One day, when my brother was 18, he waltzed into the living room and proudly announced to my mother and me that one day he was going to be a senator.
My mom probably gave him the Thats nice, dear, treatment while Im sure I was distracted by a bowl of Cheerios or something.
But for 15 years, this purpose informed all my brothers life decisions: what he studied in school, where he chose to live, who he connected with, and even what he did with many of his vacations and weekends.
And, now, after almost half a lifetime of work , hes the chairman of a major political party in his city and the youngest judge in the state. In the next few years, he hopes to run for office for the first time.
Dont get me wrong. My brother is a freak. This basically never happens.
Most of us have no clue what we want to do with our lives. Even after we finish school. Even after we get a job. Even after were making money. Between ages 18 and 25, I changed career aspirations more often than I changed my underwear. And even after I had a business, it wasnt until I was 28 that I clearly defined what I wanted for my life.
Chances are youre more like me and have no clue what you want to do. Its a struggle almost every adult goes through. What do I want to do with my life? What am I passionate about? What do I not suck at? I often receive emails from people in their 40s and 50s who still have no clue what they want to do with themselves.
Part of the problem is the concept of life purpose itself. The idea that we were each born for some higher purpose and its now our cosmic mission to find it. This is the same kind of shitty logic used to justify things like spirit crystals or that your lucky number is 34 (but only on Tuesdays or during full moons).
Heres the truth: We exist on this Earth for some undetermined period of time. During that time, we do things. Some of these things are important. Some of them are unimportant. And those important things give our lives meaning and happiness. The unimportant ones basically just kill time.
When people say, What should I do with my life? or What is my life purpose? what theyre actually asking is: What can I do with my time that is important?
This is an infinitely better question to ask. Its far more manageable and it doesnt have all the ridiculous baggage the life purpose question has. Theres no reason for you to be contemplating the cosmic significance of your life while sitting on your couch all day eating Doritos. Rather, you should be getting off your ass and discovering what feels important to you.
One of the most common email questions I get is people asking me what they should do with their lives, what their life purpose is. This is an impossible question for me to answer. After all, for all I know this person is really into knitting sweaters for kittens or filming gay bondage porn in their basement. I have no clue. Who am I to say whats right or whats important to them?
After some research, I put together a series of questions to help people figure out for themselves what is important to them and what can add more meaning to their lives.
These questions are by no means exhaustive or definitive. In fact, theyre a little bit ridiculous. But I made them that way because discovering purpose in our lives should be something thats fun and interesting, not a chore.
1. What’s your favorite flavor of shit sandwich and does it come with an olive?
Ah, yes. The all-important question. What flavor of shit sandwich would you like to eat? Because heres the sticky little truth about life that they dont tell you at high school pep rallies: Everything sucks, some of the time.
Now, that probably sounds incredibly pessimistic of me. And you may be thinking, Hey Mr. Manson, turn that frown upside-down. But I actually think this is a liberating idea.
Everything involves sacrifice. Everything includes some sort of cost. Nothing is pleasurable or uplifting all the time. So the question becomes: What struggle or sacrifice are you willing to tolerate? Ultimately, what determines our ability to stick with something we care about is our ability to handle the rough patches and ride out the inevitable rotten days.
If you want to be a brilliant tech entrepreneur but you cant handle failure, then youre not going to make it far. If you want to be a professional artist but you arent willing to see your work rejected hundreds, if not thousands, of times, then youre done before you start. If you want to be a hotshot court lawyer but cant stand the 80-hour work weeks, then Ive got bad news for you.
What unpleasant experiences are you able to handle? Are you able to stay up all night coding? Are you able to have people laugh you off the stage over and over again until you get it right? Are you able to put off starting a family for 10 years?
What shit sandwich do you want to eat? Because we all get served one eventually. Might as well pick one with an olive.
2. What is true about you today that would make your 8-year-old self cry?
When I was a child, I used to write stories. I used to sit in my room for hours by myself writing away about aliens, about superheroes, about great warriors, about my friends and family. Not because I wanted anyone to read it. Not because I wanted to impress my parents or teachers. But for the sheer joy of it.
And then, for some reason, I stopped. And I dont remember why.
We all have a tendency to lose touch with what we loved as a child. Something about the social pressures of adolescence and professional pressures of young adulthood squeezes the passion out of us. Were taught that the only reason to do something is if were somehow rewarded for it.
It wasnt until I was in my mid-20s that I rediscovered how much I loved writing. And it wasnt until I started my business that I remembered how much I enjoyed building websites something I did in my early teens just for fun.
The funny thing though is that if my 8-year-old self had asked my 20-year-old self, Why dont you write anymore? and I replied, Because Im not good at it or Because nobody would read what I write or Because you cant make money doing that, not only would I have been completely wrong, but that 8-year-old version of myself would have probably started crying.
3. What makes you forget to eat and poop?
Weve all had that experience where we get so wrapped up in something that minutes turn into hours and hours turn into Holy crap, I forgot to have dinner.
Supposedly, in his prime, Isaac Newtons mother had to regularly come in and remind him to eat because he would go entire days so absorbed in his work that he would forget.
I used to be like that with video games. This probably wasnt a good thing. In fact, for many years it was kind of a problem. I would sit and play video games instead of doing more important things like studying for an exam or showering regularly or speaking to other humans face to face.
It wasnt until I gave up the games that I realized my passion wasnt for the games themselves (although I do love them). My passion is for improvement, being good at something and then trying to get better. The games themselves the graphics, the stories they were cool, but I can easily live without them. Its the competition with others, but especially with myself that I thrive on.
And when I applied that obsessiveness for improvement and self-competition to an internet business and to my writing, well, things took off in a big way.
Maybe for you, its something else. Maybe its organizing things efficiently or getting lost in a fantasy world or teaching somebody something or solving technical problems. Whatever it is, dont just look at the activities that keep you up all night, but look at the cognitive principles behind those activities that enthrall you. Because they can easily be applied elsewhere.
4. How can you better embarrass yourself?
Before you are able to be good at something and do something important, you must first suck at something and have no clue what youre doing. Thats pretty obvious. And in order to suck at something and have no clue what youre doing, you must embarrass yourself in some shape or form, often repeatedly. And most people try to avoid embarrassing themselves namely because it sucks.
Ergo, due to the transitive property of awesomeness, if you avoid anything that could potentially embarrass you, then you will never end up doing something that feels important.
Yes, it seems that, once again, it all comes back to vulnerability.
Right now, theres something you want to do, something you think about doing, something you fantasize about doing, yet you dont do it. You have your reasons, no doubt. And you repeat these reasons to yourself ad infinitum.
But what are those reasons? Because I can tell you right now that if those reasons are based on what others would think, then youre screwing yourself over big time.
If your reasons are something like, I cant start a business because spending time with my kids is more important to me, or Playing Starcraft all day would probably interfere with my music, and music is more important to me, then OK. Sounds good.
But if your reasons are, My parents would hate it, or My friends would make fun of me, or If I failed, Id look like an idiot, then chances are, youre actually avoiding something you truly care about because caring about that thing is what scares the shit out of you, not what mom thinks or what Timmy next-door says.
Great things are, by their very nature, unique and unconventional. Therefore, to achieve them, we must go against the herd mentality. And to do that is scary.
Embrace embarrassment. Feeling foolish is part of the path to achieving something important, something meaningful. The more a major life decision scares you, chances are the more you need to be doing it.
5. How are you going to save the world?
In case you havent seen the news lately, the world has a few problems. And by a few problems, what I really mean is, everything is fucked and were all going to die.
Ive harped on this before and the research also bears it out, but to live a happy and healthy life, we must hold on to values that are greater than our own pleasure or satisfaction.
So pick a problem and start saving the world. There are plenty to choose from. Our screwed-up education systems, economic development, domestic violence, mental health care, governmental corruption. Hell, I just saw an article this morning on sex trafficking in the U.S. and it got me all riled up and wishing I could do something. It also ruined my breakfast.
Find a problem you care about and start solving it. Obviously, youre not going to fix the worlds problems by yourself. But you can contribute and make a difference. And that feeling of making a difference is ultimately whats most important for your own happiness and fulfillment.
Now, I know what youre thinking. Gee, I read all this horrible stuff and I get all pissed off too, but that doesnt translate to action, much less a new career path.
Glad you asked
6. If you absolutely had to leave the house all day, every day, where would you want to go and what would you do?
For many of us, the enemy is just old-fashioned complacency. We get into our routines. We distract ourselves. The couch is comfortable. The Doritos are cheesy. And nothing new happens.
This is a problem.
Discovering what youre passionate about in life and what matters to you is a full contact sport, a trial and error process. None of us knows exactly how we feel about an activity until we actually do the activity.
Ask yourself, if someone forced you to leave your house every day for everything except for sleep, how would you choose to occupy yourself? And no, you cant just go sit in a coffee shop and browse Facebook. You probably already do that. Lets pretend there are no useless websites, no video games, no TV. You have to be outside of the house all day every day until its time to go to bed where would you go and what would you do?
Sign up for a dance class? Join a book club? Get another degree? Invent a new form of irrigation system that can save the thousands of childrens lives in rural Africa? Learn to hang glide?
What would you do with all that time?
If it strikes your fancy, write down a few answers and then, you know, go out and actually do them. Bonus points if it involves embarrassing yourself.
7. If you knew you were going to die one year from today, what would you do and how would you want to be remembered?
Most of us dont like thinking about death. It freaks us out. But thinking about our own death surprisingly has a lot of practical advantages. One of those advantages is that it forces us to zero in on whats actually important in our lives and whats just frivolous and distracting.
When I was in college, I used to walk around and ask people, If you had a year to live, what would you do? As you can imagine, I was a huge hit at parties. A lot of people gave vague and boring answers. A few drinks were nearly spit on me. But it did cause people to really think about their lives in a different way and re-evaluate what their priorities were.
What is your legacy going to be? What are the stories people are going to tell when youre gone? What is your obituary going to say? Is there anything to say at all? If not, what would you like it to say? How can you start working toward that today?
And, again, if you fantasize about your obituary saying a bunch of badass shit that impresses a bunch of random other people, then youre failing here.
When people feel like they have no sense of direction, no purpose in their life, its often because they dont know whats important to them, they dont know what their values are.
And when you dont know what your values are, then youre essentially taking on other peoples values and living other peoples priorities instead of your own. This is a one-way ticket to unhealthy relationships and eventual misery.
Discovering ones purpose in life essentially boils down to finding those one or two things that are bigger than yourself and bigger than those around you.
And to find them you must get off your couch and act, and take the time to think beyond yourself, to think greater than yourself, and paradoxically, to imagine a world without yourself.