Everyone wants a meaningful life. So how do we do that? It’s simple. All we have to do is spend our days doing what we find meaningful. Day after day of meaningful activity adds up over the months, years, and eventually into a meaningful life.
If that sounds too simple, keep a couple of things in mind: Simple is often the best answer and just because something is “simple” doesn’t mean it’s easy.
Why don’t we do that?
We have lots of reasons why we don’t spend our days doing what is meaningful.
1) Life distracts us with all of its ordinary demands. We’re busy living day-to-day and so much of each 24 hour period is spent on work, laundry, food, sleep and Netflix. We end up “busy just being busy” while time for what is meaningful slips through our fingers.
2) Effort is required. Guess what? Conscious mental effort is necessary to discover what is meaningful to us. Then more effort is required to actually include meaningful activities in our day. And effort, whether it’s mental or physical, is difficult.
It’s much easier to spend our time on the predictable path of least resistance. We spend our time in a default setting of doing what is convenient or enjoyable. Unfortunately, convenient or enjoyable is often not very valuable or meaningful.
3) Fear is always lurking in the background. We can be afraid to actually search our life for what is meaningful. Because when we find something that’s really meaningful, we start to think, “what if I fail?”
4) Shame or embarrassment is another stumbling block. If we find something meaningful to work on, we might look at our “meaningful” and think, “What if it’s not good enough? What if my most meaningful idea is having a shot glass collection from every state capital in the US? Look at me, I’m on a quest to Bismarck, North Dakota while my neighbor is working on a cure for cancer!”
5) Some people have regrets that they didn’t start sooner in life to look for something meaningful. We think, “If I had only started astronaut training in the 8th grade just think of where I would be today!”
6) Consistency is the final obstacle. We can discover what is meaningful and make a plan to work on it. Progress flows for a day or week or even a month. But something comes along, whether it’s an illness, vacation, and extra responsibilities for our family or work. Or one of the items listed above in 1 – 5 gets in the way.
Then our plans and goals are pushed to the side and we find it difficult to start again.
Let’s start at the beginning
How to get past all those obstacles? The first step is to take the time to look at our life and find out what is meaningful. Meaningful for you and not necessarily for anyone else.
Some people know from a young age how they want to spend their life. Something resonates with them and they can’t imagine living any other way. No doubts, no guilt, no hesitation. You’ve met people like that. And they make you sick, don’t they? Sure they do.
I don’t know why some people have always known what their life’s purpose is, even since they were four years old. People who have always wanted to be a lawyer or singer or dentist. Okay I’ve never met anyone who always wanted to be a dentist but you get the idea.
When I was four years old, what was meaningful in my life? I wanted to catch a butterfly, remember to zip up my pants, and keep monsters from living under the bed. That was it for me.
So for those of us who haven’t always had an obvious burning passion, the first and most important task is to then think about what is meaningful in our own life. Then we can start living it as much as possible.
Over time you might realize what you feel is meaningful is not a 100% perfect fit but you can make changes as you go. The main point though is to do the work to discover what’s important for you and start living more of that everyday.
Let’s get started.
Most every corporation has a mission statement. Something they hang on the wall in the reception area at the corporate headquarters. Or put on the back of the annual report to shareholders.
A corporate mission statement is simply a way for a company to write down their core principles. Hmmm . . . core principles? Sounds like another way of a corporation telling everyone what is meaningful for their company.
For example, Amazon’s mission statement says:
To be Earth’s most customer-centric company where people can find and discover anything they want to buy online.
Isn’t that what they do? Even though Amazon started by selling books, that was never their entire mission. Jeff Bezos doesn’t want to sell only books, his mission is to sell most anything and everything.
And they’ve arranged their website so consumers can not only find but discover what they want to buy. Amazon always gives suggestions about other products you might want based on your browsing history or what other people have bought. With next-day delivery and easy returns I’d say they are customer-centric too.
The Amazon mission statement clearly describes their core principles and their corporate behavior closely follows those principles.
Mission Statements for people
What’s this got to do with us? We can be like a corporation too and have a mission statement for our own lives. Instead of selling on the internet, our lives have many more dimensions such as work, family, spirituality, health, and learning.
We can create our own mission statement with this simple formula. First, pick qualities or values that you want to include in your life. You get to choose your own but here are a few examples:
Adventure, contribution, joy, learning, peace, religion, loving relationships, being physically active.
Then ask yourself why you want these qualities in your life. What do you want to happen? Suppose you want to live a life of peace. Why do you want to do that? Why do you want to live a life of peace or contribution or whatever other qualities you choose?
I want to live a life of
Then put these two pieces together in roughly this format . . . .
I want to live a life of (whatever qualities are important to you)
so that I can (reason why you want to live that way)
There you have it. You have created your own mission statement. Keep it brief and clear and tweak it till it resonates with you. You should be able to read it and think, “yeah, that’s me.”
For example, here’s a hypothetical mission statement for someone who values family most of all.
I want to live a life full of loving family relationships so we will be healthy, both physically and emotionally.
That statement has a clear theme – family life with loving relationships – along with a reason what that’s important – to be healthy, both physically and emotionally.
This mission statement also meets the criteria of being brief and clear.
You get the idea? Try it out for yourself. Take that simple structure and modify it however it feels best for you.
A favorite story
Don’t like the idea of a corporate mission statement? Feels a little too stuffy and structured? That’s fine. Try this instead.
Do you have a favorite movie, book, or television show? If you think about it, any good story has characters with their own mission statements. After all, if the characters don’t have anything meaningful going on then how can they tell a good story?
Here’s a few examples.
The Star Trek television series was originally broadcast in the 1960s. At the beginning of each episode Captain Kirk (William Shatner) would do this voice over
Space, the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its 5-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.
Then they would play the big orchestral, sci-fi geeky theme music. That statement though lays out a very clear, inspiring purpose. They’re going to “boldly go” and “explore strange new worlds,” and, “seek out new life.”
Or how about this from the movie Bonnie and Clyde where the character of Clyde Barrow, played by Warren Beatty, simply says,
We rob banks.
Illegal activity is not the best choice but that simple statement leaves no doubt about the life philosophy of Bonnie and Clyde.
In the Blues Brothers, Dan Aykroyd plays the role of Elwood Blues. This brief dialogue definitely tells us what is meaningful to his character.
Mrs. Tarantino: Are you the police?
Elwood: No, ma’am. We’re musicians.
What makes your life meaningful? Explore strange new worlds? Rob banks? Play music?
Or maybe you’re more like Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society
Carpe diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.
Not the same kind of clarity as “we rob banks.” The philosophy in that statement revolves around the idea of making each day count. Getting the most of each day no matter what you’re doing. Maybe you’re robbing banks, playing music, or exploring strange new worlds. Either way this “mission statement” would remind you to, “Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.”
You’re the star
So instead of an official corporate mission statement, you can use movies and stories to learn more about what would make your own life meaningful. Pretend your life is a movie and you have the starring role. What would your role be? What would your character say or do in the movie that would tell everyone what you thought was meaningful?
You can do the same thing with your favorite novel, historical figure, or even quotes. What resonates with you? What statement would you make to describe yourself if you were a character in a story? The story can be anything – fiction, non-fiction, movie, book, or even a quote or poem.
Another way to find what is meaningful is to make a list of people you admire. They can be family, friends, or co-workers. Or they don’t even have to be people you know and can be from any time period, past or present, or even fictional characters.
Maybe you admire Ghandi, Alexander the Great, Walt Disney, or Spiderman.
Now describe the qualities you admire in them. Do they have courage or a sense of humor? Or are they persistent or creative? Or loving or intelligent?
Pay attention to those qualities you admire in someone else because those values are what are meaningful for your own life.
Imagine it’s your funeral and your friends and family all stand up to say a few words. What would you like them to say about you?
Answering that question is another great way to uncover what you really think is meaningful in life. Not the most happy and cheerful exercise but it’s an effective way to learn about your life.
The first step towards a meaningful life is to pick one of the different approaches above and make the effort to discover what is important for you.
What do we do when we find our “meaningful?” Well, we don’t just sit there and stare at it. After we clarify what is meaningful then we need to take action and put more of that “meaningful” into our daily lives.
I’ll cover how to do that with some concrete steps in later posts. For now though, build the foundation and think about what is meaningful for you.