s life gets busier and more complex, we all crave something larger and more meaningful than just checking off another item on our to-do lists. Traditionally we’ve looked to religion and spirituality for a sense of life purpose, but in our secular age the idea of gods or gurus providing this sense of purpose seems less compelling. The need grows stronger every day for new, better answers as traditional answers continue to fall by the wayside.
Certain sorts of secular solutions to this dilemma, such as, “Do what you love” or “Live with passion” sound attractive. But though they possess the virtue of simplicity, they just aren’t psychologically sophisticated enough. Human life is complicated, full of stressors and distress, and can’t be made to match some fantasy of bliss and ease. Any genuinely fruitful exploration of life purpose has to take human reality into account.
Likewise, such an exploration must get at what meaning really is. You can’t construct a meaningful life for yourself if you don’t have a clear understanding of the nature of meaning. People flounder as they try to envision their life purpose because they’ve skipped the necessary step of arriving at a deep personal understanding of this very thing.
Do We Have More Than One Life Purpose?
Once you understand that meaning is a psychological experience that you can cultivate and create, you suddenly realize three fundamental laws about life purpose: there is no single life purpose for everyone; most people need multiple life purposes; and arriving at an understanding of your life purposes requires effort.
You can gain a deep understanding both of your life purposes and of how to achieve them, but you are obliged to work for that understanding, just as you are obliged to work in a real boot camp to learn how to handle, clean, and fire your rifle. Few of our goals in life can be achieved without work. The same is true with respect to choosing our life purposes.
Even though it is human nature to want life to be easy and to hope that unlocking one secret will change everything, we also retain an abiding desire to show up, do the work, and make ourselves proud. Recovery programs prove that; weight-loss programs prove that; military service proves that. Now you can learn to do the necessary work in the area that matters the most to you: living your life purposefully and meaningfully.
How To Meet Your Pressing Life Purpose Challenges
By adopting certain ideas and engaging in specific practices, you can effectively meet your pressing life purpose challenges. Today many of us have grave trouble comprehending our life purposes and experiencing life as meaningful. This contemporary problem has clear causes, but here I am more concerned with providing answers than with analyzing the roots of this dilemma.
The headline here is that there are answers. Once you understand how meaning operates, how meaning and life purpose are related, and what concrete steps you can take to live as a value-based meaning-maker (an idea I will explain), you will be able to completely transform your life and never run out of meaning again.
But first you must go through boot camp. When I was in the army I first went through basic training and then advanced infantry training. After returning from Asia, I served as a drill sergeant to new recruits. So I have experienced boot camp from both sides. Boot camp is a very interesting place with many metaphoric resonances that we can apply to the idea of life purpose. Here are a few of those resonances.
1. Radical Lifestyle Change
First, things change immediately when you enter the army. As soon as you arrive at boot camp you are in a completely new environment and governed by entirely different rules. Hardly any event in a person’s life produces such a radical change from one day to the next.
When you go from living in an ordinary way one day and deciding to live as a meaning-maker the next, that change is exactly as radical as enlisting, if we let it be!
2. Continual Testing
Second, you are continually tested in basic training, and it is made clear that you are being continually tested. Whether it’s the test of a long run with full gear on, the test of dealing with a room full of tear gas as you learn to get your gas mask on, the test of marksmanship as you learn each new weapon, or the physical test that you have to pass to graduate basic training, boot camp is a continual testing ground.
So is life. By acknowledging this we stand a little straighter and a little more at the ready to choose our life purposes.
3. Morning “Falling In”
Third, in boot camp the first thing you do every day is “fall in.” That is, you leave your barracks and get into company formation and stand at attention while you are counted and while the day’s instructions are announced.
The metaphor of falling in very nicely captures what a morning meaning check-in can feel like as you decide daily where to invest meaning. Rather than standing at attention, we start our day with attention: we face our day and make mindful decisions. The ceremonial falling in of boot camp mirrors our individual daily falling in as we start our day with intention.
4. Quick Thinking and Quick Acting
Fourth, in boot camp you’re taught to seize opportunities and to act quickly, since your life may depend on it. For example, if you are captured, your best and perhaps only chance to escape is in the first seconds of capture before you are put completely under enemy control.
In everyday life most people see no need to live in such a heightened fashion, acting quickly and making every second count. Yet our life purposes may require that we live exactly that way, staying more alert than usual and acting more quickly. You become the quick-witted, quick-acting project manager of the project of your life.
5. Repetitive Practice
Fifth is the idea of drill. Soldiers are made to march in part for physical conditioning but just as much to instill in them an acceptance of the monotony of military life, a monotony of marching, cleaning weapons, and waiting for something to happen.
Life requires that same acceptance of unexciting repetition. To successfully play an instrument you must repetitively practice that instrument. To successfully build a business you must involve yourself in repetitive business activities. To successfully run a scientific experiment you must check on your rats daily.
Life possesses a repetitive aspect that we must accept. Indeed, precision drill possesses a certain beauty, and we can take a surprising amount of pride in drilling well, the same kind of pride we can experience when we do a beautiful job at our own repetitive activities.
6. Regular Inspections
Sixth, we must undergo inspection. In boot camp you are regularly inspected to see if your belt buckle is shining, if your weapon is clean, if your fatigues have been pressed, and so on. While you’re being inspected you stand at attention to underscore how seriously you take this inspection. There is a certain lovely gravity to standing up straight and forthrightly dealing with a tarnished belt buckle or wrinkled fatigues.
If we are intending to act responsibly, we have to monitor ourselves to make sure that we are doing precisely that — and the word inspection nicely captures the flavor of that self-monitoring process.
7. Tapping Into Our Reserves
Finally, there is the idea of tapping into our reserves. In boot camp a recruit is invited up to the front and told to hold his rifle out at arm’s length. Naturally he can only do this for so long. The recruit struggles more and more to keep his rifle up. Finally he can’t help but lower it — and it seems indisputable that he has used up every ounce of his strength. At this point the drill sergeant shouts, “Mister, get that rifle up!” and the recruit instantly returns the rifle to the raised position.
The recruit had reserves of strength that he — and everyone watching — had no idea he possessed. We too have reserves we don’t know we possess. Of course, we don’t want to access these reserves by yelling at ourselves like internal drill sergeants. But we do want to know that we possess these reserves and that if one of our life purposes stretches us past our comfort level, we will be able to tap into our reserves to help us along.
Injecting Some Purpose Into Your Day
You can make it through life doing your work, entering relationships, having a glass of wine, watching the evening news,and putting one foot in front of the other. We are built to be able to make it through life like that, though we are also built to become sad if that is the entirety of our life. We grow sad because we know that by not articulating our life purposes and by not manifesting those purposes, we have fallen short of living authentically.
On the one hand, why not just live, since that is taxing enough? No cosmic arbiter cares if that is all we do, and half the time we don’t really care, either. On the other hand, we know that we have an obligation to ourselves to make our time on earth worthy. We wake up each day on the horns of that quintessentially human dilemma: Shall I just go through the motions, which is hard enough, or shall I try to inject some purpose into my day?
Three Things to Do To Live a Life of Purpose Regularly
If you would prefer to live a life of purpose regularly and not just sporadically, then I suggest you do three things: get clear on your life purposes, upgrade your personality, and manage your circumstances as mindfully as you can. If you do these three things, you will make yourself proud.
Some heavy lifting will be involved: the psychological heavy lifting of adopting a new attitude and a new vision of life and the practical heavy lifting of manifesting that attitude and that vision in the real world. That amounts to a lot, but the reward is the highest prize available to you: an authentic life.
©2014 by Eric Maisel. All Rights Reserved.
Reprinted with permission of New World Library, Novato, CA.
www.newworldlibrary.com or 800-972-6657 ext. 52.
Adapted with permission from the book:
Life Purpose Boot Camp: The 8-Week Breakthrough Plan for Creating a Meaningful Life
by Eric Maisel, Ph.D.
Bestselling author, psychotherapist, and creativity coach Eric Maisel offers an eight-week intensive that breaks through barriers and offers insights for living each day with purpose. Once you understand how meaning operates, how meaning and life purpose are related, and what concrete steps you can take toward fulfilling your purpose, you will never run out of meaning again. This program will develop self-awareness and self-confidence and give you what you need to fully live the best possible life.
About the Author
Eric Maisel, PhD, is the author of more than forty works of fiction and nonfiction. His nonfiction titles include Coaching the Artist Within, Fearless Creating, The Van Gogh Blues, The Creativity Book, Performance Anxiety, and Ten Zen Seconds. He writes the "Rethinking Psychology" column for Psychology Today and contributes pieces on mental health to the Huffington Post. He is a creativity coach and creativity coach trainer who presents keynote addresses and life purpose boot camp workshops nationally and internationally. Visit www.ericmaisel.com to learn more about Dr. Maisel.
Watch a video with Eric: How to Make a Meaningful Day