“I don’t believe people are looking for the meaning of life as much as they are looking for the experience of being alive.” ~Joseph Campbell
Do you ever feel like there’s got to be more to life? More purpose, passion, meaning—whatever your word of choice is?
It’s happened to me twice. The first time was during the early years of my legal career, and the second time was just a few years ago (after battling an aggressive breast cancer).
Each time I craved more meaning, yet these two experiences couldn’t have been more different.
When it happened to me as a young lawyer, I didn’t know what to do.
I’d wanted to be a lawyer since I was ten years old, and there was purpose behind the choices I’d made up to that point. Decisions that had gotten me where I was, such as:
Majoring in economics (with a business minor) in college because I wanted to be a business lawyer, and
Choosing corporate finance law because my ability to quickly see patterns and solutions was beneficial to structuring deals.
In the early days of my career, I had a deep sense of fulfillment. But over a period of four years, that gradually changed.
I didn’t realize how bad it was until the morning I stepped off the office elevator and suddenly felt like I couldn’t breathe. I was having a panic attack.
I walked to my office, shut the door, and cried. That’s when I admitted to myself that I felt trapped in a purpose-less life that I’d worked hard to create.
And that brought questions such as: How could I have once felt passionate about this life? Had I been wrong? If not, what had changed?
After allowing my self-doubt to paralyze me from doing anything for a few months, I finally decided to do something about it.
I wrote down a laundry list of things that I didn’t like about my life, which included:
Regularly working eighty+ hours per week (for over a year)
Averaging only five hours of sleep per night
Feeling like I was easily replaceable and wasn’t making enough of an impact in the work I did
Not having spent meaningful time with friends in over a year
A wandering mind that was almost never present
Snapping at my husband (a lot!) for no real reason and being sour with peers who interrupted my work
My list of woes was embarrassing, and I didn’t like who I was becoming. But it provided me with a roadmap for how to fix my problems. Moreover, it helped me recognize what purpose really is.
Up until that point, I’d been looking externally for solutions and thought that I needed to find my true calling.
The idea that purpose comes from one thing is a myth. And so is the idea that you find your purpose. You don’t find it; you create purpose in life by:
using your strengths to make an impact (in an enjoyable way),
aligning your life around your core values, and
having a sense of belonging.
Let’s talk about what these mean and how I course corrected in each area.
1. Utilizing your strengths to make an impact (in a way that’s enjoyable)
Most people understand that purpose comes (at least partially) from making an impact. But there’s more to it than that.
If you want to make an impact that’s meaningful, then you need to utilize your skills to the best of your ability (and that requires that you enjoy what you’re doing). That’s how you get and stay motivated.
My problem was that I felt like my strengths weren’t being fully utilized in the work I was doing—and that I was stuck in the same role, stagnating.
So, I asked to do more and sought out work from new people. Eventually, I changed firms to work in a different area of corporate finance that was better suited to my abilities.
2. Aligning your life around your core values
Core values are principles that make you uniquely you. They affect how you see the world around you and how you make decisions (even if you’re not consciously aware of it).
When your life doesn’t align with your values, you’ll feel like something’s missing.
One of the biggest reasons I was so unhappy was because I wasn’t living according to several of my core values. One of my values is family—not only was I not spending much time with them, but I wasn’t exactly present when I did.
Another one of my values is to connect (which, for me, means connecting deeply with those around me and to stay connected with myself). My quest to do more and work harder make that almost impossible.
I felt disconnected from family, friends, and peers alike. And my lack of sleep and high stress made it difficult to understand my own thoughts and emotions.
To fix this, I first set work boundaries and reduced my workload. Then, I prioritized self-care and time with family and friends.
3. Feeling that you belong
Having a sense of belonging is key to happiness. It brings meaning to your life.
Belonging includes feeling needed, accepted, and loved. To have a sense of belonging requires active effort on your part. It requires that you seek to connect with other people that give you a sense of belonging.
Unfortunately, the way in which we live often disconnects us from one another. We choose technology over in-person contact and hurry through life to get to the next thing.
That’s what I had been doing. I was disconnected from those who had always understood me, and even worried that they wouldn’t understand what I was going through. But how could they when I rarely saw or talked to them?
Luckily, this was fixable—the things I was already doing to better connect with family and friends helped to increase my sense of belonging. Plus, I rejoined organizations that I’d previously been too busy for (and missed).
This experience gave me a blueprint to follow for life.
One that helped me figure out why I craved more meaning in life after battling breast cancer (turns out that how I defined one of my core values—service—had changed). But the second time was different because I was confident that I could figure it out.
It’s easy to get caught up in society’s expectations while climbing the ladder of success that’s set before you. Don’t let that happen, as you’ll likely lose yourself.
Instead, use the blueprint above to help you create a life that’s meaningful to you.