First of all, when I speak about meaning and purpose, I’m not talking about finding out the Supremely Divine reason you were put on this Earth. That’s a pretty narcissistic concept anyway, and it puts a lot of pressure on you to find out what it is.
Instead, let’s assume that you’re just a tiny slice of consciousness that accidentally got caught in a human body while your biological parents were scrambling their DNA together after a few too many Margaritas. In other words, there’s no innate reason for you to be here, and neither is there one for me be to here.
The question, therefore, isn’t “why am I here?”, but more: “Now that I’m here, what can do with my time that’s important?”
Taking out the supernatural makes the idea of meaning both practical and immediate. Some find meaning in saving lives as a fireman. Others find it in keeping the fire station as clean as possible. But for an activity to feel meaningful, it needs to satisfy what Luis A Marrero describes as five fundamental human strivings:
Love: Being surrounded by people who genuinely care for and respect one another, as well as the environment.
Peace and peace of mind: Feeling safe, protected, and at ease. Others having your back.
Happiness: Being mindful of — and grateful for — the good in your life. You’re content.
Engagement: Doing interesting things with stimulating people in exciting places.
Prosperity: Feeling that life is worth living. You’re growing intellectually, spiritually, emotionally, financially, and experientially.
Creating experiences that improve those opportunities for love, peace of mind, gratitude, engagement with others, and prosperity, will help you live a more meaningful life. Anything else won’t.
That is why understanding your logos is the first and most important pillar when it comes to figuring out your direction in life.
#2: Personal Values
We coaches love helping people uncover their values. It’s fun work, and it provides clients with immediate clarity around what’s important to them. That makes it the second guiding principle for wayfinding your future.
Your personal values are the fundamental beliefs you have about yourself and about how the world around you should function.
You may be conscious of them or not, but they’re the rules that guide all your decisions. They represent everything you stand for and anything you won’t put up with.
Whenever I put people on the spot, they’ll tell me their values are something like ‘honesty’, ‘integrity’, ‘love’, or ‘justice’. After suppressing a little yarn, I’ll always encourage them to dig a little deeper. And lo and behold, most of the time they don’t even make the final list. That’s because they’re virtues which – unlike values – relate to cultural norms rather than individual ones.
Personal freedom starts when you start living life according to your personal values, not those forced upon you by your family, peers or your community.
Becoming familiar with your core values is pretty straightforward.
Find yourself a list with the most common ones and pick out those that speak to you deeply. The real interesting work is in defining what each of those values means to you, and how you live by them daily.
For example, the value of ‘freedom’ to me might be roaming around butt naked in a pink feather boa in the Burning Man desert. For you, it could mean owning a beautiful mansion as an expression of your financial autonomy and love for design. Likewise, ‘love’ for me might mean a spiritual, emotional and sensual desire to connect with people, while for you it might involve helping out your local Church group with the Christmas raffle.
Aside from the fact that I’ll probably have more fun than you (fun being another value), my interpretation of freedom and love is no better or worse than yours. Indeed, there’s no hierarchy when it comes to values. And yet because they’re so vital to our identity, we’ll often fight tooth and nail for them.
Having well-defined personal values will guard you against making choices that work against who you are. It also allows you to test your decision against whether you’ve made it based on the values of those around you (parents, peers, society), or your own.
#3: Past Self
Perhaps slightly counterintuitive, but a good technique to decide what you want for your wayfinding future is to keep an eye on significant past experiences. Indeed, developing your hindsight skills is a great way to improve self-awareness.
To improve those skills, Abraham Maslow – best known as the author of the hierarchy of needs – recommended listing our peak experiences. Rather poetically, he said:
Peak experiences are the rare, exciting, oceanic, deeply moving, exhilarating, elevating experiences that generate an advanced form of perceiving reality, and are even mystic and magical in their effect upon the experimenter.
For some, they involve the birth of a child or falling in love for the first time. Others prefer memories of tripping balls on mushrooms in Goa or jumping out of an airplane.
Whenever I work with someone new, one of the first questions I ask is what their favourite memory is. Everyone grumbles because nobody’s ever asked them that question before.
Getting clear on what makes certain experiences so delightful for you can be really helpful.
Come up with your top ten of peak experiences by imagining that you’re having a near-death experience and life flashing by before your eyes. This exercise is known as a life review. Make a list by recalling at least one top memory for each year you’ve lived from the age of six. If you have diaries or photo albums, you can browse through them.
Alongside all the positive, also do a mental review of your fundamental fears, displeasures and anxieties. This might feel a bit uncomfortable, but reflecting on and accepting your failures will allow you to move forward on your wayfinding quest.
As the third wayfinding pillar, a life review will help you create a better understanding of your current and future self. You’ll start to appreciate the journey so far while receiving valuable clues about where to go next.
#4: Future Identity and Personality
Most people don’t know the difference between identity and personality.
Identity is something you create yourself based on your logos, your values and your past experiences. Your personality is how you then choose to express that identity. In other words, your identity relates to who you are, while personality reflects how you behave. Neither is fixed.
Organisational psychologist Dr.Benjamin Hardy believes people get too attached to their personality.
Identity drives behaviours which, over time, become personality. Your personality — the sum of your consistent attitudes and behaviours — is merely a by-product of identity. – Dr. Benjamin Hardy
The implication is that by changing how you act, you also change your personality.
In psychology, this is known as self-signaling. For example, let’s say that you rarely wake up before 10 am, and therefore your belief is that you’re not a morning person. If you now consistently wake up at 6 am for two weeks straight, your actions will no longer suit the belief that you’re not a morning person. Your conscious mind notices the discrepancy, and over time you’ll stop referring to yourself as a late-sleeper. So, by altering your behaviour, you’ve effectively changed your personality.
Unfortunately, we’re biased to think that who we are today is exactly who we’ll always be.
That’s bizarre because you can ask anyone if the person they are today is the same person they were ten years ago, and they’ll resolutely say no. And if they do say yes, they’re probably lying, or they’re not growing enough.
This illusion can cause us a lot of problems because by believing that we’re already the finished product today, we give up on our potential to change.
So, the fourth and final wayfinding principle involves accepting that who you are today is not yet the real version of you. By letting go of the notion that your personality is fixed, you can start visualising what that ‘finished version’ of you might look like in ten years’ time. What are the behaviours they would display on a day-to-day basis towards their loved ones, colleagues, and total strangers?
Wayfinding and leading a happy life involves walking a tightrope between planning and letting go. Neither going with the flow too much nor being too relaxed will get you where you want to get to – as long as you can’t define a clear vision of a rich and meaningful future.
To get clear on that definition, use the four wayfinding elements of logos, values, past and identity. They’ll serve as your compass, helping you understand the person you want to become while allowing you to stay flexible on your destination.
And just like it did with Moana, that compass will guide you back home whenever you’re on high seas. Or just like it did with me, it might even get you to set up home on one of those tropical islands, too.