Sam Holstein

How To Live A Life of Purpose

Most people are sleepwalking through life. They don’t feel the pull of an internal purpose guiding their actions. They are pulled through their life by things like work obligations, school obligations, and family obligations. Their days move forward only because, like water flowing down a water wheel, their commitments push them endlessly forward.

There are also people whose wheels have stopped, people who have lost their jobs or their families. Without these commitments to keep them moving forward, they come to a standstill, passing their time with alcohol or Netflix.

There are people, though, who don’t sleepwalk through life.

It’s not enough to have lived. We should be determined to live for something. 

Winston S. Churchill

They get up in the morning not because they will suffer the consequences if they don’t, but because they are eager to live another day. The sun in the sky energizes them. They wake up filled with a sense of purpose.

Chances are you know someone with a purpose. People with purpose are vivid. People with purpose are full of personality. They understand their life is short and that time is limited, and they know what they are doing with it. They are magnetic in a way other people are not. You can’t help but feel drawn to their energy.

If you’re not into flowery language like that, there are some concrete ways to tell if someone has a purpose:

Photo by Kal Visuals on Unsplash

Sleepwalking is easy to identify in others, but not in ourselves. Sleepwalking through life is like dozing on a hot summer day; you mean to get up and get something done, but it’s so warm right where you are… until you wake up and realize fifteen years have gone by.

It doesn’t help that society teaches us to sleepwalk. Schools teach students to wake up at the right time, to get all the assignments done or suffer a bad grade, and to compete with other students for exclusive recognition. All this in service of getting a job at a company where you will wake up at the right time, get all the assignments done or suffer docked pay, and compete with other employees for exclusive recognition. At no point in this process does anyone really sit us down and ask us, ‘what is your unique, beautiful contribution to society?’

To this system, people who don’t sleepwalk through life are frequently a bother. They jam up the works. Albert Einstein was kicked out of multiple schools for laziness (a trait he clearly didn’t have) and bad attitude. Steve Jobs was routinely challenging enough to warrant being fired. My personal favorite is the story of Charles Goodyear, a man with whom the system was not pleased:

Goodyear was exposed to rubber at age 34. “There is probably no other inert substance,” he said later, “which so excites the mind.”He resolved to develop a new form of rubber, as the rubber of the time melted and rotted easily. But when he got home to Philadelphia, he was thrown in debtor’s prison. Not to be deterred, Goodyear continued to experiment from his prison cell. Once out of prison, he found an investor and continued inventing in the house he bought for his family until he ran out of money. He continued inventing, selling household goods and even furniture to get by. There, on the edge of losing everything, he invented the rubber we still use today.

Would someone who is sleepwalking through life do something like that?

Charles Goodyear, everyone

How to tell if you’re sleepwalking through life

It’s easy. Take a deep breath. Feel the life in your hands and feet. Feel your connection to the ground holding you up.Ask yourself “Does my life have a purpose?”

If you do not hear a clear yes, it’s a no.

Whether you believe this sense comes from God, your inner self, the universe itself or that silly old goose the subconscious, this sense is reliable. You don’t need to be sure where it comes from to know that.

If you do not have a lot of faith in yourself or do not trust your own judgment, you don’t have to rely on that touchy-feely crap. Here are some handy questions you can answer to help triangulate what you feel:

Photo by David Mao on Unsplash

How to wake up to your life

Waking up to your life is a time-consuming process and it won’t happen all in one day. It takes time. Waking up to your life is the kind of thing where it seems like your hard work is getting you nowhere — until you look back and see how far you’ve come.

The best way I’ve found to wake up to your life is to get rid of everything which sends you to sleep: The selfies you send on social media, the ream of TV shows you keep up with, recreational drinking, and any activity which takes up hours of your week with nothing to show for it.

Get rid of it all at once, if you can. If you can’t, it’s all right to take it slow; give up your least favorite TV show, give up your least favorite social media platform. In a month or two, do it again. Doing this for a few months can turn a life around.

Next, fill the empty time with things which wake you up. This could be interests you’ve always wanted to pursue, languages you want to learn, or relationships you want to deepen. Use your time to do what you’ve always wanted to do, whether it’s learning a new programming language, painting, spending time with a friend, or laying in a field watching the clouds go by.

When I was first adding things which wake me up to my life, I did a lot of two things: Learned Spanish on Duolingo and painted.

  1. Spanish: It’s not that I particularly cared about learning Spanish, but Duolingo was fun to play (which kept me from going back to social media) and learning Spanish opened up an entirely new world for me. It felt like unlocking an ability in World of Warcraft in real life. It was exhilarating.
  2. Painting: Something I’d always wanted to try was watercolor painting. Once my social media was gone, I finally bought a cheap set of watercolor paints and just started painting whatever, no pressure. It was a far more rewarding use of my time than social media.

Don’t overthink what you spend your time doing; the goal right now isn’t to pick a purpose. Having a purpose is like finding a partner; when you meet the right one, you’ll know. Your goal right now is simply to spend your time doing things that wake you up.

The path to our destination is not always a straight one. We go down the wrong road, we get lost, we turn back. Maybe it doesn’t matter which road we embark on. Maybe what matters is that we embark.

Barbara Hall

The reason I never pursued these interests before — and, I’m guessing, the reason you haven’t pursued your interests yet — is you never feel you have the time or energy. Once you cut out activities which send you to sleep, you suddenly have this energy. Now that social media and binge-watching television aren’t sapping your energy, trying new things becomes natural and easy.

Cutting out activities that send you to sleep creates a virtuous cycle. As you spend more time doing things which wake you up, you want to spend less time sedating yourself. As you choose to sedate yourself less, you do things which give you life more often. The cycle sends you spiraling up and out, into life.