Uncheck Yourself - Pursue Your Own Path

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. 

Society uses our formative years to teach us all the things we are supposed to say yes to.
— p. 14, The Power of NO by James Altucher and Claudia Azula Altucher

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:

*Despite being the two largest household expenditures, these pursuits have the lowest correlation to happiness.

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.

A reliable way to make people believe in falsehoods is frequent repetition, because familiarity is not easily distinguished from the truth.
— p. 62, Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

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. 

When people focus on their time rather than their money, they act like scientists of happiness, choosing activities that promote their well-being...[T]ime affluence [is] a potent predictor of people’s life satisfaction with their jobs, and their lives.
— p. xvii, Happy Money by Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton

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.

When we are unclear about our purpose in life—in other words, when we don’t have a clear sense of our goals, our aspirations, and our values—we make up our own social games. We waste time and energies trying to look good in comparison to other people. We overvalue nonessentials like a nicer car or a house, or even intangibles like the number of our followers on Twitter or the way we look on our Facebook photos.
— p. 122, Essentialism by Greg McKeown

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.

People who learn to control inner experience will be able to determine the quality of their lives, which is as close as any of us can come to being happy.
— p. 2, Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

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.

Bonnie Wares, who cared for people in the last 12 weeks of their lives, recorded their most often discussed regrets. At the top of the list: ‘I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.’
— p. 16, Essentialism by Greg McKeown

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.

At this level, we do not pay attention to or worry about what others think. We are independent of the good or bad opinions of others. We are free because we know, from the magma of wisdom...that we must do our best work. And we love it. We are flowing gently down the river of divine wisdom, on purpose, detached from outcomes, fully trusting and smiling.
— p. 183, The Power of NO by James Altucher and Claudia Azula Altucher

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?

Image credit/copyright: Guryanov Andrey/Shutterstock