Redefining Your Life Purpose: Grappling Between What Has Been and What’s Next
When I hit twenty-four I began to notice a change in myself.
For the first time, ever, I genuinely felt as though I had aged. I had never felt ‘old’ but something in me shifted. I could look back on years now. My childhood and teen years were quickly distancing away from me and I realised I’d soon be closer to thirty than eighteen. One night as I sat in a McDonald’s I saw what appeared to be a group of late-teens on a night out. I felt weird. I realised that I’m no longer the fresh-faced youth experiencing the adventures that can be had on a night out for the first time, going around with enthusiasm and boundless expectations. I’m something of an old-hat at this stage. I began to feel weirdly displaced. I felt more experienced, mature, and aware. I felt older. I felt sad.
At twenty-four, I began to feel frustrated. Something was ‘off’ with me. I felt incomplete, as though I had failed to really accomplish anything. At eighteen, I had an idea of what my life might be like by my mid-20s. I had dreams and ambitions to fulfil. Reality hit me: I’d accomplished almost none of them. My early 20s were a tempestuous period, at times a free-spirited adventure going out and partying, exploring, challenging myself; at other times it was a difficult grind fighting depression and anxiety and self-esteem issues. There were already many regrets in me. Things I wish I had done, things I wish I hadn’t done, things still to do.
For awhile I attempted to ‘go crazy’ trying to recapture my previous sense of spirit, my happy-go-lucky carefree perspective that I sometimes had. It didn’t work. Instead it turned into a near-miserable experience. No matter how hard I tried, that side of me was gone. I could never get it back. I felt hurt and defeated. But something else struck me during this attempt: the late-nights, the drinking, the ‘fun times’ were all remarkably underwhelming now. I just wasn’t into it like I once was. There was a time when I’d start on beer or cider, move onto vodkas, Jack Daniels and then end up doing shots. I didn’t have it in me anymore to drink like that, and certainly not regularly. It seemed unhealthy. It seemed expensive and too often a frivolous use of money. I began to realise that I had simply changed as a person. That part of me was firmly in the past now. I could not figure out the next steps: what would make me feel happy again, to get rid of this gnawing sense of getting ‘old’ and being incomplete?
Truth is, my earlier years weren’t all that rosey. I didn’t think about the periods of feeling lost, being a drop-out and floundering around for a bit, the feeling of anxiety, or realising some of my closest friendships had been with abusive people. I focused on the good times, the youthful exploration, the fun of gaining independence. As I came to finally acknowledge that reality, I also came to accept perhaps one of my more frustrating traits: I had always failed to start what I finished.
I’ve always been creatively inclined. I’ve always loved art and storytelling. I’ve always want to do something artful — music or film or writing — and I had made many attempts. Most of them remained half-finished. I had bursts of inspiration where I’d work on something, such as a screenplay, for a few weeks, only to put it on hold and not touch it for months afterwards. In truth, my adventurous periods often served as a distraction from settling down and finishing something. It has also led me to develop a kind of ‘hyper-independence’ as I adventured around on my own. I developed greatly as a photographer — and this may be one of my best attributes gained in this period, along with social confidence — but I began to notice I became somewhat removed from people. I lacked closeness. Beginning to work through this period in my life, I realised something: I needed a reboot. I needed change. I began working, step by step, to reinvent my life.
Another of the harsh revelations I came to were that, ultimately, I was moving beyond the ‘carefree’ years of my life — and I had had certain privileges that allowed me some of that in any case — and that, frankly, those years were a much more mixed bag of positives and negatives, of trials and successes and failures, than I had allowed myself to realise in a nostalgic state. I had been yearning for a piece of it; an idealised view that only represented one portion of my life. Something else hit me: I had to get serious now. I had to start working towards something, producing something, making something out of my brief time on this planet.
Reboots aren’t easy. They require a lot of honest looking inwards, they require dedication to keep pushing forward, even during the difficult and painful parts. They require us to grapple with unfortunate realisations and pains that we might have avoided. They require us to change our behaviour, to push ourselves out of our slumps, to find our ‘excuses’ and challenge them. It’s never easy or pleasant, and it comes with many setbacks. Some people when they try to change their life think of it as finding ‘one big thing’ that will upend everything and put them on the right course. This is usually wrong. Change is about consistency; it’s an everyday thing. It’s like pushing yourself to stick to a schedule to work-out multiple times a week to lose weight or get back into shape.
Redefining your life purpose is often a means of redefining your life trajectory. You’ve hit a point where, frankly, what you’ve been doing is no longer working for you. You feel unhappy, dissatisfied, lost, frustrated, or depressed. What you once drew meaning from no longer fulfils the needs in you. You perspective has shifted, a new light is being gleamed on either yourself, your situation, or your life in general. Growth is seldom easy, if it ever is, and as we grow we begin to change parts of ourselves. I’ve found there’s a grieving process involved when we begin to move away from something, especially something that was once important to us. Anyone who has revisited something beloved from childhood — like a film or TV show — has experienced an element of this; a sense that we can no longer look on something the same, but instead from a new perspective. In that case, from an adult’s eyes, a children’s shows faults, such as poor writing or acting, might be much more noticeable and we won’t experience the same immersion and joy for it that we remember.
Purpose is a more serious business. It seems something we must invariably find, or live a life of futile emptiness. At least, that’s the cultural message we’re frequently given. In my experience, success, and the fulfillment of goals, is often a brief period of happiness and then the growing, gnawing urge of ‘what next’ or ‘what now’ that soon follows. Rebooting/reshaping life is never easy. It requires the person to be willing to step out of their boundaries, often slowly and with a degree of uncertainty. It requires comfort with being uncomfortable, facing new things, many of which will be unpleasant. And it requires grappling with loss and acceptance. Things only go forward, never back.
Changing the course of your life requires you to study yourself, to introspect deeply and honestly, and figure out what you want. Where do you want to be? Are you chasing something that is ultimately elusive and ill-defined, are you chasing something superficial — fame, validation, pleasure, escape from pain — or are you willing to press down and find something valuable for you to base the next stage of your life on reaching? In many cases, as we go forward, as we hit the next stage in our life, as we achieve our next accomplishment, we may always face that uncertain period, that feeling of having to redefine ourselves or change our values in order to feel the pulse of motivation again. When we’ve got what we set-out to do, we often seem to find ourselves saddened and in loss of purpose. The “wonder” period wears off and we start to feel dissatisfied. Then the question begins again, “What am I doing?”
There appears to be a cycle of some sort that we go through. Each victory begins to feel pyrrhic. In order to achieve something, we have to let things go, forsake other parts of our life. A marriage requires many compromises. Choosing to focus on one career path means letting go of other potential dreams. Writing a novel means often sacrificing a social life for long periods of time until those 600 pages are complete. Settling into a long-term relationship means spending more time with one person and less with friends. Becoming masterful at piano means not learning the violin as well. The balance is always there to be figured out: what to choose and what to lose in that choosing.
When I was an anxious person, I seldom went out. I seldom explored. Now, after a number of years, I have explored a lot, and I’ve met many people, and I’ve been many places. My anxiety is pretty much gone. I know how to deal with it and push through it when it arises. In many ways, this has been a fundamentally important change in my life, and has opened myself up to all kinds of experiences. But, in truth, there was an element of anxiety I missed: a sense of the great unknown. The world outside, that I was often afraid to go into, was full of possibilities. Full of potential wonder, if I only had the strength to step out and meet it. And once I had, the world seemed wonderfully less threatening, but also less mysterious, less exciting. More plain, more regular, more… there.
By changing part of myself, I became used to exploring and exposure, and the initial thrill became an everyday commonality. I lost the anxious fretfulness, which was a good thing, but I also challenged my inexperienced curiosity, and learned that life often isn’t what my mind made it. Which, ultimately, was a sad necessity. The more I’ve been focused on finishing my projects, the more I’ve realised how hard it is to get the ‘perfect’ thing. In my head, I always imagined putting something out there and getting two receptions: one of enthused brilliance for a masterpiece, and outright rejection for something banal and worthless. I’ve experienced neither so far. What I have learned though, is how developing an artistic skill is a journey in itself; it’s an exploration, a learning curve. As you grow, your artistic sensibility changes. And, as you come nearer to finishing something, you look over it with a mix of pride and ‘could have been better’ thoughts. It seems a continual process, always some sense of something better is in you, buried deeply. I do not aim for ‘perfection’ now, I simply aim to get better each time as I grow on this journey.
And maybe that’s my new current purpose.