This question is probably the most common one I get from readers via email.
And to save everyone a bit of time, let me give you my short answer: I have no idea.
For some folks, it might be best to take that 9-to-5 job on offer, marry the girl next door and start a family. For others, it might be best to get a divorce and leave the country for the first time. Maybe college is a good option for you, or maybe it isn’t. Maybe you should start your own business, or maybe you should move to the English countryside and live without money.
So yeah, I really don’t know. There’s no simple, clear-cut, one-size-fits-all answer.
I have written a bit before though about finding your life purpose, and I still stand behind everything in that post, especially this bit…
Keep in mind that finding your life purpose isn’t easy. Don’t expect to find it during your lunch break or at a weekend away in the mountains.
Ultimately, figuring out what to do with your life, finding your purpose, discovering your passions… these are all things you have to work out for yourself. I think most people struggle with this stuff because it takes considerable conscious effort. You have to ask yourself some hard questions and spend significant time coming up with watertight answers.
It’s easier to just do nothing and hope that everything will take care of itself. Unfortunately, that’s what most people opt for.
4 Exercises To Help Figure Out Your Life Purpose
I’ll share some exercises here that should help point you in the direction of your purpose. To state the obvious though, just reading through these exercises won’t make much of a difference. You actually have to do them.
1. Figure out your values
If you don’t know what’s important to you, it’s pretty tough to know what to do with your life. By eliciting and prioritizing your values, you’ll find it easier to make decisions that will lead to personal fulfillment.
For example, you might be faced with an opportunity to accept a big promotion which will result in lots more time at the office. When you know your values, this isn’t a tough decision. If you’re someone who has consciously prioritized career success over everything else, then you’ll most likely take the promotion. But if you’ve placed values like family and freedom above career success, then you’ll happily tell your boss thanks but no thanks.
I recommend you read through Steve Pavlina’s guide on finding and living your values. Tis good stuff.
2. Visualize your own funeral
This exercise comes from The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.
Imagine four people getting up to say a few words about you at your funeral. They talk about the type of person you were, what you stood for, how you lived. The first speaker is a family member. The second is a friend. The third is someone from your community. The fourth is someone you worked with for many years.
The idea is to visualize the scene in great detail, and then write down the type of things you’d like those people to say about you. How will you want them to remember you after you’re gone? Actually write out what you’d like them to say.
Once you feel like you’ve nailed it, you’ll have a solid idea of what you’re aiming for in life, the type of memories you want to create, they legacy you want to leave behind.
3. Consider your proudest moments
I mentioned this exercise just last week. You ask yourself this question: What moments of my life am I most proud of?
By identifying your proudest moments, and finding the common link between them, you’ll have a better idea of what’s likely to bring you fulfillment in future.
From trying this exercise myself, I realized that the majority of my proudest moments involve self-discipline, persistence and facing fear. Armed with this knowledge, I now have a better understanding of which challenges I should take on and which I should pass up.
4. Define your fears
I’m actually not convinced that this exercise is as helpful to everyone as the previous three, but it’s worked great for me over the years so I’m throwing it out there.
As mentioned above, many of my proudest moments have come from facing my fears1. In fact, I’ve found facing my fears to be so fulfilling in the past that I’ve come to rely on them as signposts, pointing the way towards challenges I’m most likely to grow and learn from. Examples include public speaking, stand up comedy and flirting.
Consider your own fears. Write them down. Could these be clues to figuring out your life purpose?
All of the above exercises are simply ways to get to know yourself better. If there’s something else you can think of that will help with this, I say go for it.
Anything that shakes up your routine is good. Try different things, make new friends, travel to foreign places, consider alternative viewpoints. Putting yourself in new and unusual situations gets you more familiar with that weird and complex individual you are.
About three years ago I started trying a number of life experiments, testing my assumptions, suspending my beliefs. If I hadn’t started doing those things, there’s a good chance I’d still be back in New Orleans, my entire life still revolving around a sports team, wondering where all my joy had gone.
It was only through shaking things up and asking myself some hard questions that I figured out what I wanted to do with my life.
The implementation problem
Some folks who email me are just looking for another course to take or another book to read. And while there are lots of books and other resources I’m happy to recommend, I believe that too often they’re just used as a form of procrastination.
The way I see it, most of us don’t need more information. We need more implementation.
So if you find yourself asking any of these questions…
- What should I do with my life?
- How do I figure out what I’m passionate about?
- What’s my purpose?
…stop and ask yourself this instead:
- Am I actually taking action to try figure this shit out?
Consider the last book or article you read that advised some practical exercise you could do to help figure out your life purpose. You probably even nodded along in agreement while reading, realizing that doing such an exercise would be a good idea.
But did you actually do it? Did you put real time and effort into it? Did you have to push through that pesky internal resistance and ignore some easy distractions to get it done?
If you answered no to anything in the last paragraph, then go back and try again. And keep trying until you come up with a different answer.
I want to reiterate that figuring all this out can take a while. Even completing one of those exercises is unlikely to solve the entire puzzle for you. Three months from now the list of values you come up with might be completely different to the ones you write down today. It’s not like you figure it all out one week during your twenties and then you’re set for life.
I’m pretty happy with how I’m living my life right now, I feel like I have a solid purpose, but I fully expect that I’ll hit a crossroads at some point and will need to sit down and work through those exercises again.
When that happens, I’ll try remind myself that it’s okay not to have it all figured out. I regularly hear from people who feel like there’s something wrong with them because they don’t know what to do with their lives. But you don’t have to beat yourself up or feel like a loser just because you’re not sure which direction to take. It’s really okay not to know for a while.
Embrace that uncertainty and allow good shit to emerge from it. Be patient, keep asking yourself the hard questions, strive to know yourself a bit better each day.
You’ll get there eventually.
- I should note that I’m referring to irrational fears here. Irrational fears are psychological, like public speaking. There’s no physical danger in getting up in front of a bunch of strangers and speaking aloud to them, but we’re all terrified of doing it. A rational fear on the other hand, would be something like falling into the Grand Canyon. I choose not to run towards such a fear, because then I would die, and that would suck. ↩