creative badass epic post: how to figure out your purpose/passion/just what the hell it is you want
When you rock, the world pays attention. — Hugh MacLeod
Early in our relationship, when my boyfriend and I still considered ourselves frovers – a cross between friends and lovers, not boyfriend-girlfriend but more than friends with benefits (I was not a ‘Rules’ girl) – he asked me, “So what do you want to do with your life?”
I talked for a bit, and he was thoughtful.
“Is something wrong?” I said.
“I’m just impressed,” he said, “that you were able to answer the question. Most women can’t.”
I thought of this when I read this post, which asks the very reasonable question: How can you go after what you want when you have no idea what you want? You can’t know what you want if you’re not sure who you are, and since we’re all works-in-progress, I would say that even those of us who know what we want, might not always remember what we want, or find ourselves clinging to outdated notions of what we want, or wake up one morning to realize that we’ve wanted all the wrong things. So I think the question, much like the line of breath in meditation, is something you have to keep returning to: keep remembering to ask, and to listen for the answers.
To get open is, as Russell Simmons puts it, “to always be as open, creative and fluid as possible, and never become rigid, old, or tight. The freedom you experience when you’re open is where all the positive change in your life will emanate from.”
Change is what happens in the space between things: the force of you meets the force of something else, whether it’s a person, place, or an experience, and your paradigm alters. Opening yourself up to that is to allow in new information about who you are and what you’re capable of.
Once, when I was a kid, I raced around the track during gym and flung myself in the grass to recover. The teacher came up to me and asked if I was going to try out for the track team. “No,” I panted. When she asked why not, I said, “Because I can’t run.”
She said, in her best I’m-going-to-pretend-you’re-not-an-idiot tone, “But I just saw you run.”
I had been walking over a mile home from school every afternoon. I’d built up stamina and gotten in shape without realizing. But I was resistant to this new information. I refused to ‘get open’. And I wasn’t some old, rigid, jaded adult: I was twelve.
If ‘getting open’ was our natural state, people like Russell Simmons wouldn’t have to instruct us to do it.
WRITE IT OUT UNTIL YOUR EYEBALLS BLEED
Steve Pavlina has a good post about how to find your purpose in life. He advises you to sit down with pad and pen and keep writing out your answers to the question, “What is my purpose in life?” until you get that magical choked-up feeling, that chill, that urge to cry, that signals you’ve found it. It won’t happen with your first answer. It won’t happen with your twentieth. Or your fifty-first. Those will be your obvious answers, your stock, superficial answers, the surface crap your brain has to clear out before it can get to the juice.
I have to admit, I tried this exercise but didn’t stick with it. Pavlina warns that at some point you will want to get up and leave, you will feel the Resistance, and you should resist it. I did not. I went for chocolate. I am weak like that. But the next day, while I was driving, an answer came into my brain that sent a shiver down my spine and made me cry out, it felt so right and real and raw.
Steve might be onto something.
ASK A SLIGHTLY DIFFERENT QUESTION
Andrew Halfacre points out that you can find clues to what you want by paying attention to what you don’t want.
There are two kinds of people in the world. (People who make statements like “there are two kinds of people in the world” and…Kidding. Sort of.) Halfacre calls them “toward” people and “away” people. When you know which you are, you can figure out how best to motivate yourself.
Psychologists have discovered that we can be motivated by the pleasure of gain (what we’re moving toward) or the fear of loss or pain (what we’re moving away from). If you’re losing weight, for example, you can move towards the image of you fit, healthy, running around with your kids, confident in your jeans or on the beach. Or you can move away from the discomfort of clothes that don’t fit right, the way you huff and puff when you go up the stairs, the fear of dying from a heart attack and not being there for your kids as they grow up.
‘Toward’ people love goals. Goals give them something to aim at. They get energized by them. They’re the perky, positive, go-go-go people attending Anthony Robbins seminars.
‘Away’ people, on the other hand, need something to avoid. Their communication tends to slant negative: what will happen if you don’t do this, the unhappy consequences if you do that. They are motivated by thoughts of certain pain. Something has to hit a level of crisis to motivate them to do something about it, and that motivation lessens as the pain lessens as they move away from whatever it is that they want to avoid.
Generally we’re a mix. I, for example, move towards some things (the pleasure and satisfaction of a completed manuscript) and away from others (the pain of total disorganization and chaos). Because I’m not as motivated to organize as I am to write blog posts, I have a history of letting things fall apart and pile up before the pain is bad enough for me to need to move away. In high school I was motivated toward excelling in English and history (which resulted in high grades) and away from flunking math and science (which resulted in barely passing grades).
You can increase your motivation by using both ‘toward’ and ‘away’. I quit smoking in order to move away from cancer, death, wrinkles and bad smells, but it didn’t truly stick until I also moved toward the pleasure and freedom of being a nonsmoker. (Blogging about nonsmoking gives me an added pain to move away from: the humiliation of smoking after stating so publicly that I’m nonsmoking.) To finish my novel, I joined Stickk.com and pledged to donate a thousand dollars to a cause that I despise should I fail to meet my self-imposed deadline. This gives me a whole new level of pain to move away from.
But overall, we tend to be more one type than another. And if you recognize yourself as an ‘away’ type, the question, What do you want? is more difficult for you because you focus instead on what you don’t want. So Halfacre advises you to ask: What do you want…instead?
It’s a neat trick. I tried it on myself. (If I don’t want to feel messy, overwhelmed, and inconvenienced, what do I want…instead? I want to feel streamlined, clear, and in control of my time.) The answer to the question gives your mind a new focus, a new sense of what might make you happy.
When you catch yourself, or anybody else, grumbling or complaining, give it a shot. If you don’t want to work in a cubicle, what do you want…instead? If you don’t want to die alone in an apartment with only your twenty cats to miss you, what do you want…instead?
YOU ARE WHAT YOU’RE ATTRACTED TO
Danielle LaPorte said this, or something similar to this, and I’ve always been intrigued by it. It’s human nature to project ourselves onto the world, so that “we don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are” (a quote which has been attributed to both Anais Nin and the Qur’an, so take your pick). When we bitch and complain about people, we’re really remarking on qualities we don’t like about ourselves (but we consciously won’t own up to). When we admire people, we’re really noticing qualities we like or that lie latent in ourselves (but we consciously won’t own up to).
Business coach Sinclair once asked me to name two people who fascinate me, and I spoke off the top of my head: Kate Moss and David Bowie. Why? she asked, and I spoke about style, creativity, iconoclasm, rebellion, the ability to be yourself when it cuts against conventional wisdom, to reinvent yourself, to rise from the ashes when you need to, to be at the throbbing heart of the culture, to say what you need to say (or refuse to say anything) and not give a damn, to change the game. I remember enjoying Simon Cowell for his shameless, brazen honesty, his ability to say what other people wouldn’t. Recently I’ve developed a mild fascination with Russell Simmons, the way he blends entrepreneurship, spirituality/wisdom and lifestyle. I might have to take a deeper look at what that says about me and where I want to go next.
LaPorte said at a conference last year that when she asked this question to her private clients – mostly women – the person they mentioned most was (wait for it) Angelina Jolie. “They admire her boldness,” she said. That’s an interesting thing to think about: what we, as a gender, might need to own up to.
(Of course, if you take this question very literally, you get a different sort of answer. I would appear to be a red velvet cupcake. Or Keanu Reeves.)
FOLLOW YOUR STRENGTHS
Your strengths are not necessarily the things that you’re good at. Sometimes you have to be wary about getting stuck in the things that you’re good at (you might be good at accounting, even though it makes you suicidal).
Your strengths are found in those moments when you feel most alive, fully present, revitalized: when you feel yourself being you at your best, highest self. The trick is to identity those moments and recognize what you’re doing when you experience them.
Then do more of those things.
Eventually you can figure out a way to, as Steve Jobs put it, “connect the dots”: put those strengths together in a way that is unique to you and serves the world.
We don’t recognize our own strengths because they come so naturally and easily to us. Like breathing. We take them for granted. Doesn’t everybody have the ability to breathe? (It took me thirty-six years to figure out that my ability to ingest information and put ideas together is not the norm, that there’s something called ideation. Good to know.)
Which is why it’s a good idea to
ASK A FRIEND
or a family member (preferably one who doesn’t have it in for you).
There are things about ourselves that we can see, and that others can see.
There are things about ourselves that we can see, and that others can’t see.
There are things about ourselves that we can’t see, and that others can’t see.
There are things about ourselves that we can’t see….and that others can see.
To learn who you are, to learn your purpose in life, ask those who know you (and whom you trust to have your best interests in mind), what they think your purpose in life is. And then ask again. And then keep asking. Their first answers will be stock, superficial answers: the crap their brains need to clear out before they get to the juice. But as Simon Sinek puts it in his great book START WITH WHY, eventually they’ll stop talking about you, and start talking about how they feel when they’re around you (unless they’re so annoyed that they smack you instead). You make them feel inspired. Or understood. Or more deeply connected to the world. Or more appreciative of their lives. Or organized and clear. Or spiritual. You see what I’m getting at. And when you feel that inward shiver of recognition, like someone’s put their finger directly on your soul-nerve, you’ll know that that’s the information that can help you.
LOOK TO YOUR CHILDHOOD
It’s common to advise people to look at the things they enjoyed doing as a child, and then examine why they enjoyed doing those things. When I was a kid, I enjoyed gymnastics, which wouldn’t seem to help me that much as a woman in her late thirties who is five foot nine to boot. But when I look at why I enjoyed the sport – watching it as well as doing it – I can see that I liked the grace of movement, the choreography, the levels of mastery, the performance factor. I liked competing and being on stage. That information is helpful to me.
It’s less common to advise people to look at the things that shamed and traumatized them. As children we develop incredible coping strategies in order to navigate our personal worlds, and to get the attention that isn’t an entitlement but a basic survival need. I touched on this subject in this post, in which I referenced a book called THE BIG LEAP by Gay Hendricks. Hendricks advises you to take your ‘obvious’ talent, whatever you do best, and drill down and drill down until you find your unique ability, your superpower, which is nestled deep inside the center of that talent like the tiniest of Russian dolls.
When I did this exercise, I took the obvious thing – my writing – and drilled down to find, as my therapist once put it, “the ability to resonate with other people, with the culture, with the world at large”. I was a deeply lonely kid, a social misfit, bullied and ostracized, so it makes sense that I would have developed an alternative strategy to get the sense of connection that I craved. It’s also, interestingly enough, a strategy that allows me to be intimate and distant at the same time.
FIND YOUR SOUL-HOME
If you’re a square peg in a round hole, get out of the damn hole. Go find a square one. They’re out there. Part of learning who you are is learning the environment you need to be at your best. (The “what do you want…instead?” question can be very helpful with this.) Some of us are lucky enough to, as the saying goes, bloom where we’re planted. Many of us are not. We often grow up with a sense of being defective, of something’s wrong with us, so we need to chop and trim ourselves and twist our selves inside out to fit our surrounding reality. This rarely turns out well. Better to search out the reality – or, if necessary, to bring it into being – that fits you.
This, by the way, applies to relationships. We look to other people to reflect a sense of who we are. Toxic people reflect you in ways that magnify your faults, drain your confidence and deplete your self-esteem. Healthy people reflect you in ways that celebrate your great points and coax forth your best self. The strategy here is easy to say (and often challenging to do). Run away, away, away, from the toxic people. Run toward, toward, toward the healthy people. You can recognize if someone is good for you by paying attention to how your body feels. If you get clenched, stressed, and knotted up inside just thinking about the person, then I urge you to re-evaluate that relationship and whether you want it in your life. The body doesn’t lie.
GO FOR MASTERY
We tend to enjoy doing the things that we’re good at. But we’re generally not good at anything – even the things we have natural talents for (you might have a talent for the piano, but you still need to learn how to play) – until we put in the time, sweat and deliberate practice required.
You might think passion comes first, and mastery second – but what if it’s the other way around?
You might feel drawn to something but drop it as soon as it gets difficult or tedious or boring or unpleasant. You take this as a sign that you don’t have any passion for it. But what if passion comes after you’ve closed the creative gap (or at least worked your way partway through it)?
After all, being a beginner at anything – snowboarding, blogging, learning a language, painting, building a company – really sucks. You feel awkward and fumbling and you know your work is crap. (It is supposed to be crap! You are a beginner!) We don’t bound out of bed in the morning thinking, Today I get to go be crap! Progress is long and hard, breakthrough moments so infrequent that you need to learn to love the plateau. Most people can’t. Most people quit. And most people don’t know what their so-called ‘passion’ is. I sense a connection here.
Sometimes you have to choose – and commit – based on little more than instinct and faith: instinct that somewhere deep inside you, perhaps very very deep, is the ability to be good at this, and faith that the passion will grow with your ability. When you get good at something, you enjoy it more, which means you do it more, which means you get better at it, which means you enjoy it more, which means you do it more, which means you get better at it….You see where I’m going with this.
When I look at my own life, I see that I became passionate about writing and storytelling when I was fourteen (the novel MISERY, by Stephen King, was a game-changer for me). But I had been writing stories on my own, for no reason other than the attention it got me (see earlier bit about developing childhood survival strategies) since fourth grade. It’s similar with blogging. I have a passion for it now, but it took a lot of doing before I developed it.
I would like to develop a passion for yoga. I am drawn to it. But I’ve been lazy and undisciplined and haven’t managed to develop a daily practice. I find it kind of boring. I could conclude that I lack passion – or I could perceive feeling ‘bored’ as a type of Resistance that I should push through. I know that my body, health and mind would thank me.
It’s no surprise, then, that the top indicator of success isn’t IQ or natural talent or the level of your parents’ income, but grit.
If it’s true that we don’t know who we are until we know what we can do – and I think it is – then learning who we are is about experimenting with our abilities, trying new things, pushing ourselves beyond our comfort zone, living off the edge of our limits. And if you don’t know what you want until you know who you are – and vice versa – then learning who you are/what you want is hard – damn – work – that nobody tells us about or prepares us for. Instead, we look to external things for a sense of identity, whether it’s an expensive lifestyle, or a high-status job, or a relationship. We go after the job or the relationship first, and then try to figure out who we are, when in reality it should be the other way around. Because we could lose the lifestyle, or the job, or the relationship – and no longer know who we are, or what we want, or where to go next. We’re in crisis.
When my boyfriend asked me that question – What do you want to do with your life? – I could come up with an answer. I’m still figuring it out, of course, but identity is not a static thing. The brain keeps reshaping itself according to the experiences you provide it. We contain the potential for multitudes. Still, I do believe in a core voice, a set of abilities and instincts, an inner knowing that will guide you this way instead of that way so long as you have the patience and courage to listen.
What I didn’t tell my boyfriend – at the time – was by that point I had been through several years of therapy, of emotional pain and personal crisis. I could sink or swim. I could find the beauty in the breakdown – and break through — or I could just break down. For me, the beauty was in reconnecting to that core voice. My sense of self could bloom from there. Everything else can follow.
Because what we want, in the end, is to know who we are and what our purpose is (and, maybe, who to love). If we can break ourselves open to new information, if we can look for that information not just within ourselves but in the spaces and interactions between ourselves and others, if we can find who we are in what we do, not just for ourselves, but for the world: that seems a worthy quest in itself.