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What gives me meaning and purpose is an important issue to address

What gives me meaning and purpose? I meet many who ask this and feel dissatisfied with what currently seems to be in their life or sense there’s something missing. Not everybody has this as a driver in their lives, but it is a significant factor.The absense of meaning can be a big cause of frustration and discontent.

Humans, it is said, are meaning-making beings. We make interpretations, we fit things into a scheme, we connect things to our beliefs and values, we link what happens to our likes and preferences, we look to get value from what we do, and in other ways make sense of what happens for us. For some of us a sense of meaning might be religious or spiritual. For others it might be doing something for our fellow humans. Others might want to be achieving something of value or what sits well with their values.

Many I work with have reached a point in their lives where what they’ve been doing is no longer “enough” and they want to “put something back”. Some find they have achieved a lot in their careers and but now they want something more “meaningful”. There might also be a young person who is inspired by making a difference and wants his or her life to be one about meaning, rather than say money, status or material possessions. Or some event has occurred that has led them to question the value of what they do, who they are and where they are going.

The classic way of looking at this is Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, where he describes his experiences as a labour inmate of Auschwitz and what distinguished those who survived as opposed to those that died in the final winter before liberation. He considered that those that lived, despite the terrible privations, were those that continued to make meaning, “the hopelessness of our struggle,” he wrote, “does not detract from its dignity and its meaning…(his purpose was) to find a full meaning in our life, then and there, in that hut and in that practically hopeless situation.” Each needed to take personal responsibility to find that meaning for themselves.

For those for whom this is an important driver in their lives the question is no small matter. For such people, it inspires and motivates them. It illuminates their lives and enriches them. They feel the absence of it strongly. Knowing your purpose is uplifting. It sustains you even when things are difficult and challenging. When distracted, it serves to bring you back to focus on what matters. It is therefore an important area to explore, and it’s never to late to do it.

I give coaching to help people clarify their mission, vision, and purpose and get the meaning they want from their lives. To read more about my coaching, click here.

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Having a web detox to help you find what is really meaningful

As so many of us are habitually connected to the web, it might seem strange to suggest that we would benefit from internet/mobile “holidays” or detoxes. Just in case at this point you might be strongly tempted to click out, just pause on this as you might miss out on something important for your health and well-being.

Yes, I felt I had to write that last bit as that is exactly what people do, quickly move on from something that doesn’t have instant interest. Stickability, perseverence, seeing it through, isn’t a habit the net exactly encourages. Yet, this is how we’re, very many of us, living right now: fast, now, instant, mobile, flitting. It’s a norm, such that it doesn’t occur to question it. Yet there’s lots of evidence that it can actually disconnect some of us from others, since the contact is online rather than face-to-face, a very different experience psychologically, and faciliates a form of stress that we aren’t aware of until it has really got us: tense, twitchy, irritable, sleepless nights, etc.

Thus, a web detox is useful periodically just to get a sense of what it can mean to be “off-line”. On this matter it’s worth watching this video. The journalist concerned concluded by saying he couldn’t wait to get back online, so compulsive I would suggest is his addiction, although as a technology correspondent he might have difficulty with that perception.

The point about compulsiveness, addiction if you like, is that we aren’t aware we’ve got it. “It” just runs us. However, if you read between the lines of the accompanying article to the above-mentioned video, you’ll see that he gets time to play the piano, which he usually misses, and has more time for conversation.

When I first tried a web detox, I found I needed to really focus on relaxation. That was perhaps no surprise, given my kind of work, but what I was more struck by was feeling bored. Suddenly there were whole gaps in the day that I was accustomed to filling with the myriad data of the net, and all that online interaction.

Now boredom of course is healthy, potentially that is, as it presents one with a challenge as to how to change the experience into interest. Of course I could simply be in the moment, and be present and aware. This in itself is immensely rewarding, but might perplex very many people not used to doing that and unaware of the whole background conversation around awareness and mindfulness and how useful it is. Another might be to go and meditate, also hugely beneficial. However there was for me a bigger issue to address. What were the most meaningful aspects to my life that I miss out on through being hooked up so much of the time? Like the journalist it could be neglected interests of a non-web kind and of course that vastly missing part of today’s culture, human physical interaction.

It’s worth pausing and thinking about what personal relationship you are neglecting (What are the excuses? eg.”don’t have the time”). Then there is the whole relationship with life, people and engagement. What activities could you do, involving others, that you don’t do and leave you perhaps a bit isolated.

What if the internet was suddenly unavailable to you for an extended period? And what is your life really about? Here’s the really beneficial reflection: what are you doing with your life that gives you meaning? And what could you do about that?

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Are our values at odds with those around us?

It can often seem as though our own values are out of step with those around us. This could include a feeling that in the place where we work the senior managers don’t seem to think the same way, or the culture there isn’t what we ourselves might value. Then the community in which we live might not live quite according to our own ways. Or that the overall culture in which we live is somehow out of step with our own. I read in the news today for example of how a Muslim family felt compelled to move out of what seemed like a “nice” village due to racist attacks, and that the government are forcing through benefit changes that are going to bring about local tax increases for the poorest people of around 10%.

Is this what our society is becoming? However not is all as it seems.

I was fascinated to read recently that the UK has a “values dysfunction” that is higher than other countries in a study made of certain countries’ values. Very many people value things like meaningful relationships and integrity, holding values like “caring, family, honesty, humour and fun, friendship, fairness and compassion, as well as independence, respect and trust”. Yet they do not see their leaders as embodying those values, and national values are seen as being bureaucratic, corrupt, blame-oriented, conflict-prone, etc. It seems that the political elite is out of step with the population it seeks to govern, and that there’s a gap in accountability. Not new, you might think. And I wondered how much readers in other countries might actually think similar things of their own leadership today!

Richard Barrett, who is the driving force behind the study referred to above, says: “Our leaders need to show us the way. They need to become role models of values-driven leadership and they need to show us that they exercise care and compassion for the needs of the elderly and disadvantaged.”

So, when there appears to be a growing gap between different people in society as this recession continues, all is not as it seems. Rather, it might be argued, these values endure and that what we have at present is a crisis of fear. This is what can drive people apart and make knee-jerk responses that can be harmful for others and yet not actually reflect their underlying values. It is that mismatch that can be worth reflecting on, how much do we let our values be sidelined under pressure and allow out our inner demons instead.


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Are you not achieving what you really want?

The word “total success” produces all sorts of reactions in people. There are those for whom it is the sine qua non of their value system, for others the final fling of the capitalist system bankrupted by the recession desperately trying to cling to beliefs past their sell-by date.

Yet being successful has a much broader meaning than the money and career value usually given to it. To feel that sense of completion, that sense of fulfilment, that sense that I have got to where I want to get to, that all feels right in my life, as I perceive it, with regard to my most strongly held aspirations, this is a strong urge inside us.

In Gestalt we call it the “urge to complete”, to have satisfaction, to finish things off, to get closure, to make a whole. However much of human life can be incomplete, unfinished, without satisfaction. We have what I refer to as a sense of not having got what we want, a continuing sense that we still have something to do, something to accomplish.

Martin Seligman of Positive Psychology fame argues in his latest book, Flourish, that one of our key constituents of well-being is accomplishment, the need to achieve, to have got that result or results that we really want in our lives. It also involves the sense that we accomplish things for its own sake, that we do get results, and that we enjoy the process too.

Do you find you have a lingering feeling inside, lingering in that you are often aware of it and it keeps coming back, that you are not achieving what you really want? Do you even have the fear that it may never happen, and that that’s not OK?

We can have inside a feeling that we have something to accomplish in this world, although we may not know what that is. It is deeply felt, and arguably gets stronger as we get older. Some give up and get disillusioned and cynical. Others keep on at it, maybe even at the expense of real enjoyment of the moment and the company of others.

Depending on your beliefs, this inner sense can be what you signed up for when you came into this life, or it might be what you decided when you got to a point where thinking of these things became possible. Or you may never have consciously done it, but still have that lingering thought inside.

Something in your soul is calling to you. You might feel it as a passion needing expression, or a continued dissatisfaction or a longing for something.

You might be stuck on your next career move, or be “between jobs”, or under threat of redundancy (like so very many of us). You might be about to retire, and it’s scary. You might have just come out of an important relationship and need to re-construct your life. You might have recovered from a major accident or illness or a bereavement, and everything feels upside down and you need to really re-envision your life and find new meaning.

People need meaning and purpose. After these upheavals or change they often ask, “What’s the point of it all? Where am I going? What’s it all about?” And some live their lives without having an answer. It’s like there a question not yet asked and an answer not yet given.

But it’s there, under the surface, waiting for you. It’s about learning to tune in and be aware of and listen to what your inner self is telling you.


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Where are you going with your life that gives you meaning?

A theme that I hear a lot concerns the “prevailing gloom” in our society at present, ascribed as it is to the still-ongoing recession. Despite brief attempted “fixes” like the Olympics or the Jubilee here in the UK this undercurrent seems to run and run. We can get brief “fixes” from all sorts of directions, entertainment, eating and drinking among them, but when there’s an underlying malaise the problem doesn’t necessarily go away unless we deal with what’s causing it.

Not surprisingly with another economic downturn, there’s lots of change happening and motivation at work has fallen. A brief respite like the Olympics can still leave people with longer-term issues being put on one side, such as what to do about a career that has perhaps stalled with a succession of economic ups and downs and business restructurings. “Where am I going?” is an important question that many can find hard to resolve.

It can link in with other things that might be missing in your life. Maybe there’s an unresolved relationship issue, or there’s been a problem with your health, or you’ve been off work with stress, or your finances have been getting the better of you despite all your efforts, or what you’d expected would happen with your life hasn’t materialised.

We can get to points in our lives when the current dispensation is no longer working. It can even feel like it’s come to a standstill.

As regards work, you will probably know that familiar job interview question, “What are your career goals?” which you respond to with some plausible-sounding waffle that gets you the job, but you might not have any real goals beyond getting and holding down the job you’ve gone for. Those in work might be thinking, if anything, about lateral or promotional moves, but if asked about a longer-term strategy may struggle. It’s when people lose their jobs and realise their career isn’t going anywhere and that this is now an issue for them that they might start to look seriously at the question.

In general, those who find they’ve hit a real, big crisis in their lives can be hit with this dilemma. Some major accident or illness, a bereavement or some other upheaval can leave people wondering what is all about.

It’s time like these that some of us start to look for the meaning in it all, like what will give meaning to my life now, what’s it about, and what do I want it to be about?

This journey, if really addressed, can take us in new directions that can bring us far more satisfying results. But we need to address the issues that brought things to a crisis and find out what it’s got to teach us that is truly meaningful for our life path.

Those who might be serious at addressing the issue can benefit from thinking about what their purpose or “mission” is, what for example their chosen line of work is for, or what do they want in general from their life. For example it might be to serve some ultimate goal, such as a particular type of work for which you need to get the training and experience. Or you might have some higher goal, which your work is intended to serve, such as helping others in some way let say.

According to Martin Seligman, the proponent of Positive Psychology, a key determinant of well-being is meaning. According too to Viktor Frankl, in Man’s Search for Meaning, humans need to derive meaning from their endeavours. I have over and over found in my work that those who struggle to find a way forward have difficulty answering the question, “What do you want?” with regard to their life. As many often say, they so often haven’t known the answer and life has just happened for them by default.

This is about taking control and making a conscious decision to move things on. While we’re all stuck in recession, this question is perhaps plaguing whole chunks of our society right now. No wonder people are depressed. Yet we all have the answers potentially within us, when we find a way to unlock them.

I help people do work on their meaning and purpose, in my coaching.

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Athletes too can lose their sense of purpose

It’s not just the spectators who feel a drop in spirits after the Olympics. Athletes do too. The post-games depression is a very real occurrence that many sports lovers will know well. There you are, for two weeks absorbed in what might be for you the best sporting event in ages, caught up in all the drama, sharing in the emotion, rejoicing when your stars win, it can become almost a life of its own. And it brings people together and we all feel the collective joy of a particular success by some sportsperson. Just think of the enormous cheering and applause that greeted particular successes. Then it’s over, and you need to get on with your life. Some have great difficulty coming to terms with the loss.

Equally the athletes can have trained for years for this event, and its become like an all-embracing obsession. They get through the heats and they have their victory, if they’re the lucky one, and then there’s the adulation, the praise, the interviews, the victory parades, those medals, and appearances on chat shows, conference key notes and other events. Then it all goes quiet. If you’re still continuing your career, then there’s training for the next event. But if not, there’s very often a loss of a sense of purpose and identity. Who you were was this very successful person, but who are you now? What are you going to do, what are you about, what will give meaning to your life now? For some it can be really serious, almost like a bereavement such can be the nature of change.

This is where people need skill in identifying a new sense of purpose and finding meaning once again in their lives. It’s a learning curve all of its own, a transition to a new life no longer defined by what is now past, and no longer therefore living in the past but creating something new. Thus it was interesting to learn the other day on TV how Dame Kelly Holmes after her retirement following her double Olympic golds in Athens had set up the Dame Kelly Holmes Legacy Trust to help disadvantaged young people (a great cause), gives sports training help to young people herself and is now planning to develop a business.

So, it’s not just people who get made redundant who go through this change process. Top performers, and not so top, do too. It happens too for media stars who are no longer in the public eye and are no longer working because they are no longer in demand. There’s an adjustment, a coming to therms with the loss of a role and a need to work out something new. We can go through a transition process that was well described by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, a grieving process that can be emotional, involve depression and if embraced and worked though lead to a new sense of purpose. For goal-focused, perhaps very driven people, who need to be motivated and in action, this shift into a new sense of direction is very important. As many say, they need to be doing something worthwhile for them.

I coach people who are going through a transition to work out a new sense of purpose and mission, often in their careers

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The mid life crisis is an opportunity

People often joke about the mid life crisis, which somehow makes it not OK, but which suggests a discomfort about a very real occurrence for very many people. The recipient of the joke, or humour at another’s expense which is whatt I often call it, then looks embarrassed and changes the subject. It’s a pity, since this occurrence needs to be embraced and seen as an opportunity.

Both my wife and I work a lot with people at this stage in their lives. In general, it’s a realisation that the paradigm that one has been living one’s life out of is no longer relevant. I heard a colleague recently describe it as the experience of having done everything there is and got the T-shirt, only to find that it’s the wrong T-shirt. I spent many years as an enthusiastic school teacher and was regarded as very successful but it gradually dawned on me that defining myself in this way was not who I was. People say to me that they wake up wondering, “Is this it?” They’ve been living life under a set of understandings about themselves, other people and life, only to find that they no longer apply and they wonder what it is really all about. They find they’ve lost the zest and interest in life they once had. They question their old assumptions – and start to explore new ones.

One way it shows up is in a crisis in some area of their life, like a job loss, a bereavement, a break-up of a relationship, or a major illness, or in one or another of those key things in our lives that we hold as important to us, that we may be emotionally attached to. The old certainties no longer apply, like the need to build up assets, to have career success, the two kids, partner and home thing. It might seem that what they’ve been striving for had turned out to be pointless. People wonder where the meaning is.

This Great Recession is doing that for a lot of people at the moment. Imagine it: your business has gone bust or you’ve just lost a cherished job, your partner has left you and the home’s been repossessed. Or the same has happened after an accident or major illness. Or your partner has suddenly died and left you with the children, the finances and the debts, and an empty bed at night.

I wrote that it is actually an opportunity. It might not seem like that when you read the above. Yet, when we embrace it, and work on it and through it, we can find some great answers to our life dilemmas. In fact I very often hear people say that this had to happen for a reason, that they could find what they eventually do find if they succeed in working through it.

For example we live in a culture in the west which is very devoid of meaning if taken at face value, and yet we can find our own meaning in a way that fulfills us if we look for it. Life can seem, as the existentialists taught, empty and meaningless and yet we can find our own meaning. Relationship can take on a whole new level, in which you can for example meet another at an authentic, mutually respectful level. You can find a new direction in your career, break out in a new direction, or renew an existing one. You can sell up and move to the wild open. You can stay put and find new friends, new interests and make a contribution in your community.

It’s not necessarily about changing things on the outside, but more about what changes on the inside, and what beauty you find there.

We provide coaching on life transition, and we also explore these issues on our programs.

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Adversity might be teaching you your true life purpose

When we’re faced with adversity, it can seem we’re really caught up in it and that is all there is, like that is how our life is. These are times when we can disconnect from our life purpose, or need to establish one, and thus have some focus in the background to return to.

The point here is that when we’re up against it, we think that that is all there is, when it is really just a perception, albeit a hard one. We think that what we’re absorbed with is our reality. Yet, when we let go of it, and shift our mood, or whatever, then it can seem quite different. This also can apply to long periods, even depression.

Getting clear on your vision and purpose and setting intentions however, is quite a different energy. This lives in the realm of positive creativity, when we’re focused on what we want, invested with positive feeling, and with a strong, clear intention behind it. Under the Law of Attraction, we are then drawing to us what we want.

Thus when you are in a negative state you then do have in the background another possibility that you can potentially turn your attention to. You just need to shift your state. That might be easier said than done and when things are going badly it can seem very hard to do. This then becomes the focus of the journey, learning ways to shift your state. It is an effort of will and takes practice.

However the role of purpose and intention is that there is a direction you are going in. You know what you are about and what is important to you. And at some level you keep on with it.This is the reality you are living to, what you are choosing to manifest.

The difficulty many are faced with at present is that the recession seems to limit their options, cause cut backs in their dreams and in what they are doing, such that it can seem like they are going nowhere. This is when we need to go back to our purpose and take a second look. Is this really what we’re about, or is there something much more powerful and deep, really aching to come out and be realised? Once we’ve clarified what it’s all about we then get back on with it. Then it’s our minds we’re working on and what limiting beliefs and decisions we need to get out of the way, so as to connect more purely with who we really are. Here can be the breakthrough we need. Maybe then the recession is there for us to finally get that, and find that life finally has meaning, a true life purpose.

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Fear of speaking the truth

Do you find yourself struggling to get a handle on what’s really on your mind, and do you find it hard to say what it is too? If so, join the human race.

I’ve just been doing a bit of research about how Google is changing its search methodology and I found this blog comment: “Apparently what we type in is not what we actually want, most of the time… Therefore Google is studying how to develop a mathematical model for language to interpret what we are actually searching for: Amit Singal said,“When it comes to human language understanding we are still at the toddler stage…But over the next ten years we will attain the level of an eight or nine year old. We’ll be able to perfect experiences we don’t fully trust today””.

I was struck by the “what we type in is not what we actually want” bit. So human! What comes out isn’t the full story and we don’t always even know it ourselves!

People may very often struggle to express themselves. They might not be able to find the words for what’s on their mind. Then they might feel reluctant to say what’s really there to others, what is often a fear of speaking the truth. And then they might not really know what it really is anyway. Confusing.

So it can be for people.

I’m not so sure about the infantile allusions in that quote, and yet there’s a ring of truth too. In the sense that we “grow” psychologically, there is an aspect here of us learning more about what goes on for us, our raised self awareness, and this can have the feel about it of maturing, feeling more calm and steady in ourselves, more centred. And this comes over to others. Psychologists speak of us having a “developmental arrest” at certain stages in our growing up, when we get a sort of psychological freeze-frame around a certain event and our inner response. These events “mark” us in a way, and we make up all sorts of meanings about ourselves, others and about life based on these events. So, “growth” can involve becoming aware of what remains of these events in our psyche, and in our bodies, and releasing ourselves from their hold over us.

However, such events will have the effect on us of our cutting ourselves off from certain aspects of ourselves and how we feel, desensitisation, and/or of it being too painful to go there, and we tend to deflect our awareness away on to something else.

There again, part of our pattern might be for it to take time for a thought to come clear in our minds, let alone type it or speak it. This can relate to confidence, or simply being slow to formulate things clearly. I say “slow” but this too is an interpretation and we may be very effective in our our own way in how we formulate our understanding.

There’s also others’ reaction to what we say: “What will they think?” Or say or do? Our fear of others’ negative reactions, our perceptions of what others think, or what we think they think (!), is a big inhibitor too. As I said, welcome to the human race.

But it’s fascinating to me that Google is trying to get clever around second-guessing what people are meaning, when they can’t or don’t say it themselves. Which brings up the whole area of how much we can really, genuinely, “know” what others mean. And the programs will be written by humans. And humans filter their experience and interpret it. So, this will be interesting.

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Mid life crisis is a very creative time

What is often referred to as a “mid life crisis”, usually in semi-mocking or apologetic terms, is actually a very real experience for very many people. How well the occurence is embraced and how well people work through it can have fundamental and long-lasting results.

There’s a tendency in people’s thinking that life will continue very much as it is at present. We tend to not pay attention to subtle changes that are going on, whereby life is actually changing over the long term. Thus we tend to think very much in terms of life being as we have experienced it over our younger adult years. Yet we gradually age, our physiology shifts, our careers develop, our families get older, our relationships change, and people come into our lives and they leave. As we get older, for example, our parents die, although today that is probably for most when we are much older. The point here is that we aren’t necessarily expecting what can occur around the age of 40.

In my case, at 37 my marriage broke up, I became a single parent, between 37 and 40 I had moved 3 times, at 39 my mother died and by 40 my life felt dead. No wonder when I came back from my summer holidays that year the shock of 2 of my colleagues dying of cancer finally pushed me into doing serious work on myself. The buck stops here, I concluded.

This period in people’s lives is very existential, in the sense that we become aware of our mortality, that we are actually getting older and the arrival of the number 40, traditionally for a middle class person half way through their life (though not actually now), tends to push the question of ageing into one’s mind, if not overtly then at least in the background. Then we start to ask ourselves what we really want from life, what it’s all about, who are we, what does it mean, and so on. These questions don’t necessarily arise when we’re younger, when we feel more immortal!

In my case, I had begun exploring religion and spirituality, being aware that something was missing for me at that level. Soon after I broke up with my wife and moved house I went into the UK’s St Albans Cathedral during a choral matins and joined the congregation. Hearing the music (it was Mozart), I burst into tears, something I hadn’t so far allowed myself to do. All that grief around the break up came out, big time, and it left me wanting to explore my spiritual side.

It is important to stress that this transition period, for that it what it is, is very important, and potentially a huge contribution to one’s growth and one’s experience of life. The journey can result in a whole new discovery about oneself, one’s vision and direction, about relationship, about people, love and life, and what it’s all about, the development of meaning. It’s almost like, what do I want for the rest of my life? What can emerge can be a powerful contribution to what we then do and to the realisation and fulfillment of our life purpose.

So when people joke about it, what they are probably acknowledging through the disguise of humour is an awareness of how important this phase is.