Has life ever gotten you down?

(Maybe even to the extent that you physically can’t get up in the mornings.)

Perhaps you’re just feeling a little lost, lacking in direction, or unsure of what to do next with your career.

Before we go any further, know that you’re not alone.

When people sign up for this newsletter I ask a specific pair of questions: “What do you do for a living?” and “What do you want to do?”.

Here’s the thing… only 25% of people answer that they’re already doing the thing they want to. Which means the other 75% of us, myself included, are still trying to work out the second question.

I’m no stranger to the feeling of being stuck, having experienced crippling inertia during bouts of depression over the years. Long weekend afternoons spent wallowing on my bed, staring at the ceiling, unable to leave the house no matter how brightly the sun is shining.

But I wasn’t stuck there because I’d forgotten how to physically get up off my bed. (That’s easy: you just swing your legs over the side… hopefully onto the right side not the wrong side).

And I hadn’t forgotten what I could do once I’d made the old switcheroo from horizontal to vertical. (In fact I found myself lying there imagining what I could do instead of actually getting up and doing the things, and that was part of the problem. “Maybe I should go for a bike ride… maybe I should call X and see if they want to do Y… maybe it’s time to finally…”)

If I hadn’t forgotten how to get out of bed, or what I wanted to do when I got up, what was missing from the picture?

Well… I think I’d lost sight of why I should bother getting out of bed in the first place.</p>

Getting to the root of your motivation

‘Why’ is the three letter word that changes everything.

And if you forget about it, it comes back to bite you in the arse.

Years later you might find yourself wondering…

It’s such an important question that author Simon Sinek has, quite literally, put ‘Why’ at the centre of everything he teaches:

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His ‘Golden Circle’ diagram is designed to illustrate that whilst every company on the planet knows what they do (their products or services), only some know how they do it, and fewer still know why they do it.

Whilst this article isn’t about building a better sales pitch, you can apply Simon’s thinking to your personal life as well as your business life. In his words:

What’s your purpose, what’s your cause, what’s your belief, why do you exist?

(Hint: “Why?” is not about money!).

What happens when you forget your why

This was the problem when I fell out of love with being a graphic designer.

I’d forgotten my motivation for doing the job in the first place (other than making money).

When I was a teenager, I knew why I wanted to be a graphic designer. I believed in the power of design to make the world better. I thought that good design could improve people’s lives. But after almost ten years of pushing pixels around, I felt burnt out by the creative process. And more crucially, I didn’t feel like I was making a difference. (If you’ve ever heard a graphic designer fetishising paper stock, you’ll know there’s a fine line between getting things just right and aesthetic obsession). It felt like my real self was being swallowed alive by my work. And it caused a personal meltdown.

Even recently, I’ve found myself concentrating on objectives rather than purpose. For much of this year I’ve been putting all of my energies into paying off my credit card debt. Now that it’s done, I don’t feel noticeably happier. Sure, it’s nice not to be throwing money down the drain on interest payments, and of course I’m thankful for earning a decent living. But the decrease in debt hasn’t lead to an increase in happiness.

I’m starting to think that happiness isn’t the thing I should be chasing.

Techniques for finding your purpose

It goes without saying that there's no tried and tested formula for finding your purpose in life, and I wouldn't trust anyone who claims otherwise.

(I'm thinking about those ridiculous career assessment questionnaires you fill in at school, only for a computer to come back with suggestions like 'You are creative. You might consider being a hairdresser'.)

So you're probably going to need to take multiple angles of approach to this.

Write until you cry

Here's one method for working out why you're here, as suggested by Steve Pavlina:

  1. Take out a blank sheet of paper or open up a word processor where you can type (I prefer the latter because it’s faster).
  2. Write at the top, “What is my true purpose in life?”
  3. Write an answer (any answer) that pops into your head. It doesn’t have to be a complete sentence. A short phrase is fine.
  4. Repeat step 3 until you write the answer that makes you cry. This is your purpose.

I haven’t tried this personally, but Steve’s blog is one of my go-to resources for challenging reading material (he can be pretty full on), so I wanted to share it with you.

Learn to get outside your personal bubble.

Leo Babauta believes that the problem is thinking only about yourself, rather than seeing a wider view:

In this path, it doesn’t matter what specific actions you take or skills you learn to make people’s lives better. What career you choose is not important — what matters is the bigger purpose. You can always change your career and learn new skills later, as you learn other ways to fulfill this purpose. You’ll learn over time.

What happens when you break outside of your personal bubble? 

  1. We can start to see the needs of others, and feel for their suffering.
  2. We then work to make their lives better, and lessen their suffering.
  3. Even if we aren’t good at that, we can learn skills that help us to be better at it. It’s the intention that matters.
  4. As we go about our daily work, we can tie our actions to this greater purpose. Learning to program or become healthy (for example) isn’t just for our betterment, but for the betterment of others, even in a small way. This gives us motivation on a moment-to-moment basis. When we lose motivation, we need to get back out of our bubble, shed our concern for our discomfort and fears, and tie ourselves to a bigger purpose.

Get to know your (real) self

You might already know Scott Dinsmore from his TEDx talk about finding and doing the work that you love, which is now approaching 2 million views on YouTube:

His approach to finding purpose is more rigorous (as you would expect from a guy who has dedicated himself to the subject): asking 27 questions to help you find your passion.

Here are a few from Scott’s list to get you started:

(On a personal note, if you’re wondering what my “Why?” is, I’m not sure either, but I’ve left a comment further down the page with my thoughts.)

The importance of finding your "Why?"

To forget one’s purpose is the commonest form of stupidity
— Friedrich Nietzsche

Why are we here?

It’s an incredibly hard question.

But the beauty of asking “Why?” is that the answer becomes a part of you.

Your why, your purpose, your belief system is an internal rocket fuel for your life.

So once you’ve found it, hold on tight, and enjoy the ride.

What matters most to you?

Posted to careers, life, popular in 2014.

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