Living a Meaningful Life

Me, stopping to smell the flowersWhat does it take to lead a meaningful life?

Ah, the million dollar question…and one that’s been plaguing me since approximately the age of 18.

Socrates said “An unexamined life is not worth living.” I guess that means my life is decidedly worthy, since I spend plenty of time examining it. And examining it. And examining it.

I think Hollywood did this to me. I grew up watching so many movies about people having mid-life crises. I swore to myself, “That will never be me. I’ll never wake up one morning and realize my life is a hollow shell. I will live my life deliberately, and with purpose.”

In many ways, this commitment to purposeful living has served me well. I have never let anything get in the way of my most important relationships. I’m pretty sure that the people I love know how much they mean to me, and I give thanks for these people (and for my dog, Cosmo) every single day.

I stop and smell the flowers (literally). I write and practice yoga and generally live a very mindful existence.

Yay, me.

But when it comes to my life’s work — my creative endeavors, my career, and any overlap between the two — I am a hot mess.

I’m being harsh. I am further along on my journey than many people, and anyway, comparing myself to other people isn’t the point. I have tried to make mindful choices about my artistic pursuits and my career for the past 10 years, and in many ways, I have been able to design a life for myself that’s pretty darn awesome. But fulfillment is slippery, at least for me. Satisfaction isn’t static. Something that works for me for a while, suddenly (or slowly) stops working, and I feel like I’m back at ground zero, building again from scratch.

I so badly want to find a way to earn a living that is a deep expression of my truest self, and my most deeply held values. I recently read Tara Gentile’s e-book, The Art of Earning (which I highly recommend), and I believe her premise that it is possible to make money by sharing your innate gifts. But cracking that nut — figuring out the exact “what” and “how” — continues to elude me, and it’s driving me ever so slightly batty.

Trying to be patient with the questionsI try to be patient with the unanswered questions in my heart, as Rilke advises in “Letters to a Young Poet.” But when I’m happy — when I’m fulfilled — I am lit up like a Christmas tree, and when you know it’s possible to feel that way… it’s hard not to want to feel that way VERY BADLY.

“Patience, young Paduan,” the Jedis would say, and I try. I try to focus on all that I have to be grateful for, which is a lot. But like a Jedi, I feel like there’s a destiny waiting for me — I just can’t figure out what it is. I know there’s something bigger and more personal I’m supposed to be doing, some great work. Does that sound arrogant? I hope not. To be clear, I don’t covet this clarity for fame or glory – I want to be of service, and I believe deeply that there is a place where “my deep hunger and the world’s deep gladness” (Frederick Buechner) will meet, and my life will be ignited as a result.

Does any of this resonate for you? Do you feel like you’re stumbling in the direction of a greater purpose to your life?

Related Posts:

Today’s post was inspired in large part by a post my friend Colleen wrote called Measure your success by more than your title or pay, which was itself inspired by a piece that Clayton Christenson wrote for the Harvard Business Review called How Will You Measure Your Life?. I also recommend a NYTimes piece I recently read called The Meaningfulness of Lives by Todd May.

Photo of question mark above by Flickr user Ethan Lofton.



11 thoughts on “Living a Meaningful Life

  1. It's interesting that on the one hand, you speak of stopping to smell the flowers, indulging in self-examination and so on, and yet none of this is actually satisfying.I think that the examination that needs to occur is, "Why must I ascribe meaning and purpose to my life?" and "Why is enjoyment of the bounty and richness of my life not enough to fill the void?"Sometimes life just is, and that is the whole point of stopping and smelling said flowers. To search endlessly for some purpose externally is not an unexamined life to whit. It is coming to a peace with the life one has, which by all accounts is a pretty good one.I recommend this article from The Atlantic.


  2. Amanda, this resonates with me so very deeply. I am trying to find that place where my potential and the world's needs intersect, while also trying to find a way to earn money doing it. I feel like I've been through this cycle before: bold break from establishment, flounder, find some fulfilling work that is ultimately unsustainable, retreat, repeat. I'm working on looking at the progression not in terms of linear progress so much as a gathering of experience. It works pretty well… until it's time to pay bills. I don't know that there is a single, final answer. I remind myself that balance is not stasis and just keep wobbling between these poles and try not to fall too far over to one side.


  3. Emily, that was an excellent article – thanks for pointing it out. Lots of food for thought. I agree 100% that happiness must come from within… I guess I keep hoping for internal clarity on this elusive sense of purpose. But it's not something you can force.


  4. Perhaps it's time (for at least a while) to bank that fire to embers. It can always be restoked later, if one so desires.You've had posts about starting over at the beginning, and now might be a good time. You've had posts about calm, serenity, bliss and self-awareness, but I feel that the fundamental truths of these things are ever elusive, and so they're given over in pursuit of this "purpose", which is more tangible.Instead of endlessly searching, probing, pushing, and moving, focus on being quiet. Once you've truly mastered the quiet of self, I feel that you can resume a search for self-expression for external world. But without understanding the quiet, how can you ever hope to express all of yourself, and not just the facet that's this drive?


  5. Amanda, thanks for the shoutout for my blog. Honored to see I got you thinking enough to want to respond on your own blog.I think what you've run up against is the paradox of choice. We all think we want to have unlimited options, but the reality is that unfettered access to do and be anything can be paralyzing.Not all that long ago, you and I would likely have been wives and mothers, or perhaps teachers or nurses. And you being you, I expect you would have found great meaning in doing that important work.Now we have the ability to do nearly anything and I think the greatest fear is we'll choose wrong or somehow squander that potential.When I was first coming to New York, a friend gave me the great advice that on any given night, a dozen things are happening that you'd probably love and you need to let go of any expectation you can do it all. Make an informed choice and be happy with what you do, even if that means ordering in and watching Netflix.I think our careers are similar. Instead of stressing out about finding the one soulmate career choice, what if you can find the joy and satisfaction in what you choose, and adjust as needed to ensure you're doing work you find interesting, with compensation that feels fair and time enough to pursue your rewarding creative side ventures and spend time with a husband you love? There's nothing saying the choice you make today has to still fit five years from now.There's a NY Times article you might find interesting: grandfather was a patent attorney. I can’t remember him saying that he was passionate about the work per se, but I do remember him giving me some great advice. If you can find work that you enjoy even 50 percent of the time and that allows you to spend time with your family and serve the community, you’re better off than 90 percent of the population. So I wonder where the line is between finding work that you are passionate about and being content with the current situation.Let us discuss over a glass of wine or three? 😉


  6. Colleen, I'm sorry it's taken me so long to respond, b/c I deeply appreciate your comment — together with Emily's feedback, I feel like it was just what I needed to hear. I'll take you up on that glass of wine, too 🙂


  7. To answer your question, yes yes yes yes yes! I feel the same way. I'll have to check out that book. Great post, Amanda! Terrific food for thought. 🙂 Right now I'm trying every so hard to focus on being in the moment. To just be. And that is not easy all the time.


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