I talked about owning your life a while ago in the first episode of my podcast and in this blog. Owning your life, steering the wheel, taking your life where you want it to go, no matter where you have been, or where you come from or where you are starting from but a reoccurring question that people have been asking is ‘What is my purpose?’ I wish I could tell you, straight up, ‘Hey there such and such, your purpose is this’, because that’s exactly what I wanted for years. I would wish so hard that someone could just spell it out in black and white, so that I could just do what I’m meant to do and tick the boxes and get it right. I had dreams when I was 19. Dreams that I thought were too big for me. Dreams I didn’t deserve. I thought that there was more to life than having the right job and the right clothes and all the things that ‘society’ tells us is what a good life is about but I didn’t know what it meant or what that meant for me and my dreams were too massive for me to achieve them so it meant I felt pretty much good for nothing.
The old-school model for life goes; get a good education, get a good job, work hard, save money, get a good spouse, buy a good house, make good kids, pour your soul into them for the next 20 years, work some more, pay some more bills, and eventually retire and then think about what you would like to do with your free time and empty nest syndrome. That was it. If you’re anything like me, that will stir up some seriously strange feelings inside your guts because you know that there is more to it than that. There doesn’t seem to be any purpose to it. There doesn’t seem to be any passion or drive in that. Unless, of course you’re like one of my friends who is practically super-mum and that seriously brings her to life. She’s one of those mums who bakes cookies and cakes and has four kids and one on the way and she is passionately passionate about parenting and that’s cool. If that’s your thing then you already know that’s your thing and you can happily go off and do that because there is absolutely nothing wrong with that as a pursuit. When you’re finished being mum of the year you’ll end up grandma of the year so it’s going to keep you occupied for a while and we don’t need to help you sort that one out.
But, for those of you who know inherently that that model doesn’t work for you… What then? For me, I spend years searching. Searching and searching and searching to find what would actually make my life worth living. I learnt a few things along the way, and I’m going to share a few of them here to hopefully save you some years of torment and having to learn these ones the hard way.
There are books out there on finding your purpose and achieving your dreams and most of them either start with a Christian slant of what you were designed for and what Gods purpose is for your life, or the current self-help slant and war cry of ‘what do you want’?
I’m not going to start with either of those. I’m going to start with something a little different. While I can’t tell you what a single, one, all encompassing purpose for your life is, I can tell you what I believe are several purposes for your life. You can take them or leave them but hey, this blog is free, and free advice is free at least.
There might not be a purpose for your life. There might not be a big reason you exist. I prefer to believe that there is and so I do. But, if I’m wrong, I could simply change the language around and say ‘what gives my life meaning’, instead of ‘what is my purpose’ and the answers are the exact same. Here are four ways to uncover your purpose or create meaning to your life...
#1 – Love yourself.
When I grew up I was told that loving yourself was a bad thing. It was vein and conceited. I was taught that you were meant to love others, but loving yourself was ridiculously up yourself. “So what that meant is, um, other people are worthy of love, but I’m not”?
NO. You are worthy of love, just like everyone else is and if you don’t love yourself, then you won’t look after yourself properly, and if you don’t do that you won’t fulfill your potential and I’d bet that purpose and potential are linked. After all, why would you have so much potential to just let it go to waste?
Now, this whole ‘loving yourself’ has to cover a few bases. I see plenty of people out there who want to make a big difference to the world. Who are passionate about justice and community and people and they want to get out there and change lives. But then, they don’t look after themselves, they get overweight, unfit, unhealthy, and when that happens, mental illness is rife because I don’t believe you can have a poor physical system and a healthy mental one – they’re linked. So then, these beautiful souls, who have a feeling that they have a purpose, are neglecting a top one: LOVE YOURSELF. That looks like not filling your body with toxins. It looks like eating healthy, setting limits, (as a parent one of the first responsibilities is telling your kids no to excessive amounts of sugar and making them eat their veggies – that’s hard, but that’s LOVE right there – keep that in mind when you’re setting up your own lifestyle and boundaries with food). It happens to me too. Not so much with the food, but with the not exercising. If I don’t exercise, I get sick. Not physically, but I just get tired and lethargic and because I have fibromyalgia it just gets harder and harder for me to look after myself properly so my potential diminishes rapidly. I can’t help others to my full capacity if I am not at my full capacity. I can’t be at my full capacity unless I make looking after myself a priority and I won’t do that if I don’t believe I am worthy of loving and looking after.
What does loving yourself look like for you? And for those of you out there that are truly lost right now, can I just tell you that drinking yourself into oblivion is not loving yourself. Taking drugs and getting off your face is not loving yourself. Unless you look after your brain, and take good care of yourself, you will never create solid meaning and purpose within your life. So if you’re struggling with addiction – you can stop listening here. Looking for your purpose can come later because your very first purpose in life is to get clean and sober. If you need help, check out Alcoholics Anonymous or, if you’re a daily user you might need to find a rehab. If you’re young, don’t think you’re immune. Alcoholism and drug addiction is not just for older people and you don’t have to wait until you’ve only got half your brain left before you get help. Get it now.
I might add, that people who love and look after themselves can’t possibly be assholes because when you love and respect yourself, you naturally love and respect others because you aren’t trying so hard to trample on other people to get your needs met, you’re not broken and using other people to fix you and you’re coming from a place of love at all times because your tank is full.
Ok now that’s out of the way, I want to move you to number 2…
#2 Know yourself.
It’s kind of linked to number 1, because if you know yourself, if you truly know yourself then you will love yourself. Ultimately I believe at our core, at the deepest part of who we are as human beings, we are GOOD. I think if you take a good hard look at yourself, and your actions and your character, you will find a few things that the rest of humanity have in common as well. If there is unkindness, there is brokenness. I think, as little kids we get it right. We want to play with anyone. We naturally speak to anyone who looks at us. We smile. We play. We laugh and find wonder with the world. It’s only when we have been around long enough to get hurt and damaged that we start with the negative. Someone breaks our heart and we start to keep people at arms length, blocking them out, treating them like crap first so we aren’t the vulnerable ones. That’s what happened to me. My first boyfriend cheated on me and for the next I don’t even know how many years I put all boys into the same category and had little to no respect for any of them. I wasn’t evil – I was broken. Once I sorted out my issues and healed my broken heart I was able to wisely, let the right people in, and avoid the others but – lovingly. I wasn’t continuing to create damage. I believe if you have a good look at yourself, and you make a list of all the mistakes and damage you’ve done, and you really look at it, you’ll find that most of those mistakes and terrible things came from a place of fear. Find a good therapist and work through some of that stuff. Get better. Get to know how you operate and how your heart works and where you need to grow. I think you’ll find you’re no worse than anyone else. We all make mistakes and we all stumble and fall. It’s not in the falling, it’s in the getting back up.
If you’re not interested in working with a counselor or a therapist, then try a life coach. If you want to go it alone (and let’s be clear here I strongly recommend you work with another human being but if you don’t want to maybe you’ll come around to that later), then at the very least journal. Pick a point in the day, write down what happened, what is getting to you, how you are playing a part in it, what you can do differently, what you have learnt. By actively looking at your life and how you are participating in each encounter, you’ll be able to start noticing if there are patterns, and you’ll also start to notice if you’re making the same mistakes over and over. It happens in businesses – performance reviews. Do them on yourself occasionally and you’ll notice great improvements both in your own self and in the quality of your life.
#3 Figure out what’s important
When you know yourself, you’ll know what is important to you. I like online tests. There are personality tests (and I’ll leave some in the show notes HERE), and there are online career tests that help you discover your own particular personality traits and the things that you find important. I think when you’re only beginning to learn about this sort of stuff it’s quite surprising to find out that not everyone thinks like you do. Well, that’s not the surprising bit, but the surprising bit is, that your own unique character traits, your own unique desires and passions will have a lot of impact on the path you forge for yourself and the things that make you unique mean that your purpose is unique too. What gives your life meaning is not the same as what gives your Dads’ life meaning or my life meaning. You need to discover these things for yourself and your purpose will be linked greatly into who you are and what’s important to you so if you don’t know – use some of these online tools to find out.
When I say grow, that’s dependent on the three previous points; unless you love yourself, you won’t bother investing your time and energy into your own growth. Unless you know yourself you won’t know where you need to grow. Unless you know what’s important to you you will waste your time and energy on things that aren’t important at all and that’s a waste. Don’t waste your life. I believe we are a lot like plants. If we aren’t growing: we are dying. Which one is it?
Something I discovered along the way, through the searching, is that through it all, the trial and error, the chasing of the ‘standard’ formula for life, the chasing of money and power, popularity and social status; none of that crap matters. The whole time, for as long as I can remember my core dreams have actually remained the same. It just took me that long to love myself enough to get rid of the things that held me back. It took me that long to know myself deeply enough to realize I was capable and worthy of my dreams. It took me that long to figure out what was really important and to decide that in order to fulfill my potential – I must grow, and I must continue to grow. Now I do. I love myself because I know the importance of it regardless of if anyone calls it vanity. It’s not vanity – it’s sensible and it’s the only real place to start. Now I know myself because I’m constantly checking in, seeing where I’m at and where I need to work on myself and what needs improvement in order for me to go where I want to go. I know where I want to go because I know what is important to me and I grow because I have to in order to get there.
I think that there are two viewpoints; either, from an atheist viewpoint, there is no pre-determined purpose and I simply have to create meaning for my life, in which case if I follow my own formula to my death bed, I will have loved and looked after myself and others, known myself on a deep level, discovered what’s truly important to me and grown throughout the whole journey, OR, if there is a higher power, then that divine power has set a path before me, has pre-determined my purpose and given me the desires and particular personality traits and gifts in order to fulfill it and again, if I follow that same formula, I will have loved myself and others, known myself deeply, seeked out what was important and chosen to grow and keep growing, then that pre-destined path would have been followed and my ultimate purpose will be filled either way. Whatever way you look at it, I am pretty damn sure if I can live this, then when I’m on my death bed I will be satisfied that I had lived.
Your own lifes' purpose or the path that you must walk is something that you need to discover for yourself.
In talking to my son about this topic and he was my editor this week so I could make sure it made sense, I tried to explain it in a picture and I summed it up like this: often people get off their face, they drink themselves stupid or take drugs because they feel like life has no meaning but that is the trap. You can’t create or discover meaning for your life if you don’t love and take care of yourself, because it’s your light, your own, unique light, that shines out of you, that illuminates the path that you must walk.
Michelle Cashman Singer/songwriter, speaker and podcaster. Founder of The Deciduous Tree Project and host of the weekly 'Transformational Personal Growth' podcast.