moving in a more positive direction – one step at a time!

  • Guest

    I really needed this – it was just what I was looking for. I too have felt that I lost my sense of purpose. What I’m going to do for now is focus on the present moment, and take one step at a time. 

    Thank you. 

  • Christy

    Thank you for this article. I feel like I am in the same boat. I worked so hard to get a degree, being that I was the first person to graduate from college in my family, that I did not think about the next goal. I thought about going to graduate school, but like you mentioned, student loans and being broke again have put that thought in the back burner. It has been three years since I graduated and I feel so lost at my current position and am having a hard time taking the next step, whether it is to change careers or go back to school. It is the next step that has me stuck. Like you mentioned, there are no clear finish lines in life like there is in college. Getting to understand this is helping me though. And also how you mentioned in your article, that the journey of school was not easy either. I also had to deal with break-ups and financial problems. We just have to find a balance with happiness and life. It seems like the grass is greener on the other side all the time, but what about focusing on the grass on this side for now? Until you are on the other side, then you can focus on that grass. People like yourself and this website have helped me with changing the way I think about life and living in the present. And at the same time focusing on goals for the future. Once again, thank you.

  • http://profiles.google.com/shelley.mcelhiney Shelley McElhiney

    This can apply to other areas of life, as well. We often feel that we are our jobs or our relationships, that those define our purpose. When something happens & the job or relationship is gone or we are no longer in school, we feel feel we’ve lost ourselves, our purpose. Thank you for reminding us that our purpose is not lost, it doesn’t come from an outside source, even if that source sometimes provides a structure. We are not our past, we still have purpose & the ability to define ourselves, that comes from inside. We do not need to allow the past to define us. 

  • Is

    A much needed & beautiful reminder. Thank you

  • Ndnbluebill

    Thank you. I recently got fired. I haven’t decided if I was unhappy in the industry or was it that job. After high school I was either in college or the military, there was alway a goal a mission. Now at age 35 I’m now out of the military and graduated from college. What do I do now. I’ve been feeling aimless and I’m hiding from the fact I have no goal. I ll use this to refocus.

  • http://letospassion.blogspot.com Lauren

    I got the degrees, I got the first hard-knocks job, then the entry-level dream job. Then I got pregnant. Everything I’d dreamed of and worked towards evaporated and I started a job with no hours, no pay, no external feedback. You bet I know what lost purpose smells like! Not idealising the past is a good reminder.
    If you’re on Facebook, check out the fanpage for Your Inner Pilot Light – daily messages from the true
    you, the you that exists whether society says you’re doing well or not. Sounds odd, but my pilot light seems to jump a little in recognition when reading missives from someone else’s.
    (And psst: it’s chutes and ladders – slides, not guns!)

  • Sara GR

    So aptly and eloquently stated. I sometimes wonder if the 30′s are the new 20′s, then how come I feel as if I’m hitting a midlife crisis in my mid to upper 30′s?? *sigh* I value the commentary on finding purpose much more as a result… ;) Thank you!

  • Namasteskm

    I tried to find Your inner Pilot Light on Facebook and could not find it. If you know why please facebook me Scherrie Manes. Thanks

  • Namasteskm

    I found the facebook page, I typed in the one wrong word. Thanks

  • MK Miller

    I value and appreciate your comment.  Thanks, Keishua! :)

  • MK Miller

    I’m touched and humbled that my posting reached you at that crossroads. Thanks for posting. Namaste!  

  • MK Miller

    One day at a time is a wise way to tread this life. :)  Wishing you the best. Namaste. 

  • MK Miller

    Thanks so much, Desai. :) I appreciate your feedback. Namaste.

  • MK Miller

    So glad that my thoughts resonated with you, Shani.  One step at a time is a wise way to proceed. :)  Namaste.

  • MK Miller

    It is humbling and makes me grateful that my words connected with your current experiences.  Thanks so much for the feedback. Wishing you well. Namaste. :) 

  • MK Miller

    Christy, your message brought joyful tears to my eyes. Thank you for taking the time to express how my experiences resonated with your own.  I particularly connected with this part: “It seems like the grass is greener on the other side all the time, but what about focusing on the grass on this side for now?”  Beautifully expressed.  Wishing you peace and joy in the green grass on this side. :)  Namaste.

  • MK Miller

    Thanks! I appreciate your kind comments, Is. :)  Namaste.

  • MK Miller

    Sorry to hear of the recent great changes in your life, Ndnbluebill.  I can imagine and identify with how you must be feeling.  I hope that this season of life will bring the kind of opportunities to your life that will bring amazing growth to your life. :) Thanks so much for writing to let me know how my blog connected with your life.  It touched me.  Namaste! 

  • MK Miller

    Thanks for the message, Lauren. I really appreciate it. :) Thanks, too, for the heads-up about Your Inner Pilot Light. Also, you are so right–it IS “chutes.”  To think I even proofread that game name several times and never caught it. ;) 

  • MK Miller

    Thank you, Sara GR.  It really touched me to read your post.  I know exactly what you mean– in many ways, I think that “the 30′s are the new 20′s.”  As you can tell/read, I hit that mid-life, mid-thirties smack-down recently myself– and felt compelled to write a blog meditation on it because so few people I knew were talking about it but I had a hunch (and a hope) that I couldn’t be the only one reaching a mid-thirties life transition.  Comments like yours make me realize further that, no matter what our struggles and life lessons, I am not in this alone and we are all connected. :)  Namaste.

  • MK Miller

    Thanks so much for taking the time to reach out and to leave a comment, Antparty.  I’m glad to hear that you are using the transition from copywriting to a potentially new writing job as a time to get excited about the now and what 2012 may yield.  That is wonderful!  I appreciate your feedback. :)  Namaste.  

  • MK Miller

    I am touched by your eloquent response, Shelley.  I particularly connected with: “We are not our past, we still have purpose & the ability to define ourselves, that comes from inside.”  Thank you so much for taking the time to let me know how my blog connected with your life.  Wishing you well.  :)

  • Jackyfh17

    This is a wonderful post and it came at just the right moment in my life (I’m finding that many of these posts do).  I’m days away from finishing up a doctorate program, but I’m not as happy or relieved as I should be.  It is hard to picture myself outside of this environment, outside of school, outside of academia.  I’m ending a program, but I don’t have a job yet and uncertainty is weighing heavily on my shoulders. It’s a big adjustment for me.  Thank you for the reminder that we are more than the sum of accomplishments.  This was a blessing to read, particularly since I felt I couldn’t function outside of my program.  The last few weeks I have been wondering what my purpose is and this post has brought some hope.  While I have dedicated so much time to my projects, it is not the sum of who I am.  Maybe I need this time to actually see myself in another light.  

  • Anonymous

    Your advice, “you don’t need an extensive plan. You just need to take a step” is SO helpful, and so simple! I’ve had a similar experience after getting out of college, I worked various jobs for 10 years before going back to school to get my BFA in painting. The support from fellow students and faculty was comforting and reassuring, and knowing there was a “finish line” like you said is so true! I guess our vision has to be a little shortsighted in order to take that step, but we can still focus on regaining that sense of purpose. Thanks so much!!! :)

  • MK Miller

    I am so touched that the post came at a time when it meant something to you, Jackyfh17.  I love synchronicity! :)  Thank you for your kind reply to my words, and wishing you all of the best in your post-doctorate adventures. :)  Namaste!

  • MK Miller

    It is a great pleasure to receive your comments, jsah.  :)  It means so much to me to know that my thoughts and musings have resonated with others.  Wishing you much peace and joy in your painting! Namaste.

  • Sophia

    This is really inspiring. I left school early due to mental illness and I’ve never since found my way again. I’m in my twenties now. I’m getting increasingly unhappy with my life. But I just don’t know what to do. I have no interests, hobbies or passions. I’m very lost. I have no real dreams, besides I’d like to have a baby one day. I wish I had qualifications and a career goal but I have neither. Just taking the first step is hard, I don’t know what the first step is. I certainly don’t have a plan but I hope that, when I find the first step, things will work out.

  • GradSabu

    I deeply felt this post resonate with me.  I grew up in a stereotypical South Asian family where your worth was defined by how much money you made, how well you married, and when you bought a house and made a comfortable life.  I never felt good enough and doubted myself for following my passions, and sometimes I still do.  I am about to go to India to take a sabbatical from my masters in public policy and do a language program as well as intern/volunteer for an NGO in a position not related to my masters.  I am just looking for something very on the ground and hands on.  I love policy, but I feel sometimes far removed from the people whom the policies i study and hope to influence affect. 

     I think this post reminded me that I’ve taken the first step by deciding to take this sabbatical.  Of course, my family disapproves and thinks it is foolish because it will just mean more time for me to add with my masters and more time I do not get married.  However, this post reminded me not to let any of that get to me.  I am taking this step, and I will not walk in with too many expectations because things will not go as I plan, but that is okay.  I am lucky to be able to do this, and life really is no race.  Even in grad school, I realize I need to reexamine the purpose of my career and this masters – and my life – not the purpose that I think I should have based on what my family or others believe.  It really is such an easy trap to fall into. 

  • Aimless Seeker

    What about those of us who can’t imagine a purpose?

    Nothing has ever caught my interest for more than a brief whim. Maybe a week or usually a couple hours. everything seems both ideal and pointless. People say follow what you feel but I’ve never felt a true connection to anything or anyone. Luckily I was once young enough, smart enough and kept myself in shape so life was maintainable and fell into place. Now near 30 and unable to do the only thing I cared about (working out), I marvel at how everyone goes on with their lives simply pursuing things, goals or relationships. How do you follow your passions when you’ve never had one?

  • MK Miller

    Thank you for sharing your personal story.  May your journey continue to unfold, even without knowing the first step (I can certainly identify with that).  Namaste!

  • MK Miller

    Thank you for sharing your story with us, Gradsabu, and kudos for following your instincts, despite familial protest, to take the sabbatical and to reexamine the purpose of your career and masters. May self-discovery illumine your path.  Namaste! :)

  • MK Miller

    That is a very important question, Aimless Seeker.  Definitely worth pondering.  While some people have great, lifelong passions (whether that might be a certain career or pursuing further education or an unfolding, longterm relationship), many of the people I know are moderately good at many things and don’t really have one great passion–or if they do, those passions evolve or change as they do. Of course, that might just be me and the people I know.  I think joining new groups-whether that’s volunteering or joining a sports league or a book club or taking a painting or dancing class just for fun, etc– can be a good way to try out new activities and to learn about oneself. Maybe these activities won’t become a passion, but they will teach something along the way (even if it’s that the activity really isn’t the thing for you). Also, writing down your thoughts in a journal or some other artistic way can help. I try to concentrate on savoring something out of each moment, even if/when I’m feeling lost and aimless.  Thank you for your feedback, Aimless Seeker. Namaste!

  • Fiona Webster

    I just want to say that I have had this page—which I found by googling the phrase “sense of purpose”—open in one of my browser’s tabs for over two weeks now. I re-read it every day, sometimes twice a day. I am working hard to burn your five points into my consciousness, so that I don’t feel ever again that I am drifting sideways without any longterm goals. Thank you so much, M. K. Miller, for writing this piece!

  • Fiona Webster

    i just wanted to add to my post (above) that I am 57 and retired from my first profession, trying to work out my sense of purpose as an artist writer. (I can’t figure out hiw to edit this reply, so I’ll just add here that I was a doctor before.) So it’s not just the mid-30s when this feeling of being “unmoored”—to use your apt word—can hit! (Ugh—I meant artist & writer…)

  • Mkmiller

    Dear Fiona,

    Your very kind response to my post made my entire week–and also brought tears of complete joy to my eyes.  As a writer, responses like yours keep me going as a writer who is willing to expose my own struggles as honestly and in as much depth as possible, even when it is hard for me.  Your feedback reinforced that such risks are more than worth it.  I’m excited to hear about your own career change and wish you much joy and fulfillment out of your new purpose as an artist writer.  Namaste! :)

  • Luc

    Try and make another person (anyone) happy in a small way…it helps me find a little purpose. Might be a good first step.

  • inge

    Hello, I studied architecture but never finished it. Everyday trying to finish the final project but I dont the motivation. I think that degree is useless, architects are bad paid and I am stucked in a circular life doing nothing. I am wasting my time and getting depressed but I didn´t expect this situation. I wanted to travel and learn new things but I am at home doing nothing…

  • Glo

    Pedal not peddle the bike.

  • Jenna

    As a senior whose parents have died in the last few years I feel empty, depressed and struggle with constant pain from various physical problems. The complete void one feels when losing your parents is devastating. I feel like an orphan. I have no purpose in life now as my mothering years are behind me and my son has moved on and doesn’t need me. I love him very much and he calls but he has his own life now. I am limited in what I can do. I have endured nightmarish pain beyond what anyone should have to suffer and I am forever changed by it. Unfortunately I am still condemned to stay here and nothing relieves the emptiness of my life. I pretend to be happy, I have my gratitude lists, I eat very healthy and exercise and meditate but nothing gets better. I wait to go to sleep at night to leave the world behind and pray the next day will be better but it never is. I will continue to fake it to make it but i am just one of the walking dead. Don’t get old is all I can say.

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  • Sidney Ford

    It sounds like you’re a very nuturing person. Would you consider volunteer work with foster children, or at an animal shelter? I’m sure that there is still so much more you can give (and get) from this life! All the best to you….

  • Thirtysomething

    Thank you! This is exactly what I needed to hear, well, read, today! My dream that I have been working toward for several years now, making improvements across the board and FINALLY making it up to exceeding the standard…is no longer a viable dream and I was feeling a bit lost and a bit sad and a little deflated/frustrated…and unsure of where to go from here. I’m 30 and I fell hard for the old “Everything will come together by the time you’re 30″ routine (it hasn’t yet). Thank you for reminding me that HOPE is the best gift you can give yourself!

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  • Andre

    This didnt help at all the writers achievements made me just feel like more crap and doesn’t really understand what losing sense and direction in life really feels like. I have literally nowhere else to turn to but the Internet for answers and this made me feel worse

  • lu

    Thank you so much