4 Keys to a Fulfilling (Though Maybe Uncomfortable) Life
Stability, status quo, and inertia won't bring you meaning, fulfillment, or joy.
Posted Apr 22, 2019
I was speaking with a colleague recently about some of the challenges that our respective clients face in their lives and what forces drive the decisions they make that shape their lives. One of the most frequently mentioned goals that she hears from her clients is the desire for stability and balance. Many sought lives of familiarity, predictability, and control. They reported that they felt more relaxed, less stressed and anxious, and just plain more comfortable. Given the turbulence that has engulfed so many aspects of our society in recent times, it’s no wonder that many people pursue a life grounded in equanimity and comfort.
Yet, that dreamed-for life of security and composure, paradoxically, conflicts with the reasons why many people seek professional help. First, that life of comfort that I just described can easily turn into a life of inertia, stagnancy, and “stuckness.” Second, that desire for stability and balance can prevent people from opening themselves up to the possibilities that their lives may hold.
This conversation with my colleague led me to look inside myself as a person and examine what forces drive my life. I also asked myself what forces underlie my approach to working with people professionally. Not surprisingly, the forces in my personal and professional lives converged around several themes that were quite antithetical to a life of security and repose. As I reflect on these very divergent paths, the path that I have chosen is best described with a quote from the historian and author, Cornelius Ryan, as he suffered through a terminal illness: “I shall try to never feel peaceful and pain-free again. These symptoms, I imagine, may be quite closely linked to death…fast-paced mental activity and constant pain are now my criteria for being well.”
In this process of self-reflection, I identified four forces that I believe are essential for leading a life that is meaningful, fulfilling, and joyful and, at the same time, provides enough of that sense of familiarity and comfort that so many people crave.
I’m not suggesting that you should change for the sake of change. If you are truly happy where you are, hey, who is I am say that you need to upend your life? At the same time, I would suggest that for every part of us that is fine with seeking the comfort and stability of survival, there is another equally powerful part of us that wants to go beyond mere existence, however safe it might be, and truly thrive, to get out of our comfort zones, push our limits, and see what is possible for us in our lives. You can think of it as your own personal manifest destiny, the desire to expand the territory of your life for the sake of living it fully and experience as much enrichment from it as possible.
Growth starts with a vision of who you are and who you want to be. This vision is based on the values you hold most dear, the priorities that you derive from those values, and the choices you make from your values and priorities that act as the foundation of your life. If your life is well aligned with your vision, you deserve a huge congratulations because such synchronicity is a rarity these days. But, if the life you are leading is incongruent with that vision, then growth can help you break free of your current inertia and propel you toward a life that realizes your vision.
Additionally, to make this vision a reality, you must take it from 50,000 feet to “boots on the ground,” in other words, translate that image in your mind into action. This process begins by seeing where you are in your life: What is working well and what isn’t. Then, choosing to maintain what is going well and change what needs to change. Once these decisions have been made, the final steps are to make a plan of action that will get you where you want to go and remove any obstacles that may block your path.
Passion is a force that acts as both an engine that can drive you forward in your life and a shield that can protect you from the toxicity that life can may present to you. Basically, passion involves caring about something deeply that is healthy and positive. That something can be a profession, avocation, or cause. If you care deeply about something, you can throw yourself into it, give your best effort, enjoy yourself fully, and reap its rewards both in terms of the journey and the destination reached.
That passion can also safeguard you from a lot of truly unhealthy aspects of your life. It boils down to a choice. When you are confronted with a decision about whether you should go down the good road (driven by your passion) or the bad road (driven by temptations, fears, or insecurities), if you care deeply about something, you will choose the good road. As the saying goes, “if you don’t care about something, you’ll fall for anything” (actually, I just made that up).
The confounding aspects of a passion is that it is rarely something that you can just go out and find. Rather, often passions find you. Using a personal example, I never expected to develop a lifelong love for psychology; to the contrary, I never had an interest in the mind until I took a psychology class in college. But, while taking that course, I felt psychology take a hold of me and, decades and a long career later, it still won’t let me go.
Another puzzling aspect of passions is that I’m uncertain that everyone is constitutionally capable of experiencing passion. Passion requires the ability to feel emotions deeply and, as you may know, that ability is ingrained into us through our innate temperament; some of us feel our emotions acutely while others feel their emotions less so.
If you didn’t find your passion early, that doesn’t mean that you can’t or won’t. I know people who found their passion at 12, 25, 40, 60 years old and beyond. You just have to keep looking and continue to expose yourself to new and different experiences (see Growth above).
Passion is what you feel about something. Purpose is what you do with that passion. It’s where you put that “mad love” into action in your life. Purpose provides you with your reason for getting up in the morning and carrying you through the inevitable ups and downs that life sends your way on a daily basis.
Your purpose is your mission in your life. It begins with what you want to accomplish. Your mission may be to become the best athlete, musician, or physicist you can be. It could also be about creating something such as a business, charity, or child. Your purpose could involve making the world a better place every day one person at a time, as teachers do. Or, it could mean making the world a better place with one big bang (that may have taken 20 years to occur), such as finding a cure for cancer or building a better something that can improve the lives of millions. The size of the purpose matters far less than the passion that is driving it. As an example, my purpose is to inspire, inform, transform, so people can perform their very best.
If you have a purpose, it isn’t a question of whether you will pursue it; to do otherwise would be to deny who you are. Your purpose provides you with a clear goal in your life. It also guides you down the road you take to fulfilling that purpose. Importantly, always having your purpose in the front of your mind helps you to continue to move forward in the face of the many mistakes, setbacks, and failures that you will surely face as you strive to fulfill your purpose. It gives you confidence, determination, and resilience when your world may not be supporting you.
Movement lies at the heart of growth, passion, and purpose. I believe that a life that is comprised of near-constant activity, whether physical, intellectual, emotional, or spiritual, however unstable, insecure, unfamiliar, or uncomfortable it may be, is far better than one of idleness, safety, rest, and ease. As Cornelius Ryan suggests, if you are moving, struggling, and striving, you are acutely alive in a way that you are not when you are pursuing (or surrendering to) the status quo.
Of course, there is a necessary place in life for stopping periodically. As a human being, you need a break from the intensity of a life that I have just described. You need time to rest, reflect, and rejuvenate. But these respites are simply temporary way stations on the road of life rather than extended periods in which you settle down (again, too similar to death).
And movement doesn’t mean that the focus is on arriving at a destination. Yes, the movement is usually intentional. But, to the contrary, I’ve always believed that “there is no there,” so there is no destination to arrive at where you can say with certainty that “I’m good.” Though perhaps a bit cliché, the constant movement has its greatest meaning and value in the moment of that movement, in the direct and visceral experience of in whatever way you are moving. It is in those moments of movement that you can find meaning, fulfillment, and joy because of, rather than in spite of, the discomfort that often accompanies that movement.
Ultimately, I do believe that the process of growth reaches a certain threshold where you can stop, take a deep breath, and say something like, “I have arrived at a good place in my life that provides me with a platform from which I can continue to grow and thrive.” But to get to that place, you must embrace and, in fact, pursue with gusto, the challenges and struggles that life presents to those who dare live life outside of their comfort zones.
Teddy Roosevelt said it so well: “The credit belongs to the [person] who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself [or herself] in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he [she]fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his [her] place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” As far as life goes, that’s the Holy Grail.