What is your existential driving force?
We are all looking for something in life. You are looking for something in life. And at your core, there is a driving force causing you to pursue it.
The question remains, what exactly are you looking for – and why?
This is a question worth answering, because it provides deep insight into what brings you meaning in life. It is the key to understand what truly motivates you. Yet not everyone has answered this question, at least not beyond a superficial degree.
For example, imagine someone asks why you wake up and go to work most days. You might respond with something like, “Well, because I need to earn a living.” If you’re feeling enlightened, you might even speak of a need to contribute to society.
Taking the Socratic process a step further, now imagine you’re asked why you earn a living. Your answer might be, “Because there are bills to pay, which is necessary to support my family.”
Ask “Why?” a few more times and you wind up face to face with existential questions like, “What does it all mean?” and “What’s the point of life?”
These questions are largely subjective. There are those who claim to have the answers, but do they really? Or is their prophecy mere narcissism? The latter is perhaps more likely than the former.
After all, given the size, scope, and complexity of the universe we live in, it’s tough to believe anybody has the capacity to understand “everything.” To really know what’s going on… to understand its purpose… to have all the answers.
Remember, we are but a pale blue dot floating around in the cosmos.
But despite our apparent inability to make sense of it all, there remains value in considering the possibilities. Maybe you can’t interpret the meaning of the universe, but existential questions can still guide you towards meaning in your life.
Hopes, Dreams, and Happiness
This is because, even with existential questions unanswered and true enlightenment always another step away, you still wake up every day with hopes and dreams. You still have emotions that cause you pain, pleasure, and many other feelings.
All these things affect you on a daily basis, so unless you’re going through a bout of apathetic depression, you probably still care about them. You probably still want to achieve your goals, feel “good” as much as possible, and maximize your quality of life during your time here on Earth.
Many would describe this as the basic human desire for “happiness.” You can probably relate.
The question, then, becomes one of understanding what makes you “happy.” What are your interests and passions? What people bring smiles and laughter into your life? What causes you to feel fulfilled and at peace with yourself?
By contrast, what bores you immensely? What people reduce the quality of your life? What causes you to feel empty and at conflict with yourself and the world?
The answers may not be so obvious.
Reading Between The Lines
For instance, you may feel a promotion at work would make you happy. But in many cases, when people say they want a promotion, what they’re really after is a feeling of importance.
In reality, promotions don’t exist to make people feel important. Promotions are about accepting increased responsibility, leading and managing people, and increasing one’s level of service and commitment to their organization. These things are hard and not everyone wants (or is prepared for) the challenge.
Therefore, a work promotion is not always the correct vehicle for happiness. If your motivation is not properly aligned, a promotion can actually reduce your overall happiness and quality of life.
People who pursue advanced degrees and prestigious careers (attorneys, doctors, accountants, etc.) often fall victim to this same fallacy. They think it’s what they want, right up until they realize it isn’t — that they are anything but happy or fulfilled in their coveted role.
(This isn’t to say all attorneys, doctors, and so on are in the wrong field. Of course, many love what they do and it is the right place for them. But there are too many who don’t love it and are in the wrong place. You know the type.)
External Objectification v. Meeting Internal Needs
The lesson is simple.
It’s pointless to become fixated on a particular object of desire, hoisting it up on a pedestal and ascribing imaginary truths to it that do not exist. Too many people fall into this trap. You think the next job or romantic partner is the key to your happiness, the solution to all your problems. Except that it’s (usually) not.
There’s no doubt getting a great job or meeting the right person can make you happy. But you punish yourself unnecessarily if you make your happiness dependent on such things.
Not only are these outcomes uncertain, more importantly they are entirely external. External achievements like work promotions can only go so far to satisfy your internal needs (e.g., an innate feeling of importance/significance).
Yet this is the American way, is it not? To place huge focus on external achievements and material things, with relatively little focus on internal achievements or real personal growth. To focus on competing and winning, rather than supporting and collaborating with each other.
It’s sad to realize some American values are so disconnected from, and even detract from, the very psychological needs they purport to fulfill.
Freud and Darwin might argue with this, recalling our deep and implicit needs for survival and replication. They may point out you feel “happy” when your environmental conditions allow you to secure these needs — to be safe, secure, and sexually active.
Safety, security, and sex do require things like jobs, money, and partners, after all.
However, even if we agree we are mere animals controlled (to some extent, greater or lesser) by these basic desires, we are also so much more.
Humans Have Complex Dreams & Desires
Human beings possess a certain intelligence, consciousness, and capacity for emotion and reflection that makes us unique and complex. Most of us have desires reaching far beyond survival and sex, well into the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual realms.
Fulfilling these more complex desires requires a more purposeful approach to understanding the world and making decisions in your life. It requires you to largely detach from external events, and to instead explore your internal world in greater depth. To engage more directly with your mind and heart.
Returning to the example of a work promotion, say your underlying need is for a feeling of importance. Instead of latching onto the idea of the promotion to fulfill this need, perhaps it’s worth exploring questions like these in more detail:
- What things make me feel important?
- Why do I feel such a strong need for importance and significance?
- Am I feeling unimportant or insignificant, and if so, why?
If you embark on such a journey, you may find answers in places you did not expect — alternative solutions to the “problem” that do not require a promotion to cure your ailment.
After a brief introspective journey, perhaps you realize your superficial desire for a work promotion existed because society taught you to believe it’s what you need, or because it’s what your parents want for you, or because you have low self-esteem and not a clue how to actually improve it.
The answers will be different for everyone; the important thing is to get to the bottom of it, and then to explore what will lead to true fulfillment in your life.
Mindlessly climbing the corporate ladder in America probably isn’t it for most people (then again, it will be the answer for some and that’s perfectly okay).
Notably, this doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with working in corporate America — nor does it imply a need to escape from it. After all, everyone has bills to pay and there’s no shame in maintaining one’s responsibilities.
Mind Over Matter
Whether you stay “corporate” or not, the real issue here is one of mindset – because there’s a big difference between sitting at your corporate desk unhappily striving for that next promotion, versus sitting in that same desk happy and at peace with yourself because you’ve achieved immense personal growth, and learned to find meaning in life from an internal (rather than external) place.
The concept of decoupling your internal feelings from your external world is probably intimidating. It may seem difficult or even impossible. But it is possible if you want to pursue it.
It simply requires you to understand your motivators on a deeper level, develop your emotional intelligence, and take a more intentional approach to your life — one guided more by independent thought and insight, and less by automatic behaviors driven by conformity to society’s “consensus.”
It demands you expand your consciousness, understand your talents and align your work with them, and to develop true confidence and self-esteem. It comes from a certain enlightenment resulting from existential provocation, one that allows you to accept the world as it is and choose to see its beauty.
It does not require you to eliminate or suppress negative emotions, but rather to accept them as they are and understand their purpose. Likewise, it does not require you to judge others who are at different points in their personal development, but rather to show them the same love, empathy, and acceptance you’ve learned to show yourself.
You may be wondering how to achieve all this — how to understand your motivators, align your talents with your work, and so on. There are ways I can help you, but the truth is I don’t have all the answers. It’s also my belief you must discover these things, to some extent anyhow, on your own.
Achieving Conscious Awareness
For what it’s worth, though, I believe the first step is to achieve a deeper awareness of yourself and develop a strong desire to grow.
To begin the process of learning, discovering, and going deeper into who you really are. To understand the extent to which you’ve constructed a reality in your mind that may or may not exist beyond the consensus of society, and to comprehend how this reality causes you to filter and perceive events in your life. And finally, to start making sense of those things that will truly fulfill you in the long run.
And these things will probably include developing increasing empathy for others, and understanding how to apply your unique gifts to help others find their fulfillment in life. Not necessarily… but perhaps. 🙂
That being said, I also believe there is no single “process” for doing all of this, no right or wrong way, no fixed set of “guaranteed steps” that will magically produce your desired result. Your journey will certainly be different from mine, and we will all have our own stories.
From Burdens to Blessings
You will probably need to endure some level of suffering, pain, and misfortune along the way, too. These things may even be critical for your long-term development.
Can you imagine if your entire life everything went as planned, as good as things could possibly go? Everything always going your way? Sure, that might seem nice — but just think of how fragile, naive, and inexperienced you would become. How easy it would be to continue living in the paradigm of external happiness, with no cause or reason to ever look inside for answers.
Worst of all, there would be no context for your happiness, less appreciation for your good fortune, and a stunning lack of meaning in it all. You would most likely find it hard to relate to others, too, and feel increasingly isolated and alone over time. There is no denying we are social creatures, which means this type of isolation and loneliness is something of a worst-case scenario.
Therefore, as tough as things can get sometimes… as upset, sad, angry, or distraught as you might become, it is helpful to remember there is significant value in all of it. You may not always understand why things happen the way they do, but you can choose to look for the value in them and reach a more enlightened state.
I believe we owe it to ourselves – that you owe it to yourself – to spend some time contemplating what you’re really looking for in life, and why you’re looking for it.
There are too many people who go through life acting out a script written by someone else — a parent, an employer, an entire society perhaps. Too many people whose happiness and fulfillment elude them because of it. Too many people who get caught up in their external world at the expense of their internal one.
If you spend the time learning who you really are and getting in touch with your real desires, I believe you have the best chance at finding fulfillment and meaning in life. The best chance at finding the answers that make sense for you. This is something everyone deserves, even if not everyone will get there.
Good luck on your journey and feel free to let me know if you have any questions. 🙂