The Problem with Not Being Clear about Our Purpose

Article Summary: 

Not being clear about our purpose harms us in many ways, affecting our quality of life, relationships, work, leadership, and more.

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Many of us have a general sense of what we want in life but haven’t taken that furhter into a clear sense of purpose—of our deeper why.

Of all the personal and leadership development practices, purpose tends to be the most difficult for many, in part because of all the myths and misconceptions about purpose. Some people feel what’s been called “purpose anxiety”: distress from not knowing our purpose in life or from not living it.

Our purpose is why we’re here, our reason for being. It’s related to but not the same as our values, vision, and passions.

Purpose is important because it gives us a sense of meaning and coherence in our lives, as well as a connection to something larger than ourselves. And it’s hard to live our purpose if we don’t know what it is.

 

The Problems that Come from Lacking Clarity about Purpose

What are the impacts of not knowing our purpose—or from lacking clarity about it? There are many, and some are severe.

When we’re not clear about our purpose, we can suffer from:

  • anxiety
  • stress
  • frustration
  • loss of hope
  • lack of a sense of coherence in our lives
  • lack of fulfillment
  • lack of joy
  • less engagement with family, neighbors, friends, colleagues, and community
  • lower resilience
  • burnout
  • depression
“If we lack purpose, we lose connection with our true nature and become externally driven, generating discontent or even angst. Because purpose can be so elusive, we often duck the big question and look for ways to bury that discontent, most often through ‘busyness,’ distraction, or worse.” -Christopher Gergen & Gregg Vanourek, LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives

When we lack clarity about purpose:

  • It can negatively impact our physical health. Researchers have linked purpose to better sleep, fewer heart attacks and strokes, longer life span, and a lower risk of dementia. (See the section below on purpose and health.)
  • We feel that our lives lack a sense of meaning and significance.
  • Our goals and actions can be haphazard, lacking focus and direction.
  • We can lose our motivation to work hard or persist through adversity because there’s no animating aim driving our actions.
  • We can lack a sense of progress because we don’t know what our ultimate aims are.
  • It can keep us from growing because we lack the clarity and motivation that comes from a deep and meaningful why.
  • We can feel that success is unachievable because our efforts seem aimless and scattershot, without lasting redeeming value.
  • We start living from the outside in, conforming to the desires or expectations of others instead of living by our own guiding lights.
  • We tend to turn inward and “cocoon” instead of reaching out to others, causing disconnection and loneliness, two of the leading causes of unhappiness.

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

Not being clear about our purpose harms us in many ways, affecting our quality of life, relationships, work, leadership, and more.

Of course, the flip side is that knowing our purpose and living it comes with many benefits.

“When we are clear about our purpose, or at least working toward it, our lives come together in powerful ways.” -Christopher Gergen & Gregg Vanourek, LIFE Entrepreneurs

For example, McKinsey research during the pandemic found that people who say they’re “living their purpose at work” reported levels of wellbeing five times higher and engagement levels four times higher than people who say they’re not doing so.

According to a recent McKinsey report, purpose can be an important contributor to worker experience, which is linked with employee engagement, organizational commitment, and feelings of wellbeing. Also, those who experience congruence between their purpose and their job are more productive and more likely to outperform their peers.

One CEO cited in that report noted that articulating his purpose helped make him a more observant and empathetic leader:

“I believe I’m more honest with myself and faster to recognize if I might be doing something that’s motivated by my own vanity, fear, or pleasure. I know I’m more open to feedback and criticism. I spend less time talking about weekend or vacation plans and more time exploring what motivates, frustrates, or scares people—the things that really matter. I make faster connections with people now.”

 

Conclusion

When we’re clear about our purpose and building it into our daily lives, we feel authentic, energized, awake, and alive. The key is not just knowing our purpose but living it—intentionally building it into the fabric of our days.

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.

 

Related Articles

 

Tools for You

 

 Postscript: Inspirations on Purpose

  • “Many of us are starved for coherence in our lives…. The most effective people know how to carry out daily activities while keeping their eye on a longer-range vision and purpose they want to center their lives around. Purpose has a way of ordering time and energies around itself….” -Richard Leider
  • “Purpose is adaptive, in an evolutionary sense. It helps both individuals and the species to survive.” -Jeremy Adam Smith, Greater Good Science Center
  • “You might do a hundred other things, but if you fail to do the one thing for which you were sent it will be as if you had done nothing.” -Rumi

 

Appendix: Purpose and Health

Research in different domains has found powerful connections between purpose and health. For example:

Longevity: A study of more than 79,000 Japanese people found that those with a strong connection to their sense of purpose tended to live longer. According to researchers in a 2014 study, “having a purpose in life appeared to widely buffer against mortality risk across the adult years.”

Heart disease: A 2008 study of Japanese men found that a lower level of purpose was associated with cardiovascular disease, and another study found that “purpose is a possible protective factor against near-future myocardial infarction among those with coronary heart disease.”

Stroke: Researchers found that people who say they have a sense of purpose are 22 percent less likely to exhibit risk factors for stroke compared to those who say they don’t—and 52 percent less likely to have experienced a stroke.

Alzheimer’s disease: Neuropsychologist Dr. Patricia Boyle found that people with a low sense of life purpose were 2.4 times more likely to get Alzheimer’s disease.

 

References

  • Boyle, P.A., Buchman, A.S., Wilson, R.S., Yu, L., Schneider, J.A., Bennett, D.A. (2012). Effect of purpose in life on the relation between Alzheimer disease pathologic changes on cognitive function in advanced age. Archives of General Psychiatry; 69(5): 499-505.
  • Boyle, P., Buchman, A., Barnes, L., Bennett, D. (2010). Effect of a purpose in life on risk of incident Alzheimer disease and mild cognitive impairment in community-dwelling older persons. Archives of General Psychiatry; 67(3): 304–310.
  • Naina Dhingra, Jonathan Emmett, Andrew Samo, and Bill Schaninger. (2020). Igniting individual purpose in times of crisis. McKinsey Quarterly.
  • Hill PL, Turiano NA. (2014). Purpose in life as a predictor of mortality across adulthood. Psychological science. 25(7): 1482-1486.
  • Koizumi, M., Ito, H., Kaneko, Y., Motohashi, Y. (2008). Effect of having a sense of purpose in life on the risk of death from cardiovascular diseases. Journal of Epidemiology; 18(5): 191-6.
  • Rainey, L. (2014). The search for purpose in life: An exploration of purpose, the search process, and purpose anxiety. University of Pennsylvania Master’s Thesis.
  • Schaefer SM, Morozink Boylan J, van Reekum CM, Lapate RC, Norris CJ, et al. (2013) Purpose in Life Predicts Better Emotional Recovery from Negative Stimuli. PLOS ONE 8(11).

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

How to Discover Your Purpose

Article Summary: 

Many people struggle with finding their purpose. It can be intimidating and confusing. Where to begin? This article clarifies what purpose is and how to discover it.

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Why are you here? (On the planet, that is.) What’s your purpose?

Do you know? Have you thought much about it? Are you living your purpose?

Note that we’re asking here about your purpose in life, not the purpose or meaning of life generally. Asking about your purpose is a practical matter, not a philosophical one.

Many people struggle with purpose. According to a New York Times article, only about a quarter of Americans have a clear sense of purpose. In a Harvard Business Review article, Nick Craig and Scott Snook noted, “we’ve found that fewer than 20 percent of leaders have a strong sense of their own individual purpose. Even fewer can distill their purpose into a concrete statement.” According to an Edward Jones report, 31 percent of new retirees say they’ve struggled to find a sense of purpose in retirement.

A lack of purpose is behind much of the pain and suffering in the world today, including many of our mental health challenges. We can have many good things in our life, including a nice family, a good career, and friends and experiences to enjoy, but we can still feel like something is missing. Often, it’s purpose that’s missing. Lack of purpose is also one of the drivers of the “Great Resignation” and a big driver of disengagement at work.

“The drive to be more purposeful explains much of the momentum behind the massive exodus from mainstream corporate life.” -Aaron Hurst

 

What Is Purpose?

Part of the problem is confusion about what purpose is (and isn’t). Purpose often gets conflated with things like passion, meaning, and calling. (See my article, “The Most Common Myths about Purpose.”)

Our purpose is why we’re here, our reason for being. William Damon, a Stanford University professor and author of The Path to Purpose, defines purpose as “a stable and generalized intention to accomplish something that is at the same time meaningful to the self and consequential for the world beyond self.” Note that purpose takes us beyond ourselves, to something greater.

Author Richard Leider distinguishes between two kinds of purpose:

  1. “BIG P” Purpose (a noble cause or something we can dedicate our life to).
  2. “little p” purpose (the day-to-day choices of how we can contribute to others). Note that “little p” actions are just as worthy, and they can compound over time into something powerful.

 

Purpose vs. Passion

Purpose and passion are connected but not equivalent. While purpose is why we’re here, a passion is a compelling or powerful feeling. Our passions are those things that consume us with palpable emotions, the things we love so much that we’re willing to suffer for them. Those are important, but they don’t usually take us all the way to knowing our reason for being.

 

Purpose vs. Meaning

While purpose and meaning are related, they’re not the same. Meaning is a broader concept. According to Dr. Michael Steger of Colorado State University, “Meaning in life refers to the feeling that people have that their lives and experience make sense and matter.” He notes that “Purpose is one facet of a meaningful life.” According to Steger and his fellow researcher, Frank Martela from Aalto University, there are three general facets associated with meaning in life: purpose, coherence, and significance. See the image below.

Image source: Derek Hagen, Money Health Solutions, LLC, “Money and Meaning,” https://www.moneyhealthsolutions.com/post/money-and-meaning Used with permission.
“…when people say that their lives have meaning, it’s because three conditions have been satisfied: they evaluate their lives as significant and worthwhile—as part of something bigger; they believe their lives make sense; and they feel their lives are driven by a sense of purpose.” – Emily Esfahani Smith, The Power of Meaning

 

Purpose vs. Calling

There’s also confusion about the difference between purpose and calling. While purpose is why we’re here, a calling has been defined as “a strong urge toward a particular way of life or career” (Oxford Dictionary), and also as “a strong inner impulse toward a particular course of action, especially when accompanied by conviction of divine influence” (Merriam-Webster). So, if we have a clear purpose, it can flow naturally into a calling as a way to express it in the world.

“Everyone has a calling, which is the small, unsettling voice from deep within our souls, an inner urge, which hounds us to live out our purpose in a certain way. A calling is a concern of the spirit. Since a calling implies that someone calls, my belief is that the caller is God.” -Dave Wondra

 

The Benefits of Purpose

There are many benefits to knowing and living our purpose. It can be incredible powerful, flowing through everything we do and how we show up in the world. When we know and live our purpose, it gives us the following:

  • direction
  • coherence
  • energy
  • agency
  • hope
  • health (mental and physical)*
  • connection with others
  • community
  • enjoyment of life
  • happiness
  • fulfillment
  • gratitude

When we have a clear sense of purpose, we can reduce our anxiety and stress (which are fueled by uncertainty and aimlessness) and also focus our efforts in the right areas, boosting our performance, earnings, and impact. Our purpose can also help us clarify which goals to pursue and make us more likely to accomplish those goals.

“When we are clear about our purpose, or at least working toward it, our lives come together in powerful ways.” -Christopher Gergen & Gregg Vanourek, LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives

We can also feel a strong relational and spiritual connection, a sense that we’re linked with others, part of the larger scheme of things, and in tune with nature, life, and God.

Finally, those who have lived purposefully tend to experience fewer regrets in life, helping them face and accept death with equanimity.

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

How to Discover Our Purpose

So how to discover our purpose? Here are things we can do to help us discover our purpose:

  1. reflect on what kinds of people or groups we feel called to serve and what kinds of issues we feel called to address
  2. notice what energizes us (and what drains us) and what brings us joy
  3. observe what we’re doing when we’re making a difference in someone’s life and loving the process of doing it
  4. reflect on when we’ve felt the most fulfilled, noting what we were doing (and with whom and where and how), then finding patterns across those experiences
  5. ask what we have a fierce commitment to and what we’re willing to sacrifice for because it’s so viscerally important to us (e.g., family, friends, work, colleagues, community, cause), then reflect on how it might inform our reason for being
  6. notice what kinds of pain and suffering (yours or others’) affects us most (what Umair Haque calls our “zone of heartbreak”) and consider ways to turn that hurt into healing or growth
  7. develop our self-awareness, our ability to see ourselves clearly and understand our feelings, motives, desires, and character
  8. mine our story (our personal history), write it down, tell it to others, and find the themes that animate our lives, including what we loved doing when we were young and the meaning we’ve derived from the pivotal moments and adversity we’ve faced
“Purpose often arises from curiosity about your own life. What obstacles have you encountered? What strengths helped you to overcome them? How did other people help you? How did your strengths help make life better for others?” -Jeremy Adam Smith, Greater Good Science Center
  1. read books and articles that feel meaningful to you (researchers have found links between reading things like fiction, poetry, and the Bible and having a stronger sense of purpose)
  2. take a holistic view of our life—thinking about our family, relationships, work, learning, community, beliefs, impact, and more—and noting what’s most important
  3. discover our strengths—the things we’re good at
  4. get clarity on our passions—what we love to do and what consumes us with palpable emotion
  5. pay attention to what we’re doing when we love our work
  6. clarify our personal values and consider instances in which we’ve honored or upheld them and what that suggests about our purpose
  7. try different things (experiences, projects, jobs, careers) and gauge whether they feel meaningful or not
  8. engage more often in “discover mode” (learning about who we are and what we can do in the world) and less in “climbing mode” (focusing so much on advancing up the ladder of success)
  9. take time each evening to reflect on the day that just passed and note the activities or situations that felt most purposeful
  10. think about our “ideal self” (the person we want to be, versus the person we are now) and what that person would be doing—and with and for whom
  11. connect the dots between the needs we see in the world and our strengths, passions, and values
  12. ask those who know us best to share the themes that make us who we are
  13. work with a mentor, coach, or small group to help us uncover our purpose
  14. ask ourselves what our older self or a wise mentor would advise us to focus more on
  15. preserve enough white space and margin in our lives so that clarity can emerge
  16. sit and get quiet with solitude and sanctuary so we’re better able to hear our inner voice
  17. engage in an iterative process of action and reflection, of trying things and then reflecting on their meaning and significance
  18. ask ourselves repeatedly what our purpose is (why we get up in the morning) and listen to what comes up
  19. engage in spiritual seeking, such as prayer, worship, contemplation, yoga, or pilgrimage, in the process seeking clarity about why we’re here
  20. project forward to the end of our lives and consider what we want our legacy to be, what we’d want said about us in a eulogy, or what we’d want to do differently if we had another chance at life (the deathbed test)
  21. consider what life is asking of us now and see if meaningful ideas emerge
  22. connect with experiences of awe, since they can help us feel connected to things larger than ourselves
  23. maintain a sense of gratitude (researchers have found connections between gratitude and our propensity to contribute to others, a key aspect of purpose)
  24. keep serving others (researchers have found connections between things like volunteering or donating to charities and having a greater sense of purpose)

In the process of uncovering our purpose, it’s important to slough off the layers of expectations put upon us by others, including parents, peers, teachers, coaches, colleagues, or society. We need to stop caring so much about what other people think and lean into being ourselves more openly and fully.

“Purpose reveals itself when we stop being afraid and start being ourselves.” -Richard Leider, “An Incomplete Manifesto for Purpose”

 

The Universal Purpose

It’s worth noting that discovering purpose is one of the most challenging personal development practices for many people. It can take time to unfold, like a fine wine.

So, what to do in the meantime? Should we sit on the sidelines and await clarity via revelation? Or “monk out” in a remote mountain cave?

Absolutely not. We must stay engaged with the world. Purpose isn’t about navel-gazing. It’s about knowing our reason for being and bringing it to the world via helping others.

Richard Leider suggests that, beyond our individual purpose, there’s also a universal purpose that animates us all:

“The universal purpose is to grow and give.” -Richard Leider

So, if we’re not yet clear on our personal purpose, we can keep growing and giving. When we do that, good things are bound to happen.

“If there’s just one habit you can create to help you find your purpose, it would be helping others.” -Amy Morin

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.

 

 

Examples of Personal Purpose Statements

Sometimes it’s helpful to see examples of purpose statements for inspiration and context. My own purpose is “to help people lead good lives.” For me, that means helping people lead lives of integrity, service, and purpose—and re-connecting them with what truly matters. I’m most keen on helping people develop their own conception of the good life and then bring it to life.

Here are some other purpose statements:

  • “To love God and serve others.” –Bob Vanourek (my father and co-author)
  • “To inspire and empower people to live their highest vision in the context of love and joy.” -Jack Canfield
  • “To wake you up and have you find that you are home.” -Nick Craig
  • “To help others unlock the power of purpose.” -Richard Leider “Big P” purpose
  • “To make a difference in one person’s life every single day.” -Richard Leider “little p” purpose
  • “To be a teacher. And to be known for inspiring my students to be more than they thought they could be.” -Oprah Winfrey

 

Conclusion

In the end, purpose is something we should be doing and not just thinking about. We should be infusing more and more of our home and work life with purpose.

The key is not knowing our purpose but living it. That also means focusing on things that are purposeful and avoiding things that aren’t as purposeful. It takes insight, persistence, and flexibility to figure out how to translate our purpose into effective action in the world.

Discovering our purpose doesn’t necessarily mean that we need to quit our job, change our career, or otherwise alter our lives dramatically. Often, we can creatively find ways to infuse our life and work with more purpose right where we are. (See, for example, Yale School of Management Professor Amy Wrzesniewski’s brilliant work on “job crafting.”) Other times, big changes may be warranted.

Discovering our purpose and living it is the work of a lifetime, and it’s incredibly rich and rewarding—especially when we connect it with our core values, vision of the good life, strengths, and passions. Wishing you well with it, and please let me know if I can help.

Gregg Vanourek and his dog

 

 

 

 

 

Gregg Vanourek

“You may be moved in a direction
You do not understand,
Away from the safe, the familiar,
Towards a vision that is blurry,
Yet still pounds against
The doors of your dreams,
Screams for recognition,
Petitions for understanding,
Whispers for acceptance.
Out towards distant possibilities,
You are propelled by a fire,
You will never fully comprehend,
But cannot extinguish.”
-Susan Rogers Norton, “Destiny”

 

Reflection Questions

  1. Do you know your purpose?
  2. Are you living it?
  3. What more will you do to clarify your purpose and build your life around it?

 

Related Tools for You

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!

 

Sources on Purpose

  • Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
  • Richard Leider, The Power of Purpose
  • Emily Esfahani Smith, The Power of Meaning
  • Hill PL, Turiano NA, Mroczek DK, Burrow AL. The value of a purposeful life: Sense of purpose predicts greater income and net worth. Journal of Research in Personality.
  • Khullar D. Finding Purpose for a Good Life. But Also a Healthy One. The New York Times. The Upshot. Jan. 1, 2018.
  • Morin, A, 7 Tips for Finding Your Purpose in Life. VeryWell Mind. July 12, 2020.
  • Musich S, Wang SS, Kraemer S, Hawkins K, Wicker E. Purpose in Life and Positive Health Outcomes Among Older Adults. Popul Health Manag.
  • Schippers MC, Ziegler N. Life Crafting as a Way to Find Purpose and Meaning in Life. Front Psychol.,
  • Smith, Jeremy Adam. “How to Find Your Purpose in Life,” Greater Good Science Center, January 10, 2018.

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Purpose

  • “If we lack purpose, we lose connection with our true nature and become externally driven, generating discontent or even angst. Because purpose can be so elusive, we often duck the big question and look for ways to bury that discontent, most often through ‘busyness,’ distraction, or worse…. What does life want from us? In the end, the task is not finding our purpose but uncovering it—not propelling ourselves toward a more successful life, but rather getting out of the way of the good life that wants to live through us.” -Christopher Gergen & Gregg Vanourek, LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives
  • “Purpose is that deepest dimension within us—our central core. It is the quality we choose to shape our lives around. Purpose is already within us waiting to be discovered.” -Richard Leider
  • “I believe that we are put on this earth to live our soul’s purpose. To me, that means using our unique gifts and talents to make a positive impact in the world and help create the world we want to see…. We are all born with an inner compass that tells us whether or not we’re on the right path to finding our true purpose. That compass is our JOY.” -Jack Canfield
  • “Man’s main concern is not to gain pleasure or to avoid pain, but rather to see a meaning in his life…. One should not search for an abstract meaning of life. Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment.” -Victor Frankl
  • “Purpose is adaptive, in an evolutionary sense. It helps both individuals and the species to survive.” -Jeremy Adam Smith, Greater Good Science Center
  • “Purpose is the recognition of the presence of the sacred within us and the choice of work that is consistent with that presence. Purpose defines our contribution to life. It may find expression through family, community, relationship, work, and spiritual activities.” -Richard Leider, The Power of Purpose
  • “You have to build meaning into your life, and you build it through your commitments—whether to your religion, to an ethical order as you conceive it, to your life’s work, to loved ones, to your fellow humans.” -John W. Gardner
  • “Purpose is a universal need, not a luxury for those with financial wealth…. Money often conflicts with finding purpose, as it creates a false substitute for defining success…. You can find purpose in any job. It is all in how you approach it.” -Aaron Hurst
  • “The most fortunate people on earth are those who have found a calling that’s bigger than they are—that moves them and fills their lives with constant passion, aliveness, and growth.” -Richard Leider
  • “The difference between success and failure—between a life of fulfillment and a life of frustration—is how well you manage the challenge of making meaning in your life…. Learning to make meaning from our life stories may be the most indispensable but least understood skill of our time.” -Bruce Feiler, Life Is in the Transitions
  • “If you can find a way to use your signature strengths at work often, and you also see your work as contributing to the greater good, you have a calling.” -Martin Seligman
  • “People don’t choose their calling, it chooses them.” -Richard Leider
  • “You might do a hundred other things, but if you fail to do the one thing for which you were sent it will be as if you had done nothing.” -Rumi

* Researchers have linked purpose to better sleep, fewer heart attacks and strokes, longer life span, and a lower risk of dementia and premature death.

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

The Trap of Dissatisfaction–And Its Surprising Upside

“I can’t get no satisfaction.” -The Rolling Stones

We all go through hard times in life, with setbacks and disappointments. It only becomes a trap if we experience a chronic sense of dissatisfaction—not being content or at peace with what we have.

It’s a trap if we develop an enduring sense of disappointment, of never feeling at peace. Or a chronic craving or dwelling on things we lack. In this state, we’re missing a sense of acceptance, of contentment, of serenity.

Such dissatisfaction can be a sign of maladaptive perfectionism—when our personal performance standards are hopelessly high and we’re extremely self-critical in judging ourselves. (See my article on “The Perfectionism Trap—And How to Escape It.”) It can also lead to a negative spiral when things don’t go as we hoped. In this spiral, discouragement accompanies any imperfection. Not a good place to be.

Some people get addicted to the dramas and disappointments of life. It becomes part of their identity. They use them to rile up their ego with outrage or grievance. It can give them a strange sort of satisfaction in the moment, but overall they’re really just making themselves miserable for large swaths of their life.

“Most people are in love with their particular life drama…. The ego runs their life. They have their whole sense of self invested in it.” -Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now

 

What Leads to Dissatisfaction

There are many external triggers of dissatisfaction, but what causes people to fall into the trap of chronic dissatisfaction in which they view life through a lens of disappointment or bitterness?

Here are some of the most common sources of such dissatisfaction:

  • Resisting what happened to us in the past and hanging on to it instead of letting it go.
  • Getting so caught up in hoping for a better future that we neglect the present moment or discount it because it hasn’t yet brought us our desired future.
  • Not distinguishing between our needs and wants, and then lamenting that we haven’t yet attained things which turn out to be fanciful or unnecessary. (Note: We should also be mindful of the doom loop that keeps us in jobs we don’t like in order to meet those supposed “needs.” See my article, “Golden Handcuffs: Stuck in a Job You Don’t Like?”)
  • Getting swept up in “negativity bias.” (Researchers have discovered that negative things like troublesome feelings or frustrating social interactions often influence our mental state much more powerfully than positive or neutral things.)
“Constantly scanning the world for the negative comes with a great cost. It undercuts our creativity, raises our stress levels, and lowers our motivation and ability to accomplish goals.” -Shawn Achor, The Happiness Advantage
  • Having a “scarcity mindset”—a pervasive sense that we don’t have enough (time, money, happiness, etc.), flowing from an often subconscious belief that life is a zero-sum game with a brutal competition for scarce resources.
  • The unrealistic and pernicious expectation that we’re supposed to be happy all the time. In our culture today, we tend to worship at the altar of happiness. Whenever we encounter negative emotions like frustration, sadness, disappointment, or regret, we assume something’s wrong with us, and that it needs to be fixed (often with medication or numbing behaviors). (See my Happiness Series.)
“Happiness is not a mental state that can be permanently won…. By misunderstanding happiness, the modern conception increases the likelihood of disappointment.” -Nat Rutherford, University of London
  • Falling into the “expectations trap”: When there’s a gap between our current versus expected life satisfaction, and when we go beyond aspirations and into the realm of attachment to our expectations, we feel disappointment or judge our lives negatively, even though our life may actually be going quite well. It stems from what Buddhists call “the wanting mind,” a major source of our own suffering.
  • Engaging in unfair and unhelpful comparisons. Many of us fall into the comparison trap fairly often, comparing ourselves to others on things that are fairly superficial. Even worse, we tend to compare ourselves to an unrealistic standard, such as the richest person we know, or the most outwardly successful or beautiful. A recipe for disappointment.

 

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

Signs of Dissatisfaction

How do we know if we’re in such a dissatisfaction spiral? Here are six of the most common signs of it:

  1. Never feeling successful enough.
  2. Constantly feeling behind.
  3. Overwork and burnout in a relentless and grasping pursuit of success, driven by a need for recognition or approval from others.
  4. Resentment at our station in life or at the success of others.
  5. Recurring thinking patterns about being a victim in a world that’s hopelessly unfair.
  6. Habitual patterns of complaining about things, so much that it becomes a routine that defines our relationships with certain people and would leave a gaping hole in that relationship if we didn’t have things to complain about. These neural grooves can be deep in our brains and take time to reprogram.

So far, we’ve seen the signs and causes of negative dissatisfaction spirals. But we should pause here and note an important nuance: while dissatisfaction can make us miserable if taken too far, it also has some surprising and important upsides.

 

Not So Fast—The Important Upsides of Dissatisfaction

What are the potential upsides of dissatisfaction? It can be a source of motivation and urgency for us, helping us move forward and drive progress.

Dissatisfaction can provide needed motivation to change. To overcome.

“Until you get dissatisfied, you won’t do anything to really move your life to another level. Dissatisfaction is a gem. If you’re totally satisfied, you’re going to get comfortable. And then your life begins to deteriorate.” -Tony Robbins

There’s a signaling function at work here. Chronic dissatisfaction can serve as a sign that there’s a deeper problem in our lives that needs attention. It radiates angst so we’ll pay attention.

In some case, it can also serve as a conduit, via painful feelings and disturbance, to great music and art. We’d be crazy to wish that on ourselves, but we humans are resilient, and sometimes our creative powers are enhanced by dark and painful experiences.

So let’s clarify that, while we can use dissatisfaction as motivational fodder when necessary, we want to avoid the dissatisfaction doom loop that has us walking around in a fog.

There’s a beautiful tension here. We can do both. We can love our lives as they are, as Hal Elrod entreats us, even while we’re working on creating the life of our dreams.

 

What to Do

How to avoid or escape the trap of chronic dissatisfaction? Here are 21 of the best dissatisfaction destroyers that we know of:

1. Let go of our reactive, automatic, negative thought patterns that only make things worse for us in already difficult situations (e.g., rumination).

2. Recognize our negative thoughts when they appear, let them go, and rewire them by bringing in newer, better thoughts, over and over again, until new thought patterns appear.

3. Focus on what we have instead of what we lack, and on what’s going well instead of only on what’s not (remembering that we have a negativity bias to compensate for).

4. Cultivate an abundance mindset, recognizing that things like love, happiness, connection, and opportunity can be renewable resources when approached wisely.

5. Engage in centering practices, like deep breathing, meditation, savoring, and raising our gaze to the sky or horizon, helping us regain perspective and calm.

6. Recognize that happiness doesn’t come from our circumstances being perfect or always in line with our expectations but rather from crafting our life and work so that we lead a good life as we define it.

7. Avoid setting unrealistic expectations.

8. Let go of rigid expectations about how things will go and leave more room for the unexpected—and even challenges, recognizing that they can help sharpen and improve us.

9. Recall that outcomes are outside our control and that we can only control our own actions and mindsets.

“You have power over your mind—not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” -Marcus Aurelius

10. Cultivate a growth mindset (a belief that our intelligence, abilities, and talents can be developed, which tends to come with an appreciation for challenges instead of resentment of them).

11. Focus on serving and giving to others instead of whether we’re satisfied or not.

12. Cultivate a gratitude practice in which we regularly return to the things we’re thankful for.

13. Design our work and leisure activities to facilitate more “flow” states in which we’re so absorbed in activities that we lose track of time. In such a state of optimal experience, dissatisfaction is impossible.

14. Build more of our passions into our life and work.

15. Apply our strengths to projects, groups, and causes that feel meaningful.

16. Rewrite the story we tell about ourselves from one of disappointment and lack to one of appreciation and hope.

17. Stop taking things so personally; we all face ups and downs, and it turns out that we’re not actually the center of the universe.

18. Work at being more accepting of things as they are, as opposed to how we predicted or hoped they would be.

19. Develop practices for detaching from heated situations and rising above them without getting engrossed in them, including meditation or mindfulness practices.

20. Recognize that being judgmental—about ourselves as well as others—is a trap that only leads to misery (for us and others).

21. Reduce the call of our ego (which is focused on accumulation, praise, winning, success, and control) by tapping into the call of our soul (which is grateful for the abundance of life and not interested in petty dramas or comparisons with others).

“Fulfillment is not a matter of self-improvement. It involves a shift away from the ego’s agenda, turning from externals to the inner world. The soul holds out a kind of happiness that isn’t dependent on whether conditions outside are good or bad.” -Deepak Chopra

 

Final Thoughts

In the end, we can use dissatisfaction when it suits us to light a motivational fire, but not so much that we walk around in a fog of angst all the time, lamenting the sorry state of our lives or the things we don’t have. Is that really a good way to answer the gift of life?

Here’s the key: use dissatisfaction to fuel us when necessary, and don’t let it vanquish our spirit.

If we can learn to let go of the chronic dissatisfaction that follows many disturbances, or at least reduce its effect and frequency, perhaps we can create our own personal weather system around our overactive minds more conducive to enjoying our days and uplifting others.

 

Related Articles

* Featured image source: Adobe Stock.

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Postscript: Inspirations on Dissatisfaction and Serenity

  • “It’s not what happens to us, but our response to what happens to us that hurts us.” -Stephen R. Covey
  • “The primary cause of unhappiness is never the situation but your thoughts about it. Be aware of the thoughts you are thinking. Separate them from the situation, which is always neutral, which always is as it is…. When you live in complete acceptance of what is, that is the end of all drama in your life.” -Eckhart Tolle
  • “Be thankful for what you have; you’ll end up having more. If you concentrate on what you don’t have, you will never, ever have enough.” -Oprah Winfrey
  • “Satisfied needs do not motivate. It’s only the unsatisfied need that motivates.” -Stephen R. Covey
  • “We are all more blind to what we have than to what we have not.” -Audre Lorde
  • “Chronic dissatisfaction is how you sense that you are living a lie.” -David Deida
  • “What a liberation to realize that the ’voice in my head’ is not who I am. Who am I then? The one who sees that.” -Eckhart Tolle
  • “Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.” -Lao Tzu
  • “Every breath we take, every step we make, can be filled with peace, joy, and serenity.” -Thich Nhat Hanh
  • “To become mindfully aware of our surroundings is to bring our thinking back to our present moment reality and to the possibility of some semblance of serenity in the face of circumstances outside our ability to control.” -Jeff Kober
  • “We are not going to change the whole world, but we can change ourselves and feel free as birds. We can be serene even in the midst of calamities and, by our serenity, make others more tranquil. Serenity is contagious. If we smile at someone, he or she will smile back. And a smile costs nothing. We should plague everyone with joy.” -Sri S. Satchidananda, The Yoga Sutras of Pantanjali

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), complete his Personal Values Exercise, check out his Best Articles, or get his newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

How to Choose a Co-Founder

When we think of entrepreneurship we tend to think of famous entrepreneurs.

Elon. Steve Jobs. Oprah. Mark Zuckerberg. Richard Branson. Jack Ma. Sara Blakely.

Can you think of any companies with co-founders?

It’s more than you might think.

 

Prominent Companies Started by Co-Founders

  • Airbnb
  • Alibaba Group
  • Apple
  • Baidu
  • Ben & Jerry’s
  • Birchbox
  • DropBox
  • Facebook
  • Google
  • Hewlett-Packard
  • Infosys
  • Instagram
  • Intel
  • Johnson & Johnson
  • Microsoft
  • Netflix
  • PayPal
  • Rent the Runway
  • Skype
  • Snapchat
  • Sony
  • Spotify
  • Twitter
  •  YouTube

 

The Myth of the Solo Entrepreneur

We’re enamored with the myth of the solo entrepreneur, but in reality entrepreneurship is a team sport.

Entrepreneurship is a team sport.

It’s hard to know exactly what percentage of companies are started by solo entrepreneurs versus co-founders. Researcher Dr. Lerong He, writing in the Journal of Business Venturing, estimates that 50-70 percent of new firms are started by partners (more than one founder). Of the top 20 Y Combinator startups (in terms of valuation) recently, all of them have at least two founders.

When I taught entrepreneurship at the Stockholm School of Entrepreneurship, I used to enjoy asking my students if they knew what the following startups had in common: Birchbox, Bright Horizons, Dropbox, Google, HP, Rent the Runway, SoundCloud, and Yahoo? Any guesses?

Their co-founders were all classmates. If you’re in school, part of your job is to study and learn and pass your exams. Another part of your job is to meet interesting people that may become great friends or, who knows, partners.

 

The Critical Co-Founder Decision

Choosing your co-founder(s) is clearly one of the most important decisions you’ll make. Yet many people overlook it. And then it comes back to bite them.

Many have likened the co-founder relationship to a marriage, with all the time spent together, the pressures, the importance, and more. Too often, it devolves into blaming and mistrust. And sometimes into a painful divorce (and one that can destroy the venture).

“The moment of truth is when you ask, ‘Are these the people I want to be in trouble with for the next five, ten, fifteen years of my life?’ Because as you build a new business, one thing’s for sure: You’ll get into trouble.”John Doerr, Kleiner Perkins

How to Pick Co-Founders

In his article, “How to Pick a Co-founder,” entrepreneur Michael Fertik outlines ten helpful criteria for choosing a co-founder:

  1. Complementary temperament
  2. Different operational skills
  3. Similar work habits
  4. Self-sufficiency
  5. History of working together
  6. Emotional buoyancy
  7. Total honesty
  8. Comfort in own skin
  9. A personality you like
  10. The same overall vision

That’s a great list, and I’d underline a few—history of working together, emotional buoyancy, total honesty, and comfort in own skin—as being especially important.

 

What to Probe For

I’d also add eight things to probe for when considering someone as a potential co-founder:

1. Integrity. Fertik mentions total honesty, but integrity goes beyond that. It includes a strong moral compass, a commitment to ethical decisions and actions (”doing the right thing, even when it’s costly or hard,” as we defined it in Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations), and the sense of wholeness that comes from knowing who you are, embracing that, and not living a divided life. 

2. Affinity. Do you like her? Are you energized by her, or drained? Do you resonate with her?

3. Admiration. Is this a person you look up to, at least in some ways? Someone who can bring out the best in you and help make you better?

4. Culture. Do you agree on the type of organizational culture you’d like to build? Have you talked about it, and are you in sync about this critical piece (one that many startups overlook, at their peril)?

5. Commitment. Given the level of risk you’ll be taking on together with a new venture in brutal conditions of time pressure, resource constraints, uncertainty, and chaos, are you certain that this person is fully committed to this venture? And do you have evidence of this in their actions and investments, not just their words?

6. Emotional intelligence. Can he recognize and understand emotions in himself and others? And can he use that awareness effectively to manage his relationships and actions? Does he have emotional blind spots or triggers that get the best of him?

7. Different experience and outlook. You don’t need a clone. You need someone who comes from a different vantage point, with a different background, and with a different viewpoint on things. This will cause some confusion and conflict, but if you can manage through it you’ll end up making much better decisions in the long run.

8. Head and heart.” In Triple Crown Leadership we noted that most people tend to focus on “head” characteristics (like knowledge, skills, technical competence, and intelligence) when evaluating people, while ignoring “heart” characteristics (like courage, passion, resilience, and authenticity). The latter can be just as important, and sometimes even more so—especially when you’re under fire together.

“My biggest mistake is probably weighing too much on someone’s talent and not someone’s personality. I think it matters whether someone has a good heart…. Starting and growing a business is as much about the innovation, drive, and determination of the people behind it as the product they sell.”Elon Musk

 

Helpful Assessments

It can be hard to know a lot about someone before working closely with them over time. Sometimes assessments can provide more information as you explore complementarity and fit. Some examples:

Of course, assessments have their limitations.

The best way to vet this is to work with someone intensively under challenging conditions. Then you can really get a sense of how well you work together, your trust levels, and how well you work through challenges and conflict.

Bottom line: Look before you leap, and choose wisely. You’ll be very glad you did.

 

Reflection Questions

  • How much scrutiny do you use in assessing co-founders?
  • What’s your process, and how might it be improved?
  • What are you looking for?

 

Articles on Co-Founders

Videos on Co-Founders

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, speaker, and coach on personal and leadership development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (called “the best book on leadership since Good to Great“). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), check out his Best Articles, get his newsletter, or watch his TEDx talk. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

The Power of Empathy in Leadership

These days, we ask much of our leaders. Organizations and governments are under great pressures to perform, and these days leaders are responsible for crisis management during a pandemic with its attendant economic destruction and social and emotional anxiety.

More and more we are realizing that empathy is a powerful aspect of leading well.

Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from their frame of reference (i.e., the capacity to place oneself in another person’s position).

 

Different Types of Empathy

Researchers have identified several types of empathy:

  • Cognitive empathy is the capacity to understand someone’s mental state.
  • Emotional empathy is the capacity to respond with an appropriate emotion to another’s mental states, including a concern for others when they are suffering.
  • Somatic empathy is a physical reaction in our nervous system that entails physically feeling someone else’s pain (e.g., getting a sense of physical pain when you see someone else get hurt).

According to the research, when managers exhibit the most empathy toward their team, they are viewed as better performers. What’s more, when we exhibit empathy as leaders, we build trust with others because they see that we are paying attention to them and recognizing their issues and concerns.

When we empathize, we relate to and connect with people, and that contributes toward building a sense of teamwork and camaraderie.

According to Roman Krznaric in Empathy: Why It Matters and How to Get It, empathy “is not just about seeing things from another’s perspective. It’s the cornerstone of smart leadership. The real competitive advantage of the human worker will be their capacity to create relationships….”

 

Empathy and Leadership

Great leaders focus not just on vision and execution but also on building healthy and close relationships with people they work with.

Empathy shows up in several modern leadership frameworks. For example, it is one of the ten characteristics of a servant leader and one of the components of emotional intelligence (and its social awareness aspect).

In our “triple crown leadership” model for how to build excellent, ethical, and enduring organizations, it shows up in our “head and heart” practice, with leaders hiring, developing, and rewarding people not just for “head” skills like knowledge and skills but also for “heart” factors, including empathy.

What’s more, we can view leadership as a quest (e.g., to achieve a higher purpose). But as entrepreneur and author Jim Rohn notes, “As a leader, you should always start with where people are before you try to take them where you want them to go.”

Recently, we’ve seen troubling examples of narcissism in leaders, including an excessive need for admiration as well as a disregard for others’ feelings, interests, or safety.

That’s a real shame, because it keeps the focus on the leader as opposed to the larger purpose and the people in the organization and those they serve.

The best leaders leverage empathy to understand their customers much more deeply and thus lead their teams in creating products and services that solve real problems—and in seeing opportunities for innovation that others miss.

Empathy is an essential aspect of effective leadership and a powerful human trait that binds us together in the ups and downs of life and work.

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, speaker, and coach on personal and leadership development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (called “the best book on leadership since Good to Great“). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), check out his Best Articles, get his newsletter, or watch his TEDx talk. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!