At the end of the day, what we all really want is to live the life we came here for, the life that reflects who we really are under the layers of fear that keep us bound to the gods of external validation long after we’ve lost our faith. Losing your faith can be as simple as learning that the longed-for thing did not bring the satisfaction we sought. Consider the words from Tom Brady, speaking on 60 Minutes with 3 Super Bowl rings to his name. He said, “there has to be more than this.”
I first came across the Brady interview in “Create A Meaningful Life Through Meaningful Work”, a Harvard Business Review blog post from economist Umair Haque, in which he argues that “maybe the real depression we have to contend with” is a “depression of human potential,” a “tale of human significance being willfully squandered” on things that don’t matter, like the formula for a new diet soft drink, or the 5th installment of a film. We may be able to make a living that way, but we cannot make a life. A life, by which I mean a fulfilling one, can only be crafted by attending to the unique set of passions, talents and attributes that make us who we are. Martha Graham said it best when she said, “[t]here is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique” and “if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost.”
If you were lucky, you had parents with courage and vision enough to nurture you into your true and singular self. We hear of parents like these, sometimes — in magazine profiles, or interviews in which their children report back from the distant shore of the land of realized dreams. If you were courageous, you became your singular self anyway, whether your parents steered you there or not. People who get there are easy to spot. They’re the actors — Jessica Chastain comes to mind — who choose the roles that speak to them, while their peers populate the franchises that make careers. They’re the Silicon Valley guys — Gates and Zuckerberg come to mind — who drop out of college to build empires of their own design. They’re the teachers we remember our whole lives long because they’re so clearly living the lives for which they were born. We all have high gifts. The trick is to find them. The biggest obstacle to our discovery is fear.
Most of us had parents who wanted us safe and secure. wanting us to be realized didn’t enter into it. They wanted for us what we want for ourselves: to come through this wild and wooly world with resources enough to keep us free us from want. What we forget is that, once basic needs are met, the greatest we’ll ever know is want of the soul. It’s the one want a good job or fancy car can never satisfy.
If we want to be sated deep in our soul, we must free ourselves from our fear of material want for long enough to find out who we are — and then we must set about building our lives around that. It may be slow-going at first. We may want to act in increments that befit our appetite for risk. But we can get there, and it’s not as hard as it looks.
The things you love are a clue, though you need to be vigilant that you love the thing itself and not what it brings. There are tools that can help you on your way. My favorite is the MAPP Motivational Appraisal Of Personal Potential, which my friend Laura introduced me to a number of years ago. It confirmed all that I knew about myself, and a few things that had only been hinted at: my no-love-lost feelings about math; my off-the-charts passion for abstract, innovative and creative thought (according to MAPP, 0% of the population is more motivated by these things than me); my extreme philosophical bent (only 8% of the population is more philosophical than me); my need for variety and change; my aptitude for writing, entertainment, visual aesthetics and dramatic arts; and my secret passion for music. If you know me, you may have heard me joke that in my next life I will be a rock star. I was saying it while sitting in my perch at the 98th percentile in motivation and aptitude for creating, composing, arranging and improvising music. I haven’t written the first song. Maybe I’ll write one now. After all, in my next life, I may not be musically inclined.
The point is to seize the day, now, while you have it. If you’re not sure what your passions are — or if, like my other friend Laura, you’re not convinced you have any, MAPP may be a useful tool. You’ll still have to do the heavy lifting. You’ll have to figure out what to craft from the raw material of who you are, and you’ll have to do the work of making it so, whether as a hobby or as a career. If you pull it off, and you can, the payoff — in happiness and, sometimes in money and prestige — will be great. Take the example of Abraham Verghese, the practicing physician and author of the breathtakingly beautiful novel Cutting For Stone, or of Harvard educated lawyer turned writer, Susan Cain, who’s life found its full expression in her wholly original, groundbreaking book Quiet: The Power Of Introverts In A World That Can’t Stop Talking,” a book born of her reckoning with her own introverted self.
If you read Verghese or Cain’s bios or experience their work, you’ll see how deeply their external lives align with who they are inside. Verghese did his medical residency in Ethiopia, and from that experience, the luminous Cutting For Stone was born. Cain, a lifelong introvert, embraced her own introverted nature, and delivered up the zeitgest-capturing Quiet: The Power Of Introverts In A World That Can’t Stop Talking, in which she challenges what we thought we knew about introverts, and their contributions to our world.
Finding the Grail of the Self can’t have been easy for Verghese or Cain. It didn’t come to them at their college placement office, or in the hallways of their fancy schools (the University of Madras Medical School for Verghese, Harvard Law for Cain). Instead, they set out to found it for themselves, “leaving the old world and the old ways behind”, as the author Karen Armstrong put it, to venture “into the darkness of the unknown, where there is no map and no clear right.” They fought “[their] own monsters, explored [their] own labyrinth, and endure [their] own ordeal” to find “what was missing in their life” so that “thus transfigured” they could “bring something of value to the world left behind.”
Verghese and Cain built lives from their own beingness. We can too. We too can gather up the disparate pieces of our being, and embrace our apparent flaws, until we’ve woven a destiny befitting who we are.
PAULA PURYEAR is a Lawyer, Film & Television writer, HuffPoster and Founder of Revel In It Mag.