For me, finding a sense of purpose hasn’t been about arriving at an “aha” answer after deep sessions of journaling or meditation. Instead, purpose has slowly settled into my life as the result of making commitments that have narrowed my life path over time.
These days, I’m not thinking much about purpose.
I see that as a big win.
A defining theme of my young adulthood was the search for purpose.
I tried it all: journaling, meditation, silent retreats, mindfulness, plant medicine, therapy, religion, traveling the world.
As much as I love introspection, all the deep thinking in the world never calmed the part of my mind that generated existential crises.
I’m in my mid-thirties. I certainly don’t have all the answers. But here’s what I’d love to tell the twenty-something version of myself.
Purpose comes from making commitments
My most existential moments arrived when I had the most freedom.
I was single. I could go anywhere. I could do anything.
Life was an incredibly open landscape.
For all the thrills this freedom allowed, it also came with endless questioning.
- Where should I live?
- What should I do for work?
- When will I find the right person for me?
- Should I get married?
- Should I have kids?
And of course: What’s my purpose in life?
At times, these questions felt overwhelming. Of the infinite number of paths available to me—was I on the right one?
But as life went on, I made a choice here and another choice there. Little by little, the foundational questions of my life start to be settled.
I got married. I found work that was right for me. I decided on a place to live.
The path of my life narrowed. The uncertainty lifted away. The persistent questioning wasn’t so loud anymore.
Don’t get me wrong: I still struggle with anxiety and stress. My happiness is a roller coaster.
But questions of purpose and meaning?
They don’t feel so existentially urgent anymore.
Freedom is better than the alternative
I’m not arguing that freedom is bad.
To illustrate, let’s go back to ancient times.
Consider the example of a blacksmith’s son in medieval Europe. This young person had plenty to worry about, but purpose wasn’t likely high on the list. His dad was a blacksmith. He was going to be a blacksmith in the same town. He’d marry someone from the same town, have kids, and get on with life.
Maybe he dreamed about another path. But sadly, for most of human history, there wasn’t one.
Today, we’re faced with more freedom than ever before.
I’d take the system we have now.
But it does come with its own challenges.
A short list of ways I’ve tried to find purpose
I’m grateful to have grown up in the 20th and 21st centuries.
But I think we often underestimate just how different this time is than the rest of human history.
Today, you can:
- Work remotely
- Live anywhere
- Travel anywhere
- Go to any school
- Have any career
- Have any religion, or no religion
- Keep in touch across the world
- Date anyone with dating apps
What’s the obvious response when faced with all this choice?
An existential crisis.
And of course it is!
How could we NOT struggle to navigate a world with so many choices?
My search for purpose led me to try it all:
- Traveling: I lived abroad for years and traveled to 20+ countries. There are a lot of good reasons to travel, but finding your purpose isn’t one of them.
- Journaling: I’ve tried different journaling techniques over the years. Journaling is a powerful tool and can bring about clarity. But I think it’s only helpful in resolving questions of purpose when it helps you resolve uncertainty and make choices.
- Meditation: Meditation has helped me notice when my thoughts are spiraling in unhelpful ways. I can dissociate myself from my thoughts. Meditating doesn’t solve the purpose question, though it might clear some mental space for it.
- Silent retreat: I did a 10-day silent meditation retreat. It gave me a purpose-filled high that lingered for a few days afterward. But it didn’t last.
- Plant medicine: I did a plant medicine retreat in the jungles of Mexico. I saw intense visions and left with immense mental clarity and lightness. But I didn’t have an “aha” moment that contributed to my purpose.
- Religion: Religion was a part of the first couple decades of my life. For a time, it helped answer the “purpose” question. But at some point, it was no longer enough.
- Coaching: I’ve had a couple helpful coaching sessions over time. It’s helpful to get an outside perspective on the choices that are available to you. Other people can see things that you yourself can’t see.
- Therapy: Therapy is good for many things. Similarly to coaching, another person’s perspective can help you unlock mental doors. But the change itself is up to you.
Each of these interventions was helpful in its own right. And perhaps each of them created conditions that were more conducive to finding purpose.
But my experience has been that there isn’t a single moment or activity that gets you there.
It’s only in retrospect that you realize:
“Huh. I’m not so stuck on the Purpose question anymore.”
Purpose isn’t an aha moment
Purpose isn’t a checklist.
It’s not a single moment of clarity.
No single book or workshop or retreat can get you there.
Here’s what I’d say to myself fifteen years ago:
Of course you’re questioning your life’s purpose! Look at the huge variety of choices available to you. It’s only natural. Trust the process. Don’t try to force it. Know that these questions of purpose will resolve themselves over time. Live your life with trust and make decisions that feel right. Little by little, you’ll fall into it.
Each choice you make narrows the paths available to you in life.
When the path you’re on is clear, questions of purpose aren’t as frequent.
With time comes clarity.
With clarity comes purpose.
The search for purpose comes in seasons
I’m writing this in a moment of clarity and purpose.
That won’t be the case forever.
Life is full of changes.
Retirement, for example, is a time when many people renew their search for purpose and meaning. The path that’s served them for years or decades has opened up again. In some ways, retirement is a reprisal of the challenges people face in their twenties.
It forces you to ask: In a world of enormous possibilities, how should you spend your time?
When I get to my next season of purpose-seeking, I hope I’ll follow my own advice:
It’s only natural to be filled with questions of purpose at this moment. Trust the process. Make choices that feel right. Little by little, you’ll fall back into purpose.