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To find your purpose (or not to find your purpose). That is the question.
To be or not to be, the reboot, with a mad-lib
“The purpose of life is to be alive.”
So said Charlotte Kasl, Ph.D. — psychologist, spiritual thinker, and bestselling author — at the start of her book If the Buddha Got Stuck.
In eight simple words, this sentence freed me from an old fixation on “finding my purpose,” by which I meant identifying the work I was “supposed to be doing,” or that I was “called to do,” or that would “fulfill me.”
Instantly, I realized my purpose was to be.
Looking back, I find it interesting how unquestioningly I had connected my work and my purpose before then.
Perhaps this happened so seamlessly because it’s part of the American ideology (even the global ideology in our current era). As Tara McMullin points out in her book What Works, “the legacy of Puritan culture—and other American Protestant sects… is the notion that not only are people who work hard, follow the rules, and improve themselves morally good people, they’re saved from damnation.”
I’ve often been praised for my effort and dedication in the same breath as the quality of my work. Take the time I got promoted at a strategy consulting firm, and my high volume of billable hours was mentioned alongside my strengths, during my firm-wide recognition.
Another time, I switched jobs (and companies) just before a long-awaited vacation. It was to be a two-week trip —long by American standards, but not abnormal at my old firm. The trip consisted of a five day sea kayak adventure with a friend (deposit long since paid), as well as a cross-country visit with my parents (whom I hadn’t seen in nearly nine months).
HR at the new firm urged me to start as soon as possible, given the needs of my team, so I asked for a compromise. I’d start work right away, but I’d still take my scheduled two-week trip, despite it landing merely a month after my start date. They agreed.
A year later, my boss mentioned it in casual conversation, saying, “I’m so glad you’ve turned out to be a hard worker. I was a little worried when I saw you keep that super long vacation on the calendar right after you started.” I hadn’t taken another vacation outside of company holidays in the twelve months since. And after that comment, I didn’t feel comfortable taking more than half a week off for another year beyond.
Given how our economy and culture operates, it is easy to internalize the idea that work is morally superior to leisure, and that the workplace is where value creation happens. Meanwhile, home and personal life are where we go to (briefly) organize ourselves and get some sleep until work begins again.
In this context, why wouldn’t I have I believed work should be the outlet for my purpose on this earth?
I read books like Simon Sinek’s Find Your Why, and Be Fearless by Jean Case, which is a call to action for those who “strive to lead an extraordinary life and make a difference.” I fell prey to the siren song of Jeff Goins’ The Art of Work: A Proven Path to Discovering What You Were Meant to Do, thinking it might lead me to the holy grail of my life.
But after years of reading these kinds of books and doing their exercises, I hadn’t found my one True North. Unlike many examples provided—such as a woman whose child died after a misdiagnosed illness, who then became a health advocate for families like hers, or the veteran who returned from war a paraplegic, who then founded a national non-profit chain of gyms for paraplegics—I lacked a galvanizing challenge. There was no straightforward way to find the why for my life’s work.
Around 2016 or 2017, I read a New York Times article suggesting the obsession with purpose and passion at work was a stupid Millennial gambit, and that we should all just shut up, put our heads down, and focus on doing our best at the work we had in front of us. Ok, Boomer.
Yet while the article didn’t entirely resonate, something about it struck home. It made me wonder if the idea we should all live out Our Purpose through our work was a bit fraught, jiggling loose new questions.
A Wider, Deeper, More All-Encompassing Definition of Purpose is the Solution to living a Purpose-Driven Life
“To be alive is to meet and accept every part of yourself—the scuzzy, sweet, passionate, talented, or slow. From this place of self-acceptance you can be a good friend to yourself and others.”
- Charlotte Kasl, PhD. If the Buddha Got Stuck
When I finally let go of the notion that my purpose must be in my work, I found new possibilities became available. I was able to register that simply existing — being — is what I am here to do.
Being is doing. Being is the point. So I’d better be the most me I could be.
When I reflected on what it meant to be alive, to be, I saw there was so much more to it than I’d noticed before.
The human system — the web of interconnected organic systems that allow us to touch, feel, sense, hear, see and also be conscious of these sensations and to think thoughts and feel emotions about our experiences — is a thing of wonder.
The human system brings us into connection with the universe, touching the atoms, objects, and beings around us while also immersing us into the dynamic flow of energy at the subatomic level. It puts us in touch with our animal nature, and yet grants us an internal world too, giving us wild and crazy thoughts, deep wisdom and inner knowing, big feelings, boundless love (and boundless fears), laughter, pain, and joy.
Once I realized that this being was my purpose, I found that I was able to live more in accord with my own values, desires, needs, wisdom and awareness.
I started unraveling choices I’d made long ago that weren’t serving me. I made new choices too, saying no to things and people that were not right for me, and saying yes to more of what was. I listened to myself. And as I grew more aligned, I weeded the garden of my life.
For instance, whereas before I dated while wearing blinders of hope, once I saw that my purpose was to be alive, I paid more attention to who made me feel most aligned with life. By doing so, I slowly learned to weed out those who didn’t have right relationship skills for me, or the willingness to match my level of care and effort. This led to far better relationships.
Next, alignment came for my day-to-day. Was mine enlivening?
All I had to do was look at the exercise a career coach had suggested for me, which was to draw the timeline of my life in pictures, to see that my current situation wasn’t cutting it.
I’d drawn a 3D box depicting my condo, where I worked from home in six hundred square feet (it was about eighteen months into the pandemic by then). I’d placed it inside a grey cloud depicting Seattle (where I lived). I’d surrounded it with drawings of grey office buildings, a grey laptop, a grey TV, and a grey cell phone. Hmm.
This realization eventually led me to take a sabbatical to write and travel. I began writing Romantic Comedy novels, since the genre had brought me much joy over the years. And I went to Latin America, one of the regions in the world I’ve always found full of vibrance — among the people, culture, music, dance, weather, and natural environment.
At the start of my trip, I felt tentative about my choices, but over the course of many months meeting people doing all kinds of incredible things with their lives, I saw how many ways there are to live on this earth. I learned to surf and figured out how to write a novel. Then I completed three, all while exploring new places and communing with my solo self. That year, I came alive in new ways.
And while I didn’t know it when I left, this stint spent traveling would ultimately lead to a return to my rural hometown in Maine, where I have reconnected with nature in ways I didn’t even know I needed. Now I see big sky whenever I look out the window, watch animals in the wild every day, and can walk in the woods without having to make weekend plans to do it.
As I made choice after choice based on a desire to live in the flow of aliveness as much as possible, I discovered that being in accordance with my true self always led to doing things that are aligned as well.
I found myself beginning to live what you might describe as a purpose driven life, but without having to write myself a great manifesto to do it, encounter a massive misfortune to clarify a why, or even to declare any particular purpose at all.
It’s not been easy making all these shifts, and has required giving up certain things (like most of my belongings before I went off to travel), leaving city living and its excitements, and foregoing a fancy job title and a steady paycheck. But it has been rewarding. I feel alive again in ways I hadn’t in quite some time.
I Have a Purpose and So Do You
A couple nights ago, I found myself intensely frustrated. In the week prior, I hadn’t gotten enough done on several of my current priority projects (according to me).
I’d allowed myself to go swimming at the lake on Thursday afternoon. I’d helped with maintenance of some shared family property, taking Friday off to do so. On Saturday, I’d been on a roll with one of my priority projects in the morning, but took a break in the afternoon to explore a new little town with my boyfriend, who’d been patiently waiting for some time together.
The thing is, all these activities keep me in the flow of life. They make me feel alive and allow me to be there for others.
Yet also, I deeply, madly, almost crazily want to work on the projects that will carve out my future. Those things make me feel alive too.
I’m working on a couple things that will allow me to bring my background in corporate strategy, executive leadership support, and economics, together with my belief in humane living and what I write about in the Messy Human, to offer solutions that will make the world of work more humane as well — more in tune with human needs, the human system, and the vastness of human potential.
I’m excited about this, which drives a hunger to buckle down and work on it—to create. So the other evening, my frustration at feeling slow with this meaningful work was understandable. And yet, unnecessary.
I do feel a deep sense of purpose about this work, driven by a desire to give what gifts I have to others. But it’s not going to be my only purpose. Because I now know my purpose is infused in my life and everything I do. Being with family, being here for myself, and being in nature have all put me in line with my purpose, which is being alive. And so too, these projects align me with life.
When we stop trying to force our way to finding a One True Purpose, and when we stop linking our purpose to our work, allowing it to be broader, we have a lot more opportunities to offer our gifts to the world.
“Our friendliness, concern for others, welcoming smiles, and ability to listen and embrace others without judgement contribute to a peaceful world. As we become more at ease with ourselves and more passionately involved with whatever fulfills us, our focus naturally expands to our families, friends, communities, and our world.”
- Charlotte Kasl, Ph.D. If the Buddha Got Stuck.
A Mad-lib for Aligning to Your Aliveness
Through a series of prompts below, you’ll generate 15 words that you’ll then use in my mad-lib, “Living with Intentional Purpose.”
Label a paper 1-15 to write down these words. If you want to experience the full impact of the completed statement straight from your mind, don’t skip ahead to read the mad-lib before doing the prompts.
Prompt 1: Think back to the last couple of times you felt restless and longed for something more meaningful? What were you doing?
Word(s) 1 - Low Meaning Activities [Word Category: Verb]: __________
Word(s) 2 - Low Meaning Activities [Word Category: Verb]: __________
Prompt 2: Thinking about your life, where do you feel the most stuck? What isn’t quite working? Are you experiencing endless turmoil in relationships? Are you uninspired by your job but afraid that what you love doesn’t pay? Do you feel numb frequently, or disconnected from your feelings? Are you overwhelmed with busy-ness and stress? Do you lack time to do what you find most meaningful? Pick two words from this list that represent your top challenges:
Words 3 & 4 [pick two] - Challenge Areas: Relationships, Jobs/Careers, High-Stress Living, Emotional Self-Connection
Prompt 3: What are a couple activities have you always thought sounded exciting or fun, or sparked interest for you, which you haven’t tried yet, or you used to do but have stopped doing now?
Word 5 [Word Category: Noun] - Exciting Ideas: __________
Word 6 [Word Category: Noun] - Exciting Ideas: __________
Prompt 4: Think back to the last time you felt a deep sense of unease. Close your eyes and sink into your body. What did that feeling feel like? Where in your body did you feel it?
Word(s) 7 [Word Category: adjective or verb] - Sensations of Unease:_________
Word(s) 8 [Word Category: body part] - Locations of Unease:_________
Prompt 5: Think back to the last time you felt a vast sense of joy. Close your eyes and sink into your body. What did that feeling feel like? Where in your body did you feel it?
Word(s) 9 [Word Category: adjective] - Sensations of Joy:_________
Word(s) 10 [Word Category: body part] - Locations of Joy:_________
Prompt 6: What feelings do you want more of on a regular basis?
Word 11 [Word Category: noun] - Desired Feelings: __________
Word 12 [Word Category: noun] - Desired Feelings: __________
Word 13 [Word Category: noun] - Desired Feelings: __________
Prompt 7: What are your biggest external goals?
Word 14 [Word Category: noun] - Big External Goal: __________
Word 15 [Word Category: noun] - Big External Goal: __________
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Mad Lib: Living with Intentional Purpose
The purpose of life is to be alive. I am not here to gather objects, achieve, accumulate successes, or forge my body to fit a mold.
When I engage in activities like [Word 1]____ or [Word 2]____, I feel restless and long for something more meaningful. Something about them is not right for me in their present form in my life. They are likely a part of why [Word 3]____, and [Word 4]____, are challenging areas right now.
To begin to get unstuck, and bring myself further into alignment with my own aliveness and ability to be my truest self, I will try new things, like [Word 5]_____, and [Word 6]_____, among others. As I do these things, I will pay attention to sensations like [Word 7]_____ in my [Word 8]____, which indicates that something isn’t right for me. I will also pay attention to sensations like [Word 9]_____ in my [Word 10]____, which indicates things that are good for me. Using this information from my own inner world, I will take further action.
As I go about my day to day life, I will consistently choose what makes me feel [Word 11]____, [Word 12]_____, and [Word 13]:_____. This means I will have to explore ways to adjust the arenas of [Word 3]____, and [Word 4]____ in my life. I might have to eliminate some things, I might have to change some things, and I will definitely adopt new activities and ways of being that are more fully me. I will shake up the status quo to feel as fully alive as I can.
I will let go of the desire to have specific outcomes in my life, like my current clear vision for [Word 14]_____, and [Word 15]_____, and instead register that these goals are the external representations of deeper longings that can be met in many ways. While this will challenge me, I recognize that when I am in alignment with my own aliveness, I will see my internal goals come to fruition in ways that give me [Word 11]___, [Word 12]___, and [Word 13]____, even if the specifics are not exactly as I expected. I will stay curious and relaxed about how my life plays out, instead of tightly grasping to one end-all, be-all plan.
The purpose of my life is to be alive, engaging in the flow of all of life.