We all live in a box. Many boxes, actually. Some feel comfortable and safe, some feel too small, and others overwhelmingly large. Either way, they’re still boxes.
These boxes are categories that define us. Each of these categories carries with it rules related to behaviours and expectations to which no one is immune.
These boxes also follow each other in a relatively linear progression. The one begets the other and so on, much like a checklist you might bring to the grocery store or the list of "to do"s on your desk.
We’ve reduced our lives to a set of steps that we complete in succession and in parallel across various categories. Our way of getting there might be somewhat different, but similarities are more likely than differences, at least at the macro level.
Most of these should look familiar:
Further, each of the steps identified above has its own associated sublists, expectations of how we start, work through and complete it. Some of these are based on tradition and others on fairly recent social norms. And for many, they’re soul crushing because they implicitly send the message that we don't have a choice.
If you don’t feel that life is scripted, just think of a long process you’ve completed in your life. Was it possible to complete the steps in any order you wished? Why? Why not? If not, it's likely scripted.
If a process is scripted, it’s likely to be rigid and compliance is required if we’re to be successful. There are often good reasons for that, but unfortunately, most of the processes we use today—many of which were established less than a century ago— don’t serve the good of the individual, only the good of the system, no matter what we're lead to believe.
We didn’t used to have that many boxes to check off. Before the industrial revolution that turned us into human widgets, there were very few straightforward expectations and, though they might have felt rather limiting, their small number was likely somewhat reassuring. At least they offered some room to breathe, some time to think and consider life as opposed to living with a narrow focus imposed by the pursuit of a never-ending to do list.
Yes, one was expected to grow up and become a responsible individual, expected to work from an early age (class having been defined early on), expected to have a family and to care for the elderly. But there was time to think about the basics, about being alive. Time to think about what’s interesting. Time to ponder. I wouldn’t say life was easy, but spending time on wonder wasn’t a waste of time. It was part of life.
With all the resources we have at our disposal, we seem to waste our most precious one: time. Time isn't cherished in our current reality, it’s spent. It’s spent checking off the boxes. It’s spent spinning like a hamster in a wheel, as we mistake the pursuit of the next box as the way to get to an answer that remains elusive because the means we use to answer it are fundamentally flawed.
Focusing on purpose.
Our purpose—what drives us—only becomes clear when we focus on the right things. And introspection is the only thing that can help us figure out what that is. No one can effectively define purpose for us. This might feel like a huge responsibility but it’s also incredibly freeing.
We have the power to define who we are and what we do and then focus all our energy on becoming the best “us” we can be. We can stop spending time on what doesn’t matter and redirect that energy and effort toward more meaningful pursuits. The fulfillment that results only drives us to do more of what’s meaningful and even to excel at it without the need for external validation. We become powered from the inside, powered by what truly matters to us.
The better we get at being true to our genuine self, the less we feel the need to pay attention to our pre-assigned task list. A new direction comes into focus. It’s not so much a list as it is a path that unfolds in front of us as we continue on the journey, staying true to ourselves, to our internal beacon. And most important, no matter our level of personal success thus far, we’re happier.
[Re]discovering that drive.
Many people are successful in this pursuit. We all know at least one of them. They’re the people we want to be around. They seem to have clarity around what they want, even though they might not be able to explain it. They’re genuinely engaged, excited about life and they can’t wait to tackle the next challenge that presents itself. They're resilient. Their positive energy is infectious and they’re not afraid to share it because doing so seems to do as much for them as it does for others. And we all want some of what they’ve got. It's no surprise that we want to spend time with them. They give us a glimpse into what's possible and help us believe we can achieve it too. That's why it's important to connect with the people who pursue a life of meaning. They inspire and can bring the best out of others by mere association...as long as we act on what we discover through these interactions.
I can’t offer the answer to how to discover what fuels you, where your true passion(s) lie. No one gets there exactly the same way (as this Robert Frost poem alludes to) and levels of success vary. Here's what I do know:
Those who are successful in living a fulfilling life didn’t find their answer by checking a box.
What about you? Where do you feel you fit into this continuum, or do you? How do you find meaning in your day-to-day life?