One day, when my brother was 18, he waltzed into the living room and proudly announced to my mother and me that one day he was going to be a senator. My mom probably gave him the “That’s nice, dear,” treatment while I’m sure I was distracted by a bowl of Cheerios or something.
But for fifteen years, this purpose informed all of my brother’s life decisions: what he studied in school, where he chose to live, who he connected with and even what he did with many of his vacations and weekends.
And now, after almost half a lifetime of work later, he’s the chairman of a major political party in his city and the youngest judge in the state. In the next few years, he hopes to run for office for the first time.
Don’t get me wrong. My brother is a freak. This basically never happens.
Most of us have no clue what we want to do with our lives. Even after we finish school. Even after we get a job. Even after we’re making money. Between ages 18 and 25, I changed career aspirations more often than I changed my underwear. And even after I had a business, it wasn’t until I was 28 that I clearly defined what I wanted for my life.
Chances are you’re more like me and have no clue what you want to do. It’s a struggle almost every adult goes through. “What do I want to do with my life?” “What am I passionate about?” “What do I not suck at?” I often receive emails from people in their 40s and 50s who stillhave no clue what they want to do with themselves.
Part of the problem is the concept of “life purpose” itself. The idea that we were each born for some higher purpose and it’s now our cosmic mission to find it. This is the same kind of shitty logic used to justify things like spirit crystals or that your lucky number is 34 (but only on Tuesdays or during full moons).
Here’s the truth. We exist on this earth for some undetermined period of time. During that time we do things. Some of these things are important. Some of them are unimportant. And those important things give our lives meaning and happiness. The unimportant ones basically just kill time.
So when people say, “What should I do with my life?” or “What is my life purpose?” what they’re actually asking is: “What can I do with my time that is important?”
This is an infinitely better question to ask. It’s far more manageable and it doesn’t have all of the ridiculous baggage that the “life purpose” question does. There’s no reason for you to be contemplating the cosmic significance of your life while sitting on your couch all day eating Doritos. Rather, you should be getting off your ass and discovering what feels important to you.
One of the most common email questions I get is people asking me what they should do with their lives, what their “life purpose” is. This is an impossible question for me to answer. After all, for all I know, this person is really into knitting sweaters for kittens or filming gay bondage porn in their basement. I have no clue. Who am I to say what’s right or what’s important to them?
But after some research, I have put together a series of questions to help you figure out for yourself what is important to you and what can add more meaning to your life.
These questions are by no means exhaustive or definitive. In fact, they’re a little bit ridiculous. But I made them that way because discovering purpose in our lives should be something that’s fun and interesting, not a chore.
1. WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE FLAVOR OF SHIT SANDWICH AND DOES IT COME WITH AN OLIVE?
Ah, yes. The all-important question. What flavor of shit sandwich would you like to eat? Because here’s the sticky little truth about life that they don’t tell you at high school pep rallies:
Everything sucks, some of the time.
Now, that probably sounds incredibly pessimistic of me. And you may be thinking, “Hey Mr. Manson, turn that frown upside down.” But I actually think this is a liberating idea.
Everything involves sacrifice. Everything includes some sort of cost. Nothing is pleasurable or uplifting all of the time. So the question becomes: what struggle or sacrifice are you willing to tolerate? Ultimately, what determines our ability to stick with something we care about is our ability to handle the rough patches and ride out the inevitable rotten days.
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If you want to be a brilliant tech entrepreneur, but you can’t handle failure, then you’re not going to make it far. If you want to be a professional artist, but you aren’t willing to see your work rejected hundreds, if not thousands of times, then you’re done before you start. If you want to be a hotshot court lawyer, but can’t stand the 80-hour workweeks, then I’ve got bad news for you.
What unpleasant experiences are you able to handle? Are you able to stay up all night coding? Are you able to put off starting a family for 10 years? Are you able to have people laugh you off the stage over and over again until you get it right?
What shit sandwich do you want to eat? Because we all get served one eventually.
Might as well pick one with an olive.
2. WHAT IS TRUE ABOUT YOU TODAY THAT WOULD MAKE YOUR 8-YEAR-OLD SELF CRY?
When I was a child, I used to write stories. I used to sit in my room for hours by myself, writing away, about aliens, about superheroes, about great warriors, about my friends and family. Not because I wanted anyone to read it. Not because I wanted to impress my parents or teachers. But for the sheer joy of it.
And then, for some reason, I stopped. And I don’t remember why.
We all have a tendency to lose touch with what we loved as a child. Something about the social pressures of adolescence and professional pressures of young adulthood squeezes the passion out of us. We’re taught that the only reason to do something is if we’re somehow rewarded for it.
It wasn’t until I was in my mid-20s that I rediscovered how much I loved writing. And it wasn’t until I started my business that I remembered how much I enjoyed building websites — something I did in my early teens, just for fun.
The funny thing though, is that if my 8-year-old self had asked my 20-year-old self, “Why don’t you write anymore?” and I replied, “Because I’m not good at it,” or “Because nobody would read what I write,” or “Because you can’t make money doing that,” not only would I have been completely wrong, but that 8-year-old boy version of myself would have probably started crying.
3. WHAT MAKES YOU FORGET TO EAT AND POOP?
We’ve all had that experience where we get so wrapped up in something that minutes turn into hours and hours turn into “Holy crap, I forgot to have dinner.”
Supposedly, in his prime, Isaac Newton’s mother had to regularly come in and remind him to eat because he would go entire days so absorbed in his work that he would forget.
I used to be like that with video games. This probably wasn’t a good thing. In fact, for many years it was kind of a problem. I would sit and play video games instead of doing more important things like studying for an exam, or showering regularly, or speaking to other humans face-to-face.
It wasn’t until I gave up the games that I realized my passion wasn’t for the games themselves (although I do love them). My passion is for improvement, being good at something and then trying to get better. The games themselves — the graphics, the stories — they were cool, but I can easily live without them. It’s the competition — with others, but especially with myself — that I thrive on.
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And when I applied that obsessiveness for improvement and self-competition to an internet business and to my writing, well, things took off in a big way.
Maybe for you, it’s something else. Maybe it’s organizing things efficiently, or getting lost in a fantasy world, or teaching somebody something, or solving technical problems. Whatever it is, don’t just look at the activities that keep you up all night, but look at the cognitive principles behind those activities that enthrall you. Because they can easily be applied elsewhere.