Your Purpose Isn’t Something You Discover, It’s Something You Choose

Paralyzed indecision. It’s that feeling you have when you’re sitting around doing nothing, wondering what to do with your day, week, month. Your life.

It’s an awful feeling, isn’t it? We’ve all experienced paralyzed indecision, and it can be debilitating. How many hours of our lives have we wasted wondering what we should do next, what our purpose should be? How many times have we chosen distraction over action when it comes to doing something important? It’s certainly easier to watch television than to sit down with a notebook to set some goals, or jot down some ideas on how to solve your financial problem, or to write a thank you note to someone. It’s easier to surf the Internet than to have honest conversations with your friends about what they think your talents are and what they love about you. It’s easier to read a book than to write the best-seller you’ve been dreaming about.

So because we’re never sure if what we want to do is part of our purpose, instead of deciding to do something, we often do nothing at all. Canadians watch 30 hours of television per week on average, but I haven’t met anyone who said that his purpose in life is to watch television. Nobody has ever told me that surfing the Internet is her purpose. And while reading books can be entertaining and educational, people don’t say that their purpose is to read books.

“Finding your purpose” is a very popular topic. Every year there are many books written about this very topic. In many surveys, ‘finding my purpose in life’ is in the top ten list of people’s most pressing problems. Not knowing one’s life purpose can lead to unhappiness.

It’s almost as if we signed some kind of contract prior to birth that said we would devote our lives to a particular cause. And we’ve misplaced that contract somewhere, so we spend most our lives trying to find it. “Where could it be?” we wonder. And we look for the clues that will lead us to our lost purpose.

What the heck am I supposed to do with my life?

When people say they are looking for their purpose in life, here’s what I think they mean. They are looking for an overarching theme, something that ties together the bits and pieces of their lives into an overall meaning. When they look at their lives from a 30,000-foot view, they are looking at how everything connects, so that when they are asked what they do, instead of saying they wash dishes, drive the car, cut the grass, smooch with their spouses, and work at the supermarket, they can give an answer that defines them in the cosmic sense. Raising the kids, putting food on the table, taking the dog for a walk – these don’t constitute a purpose. The purpose needs to be bigger. More important.

But life is rarely like that. Our lives are filled with a multitude of purposeful choices that define us. When we work on a project, such as making dinner, that is our purpose at that moment. Making dinner. And if it isn’t our purpose at that moment, nobody is fed.

When we try to think of our lives in the context of a single higher purpose, such as fighting to ensure that all inner-city children receive a hot meal from school, we realize that this is only a small part of who we are. Yes, it might be our purpose, but not at the expense of all the other purposes of our lives, such as eating healthy, fixing mom’s window, playing old-timers soccer, or picking up garbage in the neighbourhood. We might rank each of these purposes in order, based on what we think will create our legacy or what will create the most happiness, but all of them are important. We do not have a single, defining purpose.

In the end, our purpose isn’t what we discover. It’s what we choose.

And if we opt to choose more often, and we experiment with all kinds of different things, we may ‘discover’ that certain purposes are more joyful to us, and we’ll choose more of them.

So if you’re suffering from paralyzed indecision, you can get out of it easily by doing the following three things:

1. Find a problem.
2. Choose action over distraction to try to solve it.
3. Commit until the problem is solved.

Here’s how these steps played out in my morning today after I sat around moping, wondering what to do until I met up with a friend in the afternoon:

1. If I was procrastinating for lack of purpose, perhaps others had the same problem.
2. I wrote this article about purpose.
3. I posted this article on my blog and shared it with my friends.

And that was one of my purposes today. It was something I chose, not something I discovered.

And now my purpose is to make my lunch. I’ll try to do a good job.

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