You would have thought that knowing our purpose, what we want out of life – our grand goals and dreams would be something every one of us instinctively knew.
After all, it’s what beats in our heart, what excites us and gives some meaning to the chaos of life. Something important, that is intrinsic to our very soul – it should be obvious to us right? Surely there is a default in the human condition that will never allow us to lose this feeling – this desire for something that excites us to the very core, like nothing else we know?
Erm… well no actually.
If you feel like you drift along in life, banging and crashing from one thing to the other then welcome to the club. Because the fact is most of us are in this position. In fact I would say the vast majority of us are.
Almost all of the clients who come to me for coaching have this feeling and it is rarely recognised or diagnosed in the modern world. Yet to live without any purpose or dreams is surely no life at all.
Even those who seemingly have fulfilled their ambitions tend to carry on, fired up by their success and the insatiable need to look further. The greatest motivator is success in whatever form. When you do something well and to the best of your ability (and it works) why wouldn’t you want to keep going? Seriously! Try it some time.
Maybe you’ve reached ‘that age’ where things you wanted to do or to experience have passed you by or seem impossible now. The novel that will never get completed (hang on, who am I kidding – will never get started!), the travel plans to see the outer reaches of the world, the big house with the fabulous garden, the part time job so you can concentrate on your sculpting…
Whilst life is complex, sometimes infuriating and often very stressful there is one key piece of information we tend to forget.
It’s the fact that we are ultimately in control of our own choices.
The choice not to pursue our dreams, not to live the best way we can is down to us and no one else.
Now read those two sentences again and let it sink in.
Okay life can throw us a curveball and upset the best laid plans… but even then the one thing we still have is how we react to it. It is not the events themselves that is the problem moreover the emotions we attach to them. How we choose to deal with whatever life throws at us defines what our life is like.
The vast majority of the time we are the ones who put the barriers up. We are the ones who find convincing reasons not to even try.
When I was a kid I wanted to be a writer. That and play football for Arsenal or cricket for England. Now one of those depended entirely on me. The other two required a certain amount of natural talent, thousands upon thousands of hours of practice and a huge amount of luck. And at the end of it, I could not be guaranteed anything – there are plenty of fabulously talented sportspeople who never made it through no fault of their own. I was a decent footballer and cricketer but nowhere close to how good you needed to be.
As for becoming a writer… Well, all I needed to do that was to… write. If I wrote a novel then I had completed a major ambition. If the novel never got published I’d have still written it. No-one could take that away form me, ever. And if it did get published – well who knows where that could have led. And whilst untold riches a’ la J.K Rowling would be fantastic, that wasn’t my reason for wanting to do it. I enjoyed it. It gave me pleasure to think up stories and write them down. It’s a pretty ancient desire from the moment we had cognition and then language as a species – the need to tell stories.
Looking back at my own story I realize that I stopped myself from becoming a writer because I’d already decided I wasn’t good enough. I had read Bukowski, Orwell, Hemmingway and thought ‘I could never write like them’. Probably not. But could they write like me? Probably not. Because they are dead which is a big issue for getting new material out and anyway there are a lot of people out there who do not particularly enjoy the authors I have named.
Not because they aren’t great writers… but because the world is a vast place where one person’s trash is another person’s treasure. Was it a reason not to even try? Because I didn’t perceive myself as being on a par with some of the greatest writers of the 20th century? Who put that caveat in? And what chance did it give me…
And yet for years I never examined that thought. It became an absolute truth in my mind. The fact it was false hadn’t occurred to me. I had unknowingly set the bar at perfection and then castigated myself for not reaching it. Of course this gave my lazy ego the excuse not to even try, hence I wouldn’t be judged and I couldn’t fail.
To carry on my sporting analogy it’s like every hopeful dreaming young Arsenal academy footballer looking at Pele, Maradona or Ray Parlour and saying ‘I could never be that good’ and giving up. It’s obviously irrational and the brain is excellent at irrational. Especially when you are having the conversation with yourself so no one can butt in and say ’ummm… wait a minute…’
My reason for telling this basic story is simple. You control what you do. No one else does. There may be circumstances that hinder (or help) but ultimately it is your decision. And when you stop to think about it for a second, it really is a quite magnificent and wonderful privilege.
Discovering your purpose can be difficult for a lot of us. It doesn’t have to be something gigantic and dramatic, it’s often a collection of smaller things that complete the whole. A good barometer is whether the idea transports you in to the world of daydreams. If so, you’re on the right track.
That is why no matter what your age, what your situation and what you conceive as your limits, this information is rarely based on evidence or truth. Ask yourself what it is you really want from life and if you put your mind to it – what is it you could achieve? What latent ambitions and dreams lay in tatters, cut to pieces with a pair of scissors wielded by your very own hand?
One of my all time favourite quotes is from Henry Ford. It is simple and true.
He said ‘ Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.’
We decide what we are capable of and when we uncover that and plan correctly we can answer Henry Ford’s question without even thinking; and who knows what we can achieve with that as our default setting.