“Life isn't about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.” ~George Bernard Shaw
I wanted a guarantee.
I wanted to know for sure that if I tried to do something, I would like it; if I devoted my limited time to it, I’d end up somewhere good.
I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, and I felt certain this was a phenomenal failing—because if you don’t know right now what you need to do to make your life count, life will pass you by before you’ve ever had a chance to do something meaningful or valuable. At least, that’s what I thought back then.
So I sat around thinking, analyzing, trying to identify something big enough or good enough, terrified that maybe I’d spend the rest of my days feeling purposeless, useless, on the fringe; doing the same thing in my professional life as I’d always done in my personal life: feeling like I was on the outside looking in.
When you’re sitting amid a vast expanse of possibilities, in the pressure cooker of expectations and impatience, it can feel almost paralyzing.
What step do you take when you have a hunch but no solid sense of direction? If it’s only a hunch, then maybe it’s the wrong direction.
And what if you go in the wrong direction? Then you will have wasted time, and time is finite. And everyone else is so far ahead. Everyone else seems happy and successful. Everyone else is climbing the ladder, earning more money, making a difference, mattering.
What if you never matter? What if you never do anything important? And worst of all, what if you never have more than a hunch about what’s important to you?
What if you never feel a spark, a purpose, that elusive “why” that so many people write about?
What if you never care about anything so strongly that it becomes the bliss you have to follow?
Sitting in the Times Square Internet café over a decade ago, searching Craigslist for jobs and gigs, I felt a sense of panic and urgency. I needed to figure it out, and fast.
I was blinded by the fear of never finding what I was looking for, and that made the looking awfully ineffective.
I thought there was something wrong with me for being so uncertain, so resistant, so unable to identify and commit to any path.
In retrospect, I see there was nothing wrong with me, or where I was in life. And there was nothing wrong with living in the maybe, looking for new possibilities.
I wasn’t ineffective because I didn’t yet feel a strong internal pull. I was ineffective because I consistently marinated my brain in anxious, self-judging thoughts.
My biggest obstacle wasn’t that I felt lost; it was that I felt I shouldn’t be. I felt I should have known, right then, not only what I wanted to do but also how I was going to do it.
Because without knowing those two things, I felt adrift and incredibly out of control. How can you let yourself ease into the moment if you can’t be sure it’s leading to a better one?
If I were to walk into that Internet café and approach my younger self, she would probably ignore me, immersed as she was in her frantic searching.
But if I somehow had the power to command her attention, I’d tell her a few things that maybe, just maybe, could relieve her constant worrying and provide both peace of mind and focus.
You’ll never be effective if you’re convinced tomorrow needs to be better than today, because this belief stems from resistance to the present—and the present is where your power lies.
If you’re looking for purpose from a place of inadequacy, you will likely be too overwhelmed by the need to do something big, that matters to the world at large, to identify what matters to you personally and start taking tiny steps toward it.
Instead of looking for a guarantee that tomorrow will be valuable, know that today is valuable—that you’re not wasting time because you don’t yet feel a sense of purpose. You’re using time well by starting (or continuing) the process of discovering it.
There’s simply no shortcut to “figuring things out”—for anyone. Instead of being hard on yourself for not having clarity, be proud of yourself for moving forward on a foggy road when you could easily find a cloudless, well-beaten path to follow…to certain dissatisfaction.
There’s no set timeframe for doing anything.
You truly can do things in your own time without having to worry about being “behind.” Sometimes it's the things we do that feel like “stalling” or “getting off track” that end up being the most helpful for our growth.
And besides, what story will be more interesting to flash before your eyes in the end: one that unfolded in ways you never expected, with unique twists and turns; or, one that followed a specific, predetermined timeline with predictable steps from milestone to milestone?
The best way to find direction is to trust your instincts instead of forcing yourself to do things because you think you “should.”
Your intuition is a powerful compass, and even if you think you aren't making progress, if you're following your instincts, you are.
There are always going to be opportunities that look good on paper, and that little, scared voice within may tell you that your life will only matter if you take them.
Other people may also tell you this, if not directly, indirectly; or, you may assume they’re thinking this, when really, they’re too immersed in their own confusing journey to pass judgment on yours for long.
But sometimes the best opportunities are the ones you don’t take, leaving yourself open for choices that better align with your own values and priorities.
I know this may sound as impossible as growing another lung, but try not to worry so much about what other people might think. They may have expectations, but they aren’t living inside your mind, or feeling your instincts.
The only one who can make wise decisions for you is you. And even if it makes you feel anxious at times, you will eventually thank yourself for being brave enough to follow your heart, not someone else's head.
When it comes to creating purpose, there truly is no “wrong” decision.
You may think you only have one purpose and that you need to push yourself to find it. And you can continue thinking this, if you’re okay with feeling chronically pressured and scared.
Or, instead of aiming to discover the one thing you’re supposed to do with your life, you could focus on discovering the one thing you want to try right now, knowing that you can change direction any time. And that changing direction won’t be something to be ashamed of; it won’t mean you failed at discovering your purpose before. It will mean you had one purpose then, and now your purpose has evolved.
It will mean you’re brave enough to let yourself evolve, repeatedly undertaking the sometimes terrifying process of discovering what else you can do.
Maybe that in itself can be a purpose—to live life in that vulnerable, uncertain place where you’re not boxed into one way of being; unencumbered by the need to define yourself and your place in the world; free to roam when it would feel much safer to tether yourself to one role.
Ten years ago I thought I was a failure because I hadn’t done anything that felt important. I now know it was all important, and not just because it brought me to this site.
All those steps were important because those steps were my life. And my life is valuable and worth enjoying regardless of what I do professionally.
Ironically, adopting this mindset makes it so much easier to create meaning in life, because suddenly it’s not about what you have to do. It’s about what you want to do. It’s about where your heart’s pulling you in this moment.
And that’s what it means to find direction—to follow those pulls, without a guarantee, knowing that the goal isn’t to end up somewhere good but to learn to recognize the good in this very moment.
This moment isn’t merely the bridge to where you want to be. This moment—this crucial part of the process—is a destination in itself, and now is your only opportunity to appreciate it, and appreciate yourself for living it.
Photo by h. koppdelaney