“A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.” ~Lao Tzu
About a year ago, I came across an e-course titled “Find Your Purpose in 15 Minutes.” I found this course during a time when purpose was something I was actively looking for. For the first time in my life, I wasn’t sure what to do next, and without anything to work toward I was looking for a new motivation to pull me forward.
The e-course I stumbled upon represents a society increasingly concerned with fulfilling its destiny. There is an unsettling pressure, particularly from the self-help community, to live a life of purpose. And when I couldn’t find my destiny, let alone fulfill it, a sense of failure washed over me.
Now, I cannot tell you whether it is possible to find your purpose in 15 minutes, because I never purchased the e-course. But I can say it is entirely possible to find meaning in a purposeless life.
The Appeal of Purpose
Purpose can provide an answer to the question “Why am I here?” It can give you a sense of direction and drive forward in life.
Some people might find purpose in meaningful work, using their skills and talent to serve the needs of the world. Others find purpose in raising a family, caring for loved ones, or being an active member of their community.
Having a purpose will make you feel like you are doing what you’re supposed to do. Like you are living out your life’s mission and making a contribution.
In a world where most of our basic human needs are met, I suppose it’s no wonder that we are now looking to become more deeply fulfilled. When you no longer have to struggle for mere survival, it’s only natural that you pause and ask yourself what it’s all for.
The Problem with Purpose
Living a purposeful life sounds wonderful, and I’m not here to devalue anyone’s purposeful existence. Rather, I would like to remind those that haven’t found purpose yet that life can be meaningful and fulfilling without it.
The problem with purpose is not at all the actual purpose, but rather our intense attachment to finding it. Doing work we love, contributing to the world in a meaningful way, and leaving our mark has become such a prized endeavor that I can often sense a deep existential worry creep into conversations with my peers.
For example, I’ve noticed that many of my friends feel angsty when they don’t know what to do next in life or when they aren’t sure if their current endeavors are what they’re meant to do. I too have felt uncomfortable with the fact that I am not serving the world in big and meaningful ways.
We seem to collectively feel that if we don’t have some grand end-goal to fulfill we are somehow failing at life. And with this, we are passing on the opportunity to create a meaningful life without having a purpose.
The Alternative to Purpose
This is where I would like to offer an alternative. Not to purpose itself, but to the glorification of purpose and the frantic gold-rush that we have embarked on to find that one thing in life that will bring us meaning and fulfillment.
I do believe that living a meaningful life is important. Having no sense of why you are even on this planet can feel restless at best and nihilist at worst. But instead of anchoring yourself in finding purpose, I suggest you anchor yourself in values instead.
Personal values are guides that can help you navigate the road map of life, even if you don’t know where you’re heading. More importantly, they’re a lot easier to find than purpose.
Think of a few people you admire. What values do they exemplify? Courage, empathy, ambition? If you look up to anyone, it’s most likely not because of their achievements, but rather their character, which has helped them reach those achievements. What in their character would you like to improve in yours?
Personal values allow you to live anchored in what is meaningful to you, whether that’s serving others, being brave, or taking radical responsibility for your life. Values, unlike purpose, allow you to infuse meaning into every present moment rather than only finding meaning in one noble cause.
If you value kindness, for example, then living from a place of kindness can transform mundane daily activities into opportunities to be kind. A boring job can become a playground where you practice your kindness. And an annoying family member becomes your opportunity to show up with compassion and consideration.
My Journey with Purposelessness
I used to navigate life with a sense of urgency, always moving forward in an attempt to fulfill my mission in life. I would set goal after goal, convinced that once I had achieved them a sense of meaning would arise.
But as I worked through the common milestones in life, the meaningfulness never came. So I would continue to set new goals, certain that I just hadn’t found the one thing yet that would make me feel whole.
When I was stuck at a major crossroads last year, I slowly shifted my focus from finding my purpose to adding meaning to the everyday. A year later, I still don’t know what I am meant to do in life, but I am content to live in the question for now. To sit with purposelessness.
In the meantime, I find meaning in cultivating my character by living out my values. Personally, I value courage, tenderness, and depth at the moment, so I use everyday activities and challenges to put these values to practice.
The value of tenderness, for example, encourages me to soften my inner self and stay open to life in the face of hardships. I try to cultivate this part of my character by always being compassionate with others, particularly those who challenge me. I also practice tenderness through self-compassion, allowing myself to be weak and vulnerable at times when staying strong is not the compassionate option.
I live a life of courage not only by doing things that scare me, but also by truly listening to what my heart wants and speaking my truth. Nurturing courage has faced me with some nerve-racking situations, such as quitting a job that no longer fulfilled me, but rising to those situations has given me the strength to forge a life that feels true to who I am.
Lastly, I try to cultivate a sense of depth in my life. Rather than scrolling through Instagram, I often spend hours getting my teeth stuck in an interesting book. And rather than traveling the world, I have made it my mission to revisit old favorites over and over again. To get into the nooks and crannies of a city I know well, sucking out the last little marrow from its foundations, offers me a deeper way of traveling not found in weekend getaways or exotic backpacking trips.
Nurturing these values has given me the chance to see each and every moment as an opportunity to grow and develop my character. While I’m figuring out the why for my life, values keep me on track with the how. And, unlike purpose, I can swap out and play with my set of values as much as I’d like.
Perhaps one day I will stumble upon my purpose. Or perhaps I will look back on my life in old age and finally recognize that I had been living my purpose all along, and finally understand what it was all for. But for now I am simply curious to experience life as it unfolds, finding meaning along the way by anchoring myself in values.
If you’re currently feeling a little lost in life, then know that it is okay to sit with that feeling. Know that it is okay to not fix away this feeling in 15 minutes. And know that if you simply show up every day with an open mind and unfold your soul into the tapestry of possibilities, your path will be full of meaning and wonderment, even without that illusive thing called purpose.