How Do We Find Ourselves?

15 Ways People Find Path, Purpose and Fulfillment

Posted Mar 13, 2018

All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.

J.R.R. Tolkien

It seems like my mom was born with a paintbrush in her hand. She always knew she wanted to be an artist and that's what she's always been. On the other hand, I was born with a pocketful of confusion. By the time I finished grad school I'd switched majors a half dozen times and had twice as many jobs. Maybe it was short attention span, but I like to think of it as curiosity. In the moment, however, not knowing what I should be doing or where my life was headed felt desperate and painful.

And so it goes, those of us who weren't born with a paintbrush in our hand go on a search for meaning. We sit by summer ponds with dog-eared copies of Thoreau and Frankl. We hike through Europe and dabble in psychedelic mycology. We run out of money and move back with our parents.

Are we heeding a basic human instinct to go looking for that something that will trigger clarity of purpose? And if there's a way to find it, why didn't anybody tell me?

Philosophy wasn't one of my many majors, so Sartre this is not. But in my career (Look, Mom, I found one!) I am witness to how everyday people pursue, nurture, accept, or happen upon their sense of purpose, direction, and identity. Here are 15 ways:

1. Travel. We escape the anguish of inner seeking by stepping outside ourselves and experiencing new people and places. Mark Twain wrote, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.” 

2. Reading. From fiction to self-help, reading is a source of new perspectives and guidance. It contains the wisdom of people before us who have sought and found.

3. Writing. The torrent and torment of thoughts can knock us off our equilibrium if we try to contain them. Whether journaling or long-form, writing releases that which is fogging clarity and weaves together the strands of meaning.

4. Analysis/Therapy/CoachingAgain, releasing the tangle of thoughts. Identifying and solving problems. Being heard. Feeling validated. By enlisting a professional, we create a space to do the work of moving forward with intention.

5. Self-Assessment. A tangible exercise of cataloguing our strengths, skills, experiences, interests, passions, wants, and needs. What themes arise? What pieces are missing?

6. Mentoring. Through mentoring we tap into the wisdom of those who've been where we are. A source of trusted guidance and opinion. 

7. Family/Legacy. Those who know us best can serve as a mirror reflecting back what we can't see in ourselves. We may also find meaning in learning about the legacy of our lineage. 

8. Education. Education is discovery. Like travel, it takes us beyond ourselves. It teaches us how to interact with one another and respect differences of opinion. It teaches us how to learn.

9. Faith/Spirituality. As old as humanity itself, we have looked beyond the human realm for answers to our biggest questions. It also serves as a structure for grounding us when it feels like we're floating.

10. Life Changing Event. Many of us discover our purpose and direction by virtue of a sudden change in circumstance. An accident, an illness, or a windfall.

11. Epiphany. As sudden as a life-changing event, our purpose may dawn on us when we least expect it. One morning we step out of bed and onto the path we were meant to follow.

12. Inventory of Joy. When we get caught up in the seeking, complexity overshadows simplicity. The answers are in us and all around us. We can list all the tangible and intangible things that bring us joy. It is then for us to decide how we will stay connected to our findings. 

13. Time/Age/Experience. It takes time to try life on for size, to take it for a spin. But that feels painstaking when we are eager to pour our life into something meaningful. We feel we are wasting time. We must be patient and compassionate with our 'not knowing' because we can't know without it. 

14. Meditation/Mindfulness/OpennessAnd so we practice living in the moment. Staying open and flexible rather than paralyzed by the trying. After all is said and done, we aren't somewhere out there waiting to be found, we are only who we are now and that changes as soon as we try to hold on.

15. Trying/Failing. We stop worrying about finding ourselves and instead pour that energy into trying new life experiences. When we try and fail, we are gifted with lessons and stories. The sum total of our attempts, successes, and failures writes the book of our life. Nobody wants to be just a pamphlet.

The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well. 

Ralph Waldo Emerson