If, like me, you were not born with a crystal clear sense of purpose but have constantly carried the, “there’s got to be more to life than this” question in your head and heart. If you’ve tried some ‘purpose’ exercises only to end up with a list of stuff that you like, rather than a tangible step towards something that gives your life more meaning. Good news.
I’m going to share two exercises that I bolt together (one from Laura King Phd. and one from Tal Ben Shahar, Positive Psychologist) that unearth what is most meaningful for you but then, more importantly, ground that meaning into daily action.
In Tal’s book Happier, he explains that a truly happy and fulfilled life consists of a sense of meaning and purpose that we work toward AND an experience of that meaning and purpose in our day to day lives. The problem I’ve encountered with purpose exercises in general is that they leave all the good stuff off in the future. And, as Shawn Achor rightly said, “what we’ve done is push happiness over the cognitive horizon” and this is a broken model. So leaving purpose on the cognitive horizon without grounding it in the day to day of your life, may explain why these exercises have never really made the impact many of us hoped they would.
So, let’s try a different approach now. It is a simple three step process and I have added a small twist. You will need a pen, paper and ZERO distraction. That means just you, your computer screen and no connected technology whatsoever. Here goes:
Step 1. The Best Possible Future Self Exercise, by Dr Laura King. This has been shown to improve overall happiness and reduce goal conflict, plus a host of other benefits too. So firstly, for 20 minutes, without any self-editing at all, without limitation and with inhibition write the response to this:
“Think about your life in the future you are 109 years old. Imagine that everything has gone as well as it possibly could. You have worked hard and succeeded at accomplishing all of your life goals. Think of this as the realization of all of your life dreams. Now, write about what you imagined”
DO NOT READ ON 🙂 If you can help it. Please just do step one first, now.
Step 2: This is where it gets interesting. This is an exercise I learned from my teacher Tal Ben Shahar and his team at The Wholebeing Institute. Here we go.
“Imagine that 109 year old self had access to a time machine. They jumped into that time machine and arrived to this very moment in time. They climb out, sit next to you and give you advice. What would they say?” Please write down everything (no self editing, criticism, limitation setting etc).
Step 3. Now take that advice and create a list of actions points from it. Simply focus on the top three action points every day. That’s it, you’re on your way.
What you will see begin to emerge is, in essence, what gives your life some sense of meaning (Laura King’s exercise) but, crucially what you have also articulated is a series of ‘today-steps’ that ensure that meaning does not stay in some far off, never attained future (Tal Ben Shahar’s exercise).
So give it a try and with your set of actions, ensure you begin living and moving towards a more fulfilling, purpose-lead life.
Before I leave you, I want to be clear that eliciting a sense of purpose in life is not an outside-in, flash of divine inspiration kind of deal. It is an inside-out, evolving process that I can only describe as the equivalent of crossing a river in fog using stepping-stones. Except you can only ever see the one stepping-stone right in front of you. There’s no clear roadmap, even though we all desperately hope for one. Instead there are accidents, offshoots, falls and spluttering, heaving self-doubt, joy, deep gratitude and a whole bunch more. In short, life.
If you find something that gives you a tremendous sense of life purpose in a year, god bless you, you’re lucky. If it takes you forty years plus, god bless you, your lucky. Remember the journey is as important as the finding, it means you’ve lived a fuller life than most. And if you go to your grave still not finding your purpose, but your life has been full of looking, you did not go to your grave with your song inside you, it is still a full life.
If your purpose journey means leaving everyone behind, cutting ties with the important people round you as you go off to make your mark on the world, then I’d like you to think ‘Harry Potter’ for a moment. Remember, even though it could only be Harry who defeated Voldemort, he could not do it without the help of Ron and Hermione, The Weasley family, Dumbledore’s Army, Hagrid, (spoiler alerts close your eyes now) Snape and many more. If you find yourself isolated on your journey to a greater sense of meaning and purpose, something is fundamentally wrong.
Paradoxically, if you’re out to save “THEM”, whoever “them” is, then you’ve also beginning on the wrong foot. You need to take your head out of your backside and begin with saving one person, yourself. As Abraham Maslow pointed out,
“We must remember that knowledge of one’s own deep nature is also simultaneously knowledge of human nature in general”.
So you can’t run off making a great impact in the world, unless you’re working on making a great impact on yourself too. As I said earlier, finding a sense of purpose is an ‘inside-out’ process and inevitably, when you complete the exercise above, you will face your own imposed limitations and seek to overcome them. Most of those limitations reside between your ears.
The final point is this. The most courageous act of your life is to start crossing the river in the mist. Try not to be fearful because ultimately all will be well.
Try the exercise, let me know how it worked for you, I’d love to hear your thoughts and feedback.
Originally published at journal.thriveglobal.com