Finding Meaning In Life
From the time that I was very young, I can remember one question that I was asked over and over again. "What do you want to be when you grow up?" Whenever anybody asked me this question I would usually stare back at them with some sort of perplexed look; I knew that I really had no idea how to answer that. Lots of other kids would say that they wanted to become firemen, police officers or doctors, all of the sort of typical answers. But today, most of those same kids are adults and few, if any, of them are any of those things; most of them work in retail stores or restaurants, and a few have entered the corporate world. When I was young I would get so frustrated with the other kids who seemed to have everything all figured out.
But then one day a couple of years ago I came to a realization: nobody has it figured out. A little while later I realized something else: not knowing is okay. But from that day forward I started really questioning myself and wondering about my own existence. I knew that somehow there had to be something more, something that I couldn't really understand. And then came my third realization: life is not defined by a career.
At this point, most of my preconceived notions about the world began to fall away. All of those kids who had easily answered the omnipresent "What do you want to be?" question responded with a choice of profession. I began to see that as children we are instructed to define ourselves by our future careers. We are not taught to seek happiness, fulfillment, purpose or meaning, we are taught to seek high pay and prestige. "What do you want to be?" revealed itself to me as a harmful social construct.
Start With A Goal
Now that I had abandoned the tie between career and life meaning, I knew that I had to set a goal for myself. Any emotive goal would be reasonable, but personally, I chose happiness. Some people are motivated by money, power or prestige, but for me, happiness was the simplest yet also the most elusive goal possible.
I thought that defining a goal would be very helpful, but at first it wasn't. Our society is quite rigid and not generally supportive of abstract emotional goals. I knew what I wanted, but I had no tools available to help myself get there.
Find A Hobby
This was probably the hardest part. I had literally no idea what I liked doing, but I knew that I had to find out. For a while I thought that the way to find a hobby was just to think abstractly about what I might enjoy. I was wrong.
The key to finding what I enjoyed was not thinking, but rather doing! I made a long list of things that I might like to do if I had time, and then I just started doing them. The list was really long, but I'll just share some of the few things that I actually tried and enjoyed: cooking, writing, hiking, reading and language learning. I knew that this was a great starting point. If I had unlimited time, I suddenly could imagine myself busy doing things that I enjoyed, rather than sitting thinking about how bored I was!
This is really a matter of priorities, and this is the part that is only just beginning for me. Imagine two scales. One scale goes from "want to" to "do not want to" and the second goes from "have to" to "do not have to." I believe that most of us spend a lot of time on the have to but do not want to ends of the scale. I want to find a way to move to the want to but do not have to ends.
In order for me to really achieve my goals, I need to reshuffle my priorities to spend more time doing the things that I actually want to do. In the abstract, this seems easy, but in practice it feels much more difficult so far.
Everyone is on a different journey, but I believe that many of the steps are the same. We should all spend less time being defined by other people and things and spend more time trying to define ourselves.