Overcoming purpose anxiety

Today I feel like challenging myself to do something useful and fun. It feels similar to wanting to go for a run or for a hike but on a longer timespan, like a month. It reminds me of this quote by Paul Graham

Almost anyone would rather, at any given moment, float about in the Caribbean, or have sex, or eat some delicious food, than work on hard problems. The rule about doing what you love assumes a certain length of time. It doesn’t mean, do what will make you happiest this second, but what will make you happiest over some longer period, like a week or a month.

Paul Graham – How to Do What You Love

Purpose anxiety

In the past challenging myself has been – um – challenging. Hiding behind this is something I recently recognised as purpose anxiety. A few days ago my wife felt that she did not have enough opportunities to speak out her preferences over some of our shared plans and this was because she anticipated me feeling unwilling to discuss such matters.

Reflecting upon it I realised that I have been feeling impatient and I have been rushing myself and others when dealing with matters that I do not find meaningful. On the contrary, my wife noticed that I have been very patient, perhaps more than average, when dealing with matters that I find meaningful. After some investigating, I found that my behaviour spun from a more general feeling I had: purpose anxiety.

Purpose anxiety is both systemic and personal

We are embedded in an environment where purpose is considered a dogmatic good. Our leaders appear unshakeably purposeful. Entrepreneurs and influencers are on lifelong missions and inundate social media feeds advocating for finding my purpose. Even research claims that a sense of purpose increases resilience and the chance of healthy ageing. A 2016 report showed that 38% of workers globally consider purpose as important as money or status.

There is little space in our common discourse for the undirected messiness in which many things happen in most lives. It feels like our activities must be infused with meaning. I recognise that I have been implicitly assuming that I must feel a fulfilling sense of purpose regarding what I do and that I should worry if I do not. I assumed that bad things would happen to me if I indulged in unintentional, purposeless and meaningless activities.

It turns out that it is not true. While following a clear mission with determination usually provides empowering feelings, wandering purposeless is both natural and harmless. Being worried about having a purpose is also counterproductive. Anxiety reduces our creative and perspective-taking abilities which hinders the complex and intertwined journey of meaning-making.

Also, the concept of ‘finding your purpose’ feels static. A simple and clear purpose seems to hinge on a defined skillset and having a linear life path from point A to point B. This can feel limiting and oppressive for whose who appreciate non-linear and multi-perspective interests. It often made me feel spiritually broke.

What I found most distressing was to find myself repeatedly fighting against purposeless activities and holding desperately to some anchor of purpose here and there.

Those among us who are more prone to seeing the negative side of things and worry may easily be victim of purpose anxiety. It is disempowering and can makes us feel stressed, incomplete and unhappy about how we spend our time. However, it emerges outside the individual from a collective inconsistency between how we publicly portray the journey of life and how we privately experience moment to moment. Because of the dogmatic and implicit public adulation of purpose it took me a while to recognise I was feeling pressured and anxious about it.

Wisdom is incremental and humble

The professional masters how, and leaves what and why to the gods […] The sign of the amateur is over-glorification of and preoccupation with the mystery. The professional shuts up. She doesn’t talk about it. She does her work.

Steven Pressfield – The War of Art

So far challenging myself has been distressful because purpose anxiety has led me to worry too much about the meaning and the impact of what I was doing which in turn caused me to

  1. ignore how much I was going to enjoy that challenge
  2. ignore whether I was aiming at something at the right level of difficulty

Missing this two aspects has led me to repeatedly undertake challenges that were largely beyond my capabilities and that I did not enjoy. Even thought I am good at project management and self-discipline, those challenges didn’t last long: they were not sustainable.

The way forward for me consist of

  • letting go worries about some grand end; and
  • encourage myself permission to do things at the level of difficulty that pushes me forward without overly burdening me; and
  • aim for an middle ground by building off what I have done and make incremental progress to the next phase

Tying together different short-term practices is itself a skill that I can improve. As the cliche goes, you can walk a thousand miles by continually focusing on the next step.

If I set goals that are within my reach and whose pursuit I enjoy I feel less anxious and more open to mundane activities, because I don’t carry with me the gloomy vibe of being frustrated from unachievable goals.

And to end this essay on a positive note, let’s listen together to Sara Groves’ Setting Up the Pins and celebrate the beauty of the mundane

Sara Groves “Setting Up the Pins” Music Video


One response to “Overcoming purpose anxiety”

  1. […] also experienced distress about making professional and life decisions (see my post on  overcoming purpose anxiety) and I think there is a connection between these two. Emotional superiority asks food to sustain […]

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