I had a shocking realization after I graduated from caollege.
On paper, everything was great. I was working for an incredible company, and genuinely enjoying what I did. I also had some fun stuff going on in my personal life and was learning every day.
Yet something was clearly missing.
Back when I was in school, life seemed so simple. The motivation to work each day was right there in front of me.
On the field, there was always a game to prepare for. There was always something to do to become a better player.
Same thing in the classroom. At a macro level, I always knew that I was working towards graduation. I had a clear target that I was shooting for.
And even at a micro level, it was easy to set short-term targets. There were homework assignments to complete and exams to study for.
I felt like I was working towards something that mattered. The end was always in sight.
But once I graduated, everything changed.
There was no longer a clear target. And the finish line was nowhere to be found, if it even existed at all.
I would wake up, go through my day, and go to bed, wondering the whole time if I was doing the right things.
I seemed to be making progress in a few areas, but it was nothing like what I had experienced when I was in high school and college. Back then it was clear when I was doing well and when I needed to step up my game. Feedback was almost immediate.
But in the real world, everything was so arbitrary. How could I know when I was improving if I didn’t even know where I was trying to go?
Sure, there were indicators such as praise I received at work, or fun times that I had with people I cared about, but it just wasn’t the same.
I reflected on my situation, and ultimately I figured out what my problem was.
I was missing a purpose.
I was used to having clear goals in front of me and receiving immediate feedback on my progress. That had made it easy to define my purpose. When I was in school I pushed myself every day so I could do well on my next exam, or in my next game.
But without those markers in my life anymore, my motivation needed to come from somewhere else.
Without understanding my deeper purpose, day-to-day adult life seemed so empty. I got caught constantly looking to the future – working each day just to get to the weekend, and constantly chasing the next thing to look forward to.
It didn’t feel right.
I didn’t want to just make it through my life, I wanted to love every minute of it. I wanted to spring out of bed each morning, excited to take on the day.
So I thought long and hard about my dilemma, and eventually I pieced together a definition of what really mattered to me. It was my attempt at defining my purpose.
I decided that I was at my best when there were three main things that were driving me: the pursuit of self-mastery, the desire to make a positive impact in the world, and the ability to enjoy the process.
Beyond that, everything else can take a back seat.
There have certainly been times in my life when I’ve wavered from these focus area. I’ve fallen into the trap of trying to maximize my finances. I’ve gotten sucked into the pursuit of meaningless accolades. I’ve had plenty of times when I’ve put too much focus on things that don’t really matter.
But every time, I come back to my reality. As long as I’m improving myself every day, doing things to make a positive impact on the people around me, and taking the time to enjoy the journey; then I’m set.
At first, I thought that this mindset was a huge adjustment compared to my life in high school and college. It was obvious that I had to be more deliberate about my deeper purpose since the clear structure of school was gone.
But as I thought more about it, I realized that this same idea had been critical in high school and college as well – I just didn’t realize it at the time.
Back then, I didn’t really have the same struggle with finding meaning in every day. It was easy to find things to look forward to.
But the understanding of my deeper purpose was still paramount. It kept me on the right path, and as I’ve written about before, it helped me avoid decision fatigue.
With the clear milestones and immediate feedback in high school, it’s easy to set targets. The difficultly comes in setting the right targets. And that’s where an understanding of your purpose comes in.
Unless you take the time to reflect, it’s so easy to waste time and energy chasing things that don’t really matter to you. You can get stuck trying to do things to impress your friends, your teachers, or your parents.
Personally, I think I was lucky. I had some positive role models and mentors in my life that helped me define a positive path at an early age, and through that I was able to avoid all of the dangerous traps that come with high school. My pursuit of excellence as a student and an athlete drove me to develop habits that I’m grateful for everyday. It was also what kept me from getting sucked into the negative peer pressure that was rampant in high school. Since I was working towards a clear purpose, I couldn’t afford to do anything that took away from my pursuit.
I certainly saw just how tough high school could be without this clarity though. I had plenty of friends who got stuck chasing popularity and short term gratification. And through those pursuits they went down a dark path, from which they’re still trying to recover.
Understanding your purpose is one of the most important things that you can do, because it sets the stage for every other decision you make. Whether you’re still in school, or well beyond that, now is the time to do it.
I’ve even put together some exercises to help. If you’re interested, send me an email at email@example.com, and I’ll send them your way – completely free.