How Inertia Keeps Us from Making Needed Changes

how inertia keeps us from making needed changes

Inertia can keep us from making needed changes in our life or work. Because of inertia, we can stick with a sub-optimal path, often because it feels safer and easier.

According to Isaac Newton’s first law of motion, something at rest will remain at rest, and something in motion will remain in motion, unless it’s acted upon by an external force. It’s often called “the law of inertia.”

Think of the amount of fuel and energy it takes for a rocket to blast off. Next, think of a loaded freight train barreling down the tracks and how much energy it will take to stop it.

 

Inertia in Our Lives

We can think of inertia not only in terms of physics but also in terms of inertia in our life and work—in terms of resistance to changes.

Dr. Jim Taylor, a performance psychologist, points to what he calls the “law of human inertia,” noting that we tend to remain on the course of our current life trajectory unless a greater force enters the picture—either externally or internally. He notes that our current life trajectory is highly resistant to change because of all the forces that propel it. He writes, “A little effort here or there is unlikely to change the direction of our lives because it is already being driven by potent forces.” Forces that help keep us on the same trajectory include our identity, the people around us, and our daily habits and routines.

Dr. Taylor notes that, while we often talk about feeling stuck when we’re dissatisfied with our lives, more often the problem is that we have so many things going on in our lives that small efforts here and there are unlikely to initiate the desired changes. If we want to redirect the forces that are propelling us on our current trajectory, we must summon even greater force to make that happen—and point them in a clear direction.

He also notes that, in many cases, we’re still on the same trajectory that began when we were much younger, still repeating some of the same patterns and falling into some of the same traps (e.g., trying to be perfect or please others, comparing ourselves to others, etc.).

It’s worth questioning whether we want to remain on our current path. If we’re stuck in a job we don’t like, or that feels like a major compromise, we should ask whether we’re hampered down with inertia. Did we choose our path intentionally and for good reasons that still stand up to scrutiny, or are we on it by default?

Changing the course of our life and work can require much from us: taking stock, getting clarity on what we want and the changes needed to get there, and then taking action.

Nothing happens until something moves.”
-Albert Einstein

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The Implications of Inertia

Years ago, a family friend, J.D., had just graduated from a prestigious university and was thinking about a career in business. He went to my father for advice since Dad was in the middle of a long and distinguished business career.

J.D. didn’t know what area of business to focus on, so Dad walked him through the various functions of business, from sales, marketing, and human resources to finance, manufacturing, and engineering. After hearing about all the options, J.D. realized something troubling: none of them appealed to him.

At this point, his Mom jumped in and asked J.D. what did appeal to him. After a long pause, he quietly responded that he’d like to go to medical school and become a doctor, but he knew that was impossible because he hadn’t taken the necessary prerequisites. He couldn’t go back and take them because of the time and expense.

Of course, that made total sense. The cost would be great, and the time, effort, and money already invested felt enormous.

But compared to what? Given his expectations and what all his classmates were doing (and perhaps the fear of falling behind), the idea of going backward instead of forward seemed foolish and naive.

But how might the calculus change if he broadened the aperture to the sweep of his life and career? If J.D. were to work 40 hours a week for, say, 45 years, he’d end up working for about 90,000 hours over the course of his career

How does this decision look in that larger context? What would it be worth to work for 90,000 hours doing something that tugged at his heart instead of something that didn’t?

His Mom didn’t miss a beat. She said he should go back to school if that’s what he really wanted to do. And so he did.

Thus began his remarkable journey as a doctor. He’s now medical director of the pediatric cardiac transplant program at a nationally ranked children’s hospital, and he still loves what he does.

 

Inertia in Companies

Of course, inertia isn’t just a problem for people. It can also plague companies. Think of all the companies that struggled or even cratered because they stuck with their existing strategy and business model when the market around them was changing.

I call it the “disruption graveyard,” and it’s not only huge but still growing.

inertia in companies

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The Problem with Inertia

The inertia trap can lead to painful consequences. For individuals, it can lead to:

  • settling for “good enough” instead of what we really want
  • feeling dissatisfied with our life or work
  • playing small even though we know something bigger is possible for us
  • preventing us from trying new things and taking risks
  • feeling pangs of regret when we look back
Growth is painful. Change is painful. But nothing is as painful
as staying stuck somewhere you don’t belong.”
-Mandy Hale

For organizations, it can lead to lower revenues and profits, a precarious competitive position, or even insolvency.

 

Why Overcoming Inertia Is So Hard

Changing our path is hard because it disrupts our mental equilibrium. We’re wired to prefer order and familiarity—and to fear the unknown. We know that change can be slow and hard—and sometimes grueling and brutal. It can bring losses, even big ones.

Here are many of the reasons why overcoming inertia is so hard:

When thinking about making some changes, our “loss aversion” kicks in.
For most people, the pain of losing something is psychologically about twice as powerful as the pleasure of gaining something equivalent, according to researchers. As a result, most people are more motivated to avoid losses than go for gains.

Many of us tend to overthink things and fall into the trap of “analysis paralysis.”
It’s hard to get moving in a new direction when we’re deep in all the mental weeds of scenarios and suppositions.

Successful people start before they’re ready.
-James Clear, author

It takes a great deal of energy to go from standing still to moving.
This is as true in our lives and careers as it is in physics. Getting started—or re-started—is often the hardest part. If we’ve taken time off due to parental leave or a sabbatical, or to raise a family, those transitions can be wonderful, if slightly unnerving sometimes. We should truly make the most out of them and appreciate them. But they can also make it much harder to start up again, both for us and for people considering whether to hire us. It’s the heaviness of restarting.

We feel like we’re so far along our current path that it would be foolish to make a change now.
Researchers point to the “sunk cost fallacy” as a factor that keeps us on our current path. In this mode, we’re reluctant to abandon a course of action because we’ve invested heavily in it (e.g., with time, money, or effort), instead of asking whether it really makes sense to continue with it, looking at it objectively today. A related point: many of us are susceptible to “status quo bias,” according to researchers—a preference for maintaining the current state of affairs (and resisting actions that will change it).

Everything seems to conspire to keep us where we are….
Life seems more comfortable in known, familiar territory.
-Bob Buford, Half Time

We have a hard time deciding what to do next, sometimes aggravated by “choice overload.”
Psychologist Barry Schwartz calls it the “paradox of choice.” He argues that having many choices leads to anxiety and “analysis paralysis,” in which we become frozen in undecidedness. We fear making the wrong choice. In many cases, though, there’s no way of knowing in advance if choices will be “right” or “wrong,” so the key is using a good decision-making process and then implementing our decisions as best we can and adjusting as we go.

We can be bogged down by fears.
This can be a fear of failure, or of rejection, or of making the wrong decision. It can be a fear of being judged by others. (We suffer cognitive dissonance when there’s a gap between what we want and what those who care about us want for us, often causing us to crumple back to the status quo.) Or it can be a fear of losing something (such as stability, safety, balance, or a relationship with others), or a fear of the unknown, or a fear of commitment.

We may have perfectionist tendencies that hold us back.
With all the messiness of change, our perfectionism won’t let us enter that liminal state where we can look and feel foolish because we don’t yet have our bearings. Such perfectionism is harmful because it prevents us from tolerating the transition periods when we’re in between roles and identities, when things aren’t yet sorted and clear.

We’re trying to do too many things at once.
That causes us to get bogged down, and it makes it very difficult to summon enough focused energy to change our course. If we’re overcommitted and lacking margin in our lives, we won’t have enough time, space, and energy to change our trajectory.

We may be limited by our current relationships.
For example, we may have a spouse or partner who has different values and aspirations. Or perhaps we’re both not summoning effort and creativity to work through differences and find a workable solution.

We may lack the confidence to take on the risks associated with making changes.
Most people view confidence as something innate, but the truth is that, while some people have more of a disposition toward confidence than others, it’s something we can and should build. Confidence gives us conviction that we can succeed.

We may lack clarity about some essential things that could help us overcome our inertia.
Like what? Our purpose in life (our deeper why, our reason for being), our core values (what’s most important to us), and our vision of the good life (a picture of what success looks like for our lives).

We may feel as though it’s too late to make the needed changes.
Like we’ve missed the boat. While this is a very common notion, the truth is that it’s most often flat-out wrong. In most cases, there’s still much more time than we think, and we should be careful not to let excuses and rationalizations prevent us from doing what’s necessary to make improvements.

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What to Do About It

Clearly, overcoming inertia in our life and work can be challenging. Fortunately, there are many things we can do about it that will set us up for success.

We can:

  1. Begin by acknowledging the reality of our current situation with brutal honesty while maintaining high standards for what we accept in our lives.
  2. Let go of the past and all the things we’re holding on to that are preventing us from moving forward.
  3. Take full responsibility for our current state.
  4. Look for the root causes of what’s keeping us stuck. Perhaps we’re afraid of failing or are too caught up in helping others?
  5. Summon our motivation and courage to try, in part by tapping into any dissatisfaction we may feel about our present state.
  6. Get clear about what’s most important (our purpose and core values) and what we want and where we want to go (our vision and goals).
    …the first tangible step to change—is knowing what you intend to change into.
    Before you can start a healthy change in your life or in the world,
    you need to consider what a healthy change even is.
    -Tyler Kleeberger
  7. Outline concrete steps we can start taking to move us closer to our vision and goals.
  8. Create margin for the needed changes in life. Without that, the changes will suffocate from lack of oxygen.
  9. Set a date to decide about our next steps, to infuse our change process with urgency.
  10. Get some separation from our current network and routines to free up opportunities for new perspectives and change. According to Professor Herminia Ibarra from London Business School, “We are all more malleable when separated from the people and places that trigger old habits and old selves. Change always starts with separation…. maintaining some degree of separation from the network of relationships that defined our former professional lives can be vital to our reinvention.”
  11. Make sure we don’t have unrealistic expectations for the pace and magnitude of change. (Note the “planning fallacy,” a well-researched phenomenon in which we tend to underestimate the time it will take to complete a task. It can set us up for frustration and perhaps failure, causing us to abandon our change efforts.)
  12. Start small. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking we have to have everything figured out in advance or that we need to make big changes straightaway. According to the “progress principle” from Dr. Teresa Amabile from Harvard Business School, the most important thing we can do to boost our motivation is make progress in meaningful work. The more frequently we do that, the more likely we are to remain productive over time. Everyday progress and small wins can make all the difference in how we feel and perform. What’s more, this leads to what they call a “progress loop” in which our inner experience of motivation drives performance, and that performance further enhances our inner work life.*
  13. Ask for help, ideally from a friend, mentor, coach, or support group—and surround ourselves with positive and supportive people.
  14. Maintain healthy habits. Be disciplined when it comes to exercise, nutrition, sleep, and breaks, since our physiology profoundly influences our mental state.
  15. Adopt the habit of periodically disrupting our own lives and career to avoid falling into the trap of complacency.
  16. Develop momentum in our preferred direction by aligning an array of forces: our purpose, values, vision, strengths, passions, thoughts, feelings, behaviors, habits, and expectations. Bad habits are a form of friction on our desired life trajectory. Good habits are jet fuel.
The secret to getting results that last is to never stop making improvements….
Small habits don’t add up. They compound. That’s the power of atomic habits.
Tiny changes. Remarkable results.”
-James Clear

Investor and writer Mark Mulvey notes that start time and frequency are critical factors. He writes:

“The sooner you start the farther you tend to go….
The more often you do something the more you will tend to continue doing it.

This points to a flipside to the challenge of overcoming inertia: we can also use the law of inertia to our advantage. If we’re able to change our mindset, obtain clarity, and get moving in a different direction, we can develop real momentum, especially via daily practices and disciplined habits. Eventually, the benefits start to accumulate and grow, much like the power of compound interest.

 

Conclusion

In the end, when it comes to questions about which path we’re on and how to summon the energy required to change it, we need to be brutally honest and play the long game. By taking the long view, we can avoid the cost of regret for not trying.

 

Related Articles:

Reflection Questions

  1. Is inertia keeping you from making needed changes? If so, in what areas?
  2. Is it time to re-evaluate and start changing your trajectory?
  3. What’s the cost of not taking action?

Tools for You

Postscript: Inspirations on Overcoming Inertia

  • “Inertia is the force that holds the universe together. Literally. Without it, things would fall apart. It’s also what keeps us locked in destructive habits, and resistant to change.” -Shane Parrish, Farnam Street
  • “Humans are creatures of least resistance. We take the road most traveled, or the road best paved. So much of our behavior runs on autopilot.” -Aline Holzwarth, applied behavioral scientist
  • “It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten-track for ourselves.” -Henry David Thoreau
  • “Even if you are on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.” -Will Rogers
  • “Sometimes you make up your mind about something without knowing why, and your decision persists by the power of inertia. Every year it gets harder to change.” -Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being
  • “The recipe for staying stuck is to try to do too many things at one time.” -Todd Herman
  • “It’s better to fail trying to do what you really care about than to succeed at something else.” -Mark Albion
  • “You don’t have to be one of those people that accepts things as they are. Every day, take responsibility for changing them right where you are.” -Cory Booker
  • “To change one’s life, start immediately, do it flamboyantly, no exceptions.” -William James
  • “You will never change your life until you change something you do daily. The secret of your success is in your daily routine.” -John Maxwell
  • “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” -Chinese proverb
  • “The price of inaction is far greater than the cost of making a mistake.” -Meister Eckhart, German theologian, philosopher, and mystic
  • “Never be passive about your life… ever, ever.” -Robert Egger, social entrepreneur, activist, and author
  • “First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do.” -Epictetus

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* Source: Teresa M. Amabile and Steven J. Kramer, “The Power of Small Wins,” Harvard Business Review, May 2011

“Resist the temptation to start by making a big decision that will change everything in one fell swoop.
Use a strategy of small wins, in which incremental gains lead you to more profound changes
in the basic assumptions that define your work and life. Accept the crooked path.
Small steps lead to big changes, so don’t waste time, energy, and money
on finding the ‘answer’ or the ‘lever’ that, when pushed, will have dramatic effects.
Almost no one gets change right on the first try.”
Dr. Herminia Ibarra, London Business School

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
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 Overcome Feelings of Helplessness

overcome feelings of helplessness

As much as we may hate to admit it, we all feel helpless sometimes. Unable to do anything to help ourselves. Powerless in the face of negative events.

Failure appears inevitable. Our efforts seem pointless. We’re like Sisyphus rolling the giant boulder up the hill, over and over again.

There are of course degrees of helplessness, ranging from the occasional feeling of overwhelm or uncertainty about what to do to something more deep and lasting.

Though it may seem foreign and rare, a feeling of helplessness can show up in many instances of our life and work. Maybe our board or manager sets our performance targets consistently too high, thus setting us up for failure. Or our boss keeps rejecting our ideas. Maybe we’re fighting hard for something at work but keep getting shot down. Or we don’t like our job but feel stuck and unable to make a change.

Maybe we’re doing poorly on our exams even after studying hard, wondering if there’s any point to trying. Or we’re stuck on a team with someone who consistently drops the ball and refuses to change. Or we’re feeling discouraged about losing weight given prior attempts that didn’t work out or last.

Maybe we’re parents making no headway in limiting our teenager’s screen time. Or we have a sick child and no clear treatment plan.

Maybe we look at the news of the day—from weather disasters and climate change to war, poverty, and disease—and feel helpless in the face of it all. Or we live in an economically depressed area with chronic poverty and crime, leading generations of people into chasms of resignation and despair.

Perhaps we’re the friend of someone addicted to drugs who’s spiraling down and won’t accept help, or the spouse of someone with dementia that’s steadily worsening. Maybe someone we know has been paralyzed by a stroke. Or we’re the spouse of a controlling or violent partner, not sure what can be done.

Clearly, feelings of happiness can hit us in life even if we’re not generally prone to them. As painful as helplessness may be, it’s part of the human condition. We even begin our lives as helpless newborns.

Sometimes, feeling helpless can be a form of catastrophizing, in which we take a challenge in front of us and mentally morph it into something we’re incapable of overcoming.

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Different Types of Helplessness

Here, we should distinguish between actually being helpless (as in the case of a newborn, or a turtle flipped over onto its shell) and feeling helpless. We can feel helpless without actually being helpless.

Such feelings of helplessness often begin in childhood, depending on how we were treated and raised (including potential neglect or abuse), and can also come from periods of stress or trauma.

Which brings us to what researchers call “learned helplessness.” It’s when we’ve experienced a stressful event repeatedly, leading us to believe that we’re incapable of doing anything about it even though that may not be true. It’s a well-researched phenomenon that’s been studied in both animals and humans since the 1960s.

“Learned helplessness is the giving-up reaction, the quitting response that follows
from the belief that whatever you do doesn’t matter.”
-Dr. Martin Seligman, Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life
An example of learned helplessness
An example of learned helplessness

In this state, we fail to respond to adversity, even though it turns out that we could actually help ourselves if we stuck with it and kept trying. Even when there are possible solutions, our sense of futility prevents us from looking for them.

Note that learned helplessness doesn’t always generalize across all situations and settings, according to researchers. In other words, we can feel helpless about some things and hopeful about others. Some people never give up, regardless of what they face, while others are much more prone to feeling helpless and throwing in the towel.

One of the main drivers of learned helplessness is our explanatory style for events in our lives—and whether it’s optimistic or pessimistic. When faced with adversity, people with a pessimistic explanatory style tend to assume automatically that the cause of trouble is permanent, pervasive, and personal (what’s been called the “3 Ps of cognitive distortions”):

  1. permanent: when we view something negative as perpetual and unchangeable, not something temporary.
  2. pervasive: when we view the adversity as omnipresent and inescapable, not something specific to this particular situation.
  3. personal: when we view bad things as our own fault (e.g., because we feel worthless and unlovable), not the result of outside factors.

According to psychologist Dr. Martin Seligman, who began groundbreaking research on learned helplessness back in the 1960s, “While you can’t control your experiences, you can control your explanations.” In his book, Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life, he writes, “Optimists recover from their momentary helplessness immediately. Very soon after failing, they pick themselves up, shrug, and start trying again. For them, defeat is a challenge, a mere setback on the road to inevitable victory. They see defeat as temporary and specific, not pervasive.”

By contrast, he notes that “Pessimists wallow in defeat, which they see as permanent and pervasive. They become depressed and stay helpless for very long periods. A setback is a defeat. And a defeat in one battle is the loss of the war. They don’t begin to try again for weeks or months, and if they try, the slightest new setback throws them back into a helpless state.”

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.

 

The Downsides of Helplessness

Unfortunately, such feelings of helplessness can impact every aspect of our lives, from our physical and mental health to our relationships and performance at work.

In terms of our mental health, helplessness can:

  • make us feel overwhelmed
  • suck up our mental and emotional energy, leaving us with less strength and will to work on solutions to our problems
  • prevent us from experiencing contentment and happiness
  • increase the risk of anxiety and depression
  • lead to frustration and even violence if we can’t find productive outlets for our fears and frustrations

When it comes to our physical health, helplessness can:

  • harm our sleep
  • lead to more frequent physical illness

In our life and work, helplessness can:

  • reduce our confidence and motivation
  • lead us to avoid challenges
  • make it harder for us to handle stressful situations
  • make us feel like a victim and resort to blaming others
  • reduce our interest in activities we previously enjoyed
  • make us want to withdraw from friends, family, and colleagues
  • cause us to lower our expectations for what we can achieve
  • lead to avoiding decisions
  • lead to procrastination, giving up, and self-pity
  • prevent us from taking full responsibility for our lives—and from taking necessary actions
  • harm our performance, starting a negative cycle in which we feel bad about failure and then do even worse in the future
  • become a default mindset that downgrades most aspects of our lives

 

The Real-World Dangers of Helplessness

In a famous study conducted by psychologists Ellen Langer and Judith Rodin, two very different interventions were given to the residents of two different floors in a nursing home. On one floor, the staff gave residents plants in their rooms and the opportunity to attend a movie screening every week, but the residents had no choice over these matters. By contrast, the staff gave residents on the other floor a choice of plants, the responsibility for watering them, and the decision of which night to watch the films.

Researchers measured differences between the residents over time. Their findings? More than a year later, the residents who had more control were happier and more active and alert, as rated by nurses and residents, than those who had less control. They also had better health and half as many deaths in the period studied.

After reviewing an array of research on and examples of these matters in different cases, the researchers noted that “feelings of helplessness and hopelessness… may contribute to psychological withdrawal, disease, and death.”*

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What to Do About It

Given these substantial downsides and real-world implications, the stakes are high. So how do we transform our mindset from feeling helpless into feeling powerful, strong, capable, and resourceful? The good news, according to Dr. Seligman and others, is that we can “immunize” people against learned helplessness—and help them move out of that unhappy state.

Here are several strategies, tactics, and mindset shifts from the research literature:

Focus on what we can control, instead of the things we can’t, and work on identifying and accepting the things that are outside our control.

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and wisdom to know the difference.”
-the “Serenity Prayer”
The Serenity Prayer
The Serenity Prayer

Recall situations in which we’ve overcome challenges. It may be that we’re more resilient than we think—especially when we have a deeper why—a clear purpose and set of core values—to motivate us.

Get “small wins” with simple mini-bursts of productivity on simple things (e.g., cross things off a short to-do list) to get some momentum.

Catalog our strengths—including our knowledge, skills, talents, and abilities—and brainstorm how we might use them to overcome our current predicament.

Change our self-talk by analyzing and questioning our beliefs, disputing the idea that we’re helpless. For example, we can ask whether the belief about helplessness is true, whether there may be an alternative explanation for the source of our pain, and whether our current beliefs are useful to us (or harmful). Along these lines, Dr. Seligman recommends using the “ABCDE model:”

  • Adversity: identify a specific hardship we’re currently facing that makes us feel helpless.
  • Belief: note the beliefs we have when facing that adversity.
  • Consequences: note the usual effects caused by having those beliefs about being helpless.
  • Dispute: challenge those unproductive beliefs by interrogating their accuracy and completeness. (Are they true? Can we be sure? What other explanations might there be?)
  • Energization: enjoy the jolt we feel when we successfully dispute harmful beliefs that previously made us feel helpless.

Recall that our thoughts aren’t always accurate (far from it) and sometimes mislead us, getting us into trouble. When thinking, we tend to subconsciously use heuristics (mental shortcuts, for the sake of efficiency, given the amount of energy our brain consumes) and rationalizations. Our thinking is also subject to cognitive biases, which are systematic errors in our thinking that occur when we’re processing and interpreting information. We can also have a faulty memory, skewed perception, or a problem with our attention.

Reframe our thinking from helplessness to curiosity about what it might take to be able to address the issues at hand, in the process becoming a detective and/or a learner.

Set realistic goals and identify steps we can take to start making progress on them, with a commitment to track progress and make needed adjustments along the way.

Engage in regular self-care practices, such as:

  • Exercise, since it helps regulate the chemicals in our brain in ways that boost our mood and motivation as well as our strength and stamina.
  • Good sleep, eating, and hydration habits.
  • Grounding and relaxation practices (e.g., yoga, meditation, or deep breathing).
  • Avoidance of harmful ways of coping, such as numbing and substance abuse.

Recognize the patterns of when we feel helpless and recall the kinds of things that help us break these downward spirals.

Make a list of people we can count on and reach out to them, leaning on trusted relationships—and community—to provide support, encouragement, and perspective.

Reach out to a therapist, counselor, or support hotline when needed. Options include:

Though we all feel helpless sometimes, we should distinguish between being helpless and feeling helpless, recognizing that sometimes we’ve placed ourselves in a mental prison and just sat there, when all the while the bars weren’t locked.

 

Reflection Questions

  1. Are you facing any challenges that make you feel helpless?
  2. In what areas?
  3. Which of the approaches listed above will you try in an effort to break the cycle?

 

Related Articles:

 

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Postscript: Inspirations on Overcoming Helplessness

  • “…an individual’s sense of personal control determines his fate.” -Martin Seligman, Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life
  • “You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.” -Maya Angelou
  • “It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.” -Albert Einstein
  • “It’s hard to beat a person who never gives up.” -Babe Ruth
  • “Often, we feel helpless in lots of situations in our lives. The way anger gets a grip on us is it seems to be a way to extricate ourselves from helplessness.” -Martha Nussbaum
  • “Helplessness is answered many ways, but one of them is violence.” -Sam Shepard
  • “Self-pity is our worst enemy, and if we yield to it we never do anything wise in the world.” -Helen Keller
  • “Our online news feeds aggregate all of the world’s pain and cruelty, dragging our brains into a kind of learned helplessness. Technology that provides us with near-complete knowledge without a commensurate level of agency isn’t humane.” -Tristan Harris

 

Related Terms and Mindsets from the Research Literature

  • agency”: our capacity to influence our functioning and the course of our life’s events by our actions—and the feelings of autonomy, control, and freedom that come with it.
  • learned optimism”: the process by which we learn to recognize and challenge pessimistic thoughts in order to develop more positive behaviors.
  • locus of control”: whether we view control as something we have inside of us (an internal locus of control) or something that exists beyond us, as in others, luck or fate (an external locus of control).
  • self-efficacy”: our belief in our ability to complete tasks, achieve goals, overcome challenges, and succeed.

* Source: Langer, E. J., & Rodin, J. (1976). The effects of choice and enhanced personal responsibility for the aged: A field experiment in an institutional setting. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 34(2), 191–198.

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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!

Are We More Materialistic Than We’d Like to Admit?

Avoiding the Trap of Materialism

Article Summary:

These days, it’s easy to fall into the trap of materialism, which actually makes us less happy. Why that’s the case and what to do about it.

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These days, it’s easy to get caught up in consumption, possessions, and comfort while neglecting matters of the heart or spirit. Are you caught in the trap of materialism—the belief that having money and possessions is the most important thing in life? Even if you don’t believe that, are you living that way by default?

Consider the following:

  • According to a 2019 estimate, the average American adult spends about $18,000 a year on non-essential goods and services.
  • 36% of Americans surveyed in 2022 say their garage is so cluttered that they can no longer park vehicles inside.
  • As of September 2022, U.S. consumer debt hit $16.5 trillion, with the average household debt among American consumers at $96,371 and average mortgage debt at $220,380.

Before we get carried away, a few thoughts about materialism:

First, there’s nothing wrong with money. It’s a powerful tool that can be used well or poorly, depending on our choices. It’s an amplifier of our character and aims.

Second, it’s okay to enjoy things. The point isn’t to deprive ourselves of the simple pleasures in life made possible by tons of hard work and eons of economic, social, and technological development. The point isn’t to deny the incredible energy and power of entrepreneurial initiative and innovation, with parallel opportunities for value creation and wealth creation, including exciting new opportunities in social enterprise and conscious capitalism.

Third, materialism can be performative, with a focus on displaying what we own to try to impress others instead of just living our own lives.

The problem is mindless, impulsive, compulsive, or performative consumption–as well as an unhealthy attachment to things and a dependence on how it makes us feel in front of others.

Can we be entrepreneurial and strategic, building wealth for our families, workers, and communities, without getting captured by the game and selling our souls in the process?

Yes, but it can take wisdom and fortitude.

 

Where Does Materialism Come From?

It’s no secret that materialism is a big problem in our culture. Where does it come from?

Human nature, for starters. For millennia, philosophers and prophets have warned about materialism and greed. Have these temptations gone away? Far from it.

In our times, look to the increasingly sophisticated $781 billion global advertising industry. These days, we’re bombarded by ads that incessantly point out what we’re missing and what’s wrong with us, then subtly implant in us the false idea that buying things will make us happy. How convenient. Their strategy includes using our neurophysiology against us, since we get a dopamine boost when we buy new things.

It’s no secret that materialism is a big problem in our culture
Image source: Adobe Stock

Also, our false notions about the sources of happiness don’t help. There’s a prevalent myth that happiness comes from having things or from upgrading our circumstances (e.g., a promotion or raise).

We are prone to judge success by the index of our salaries or the size of our automobiles
rather than by the quality of our service and relationship to mankind.”
-Martin Luther King, Jr.

But happiness is an inside job, not something that comes from external events or circumstances, and the biggest driver of overall happiness is the quality of our relationships.

Here’s the most fundamental finding of happiness economics:
the factors that most determine our happiness are social, not material.”
-Jonathan Rauch, The Happiness Curve

There’s another prevalent myth: that success brings happiness. Surprisingly, it works the other way around, according to researchers. (See our happiness series for more on how to build more happiness into our lives.)

Many of us live today as if the point of life is accumulating money so we can buy more stuff and nicer things. We conflate wealth with success, in effect reducing life to a zero-sum game of accumulations, consumption, and signaling. Where does that take us?

 

The Downsides of Materialism

If materialism is the belief that things will make us happy, we’re wise to put the belief to the test. Does it lead to happiness and wellbeing? Can we buy happiness?

When researchers measure levels of materialism on a scale, they look for the extent to which people judge success by the number and quality of their possessions, place acquiring things at the center of their lives, and view possessions as central to happiness. Their findings? Material things aren’t likely to increase our happiness in a meaningful or sustained way—and materialistic people appear to be less happy than others, with fewer positive emotions, lower life satisfaction levels, and more anxiety, depression, and substance abuse. Ouch.

For decades, studies have revealed that people who score high on this materialism scale score lower on happiness scales. Why? Materialistic people tend to have unrealistic expectations about how much happiness possessions will bring them, leading to disappointment.

Materialistic people are rarely satisfied, often wanting more—and then more still (the “disease of more”), but never actually feeling like they have enough. When we’re caught in the grips of our materialistic urges, we want instant satisfaction and gratification, leading to an addictive cycle of wants and disappointment.

A study of 12,000 first-year students at elite universities looked at their attitudes when they were 18 years old and then measured their life satisfaction at age 37. The findings: those with materialistic aspirations when younger—with making money as their primary goal—were less satisfied with their lives two decades later.

Also, materialism can make us feel less satisfied with the amount of fun and enjoyment in our daily lives—and can bring fewer positive emotions, more negative emotions, and less meaning in our lives. It can also diminish our sense of gratitude, an important component of our happiness.

It can also affect our self-image profoundly. In materialistic mode, we tend to invest much of our sense of self-worth in what we own and in the approval of others, caring too much about what others think about us and comparing ourselves with others who have more than us. It can trap us in jobs we don’t like so that we’re able to afford all the things we think we want or need (the trap of “golden handcuffs”), sometimes to try to impress others.

An often overlooked aspect of materialism is that it can lead to perpetual busyness and what researchers call “time poverty,” or a lack of time margin in our lives, as well as workaholism.

Another downside: it creates clutter. We can spend an inordinate amount of time shopping for and managing all our possessions, which can lead to stress and anxiety as well as time away from the people we love and other more beneficial endeavors. Having all of these things can turn into a big burden in terms of our time and money. For example, one in three Americans report using self-storage to store the things they can’t fit in their homes.

You can’t have everything. Where would you put it?
-Steven Wright, comedian

A materialistic approach can get in the way of more important things in life, such as pursuing our purpose and honoring our core values. It can damage our spiritual life, and we can fall into the trap of treating people like things to be used and discarded. It can make us feel empty inside as money and possessions consume more and more of our thoughts. We know we can’t take our possessions with us when we’re gone.

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.

 

A materialistic approach to life can affect our character, potentially leading to greed, arrogance, pride, judgmentalism, or elitism. Those ill effects on individuals in turn have ill effects on our communities and society, potentially contributing to exploitation, injustice, immorality, broken families, neglected children, and more.

If I wanted to destroy a nation, I would give it too much,
and I would have it on its knees, miserable, greedy, sick.”
-John Steinbeck in a letter to Adlai Stevenson, 1960

Finally, being materialistic can lead to major regrets in our life, like working too much at the expense of our health and close relationships, and pulling us away from who we really are and what we’d really like to be.

 

What to Do About It

If the sages of old were right about the dangers of materialism, what can we do about it? A lot, it turns out.

First, we can ask ourselves who planted the idea in our head that we want or need something. We can pause to consider whether we’re being manipulated by shrewd advertisers and algorithms. In short, we can refuse to play their game, taking back control of our time and money.

Second, we can limit the amount of television we watch and social media we consume, since these can trigger accumulative urges. We can swap in other activities instead—things like exercise, sports, music, dance, painting, writing, or reading. Things like learning and growing.

Third, we can take the time to discover our purpose, core values, and passions—and build them into our daily lives. These more productive endeavors can crowd out the time we spend on mindless consumption.

Fourth, we can focus more on creating great life experiences and memories instead of accumulating things. Those tend to be cherished much more dearly in retrospect—also contributing toward our overall sense of life satisfaction.

Fifth, we can pause before we press than online ordering button or head to the mall. In their book, Love People, Use Things, Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus recommend asking six questions before buying something:

  1. Who am I buying this for?
  2. Will this add value to my life?
  3. Can I afford it?
  4. Is this the best use of this money?
  5. What’s the actual cost? (including storage, maintenance, and other costs)
  6. Would the best version of me buy this?

Sixth, we can declutter our homes and workplaces so we can enjoy the freedom and dignity of simpler living. In our world of busyness and time pressure, this can go a long way.

Seventh, we can be grateful for all we have and recall that, in the sweep of human history, with so much pain and suffering across millennia in the constant battle for survival, we are obscenely privileged.

Eighth, we can flip the switch from thinking about ourselves so much—and all we want and need—to thinking more about others and how we can be of service to them—to our families, friends, colleagues, communities, and beyond. It turns out that we’re much happier when we think less about ourselves and focus more on helping others.

At the end of the day, we should decide what’s most important to us and what kind of life we want to live. In his book, Authentic Happiness, influential psychologist Dr. Martin Seligman notes different types of lives we can aspire to:

  1. The pleasant life: the successful pursuit of positive feelings.
  2. The good life: using our “signature strengths”—those character strengths (like courage, diligence, and teamwork) that are most essential to who we are—to obtain “abundant and authentic gratification in the main realms of our life.”
  3. The meaningful life: using our strengths to serve a larger purpose, such as raising our children, contributing to our community, or fighting for an important cause.

Of course, most of our society is organized around pursuing the pleasant life. But of the three, Seligman reports, pleasure is the most fleeting (because we habituate quickly to that feeling and then seek out more). He notes that to live all three types of lives—pleasant, good, and meaningful—is to lead a “full life,” and that the pleasant life is more like the whipped cream and cherry on top of a sundae, with the sundae coming mostly from having meaning and engagement in our lives. (See Martin Seligman’s excellent TED talk on “The New Era of Positive Psychology.”)

“And our results surprised us; they were backward of what we thought. It turns out the pursuit of pleasure has almost no contribution to life satisfaction. The pursuit of meaning is the strongest. The pursuit of engagement is also very strong. Where pleasure matters is if you have both engagement and you have meaning, then pleasure’s the whipped cream and the cherry.” -Dr. Martin Seligman

 

Conclusion

In the end, a materialistic life is unsustainable for us personally. It doesn’t lead to sustainable happiness, and our priorities, wants, and circumstances will change over time. It’s also unsustainable for the planet, as we’re seeing more and more with the damaging effects of our chosen lifestyle on the very ecosystem that gives us life.

 

Reflection Questions

1. To what extent are you falling into the trap of materialism?
2. Is it preventing you from focusing on more important things in your life?
3. What will you do about it, starting today?

 

Related Traps

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.

 

Tools for You

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Avoiding Materialism

“Manifest plainness,
Embrace simplicity,
Reduce selfishness,
Have few desires.”
-Lao Tzu
  • “Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.” -Epictetus, Greek Stoic philosopher
  • “He who is not contented with what he has, would not be contented with what he would like to have.” -Socrates
  • “…society is a massive conspiracy to distract you from the important choices in life in order to help you fixate on the unimportant ones.” -David Brooks, The Second Mountain
  • “You must remember to love people and use things, rather than to love things and use people.” -Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen
  • “Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s needs, but not every man’s greed.” -Mahatma Gandhi
  • “Don’t let your happiness depend on something you may lose.” -C.S. Lewis
  • “The disastrous feature of our civilization is that it is far more developed materially than spiritually. Its balance is disturbed.” -Jean-Paul Sartre, French novelist and philosopher
  • “True happiness is to enjoy the present, without anxious dependence upon the future, not to amuse ourselves with either hopes or fears but to rest satisfied with what we have, which is sufficient, for he that is so wants nothing. The greatest blessings of mankind are within us and within our reach. A wise man is content with his lot, whatever it may be, without wishing for what he has not.” -Seneca, ancient Roman Stoic philosopher
  • “Greed is a bottomless pit which exhausts the person in an endless effort to satisfy the need without ever reaching satisfaction.” -Erich Fromm
  • “These religious founders [Jesus, Buddha, Lao Tzu…] disagreed with each other in their pictures of what is the nature of the universe, the nature of spiritual life, the nature of ultimate spiritual reality. But they all agreed in their ethical precepts. They all agreed that the pursuit of material wealth is a wrong aim…. They all spoke in favor of unselfishness and of love for other people as the key to happiness and to success in human affairs.” -Arnold Toynbee, historian
  • “Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.” -Ecclesiastes 2:11
  • “Man’s aim in life is not to add to his material possessions, but his predominant calling is to come nearer his Maker.” -Mahatma Gandhi
  • “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.” -Matthew 6:19-20
  • “It is not life and wealth and power that enslave men, but the cleaving to life and wealth and power.” -Gautama Buddha
  • “But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.” -1 Timothy 6:6-10

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!

Have Feelings of Entitlement Crept into Your Mindset?

Have Feelings of Entitlement Crept into Your Mindset?

Article Summary:

Though it’s hard to admit, we’re more prone to feeling a sense of entitlement than we think. Here’s why and what to do about it.

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While most of us would agree that we have to work for things we want in life, it may be that certain surreptitious feelings of entitlement have crept into our mindset. In other words, we’re more prone to entitlement than we think.

Entitlement is a feeling that we deserve special treatment or privileges—or that something should rightfully be ours.

This narcissistic personality trait can come from many sources. It’s influenced by our parents, upbringing, and childhood environment, as well as how other authority figures have treated us over the years and whether we believe we’ve suffered more than others.

 

Examples of Feeling Entitled

Though it may sound distant and rare, if we look around, we can find plenty of examples of entitlement in action all around us (sometimes inside us), such as:

  • expecting a good job because we have a degree
  • anticipating a promotion because we’ve been on the job a long time, regardless of effort and performance
  • feeling entitled to comfort, ease, success, or a dream job
  • expecting to be happy most of the time—and resentful when circumstances don’t cooperate
  • feeling entitled to health and wellness or recognition and appreciation
  • expecting a certain kind of relationship with others, such as a friendship with the boss or a close kinship with our in-laws or neighbors
  • assuming we can express our feelings or resentments whenever and however we want, regardless of the impact on others
  • expecting favors from others (even if we’re not likely to reciprocate)
  • presuming we’ll have a certain kind of career, marriage, lifestyle, or retirement

The mental dynamics at work here can be tricky. For example, we may acknowledge that others need to start at the bottom and work their way up but secretly somehow believe that we’re an exception to this rule.

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.

 

The Problem with Feeling Entitled

Such feelings of entitlement are fairly common, if only in certain areas of our lives, and we’re often not aware when they’ve captured us. That, of course, can get us into trouble. For example, feeling entitled can:

  1. set us up for disappointment due to unrealistic expectations, leading to bitterness
  2. reduce our motivation to take action
  3. lead to more conflict and misunderstandings in relationships
  4. prevent us from learning and growing
  5. make us feel like we’re better than others
  6. cause us to lose perspective and thus make bad decisions
  7. prevent us from being a good team player, since we’re so caught up in our own expectations and can become insensitive to the perspectives of others
  8. damage our career, since our colleagues will likely resent our selfishness, bad attitude, or double standards
  9. lead to unfair or unethical behavior when we disregard rules that we feel we don’t have to follow
  10. lead us to try to control or manipulate others, which often backfires
  11. reduce our personal influence and power over time
  12. make us feel unhappy or depressed

Before dismissing entitlement as a problem for others that we’ve managed to avoid, we may want to think again. For example, it can be easy to forget how fortunate and privileged we are, with all the lofty expectations that come with our high standard of living and ready access to convenience and efficiency. But if we’d take a snapshot of our world today, we’d see the following:

  • Almost 3.1 billion people could not afford a healthy diet in 2020….
  • Around 2.3 billion people in the world (29.3%) were moderately or severely food insecure in 2021….
  • As many as 828 million people were affected by hunger in 2021….
  • 149 million children under the age of five had stunted growth and development due to a chronic lack of essential nutrients in their diets….
  • An estimated 45 million children under the age of five were suffering from wasting, the deadliest form of malnutrition.”
  • In 2021, about 38 million people in the U.S. lived in poverty (including one in six children).
  • Two billion people (a quarter of the world’s population) now live in conflict-affected areas such as war zones.
  • 100 million individuals were forcibly displaced worldwide as of May 2022 due to conflict, violence, persecution, or human rights violations, including internally displaced people, refugees, and asylum seekers.

(Sources: World Health Organization, U.S. Census Bureau, United Nations Refugee Facts, United Nations)

When we get annoyed that our favorite brand of creamer is out of stock at the supermarket or that we’re in the grips of a bad customer service system, it’s surely frustrating but only a problem that many people would only dream of having given the struggles of their daily existence.

Entitlement can be a problem for children of privilege who grew up in affluent circumstances, and it can have big effects on society.

When we replace a sense of service and gratitude with a sense of entitlement and expectation,
we quickly see the demise of our relationships, society, and economy.”
-Steve Maraboli, author

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.

 

How to Avoid It

Given all the problems that come with entitlement, we’re wise to avoid it. But how?

Here are eight practices and mental shifts that can help us avoid the trap of entitlement:

  1. develop our empathy by putting ourselves in other people’s shoes
  2. recall that things can change quickly and that good fortune sometimes expires
  3. be sure we’re pulling our own weight when living and working with others
  4. maintain humility and perspective even if we’re fortunate enough to have some material comforts or success
  5. be content with and grateful for what we have
  6. focus more on what we can give to others instead of what we can get from them
  7. focus on learning and developing ourselves to improve our own capacity to achieve the results we want, instead of expecting them to be handed to us
  8. develop our persistence in the face of obstacles

 

Conclusion

Though we may think of ourselves as mostly free from the trap of entitlement, further scrutiny—if brutally honest—may reveal that this ugly mindset may have more hooks in our brains than we’d like to admit. It can do real damage to our wellbeing, relationships, and careers, so we’re wise to address it.

 

Reflection Questions

  1. Do you resonate with any of the signs of entitlement listed above?
  2. How is it affecting your life and work?
  3. What will you do about it, starting today?

Leadership Derailers Assessment

Take this assessment to identify what’s inhibiting your leadership effectiveness. A critical and often overlooked tool for your leadership development.

 

Tools for You

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Avoiding the Entitlement Trap

  • “It is easy, when you are young, to believe that what you desire is no less than what you deserve, to assume that if you want something badly enough, it is your God-given right to have it.” -Jon Krakauer, Into the Wild
  • “Don’t feel entitled to anything you didn’t sweat and struggle for.” -Marian Wright Edelman
  • “Entitlement is lethal.” -Liev Schreiber, actor, director, screenwriter, and producer
  • “Don’t believe the world owes you a living. The world owes you nothing. It was here first.” -Robert J. Burdette, 1883
  • “You have to do your own growing no matter how tall your grandfather was.” -Abraham Lincoln

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

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


+++++++++++++++++
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!

Are You Feeling Empty Inside?

Article Summary: 

Many people feel empty inside, even if it’s hard to admit for some. This article contains the signs and causes of feeling empty—and what to do about it.

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The feeling may be virtually undetectable, but if we’d pause to notice we may discover an inner emptiness sometimes. A silent question about whether all we’re doing is really worth it.

We may be feeling hollow or numb, or living without passion or joy. Are we racing quickly but getting nowhere in a hurry.

“Part of the problem… is that everyone is in such a hurry…. People haven’t found meaning in their lives, so they’re running all the time looking for it. They think the next car, the next house, the next job. Then they find these things are empty, too, and they keep running.” -Mitch Albom, Tuesdays with Morrie

Such a feeling may be hard to admit. We may pride ourselves on being a go-getter, a producer. Maybe we’re a committed spouse or parent. Or a hard-charging professional or executive. But the feeling is what it is, regardless of whether we acknowledge or resist it.

We all feel empty sometimes. That’s common. The problem comes when it’s a persistent feeling that gnaws at us and that inhibits healthy relationships and our productive functioning in the world.

In our age of plenty, with grand technological advancements and material comforts for so many, many have warned about a crisis of meaning. The pandemic called the question about our relationship to work and our priorities.

 

The Signs of Feeling Empty

What are the signs of feeling empty inside? Here are eight of the most common signs:

  1. lacking motivation or enthusiasm for our life and work
  2. feeling disconnected from ourselves or our feelings
  3. feeling distant from others, with a tendency to withdraw from others or an inability to form close relationships
  4. feeling unfulfilled and purposeless
  5. lacking energy
  6. losing interest in activities that we once found enjoyable
  7. feeling like we’re a spectator to our life and not a full and active participant in it
  8. having a sense of dissatisfaction with our lives

Such feelings may get scrambled in cognitive dissonance because we don’t like to think of ourselves as the kind of person who has them. We may feel ashamed of such feelings, as if they’re beneath us, even though they’re natural and common.

We may also be trying to cover up feelings of emptiness with other things—things like entertainment, social media, gaming, overwork, shopping, gambling, food, sugar, alcohol, etc. These, of course, are only temporary salves. They may work for a while, but then the emptiness returns.

At a deeper level, feeling empty can be a defense mechanism keeping us from re-experiencing trauma, or it can be a sign of depression. (If you suspect it may be one of these, check out the mental health and emotional support resources listed at the end of this article.)

 

Different Kinds of Emptiness

We should also distinguish between an inner emptiness stemming from disconnection and a kind of spiritual emptiness praised in Taoism and Zen Buddhism that allows us to free ourselves from unhealthy attachments to things like success, wealth, beauty, and certain desired outcomes. The idea is that even such good things can cause us suffering because they’re fleeting and beyond our control.

“Become totally empty
Quiet the restlessness of the mind
Only then will you witness everything unfolding from emptiness”
-Lao Tzu (Laozi), ancient Chinese philosopher

We may want to empty ourselves of the illusion that painful things are permanent and fixed versus fluid and in flux.

We can also empty ourselves of our attachments to our thoughts. With mindfulness practice, we can merely observe our thoughts and let them come and go instead of conflating ourselves with our thoughts. (So it very much depends on the kind of emptiness we’re talking about, whether it’s an emptiness of distress or enlightenment.)

 

The Causes of Feeling Empty

There are many things that can cause the distressing feeling of emptiness. One of the most common causes is physical and mental exhaustion. This can come from many thing—often a combination of things—including insufficient sleep, poor self-care (e.g., neglecting regular movement and good nutrition and sleep habits), racing around to family activities, or a stressful job with a demanding boss. Such things can snowball into burnout.

In his wonderful little book, Let Your Life Speak, author and educator Parker Palmer describes a deeper form of burnout:

“Though usually regarded as the result of trying to give too much, burnout in my experience results from trying to give what I do not possess—the ultimate in giving too little! Burnout is a state of emptiness, to be sure, but it does not result from giving all I have: it merely reveals the nothingness from which I was trying to give in the first place.” -Parker Palmer

Feeling empty can also be caused by many other things, including:

  1. loneliness
  2. repressing our emotions
  3. losing ourselves in an all-consuming relationship that leaves precious little time for ourselves
  4. spending too much time on social media, streaming sites, or gaming
  5. feeling exhausted from mental rumination about painful thoughts and the associated negative self-talk
  6. suspecting that we may need a different job or career, or that we’re settling for something that’s just okay
  7. lack of clarity about our purpose, values, vision, or goals (see my related articles, “The Problem of Not Being Clear About Our Purpose” and “The Problem of Not Being Clear About Our Values”)
  8. losing touch with ourselves and our inner life
  9. living a divided life, with a lack of coherence between our inner and outer self, or living in ways that violate our core values or that don’t center us in our purpose
  10. lacking self-awareness (e.g., about our purpose, values, strengths, passions, and the traps we’re in)
  11. not having enough clarity about or movement toward our goals and dreams

At a deeper level, feeling emptiness can also come from experiencing trauma, with our mind and body wanting us to emotionally detach from the pain, thereby making us feel empty inside as we struggle to access our feelings.

According to Dr. Margaret Paul, psychologist and author, ultimately there’s only one root cause of feeling inner emptiness: a lack of love. She notes that it’s not a lack of someone else’s love, but rather a lack of love of ourselves, or what she calls “self-abandonment.” This often comes from an ego that draws the wrong conclusion from our experiences in the world, making us believe that we’re not worthy of love when in fact we are.

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.

 

What to Do About It

Fortunately, there are many things we can do to address prolonged feelings of emptiness that inhibit our quality of life. Here are some practices and mindset shifts:

  1. stop ignoring the feeling of emptiness and acknowledge it, giving ourselves grace and not judging ourselves harshly for feeling that way, instead allowing the feelings to flow through us and then letting go
  2. resolve to identify and address the root causes of our pain and anxiety, since avoiding them only brings a temporary reprieve and ends up harming our emotional well-being over time
  3. notice when we feel empty and what we’re doing and with whom, so we can avoid these emptiness triggers
  4. reframe our mindset toward the feeling of emptiness from a sense of dread that we’re flawed to a helpful signal that there’s something in our life that needs attention
  5. figure out what self-care practices work best for us and double down on those
  6. make a list of fun, engaging, and fulfilling activities and people and build them into our schedule
  7. reinvest in learning and growing (e.g., via courses, books, podcasts, TED talks, etc.)
  8. learn a new skill or develop a current skill further
  9. engage in a creative practice such as songwriting or dance
  10. limit our time on social media, email, streaming, gaming, etc.
  11. reach out to family, friends, and loved ones, or make new friends
  12. get clarity about our purpose and core values, then creatively building them into our life and work
  13. write down our goals, aspirations, and vision of the good life to give us a sense of where we’d like to go in our life
  14. seek people and situations that help us feel loved, supported, and whole (and avoid people and situations that make us feel empty)
  15. recruit an accountability partner to help us do things that fill us up or challenge us
  16. form a small group where we can be open and vulnerable and lean on each other for support
  17. establish a daily spiritual practice, such as prayer, worship, contemplation, reading, meditation, or yoga
  18. stop avoiding responsibility for our current situation
  19. get in the habit of journaling for self-expression and self-awareness or writing a gratitude journal (see also this list from Lifehack of 32 things to be grateful for)
  20. seek professional help from a therapist our counselor, if needed (see the resources listed at the end of this article)

The point is not to do all, or even most, of these things. Rather, the point is to start with one or two that seem most promising or intriguing and build from there, paying attention to what’s most helpful and what isn’t.

Ultimately, feeling empty may signal that we’re becoming more aware and conscious of what’s important in our lives—and the deeper experiences we may be missing. That can be a very good thing if we have the foresight and courage to do something about it.

 

Reflection Questions

  1. Are you feeling empty inside?
  2. Is it an occasional feeling or something that’s been persistent and that has started to detract from your life and work?
  3. If the latter, what will you do about it?

 

Related Articles

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.

 

Tools for You

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Emptiness

  • “Formerly, his heart had been as a locked casket with its treasure inside; but now the casket was empty, and the lock was broken.” -George Eliot, English novelist
  • “Feeling empty is often a sign that you’re disconnected from something—whether that be your soul, a lack of meaning/purpose, or your emotions.” -Aletheia Luna, writer and educator
  • “You’re an interesting species. An interesting mix. You’re capable of such beautiful dreams, and such horrible nightmares. You feel so lost, so cut off, so alone, only you’re not. See, in all our searching, the only thing we’ve found that makes the emptiness bearable, is each other.” -Carl Sagan
  • “The hard work of sowing seed in what looks like perfectly empty earth has, as every farmer knows, a time of harvest. All suffering, all pain, all emptiness, all disappointment is seed: sow it in God and he will, finally, bring a crop of joy from it.” -Eugene Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction
“I have met too many people who suffer from an empty self. They have a bottomless pit where their identity should be—an inner void they try to fill with competitive success, consumerism, sexism, racism, or anything that might give them the illusion of being better than others. We embrace attitudes and practices such as these not because we regard ourselves superior but because we have no sense of self at all. Putting others down becomes a path to identity, a path we would not need to walk if we knew who we were…. as community is torn apart by various political and economic forces, more and more people suffer from the empty self syndrome.” -Parker Palmer, A Hidden Wholeness

 

Resources for Mental Health and Crisis Prevention

Consult a mental health professional if you believe it may be depression or if your feelings are debilitating and not merely occasional. Here are some support resources:

Featured image source: Adobe Stock

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

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

 

+++++++++++++++++
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!

Escaping the Trap of Our Ego

Article Summary: 

Ego is a problem for all of us. It comes with many related problems, including selfishness, arrogance, self-importance, and mental suffering. How to escape the trap of our ego.

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There’s a long list of people who have famously been captured by their ego, from celebrities and CEOs to politicians and professional athletes. It’s a well known problem, and one that keeps causing mayhem.

“Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” -Proverbs 16:18

But this is a problem for all of us, not just the rich and famous. There’s a long list of related problems that come with an unhealthy attachment to our ego: selfishness, arrogance, condescension, self-importance, superiority, hyper-sensitivity, hyper-competitiveness, and corruption.

With ego traps, we see perfectionists, overachievers, and underachievers (our ego prefers us on the sidelines so we don’t run the risk of coming up short), as well as curmudgeons (who express disappointment or disgust every waking minute). It’s a parade of dysfunctions.

“Ego clouds and disrupts everything.” -Jocko Willink in Extreme Ownership

 

How to Know When We’ve Been Captured by Ego

Our ego-driven thoughts are there to protect us and help us perform for others in a way that buttresses our chosen identity.

When we’ve been captured by our ego, we tend to bask in praise and let it go to our heads. We resist or ignore negative feedback or things we should consider improving. Our defense mechanisms kick in, placing us in a protective shell in which we’re not open to reality. We get caught up in defending an image of ourselves—an image of how we want to be seen to be.

When we’ve been captured by our ego, we tend to be or feel:

  • selfish
  • judgmental
  • critical of others
  • arrogant about our abilities and contributions
  • bad at listening
  • needy for attention, recognition, or praise
  • agitated
  • unwilling to admit our mistakes
  • resentful of things that happened in the past
  • worried about what may happen in the future

These feelings are all signs that our ego is doing a number on us.

“When everybody loves you, you can never be lonely…. when everybody loves me, I’m gonna be just about as happy as I can be.”  -The Counting Crows in their song, “Mr. Jones”

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.

 

The Problem with Our Ego

Ego is one of the worst traps in our lives. It affects everything when it’s in charge of our thinking, from our happiness and quality of life to our relationships, work, and leadership. And it affects us all. It’s one of the great challenges of being human.

“There are two kinds of egotists: Those who admit it, and the rest of us.” -Laurence J. Peter

At its worst, our ego does many things. It:

  • traps us in obsessive thought loops in which we ruminate on negative thoughts and feelings
  • leads to an unhealthy preoccupation with ourselves at the expense of our family, organization, community, or society
  • places us in a state of fear, in which we’re operating out of the more primitive parts of our brain and nervous system
  • hands control over our happiness and wellbeing to others and to circumstances beyond our control
  • hides our weaknesses and shortcomings, leading us to inaccurate self-assessments
  • makes us feel defensive when we receive negative feedback, in some cases causing us to “shoot the messenger,” thereby detracting from our ability to learn and improve
  • harms our relationships and leads to disconnection from others as we get so absorbed in our own career or image
  • prevents us from showing the vulnerability that leads to deeper human connection
  • inhibits our compassion
  • leads to more conflict (with each person’s ego needs escalating demands and resentments)
  • reduces trust in our family and teams
  • gets us stuck in harmful patterns of emotional reactivity to people and situations
  • causes us to focus excessively on success and material things
  • keeps us trapped in the past as we continue to litigate old sleights and harms
  • makes us feel inferior to others
  • makes us feel resentful when the idealized state of the world that our ego keeps unrealistically expecting never appears
  • pushes us into a “fixed mindset” (in which we believe our capabilities are set in stone), making us want to avoid challenges and risks
  • drains our energy and robs us of peace when things change (as they always do)
  • traps us in a logical fallacy of conditional happiness: “When I get or achieve X, then I’ll be happy” (see my article, “The Surprising Relationship between Success and Happiness”)
  • degrades our happiness and wellbeing
  • makes us feel perpetually unsatisfied, as it inevitably defaults to wanting and needing more attention and praise no matter how good things are in our lives
  • drives us to workaholism and all its attendant costs, including health and relationship problems
  • becomes a lifelong addiction in which go through our days just trying to protect and satisfy our fragile and insatiable ego
  • keeps us from connecting with God and living with grace from our heart and soul

Our ego craves attention. It desperately looks for situations in which it can receive recognition and praise or in which it can create conflict so it can feel agitated or superior.

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

Our ego thrives on superficial comparisons in which we look good at the expense of others. It clings to an idealized image of reality and self so much so that, when change occurs, as it always does, the ego barrages us with negative thoughts and feelings, making us anxious and unhappy.

Our ego tells us lies about ourselves and others and, since these mischievous thoughts come from our own minds, we tend to take them as truth.

We may have a sense of this in the abstract, but there’s a real challenge at work in our daily experience: we’re often not aware when we’ve been hijacked by our ego. The master illusion is that our ego is ourself. We may get glimpses of the illusion when we invoke our deeper consciousness and observe the thought stream of our ego in action as a watcher of our own thoughts. (The question arises about who’s doing that watching? The answer, it follows, is our true self.)

This ongoing lack of awareness means that the ego has a firm grip on our psyche nearly all the time, and it explains why it’s so rare for us to escape that grip. Even as we consider whether our ego is a problem, our ego secretly kicks into denial mode and tells us that, while it may be a problem for others, for us it’s not a big deal.

Addressing our ego is also tricky because of the cognitive dissonance that comes from knowing that having confidence is good for us. We want to avoid being a wallflower and getting stepped on, but humility doesn’t mean insecurity, just as confidence doesn’t mean arrogance.

 

How Ego Degrades Our Leadership

Ego is one of the great killers of effective leadership.

“The ego is seductive, the kiss of death to true leadership…. For too many leaders, their ego is their worst enemy.” -Bob and Gregg Vanourek, “Your Ego Is Not Your Amigo

Our ego takes us away from a focus on our team and our purpose, instead swapping in a focus on how we appear to others. It gets us so focused on managing our image that we’re not accomplishing nearly as much as we could if we just focused on getting the job done.

People can sense it when we’re in it only for ourselves and not a loyal member of the team committed to the shared purpose.

They can also sense it when we’re full of ourselves and breathing our own vapors, assigning ourselves all the credit and neglecting all the contributions of others through the organization. They can see it when we’re unwilling to admit it when we’re wrong, causing us to lose our credibility, one of the most valuable assets for any leader.

“Arrogant leadership is toxic to an organization. It looks like strength but is a debilitating weakness.” -Ira Chaleff

When we’re hijacked by our ego, we unconsciously hire people who are like us to please our delicate ego, or people who are agreeable and will let our ego get away with its self-absorbed shenanigans. This leads to a weaker team without the diversity of thought, skills, and experience to make breakthroughs and without the will and wisdom to speak truth to power.

Dr. George Watts and Laurie Blazek also point out that it leads to teams that are immature, hyper-competitive, dishonest, political, and dysfunctional. They note five ego traps of leaders, depending on a person’s foundational personality traits:

  1. The need to be superior, based on a fear of not receiving the status we feel entitled to
  2. The need to be admired, based on a fear of not receiving the recognition we feel we deserve
  3. The need to be liked, based on a fear of not being included as much as we want
  4. The need to be correct, based on a fear of being judged for making a mistake and being viewed as less than perfect
  5. The need to win, based on a fear of not succeeding or coming out ahead
“Unchecked egos are the most destructive force in business.” -Bo Peabody, entrepreneur and venture capitalist

Ego also threatens to ruin or degrade our experience with big challenges and transitions such as a job change, layoff, empty nest, or retirement, when we’re too attached to our role or position. (See my related article, “Is Your Identity Wrapped Up Too Much in Your Work?”)

“Avoid having your ego so close to your position that when your position falls, your ego goes with it.” -Colin Powell

Leadership Derailers Assessment

Take this assessment to identify what’s inhibiting your leadership effectiveness. A critical and often overlooked tool for your leadership development.

 

How to Get Beyond Ego

Clearly, there are big downsides to having our thoughts captured by our ego. So how do we escape this trap? It turns out that there are many things we can do to get beyond our ego, from simple practices to mindset changes. We can:

  1. recognize that the ego is a false and misleading identity that causes us suffering because we grow overly attached to it
  2. develop our self-awareness so that we can notice more often when our ego is hijacking our thoughts and see ourselves and our behavior with greater accuracy and clarity
  3. develop the courage to be imperfect and vulnerable, embracing the “audacity of authenticity” and replacing perfectionism with healthy striving, as Brene Brown recommends
  4. stop comparing ourselves to others and focus on contributing to others instead
  5. stop thinking about ourselves so much, since it’s a recipe for unhappiness, and start thinking more about other people, a cause, or God
  6. give credit to others and learn to enjoy recognizing their efforts and contributions
  7. submit to a committed relationship with our spouse, family, community, and/or faith, recognizing the emptiness of focusing on individual material success
  8. recall that success, wealth, and fame are fickle, that they can change in a heartbeat, and they’re not the point of life or the source of our lasting happiness and fulfillment
  9. keep learning new things and exposing ourselves to people and experiences outside our zone of expertise
  10. get deeply immersed in something (e.g., a challenge or sport or performance) and focus on developing mastery to get out of our own head
  11. solicit feedback and get good at receiving it openly, without resistance or rationalizations
  12. develop a keen focus on the work itself and the process of doing it—perhaps even leading to a sense of flow—instead of a focus on the potential results and how we may look or feel if we achieve them
  13. become a servant of a higher purpose that contributes to the lives of others instead of focusing on advancing our own interests or agenda
  14. join a small group and share openly with each other, developing trust and camaraderie so group members can call each other out when egos get inflated
  15. stop complaining, since it only fuels the ego with negativity and pulls us out of the present moment and into resentments about the past*
  16. think about what we’re grateful for
  17. engage in what researchers call “self-distancing,” in which we view ourselves from the perspective of an outsider or imagining that we’re observing ourselves from a distance (researchers have found that people who do this recover more quickly from negative feelings and reduce their anxiety about future concerns)
  18. stop identifying with things and ideas, instead allowing ourselves to remain free and present in the moment
  19. find sanctuary—a place or practice of peace, quiet, and tranquility that restores our heart and soul (e.g., in nature or a house of worship)
  20. contemplate the vastness of the universe, putting our small egos in perspective
  21. realize that our mental suffering will continue as long as we’re captive to our ego

 

Conclusion

Our ego can be a mega-trap in our lives, secretly running a mental script that doesn’t serve us and that takes us away from a life we’d want to live. It causes pain, anxiety, and anguish, over and over again on a nefarious loop.

When we get beyond our ego, it can have profound effects on our experience of life. We can be and feel calm, accepting, forgiving, selfless, peaceful, trusting, serene, still, and complete.

 

Reflection Questions

  1. Is your mental script captured by ego most of the time?
  2. How is it impacting the quality of your life?
  3. What will you do, starting today, to get out of this trap?

 

Related Articles

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.

 

Tools for You

 

Postscript: Quotations on Ego

  • “Wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, your worst enemy already lives inside you: your ego.” -Ryan Holiday, Ego Is the Enemy
  • “There is an unhealthy desire for prestige and money that is ruining people’s lives. The desire for prestige and money is why we: 1) spend an outrageous sum of money on education, 2) kill ourselves at jobs we don’t like, 3) put up with colleagues and bosses we despise, 4) never pursue our dreams, 5) neglect our children, and 6) eventually fill our hearts with regret.” -Sam Dogen, the “Financial Samurai”
  • “You shouldn’t worry about prestige. Prestige is the opinion of the rest of the world…. Prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like…. Prestige is especially dangerous to the ambitious.” -Paul Graham, “How to Do What You Love”
  • “Self-image is constructed by the ego. It gives you a facade that you can show the world, but it also turns into a shield behind which you hide…. real change requires a relaxed attitude. Sadly, most people extend untold energy in protecting their self-image, defending it from attacks both real and imagined.” -Deepak Chopra, Reinventing the Body, Resurrecting the Soul
  • “The ego is only an illusion, but a very influential one. Letting the ego-illusion become your identity can prevent you from knowing your true self.” -Wayne Dyer
  • “The bigger your heart, the more you love, the more you control your life. The bigger your ego, the more you’re scared, the more others control your life.” -Maxime Lagacé
  • “We must do our work for its own sake, not for fortune or attention or applause.” -Steven Pressfield, The War of Art
  • “As long as the egoic mind is running your life, you cannot truly be at ease; you cannot be at peace or fulfilled except for brief intervals when you obtained what you wanted, when a craving has just been fulfilled.” -Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now
  • “Don’t confuse confidence with arrogance. Arrogance is being full of yourself, feeling you’re always right, and believing your accomplishments or abilities make you better than other people. People often believe arrogance is excessive confidence, but it’s really a lack of confidence. Arrogant people are insecure, and often repel others. Truly confident people feel good about themselves and attract others to them.” -Christie Hartman
  • “Arrogance is a self-defense tactic to disguise insecurities.” -Caroll Michels
  • “Conceit is God’s gift to little men.” -Bruce Barton
  • “Pride is at the bottom of all great mistakes.” -John Ruskin
  • “…the ego needs problems, conflict, and ‘enemies’ to strengthen the sense of separateness on which its identity depends.” -Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now
  • “…the ego-self is like a small, comfortable hut, while what the soul offers is a vast landscape with an infinite horizon.” -Deepak Chopra, Reinventing the Body, Resurrecting the Soul
  • “The ego doesn’t know your only opportunity for being at peace is now.” -Eckhart Tolle
  • “When the ego dies, the soul awakes.” -Mahatma Gandhi
  • “The ego, for all its claims to running everyday life, has a glaring defect. Its vision of life is unworkable. What it promises as a completely fulfilling life is an illusion…. When you become aware of this defect, the result is fatal for the ego. It can’t compete with the soul’s vision of fulfillment…. The difference between a prisoner captive in his cell and you or me is that we have voluntarily chosen to live inside our boundaries. The part of our selves that made this choice is the ego.” -Deepak Chopra, Reinventing the Body, Resurrecting the Soul
  • “As long as you are proud you cannot know God. A proud man is always looking down on things and people; and, of course, as long as you are looking down, you cannot see something that is above you.” -C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

* Note that refraining from complaining can be very difficult to pull off. Consider starting small, e.g., by trying to not complain for a whole day, and then a week, or start a complaining fund in which you drop a dollar into a jar every time you complain.

** Featured image source: Adobe Stock.

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

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

 

+++++++++++++++++
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 Problem with Not Being Clear about Our Values

The Problem with Not Being Clear about Our Values

Article Summary:

Many of us get into trouble when we start living and leading in ways that conflict with our values. That usually starts with not knowing what our core values are.

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Our values are what’s most important to us. What we believe and stand for. Our convictions about what’s most important in life.

“Your core values are the deeply held beliefs that authentically describe your soul.”
-John C. Maxwell

Many of us get into trouble when we start living and leading in ways that conflict with our values. First, we must know what our core values are.

 

The Costs of Lacking Clarity on Our Values

Lacking clarity about our core values can get us into trouble in many areas.

For example, lacking clarity about our core values makes it harder to:

  • be decisive and make decisions, including good decisions about career and work
  • determine our top priorities
  • be assertive about what we stand for
  • maintain clarity and poise during challenges
  • identify misalignments in our lives (such as when we’re overinvesting in our work and underinvesting in our relationships)
  • discover our purpose
  • bring more meaning and significance into our lives
“Perhaps the most significant thing a person can know about himself
is to understand his own system of values.
Almost every thing we do is a reflection
of our own personal value system.”
-Jacques Fresco

Lacking clarity about our values reduces or weakens our:

  • character
  • confidence
  • motivation
  • willpower to persist through challenges
  • stress resilience
  • satisfaction at work
  • performance at work
  • leadership effectiveness

It also makes it easier for:

    • us to lose focus on things that matter most
    • our negative self-talk to hijack our inner dialogue
    • us to make poor choices in choosing a life partner (due to a major values misalignment)

Lacking clarity about our values makes it less likely that we’ll:

    • be fully authentic
    • make needed improvements in our lives (e.g., healthier eating or more exercise)
    • move forward in realizing our potential
    • maintain our happiness and quality of life

Finally, it makes it more likely that we’ll:

  • make big mistakes that lead to major regrets
  • do something unethical and illegal, perhaps damaging our reputation and career

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.

 

The Benefits of Knowing Our Values

Naturally, there’s a flipside to all the costs listed above. There are many powerful benefits that come from knowing our values.

A big one is that our core values, along with our purpose, can serve as a sort of safe harbor in our lives—a place to return to amidst the storms and chaos.

“A highly developed values system is like a compass.
It serves as a guide to point you in
the right direction when you are lost.”
-Idowu Koyenika

Our values can help us continue living in integrity even when times are tough, providing an important source of comfort and solace.

Our core values can also serve as a catalyst of motivation, keeping us inspired and moving forward in a state of empowerment. They can point us toward an exciting vision that resonates with who we are and what we want at the core.

Finally, according to University of Pennsylvania researchers, encouraging new workers to express their personal values at work was linked to them significantly outperforming peers, being more satisfied at work, and higher retention.

The benefits are truly compelling.

former CEO and chair American Express

(For guidance on how to discover your values, see my related article, “How to Discover Your Core Values.”)

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.

 

Conclusion

Discovering our core values and living by them can improve all dimensions of our life and work.

The key, of course, is not just knowing our core values or writing them down.

The key is living them—building them into the fabric of our lives. Using them to guide our decisions, actions, priorities, and allocation of time and energy—and as a guide to crafting a good life.

 

Reflection Questions

  1. Do you know your core values?
  2. To what extent are you honoring and upholding them lately?
  3. What more could you do to clarify or re-examine your values and integrate them into your life and work?

 

Tools for You

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Values

  • “When making a decision, big or small, choose in favor of your values. Your values will always point you to the life that holds the most meaning and happiness.” -Rob Kaiser
  • “Focus not on doing less or doing more, but on doing what you value.” -Gretchen Rubin
  • “Life is good when you live from your roots. Your values are a critical source of energy, enthusiasm, and direction. Work is meaningful and fun when it’s an expression of your true core.” -Shoshana Zuboff
  • “Core values serve as a lighthouse when the fog of life seems to leave you wandering in circles.” -J. Loren Norris
  • “Personal leadership is the process of keeping your vision and values before you and aligning your life to be congruent with them.” -Stephen R. Covey
  • “A clear purpose will unite you as you move forward, values will guide your behavior, and goals will focus your energy.” -Ken Blanchard
  • “When values, thoughts, feelings, and actions are in alignment, a person becomes focused and character is strengthened.” -John C. Maxwell
  • “The more that we choose our goals based on our values and principles, the more we enter into a positive cycle of energy, success, and satisfaction.” -Neil Farber

 

Sources

  • Creswell, J.D. et al., “Affirmation of personal values buffers neuroendocrine and psychological stress responses,” Psychological Science. 2005 Nov; 16 (11): 846-51.
  • Daniel M. Cable, Francesca Gino, and Bradley R. Staats, “Breaking them in or eliciting their best? Reframing socialization around newcomers’ authentic self-expression,” Administrative Science Quarterly, Volume 58, Number 1, pp. 1–36, February 8, 2013.
  • Hitlin, S. (2003). Values as the core of personal identity: Drawing links between two theories of self. Social Psychology Quarterly, 66(2), 118.
  • Schwartz, S. H. (1994). Are there universal aspects in the structure and contents of human values? Journal of Social Issues, 50(4), 19–45.
  • Schwartz, S. H., & Bilsky, W. (1987). Toward a universal psychological structure of human values. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53(3), 550–562.
  • Meg Selig, “9 Surprising Superpowers of Knowing Your Core Values,” Psychology Today, November 27, 2018.

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

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

 

+++++++++++++++++
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 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!

 

+++++++++++++++++

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 Problem with Lacking Clarity in Your Life

Article Summary: 

Many people aren’t clear about what they want and where they’re going. Lacking clarity is one of the most damaging traps we can fall into.

+++

Do you know who you are?

What you want?

Where you’re going and why?

We may have a vague sense of these things but no real clarity. We lack a clear vision that pulls us forward toward its sweet and compelling destination.

Meanwhile, we keep our heads down and stay busy as a form of avoidance. Sometimes this situation continues for a very long time, placing us in an extended state of drifting.

Lacking clarity is one of the most damaging traps we can fall into. Why? Because lacking clarity affects everything, including our quality of life, relationships, work, leadership, and dreams. And because having clarity is a superpower. Life is so much better and richer when we have a clear vision of a better future, anticipation about what it will feel like when we realize it, and conviction about what’s important and meaningful.

 

What We Should Get Clear About

Okay, so clarity is important, but clarity about what? Here are the ten most important things we should get clear about:

  1. purpose: why we’re here; our reason for being
  2. values: the things that are most important to us; what we believe and stand for
  3. vision: what success looks like—a mental picture of what we want to be, do, and contribute in life and with whom
  4. strengths: what we’re good at, including our knowledge, skills, and talents
  5. passions: what we get lost in, consuming us with palpable emotion
  6. goals: what we want to accomplish
  7. priorities: the relative importance of our top aims
  8. strategies: how we’ll achieve our vision and goals and what we’ll focus on given our available time and resources
  9. capabilities: what knowledge and skills we need to develop to realize our vision
  10. service: who we seek to impact and how

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.

 

 

Signs We’re Lacking Clarity

There’s a big price to pay when we don’t have enough clarity about these things. When we lack clarity, we tend to:

  • suffer from anxiety, stress, self-doubt, indecision, and frustration
  • struggle with knowing where to begin
  • question ourselves and our actions
  • procrastinate
  • begin projects without finishing them
  • struggle with minor decision-making
  • feel like we need advice from others before making most decisions
  • feel overwhelmed and burned out
  • agree to too many things
  • feel confused and uncertain about what to do next
  • be more prone to distraction and disorganization
  • keep comparing ourselves with others
  • put in inconsistent effort
  • remain too busy and frazzled to think about and work toward a better future
  • see a decline in motivation and performance
“Lack of clarity is the primary reason for failure in business and personal life.” -Brian Tracy

 

Benefits of Clarity

On the flip side, there are many powerful benefits that flow from having clarity in our lives. For example, having greater clarity:

  • eliminates distractions and helps us focus
  • helps us establish a definitive direction
  • makes it easier to identify actions to take and prioritize them
  • helps us overcome fear and doubt
  • makes it easier for others to help and support us because they have better insights into what we want
  • allows us to put our energy into what we want
  • helps us get things done
  • makes it easier to say no to things that don’t matter to us
  • helps us manage challenges more effectively
  • reduces feelings of overwhelm and helps us manage stress more effectively
  • helps us make better decisions and reduces decision fatigue
  • allows us to set and enforce boundaries
  • helps us save money since we avoid spending it on things that don’t matter
  • helps us feel contentment and happiness
  • provides the serenity that comes from knowing what matters most
  • leads to healthier relationships
  • boosts our confidence
  • facilitates better performance
“…compared with their peers, high performers have more clarity on who they are, what they want, how to get it, and what they find meaningful and fulfilling.” -Brendon Burchard

Leadership Derailers Assessment

Take this assessment to identify what’s inhibiting your leadership effectiveness. A critical and often overlooked tool for your leadership development.

 

 

How to Get More Clarity

Given all the compelling benefits of achieving greater clarity, the question then becomes how to go about it. What can we do to bring more clarity to our lives? Here are 16 actions we can take:

  1. Eliminate distractions, clear out clutter, and create more white space in our lives. This makes room for self-awareness, pattern-mapping, and new insights.
  2. Do one thing at a time.
  3. Take more action more often. Many people assume they need clarity before acting, but sometimes clarity comes from taking action. Act, assess, learn, and adjust. Then repeat.
  4. Reflect after acting. Step back periodically to see how things are going. What’s emerging and what’s getting in the way?
  5. Talk to others. Share what we’re unclear about and ask for their input. They may be able to see things we can’t from their vantage point. (Consider doing this in small groups.)
  6. Develop a clear vision of what life will be like when we’re living the life we want. Start by defining what success looks like in different areas, including family, relationships, health, work, education, community, and more.
  7. Spend more time thinking about our desired future. Also, engage in planning and actions that move us toward that future. Best to schedule time for it on our calendar.
  8. Journal about what’s going on and what isn’t clear yet. Write freely and let thoughts appear uninhibited.
  9. Start acting like the person we want to become. Bring our desired future into our present.
  10. Turn our purpose, values, and vision into a daily mantra or affirmation.* This will help embed them into our consciousness and build them into the fabric of our days.
  11. Ask what we would do if we had less time. By doing so, we force tough choices about what to focus on.
  12. Reduce exposure to negative influences. They extract a tax on our energy and attention. And they pull us away from our own priorities.
  13. Engage in regular centering activities. Take breaks and go for walks. Try deep breathing or meditation.
  14. Follow a regular, daily routine. Be sure that it includes time for quiet reflection.
  15. Make time for systematic self-care. Don’t neglect good habits of nutrition, hydration, movement, and sleep.
  16. Work with a coach or mentor. Focus on getting more clarity on purpose, values, vision, strengths, passions, goals, priorities, strategies, capabilities, and service opportunities.

 

Related Traps

Lack of clarity is common, and it can be pernicious, affecting so much of how we think and what we do. It’s also accompanied by several associated traps:

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.

 

Achieving clarity about who we are, what we want, and where we’re going can be very challenging. But lacking clarity leads to drifting and settling. And having clarity is a superpower that adds energy and richness to all we do.

 

Reflection Questions

  1. To what extent are you clear about who you are, what you want, and where you’re going?
  2. What more will you do, starting today, to achieve greater clarity in your life and work?

 

Tools for You

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Clarity

  • “Clarity precedes success.” -Robin Sharma
  • “Clarity is essential. Knowing exactly what you want builds your self-confidence immeasurably.” -Brian Tracy
  • “Clarity is the child of careful thought and mindful experimentation.” -Brendon Burchard
  • “Everyone seems to have a clear idea of how other people should lead their lives, but none about his or her own.” -Paolo Coelho
  • “As you become more clear about who you really are, you’ll be better able to decide what is best for you—the first time around.” -Oprah Winfrey
  • “It is essential to know yourself before you decide what work you want to do.” -Stephen R. Covey
  • “People often complain about lack of time when lack of direction is the real problem.” -Zig Ziglar
  • “Clarity about what matters provides clarity about what does not.” -Cal Newport
  • “It’s a lack of clarity that creates chaos and frustration. Those emotions are poison to any living goal.” -Steve Maraboli
  • “Unhappiness is not knowing what we want and killing ourselves to get it.” -Don Herold
  • “…as your inner world becomes more orderly and clear, your actions in the outer world should follow suit.” -Deepak Chopra
  • “Your vision will become clear only when you look into your heart. Who looks outside, dreams. Who looks inside, awakens.” -Carl Jung
  • “Clarity is the most important thing. I can compare clarity to pruning in gardening…. If you are not clear, nothing is going to happen.” -Diane von Furstenberg
  • “The more sand has escaped from the hourglass of our life, the clearer we should see through it.” -Niccolo Machiavelli
  • “…the world’s wisdom traditions offer a valuable secret. They teach that the unsettled mind comes about through one thing only: losing sight of who we really are…. The answer lies in finding out who you really are—a conscious agent who can choose, at any time, to live from the level of the true self.” -Deepak Chopra
  • “We want luminosity—the sense of possibility and promise we feel when we absolutely know that all is well and that we’re doing what we’re meant to be doing, right here, right now. We reach luminosity through a different quality of action—clarity, focus, ease, and grace in action.” -Maria Nemeth
  • “Everyone sees the unseen in proportion to the clarity of his heart, and that depends upon how much he has polished it. Whoever has polished it more sees more—more unseen forms become manifest to him.” -Rumi

* Brendon Burchard recommends choosing three aspirational words that describe our desired future self (e.g., “kind, loving, joyful”) and making them a daily smartphone alarm to keep them top-of-mind.

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

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

 

+++++++++++++++++

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?

 

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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!