For Anyone Else Desperately Trying to Figure Out Their Purpose in Life

According to Google, the definition of purpose is: “the reason for which something is done or created or for which something exists.”

So, when someone asks us: “Hey, uhhh, what’s your purpose in life?” They’re asking us why we exist?

Whew.

When I was a child, I had a close family member who’d repeatedly confront me with similar questions but from a place of anger and intimidation. They’d ask 9-year-old me: “Why are you even here? What do you do around here? Nothing. You do nothing!” They knew how to break me down. I felt like I was always making mistakes and feeling I wasn’t good enough. I internalized those thoughts, and part of me is still struggling to come up with a good response.

But I’m healing.

And, I’ve come a long long way. I bet you have too.

Maybe you’ve had some bullies in your life. Maybe someone has made you feel like less without even meaning to, but you still question your impact, your meaning, your reason for being. Am I doing enough?

Maybe you saw a groundbreaking TED talk, or you heard the news about an amazing child prodigy, or your friend told you about someone who has this really cool start-up. What am I even doing with my life?

Perhaps, you’ve found yourself scrolling on social media late at a night and feeling like everyone but you is living their best lives.

Or maybe you go deeper with it and ask yourself: “Is there even a reason for me to be here? Do I even have a purpose? And if I don’t, what’s that mean about my existence.”

A lot of us end up here. You’re not alone. 

We spiral and find ourselves viewing our lives as meaningless and worthless because we aren’t doing what others are doing. We internally berate ourselves for not accomplishing what we could be accomplishing based on our qualifications, ability, privilege, network, or training.

We convince ourselves that we don’t measure up.

We tell ourselves that we’ll matter more when we get the job, the spouse, the money, the degree, the _____.

Sadly, our self-worth can often be completely tied up in everything we don’t have and everything we feel like we’re not.

We can find ourselves in the happiest experiences of our lives (like truly thriving), only to be swept under the waves of self-doubt and misery moments later, when we realize we don’t have ourselves all figured out yet. Or when we hastily push ahead and set another goal to accomplish. Or when we realize that some parts of us are still broken.

But, here’s the truth of it: all of us have brokenness. All of us have doubt. All of us have shame. And still, our lives have meaning.

Each of us has the capacity to add something to the communities we live in, the churches we’re a part of, the families we care for, the schools we attend, and the strangers we meet. We can make all those places a little better. Often we’re doing this by simply showing up and being ourselves – our clumsy, unsure, brilliant, zestful, intelligent selves.

Yes, I’m still talking about you and me.

Photo of person of color standing near wall. Grafiti is on wall. Person of color is wearing a blue jacket.
Photo by Michael Afonso on Unsplash

I think we get to break up the concept of purpose into smaller and more realistic pieces. Instead of asking: “Why am I here?” ask yourself about what you enjoy, what breaks your heart, who has thanked you recently about something you did for them, what you’re good at – like naturally good at, or what you work hard at even though you don’t get paid for it.

Ask yourself about what you’ve made it through. Ask yourself about how resilient you’ve been. Ask yourself about the things no one can ever take from you.

What excites you – or what used to? What do you care about – even if others don’t find it the least bit interesting.

I’ve done a lot of thinking about these questions, and here’s what I came up with.

Pieces of my purpose: To be a kind, good, and caring husband. To be a supportive older brother and supportive to others in my family. To be a solid and dependable friend. It breaks my heart to know that others are struggling in silence with mental illness. I find myself thinking of ways to help others take better care of themselves – this keeps me up at night.  I also find myself thinking of ways to create community with other black men around issues of health and wellness, because so many of us are dying and suffering from preventable issues. I enjoy doing improv, writing, connecting with people, dancing, and bringing people together. If I wasn’t afraid, I would go all in on my dreams – I’m getting closer. Even at my lowest points, my worst moments, my biggest failures, I am still loved. I wholeheartedly believe part of my reason for being on this earth is to share God’s light with others through my work. I’ve often struggled to communicate this, because I feel like saying I’m a Christian and I love doing the work of the Lord turns others off, but it’s who I am. So here it is: I love Jesus. And if you don’t, I’m cool with that, and I still love you and celebrate you and think you get to have the big wondrous life you want to live. I find that leading and living from my heart makes all the different. It’s about love for me. That’s the big picture. Lastly, I believe I’ve had a positive impact on the lives of many just by showing up and being kind.

And, there’s so much more to me.

There’s so much more to you.

If you’re struggling to get unstuck from feeling like you have to have your entire life figured out today, I encourage you to pause, take a deep breath, and find some time to reflect on the topic of purpose in a different way. Remember to break it up.

Here are some questions to ask yourself this week, as you dig into this topic a little more. 
I don’t suggest trying to respond to every one, it’s not a test. See which question tugs at you the most, kicks up stuff for you the most, or just feels most salient for you right now.

  • What issue or idea has been keeping me up at night?
  • What’s been breaking my heart?
  • What am I already doing that has a positive impact on the lives of others – if only a little?
  • What have my friends, family, or strangers thanked me for lately? 
  • What would I create, add to, join, or show up for if I had the resources and wasn’t afraid?
  • What have I been hesitant to tell others about who I am and what I believe? 

Oh, and I just gotta say this. Sometimes, we need to put down the journal, and get out, do something, and shake things up. I’ve personally found that taking action is a healthy way to move through the anxiety of trying to figure out ALL THE THINGS. This means signing up to volunteer service, joining a book club, attending a free lecture at a nearby college campus, or signing up for a workshop gets you out of your comfort zone. Thinking and reflection are necessary, and so is getting lost in experiences, meeting people you’ve never met, and doing things you never thought you could do.

Perhaps you won’t find the entire meaning for your life by doing this (you don’t need to), but you will learn something about yourself. You will take memories with you, and you will hopefully feel a little more alive.

You do not have to know your purpose in life to have meaning on this earth.

You don’t even have to be living on purpose to be belong here.

You already belong, and you’re already enough just because of the fact that you’re living and breathing. Those are the prerequisites. Live. Breathe.

If You’re Feeling Like You’re Going Nowhere

I get this feeling deep down in my gut that something is wrong.

I down a glass of water and do some breathing exercises, but nothing helps.

It’s not a panic attack. It’s me feeling unsettled. Yes, I absolutely love my job and the work I do. I work with and for incredible people. But, if we’re being honest here: I get fed up with myself from time to time. Many of us do.

My career is not enough, my professional network is not enough, and do not even ask to see my resume and portfolio.

Some might attribute this to me being an over-driven and over-zealous millennial. I don’t know. I am not here to present any groundbreaking research discoveries or realizations.

I am just here to let you know that I am with you.

You, the person who is never satisfied with the promotion you get. Your job titles just get in the way of all the unrecognized and hard work you do (it’s recognized by your supervisor and others, but you would not dare give yourself too much credit). You, with a mind full of so many ideas, ambitions, and goals only to be told to slow down and enjoy the journey.

I get it. I want success. I want to be happy. I want to be respected by my peers. In the quiet of my private moments, I conclude that this really is taking too long. I’m not where I want to be. EVERYONE ELSE  is getting there faster. Much faster. Should I be doing more? Should I go bigger? Something tells me this thinking is all wrong. This thinking is dangerous.

If you feel like you’re going nowhere, you’re wrong.The ship is still moving, you’re just unaware of it.

If you’re like me, you can easily trick yourself into thinking that you’re going nowhere. You might even attempt to convince others that you don’t measure up.We don’t have to be okay with this. We can do better.

A mentor recently told me: Sinclair, you’re already the man. You just need to believe it. Those are powerful words to say to someone, and you’d have thought it shook up my world. I just pushed it aside. If I was the man, I’d feel like it and everyone would know it. That’s where I went wrong.

Truly realizing how competent, talented, and skilled we are is not something that anyone can convince us of. We have to believe it for ourselves, examine the realization, and continually come back to it. Knowing that you’re a bad motha-shut-yo-mouth isn’t about being over-confident or cocky. It’s about being self-aware, committing to your professional and personal development, and striving to be a person of virtue and values.

If you’re like me, you can easily trick yourself into thinking that you’re going nowhere.

What can we do in the moments when we feel stuck? I am not referring to moments of needed respite, or we have acquiesced to the pressures of life and our jobs. This is about the times where we can see our next step, and it’s only a few feet away.

This particular next step calls us to be more.

It beckons us to take time to improve ourselves. We realize that we need to challenge ourselves to go inward and take an honest at who we are and who we want to become. We need to set this process on repeat.

So, I’d like to invite you into my personal process, and I will begin by asking myself the following questions:

  1. Are you bringing your best self to the people and projects in front of you each day? There’s nothing wrong with being forward thinking and results driven, but that can’t be all you are. If you’re like me, you constantly daydream about the future, and about when your organization and team will advance. All the while, you have ample opportunities to improve the processes and functions you see your same team and organization struggling with. We have to be cautious, so that we don’t end up chasing the high of leveling up. We need to be able to be present to the boring, mundane, and uninteresting aspects of any long-term processes and tasks. It will make us better team players.
  2. Are you trying to be someone else’s version of you? When I was younger, my father told me I had the potential to make millions by being a businessman. Maybe I do. If I am being real, having a big bank account is not something I care about. I want to be financially sound and secure. Other than that, I am an educator and a servant leader. I am content with striving to help others live better stories. My line of work requires far more sacrifice than I will ever be compensated for. Yet, the past has had an impact on all of us, and sometimes thoughts sneak in that tell me I need to be doing more and earning more. When I identify these thoughts for what they are – thoughts -I refocus my attention on what I care about. I become less frustrated with myself and I get clear on the progress I have made in my career.
  3. Are you taking time to reflect on what you have done well? Some people innocently – but annoyingly – call me Mr. Positivity. They do it because I’m intentional about adding positivity into any environment I find myself in. But, I don’t do it because I’m naturally happy. I’m exceedingly sarcastic and negative in my own mind. Sometimes it’s not healthy. So you can see how when I do my daily reflection, I make an extensive account of all the things I did incorrectly. I can’t tell you how many people I made smile, but I can recall all the times someone was upset with me, ignored me, or when I dropped the ball. It’s necessary to take an honest look at your shortcomings, but they’re not everything. And, if all you’re doing is cutting yourself down everyday, you’re always going to feel like less than. I know because I’m an expert at putting myself down. The solution? I think a good place to start is by thinking of two positive things you did, for every negative piece of feedback you give yourself. Try it. When I have done this in the past, it’s worked. Now it’s time to get back to being more fair to myself. I hope you will too.

We have to be cautious, so that we don’t end up chasing the high of leveling up.

If you feel like you are going nowhere, you are wrong. The ship is still moving, you are just unaware of it. Take time to refocus, ask yourself different questions, and see if you don’t start enjoying the journey a little more. Take small steps. We can do this.

Actually, You Aren’t Enough

You Are Enough.

Those three words frustrate me. I don’t always believe in them. For some of us, the goal of perfection has been a burden for quite some time. Some of us jokingly say things like I’m just a perfectionist or I just like to do it right the first time.

Okay. I actually say those things all the time. But, when I fail, I kick myself and sulk. I restart the self-loathing process:

Step 1: Doubt my skills.

Step 2: Envy others who do what I do – seemingly better.

Step 3: Repeat.

Thanks to Twitter, I find myself scrolling through update after update from others who appear to be the champions and celebrities of Student Affairs. Heck, maybe some feel the same way when they peruse my statuses. My self-worth gets tied up into everything I haven’t done, and into every year of experience I don’t have in my field.

I end up not feeling like enough. As if there’s a course on adding more to my personality and my character. Honestly, I wouldn’t want to be someone else, but feeling like I don’t measure up is unsettling. 

I tell all this to my support system. They remind me of my strengths, they challenge me to think about my accomplishments, and they push back on my negative thought patterns.

My hope is that each of us has had at least one moment when someone affirmed that what we do/who we are is a good fit for life, let alone our jobs. We haven’t all written an e-book, taught a course, researched/discovered a theory, or presented on a national scale. Do we have to?

When it comes down to it, it might be worth something to ask: “What do I actually want to do” rather than “What should I be doing because x.  (x can equal: “it sounds good” ; “others have done it”; “it will get me to the next step”)” I say all this and yet I struggle with feeling like less on some days. It’s part negative thoughts, part my own lived history, and part misguided perspectives on what matters.

On good days, I know I am enough. I feel great doing what I do best: connecting, motivating, and inspiring others. There’s a pep in my step and tiny blue cartoon birds sit on my shoulder. I like the person I see in the mirror and I know I am enough. I’m not sure if it’s because I’m doing what I enjoy without comparing myself others, or if it’s because people-time gives me an endorphin rush, but I like myself in those moments.

I feel like enough when a student opens up to me and confides in me after being reserved for several months. It happens when a co-worker invites me over for dinner. I’m reassured I am enough when I am able to contribute in important meetings, help develop curriculum, successfully run a staff selection, or inspire someone to accept just a little bit about themselves because they listened to my story.

We have done more and are more than we’ll ever know. It’s the grandiose acts, the prolific writings, the innovative ideas generated, and the chart topping accomplishments. It’s the small things and it’s that which exist in the in-between that matters as well. We get to decide what and who defines us.

We get to live a better story for ourselves and others. And on the good days, because there are good days, we get to note that we are enough. Sometimes self-acceptance only exist in a few hiccups of hope at a time.

My hope is that we take hold to those moments, gather them, and tuck them away. Eventually, they will override all the lies we’ve been told about being less than. Sometimes, hiccups will have to do. I’m going to reflect more on being okay with the enough that I am.

What’s your story?

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