How to Figure Out What Has Meaning For You

I never thought I would want to write on this topic, because it isn’t one I’ve struggled with personally. I’ve known I wanted to be a writer since I was 12, and that’s been the thing that gets me out of bed every day (although some days quite a bit later than others …).

But I have a couple of friends who’ve been wrestling with it lately in a big way, and once I started thinking about it in more depth, I realized I could offer a few ideas.

I also realized that even if you’re not trying to figure out what to do with your life, even if your creative pursuit is locked and loaded, there’s something to be said for considering it from a new perspective.

There’s something to be said for thinking about what you might need to do to make money before that creative pursuit is successful (or if it never is).

There’s also something to be said for considering what it’s like for someone who doesn’t have your creative passion, and never did, to remind you of its importance in your life—and why you should keep on keeping on, even when it’s tough.


Sadly, there are a lot of people who don’t know what they want to do with their lives, and in an even deeper, more fundamental way, don’t know what has meaning for them. Ayn Rand refers to this as “central purpose.” According to her in a Playboy interview in March 1964,

a central purpose serves to integrate all the other concerns of a man’s life. It establishes the hierarchy, the relative importance, of his values; it savs him from pointless inner conflicts; it permits him to enjoy life on a wide scale and to carry that enjoyment into any area open to his mind; whereas a man without a purpose is lost in chaos. He does not know what his values are. He does not know how to judge. He cannot tell what is or is not important to him, and therefore, he drifts helplessly at the mercy of any chance stimulus or whim of the moment. He can enjoy nothing. He spends his life searching for some value which he will never find …”

It’s devastating that there isn’t more support for finding one’s central purpose when we’re younger.

Most of us, as kids, were not only not encouraged to find out what that purpose might be, we were actively discouraged when we did find something that meant something to us. At 12, I was already announcing that I was going to be a writer to anyone who showed a little interest. Most every adult I spoke to said something on the order of, “That’s nice. What’s your backup plan?”

I think one, a grandfather I hardly knew and saw rarely, asked to see my work and encouraged me excitedly when he read it.

No one treated it like a real job or offered wisdom on how to be a successful fiction writer. Eventually I mostly stopped speaking to people about it.

In high school, when I wanted to take ALL THE WRITING CLASSES, my guidance counselor told me I wasn’t allowed to do that. I had to try more things; I had to get a broad education. “But,” I said, bewildered, “I already know I’m going to be a writer. There ISN’T anything else I care about.”

“That’s nice,” Guidance Counselor said. “But what’s your backup plan?”

I made an impassioned, stubborn, won’t-take-no-for-an-answer plea, and Guidance Counselor eventually gave in, but I think it was more out of fear for my mental state if he didn’t than him seeing the logic of my position.

Crazy Writer Girl, unpredictable. Check.

For someone who doesn’t have that certainty, it must be a thousand times worse. I see people struggle long and hard with this, especially as they age and realize — this is it. If there’s no happiness now, when will there ever be? But now they’re no longer children, and no longer free to explore whatever they please. They’re constrained by time and money and a need to support themselves and sometimes others.

But this is when it’s time to take your clothes off. Metaphorically.

Forget about constraints. 

If you could walk naked in the world, with no worries about time and money and supporting other people, where would you go? What would you do?

What did you do, as a kid, when you had that freedom? At a time when you could do whatever you pleased, when you had total free time, what gave you the greatest joy?

The answer to that may not be the answer to what you should do with your life, but there are clues in it, and that’s what you have to look for first. Clues.

Look at what you naturally spend your time and money on.

When you’re on Facebook or Twitter, who are you reading and following and nodding your head in agreement with? What companies do you follow? What books do you buy? What sparks your curiosity most? What are you drawn to doing that you haven’t because it scares you? Look there.

Ask your friends what you’re good at. Ask them what you talk about the most.

Pull ideas from these clues. Using your clues, research what other people do. There are things in the world you never even knew you could make money from.

Start small. If you find yourself resisting, start even smaller.

On a road trip with a new friend, the conversation turned to her interest in meditation. She told me she’s thinking of someday teaching meditation for free. She had this image of a center devoted to it, but she seemed reluctant to dive in, because who was she to be thinking this way? So big? Was she crazy?

I said, “Why don’t you start now? Make it a Meetup event.” She seemed gobsmacked by this, as though she hadn’t ever thought of that.

“Or not even Meetup,” I said. “Just invite a group of your friends over for an evening and try it out on them.”

I have another friend who’s been talking about buying a guitar kit to learn how to build a guitar for something like a year now. He gets derailed by the idea that it might not even be possible to make money building guitars. Except, he doesn’t even know yet if he likes building guitars.

To do: Buy the guitar kit. Open the guitar kit. Build the damn guitar.

When I was waiting for the print proof of The Flight of the White Crow, a friend asked me what the next step was, once I approved it and published it. I said, “I don’t know. I can’t worry about that now. I have a list; I have some ideas, but right now I’m in the step, ‘Wait for the proof.’ Once I see what it looks like, then I’ll focus on the next step.”

Try things, do things, but don’t rush yourself.

It might take a while to get this sorted. You might have to work for not a lot of money as you learn and try things (it’s worth it).

I’ve been a writer, always. I don’t make a living from it, but I’m always doing small things that will help me get there. In the meantime, for many years I had a day job that didn’t have much meaning for me. When I lost that job, I spent a year trying to figure out a new day job that would support me, allow me to still work toward a writing career, and have meaning in itself. Jeez, I don’t ask much, do I?

I still haven’t quite figured it out. I’m doing a bunch of different things, all of which are better than the old day job, none of which pays enough to survive on. That’s okay. I’ll figure it out. And so will you.

Don’t stop.

You might have to take a job you hate to make ends meet for a while. Don’t let that derail you. Keep searching. Keep trying new things. Keep learning. I posted an amazing quote from The Once and Future King by T.H. White on Facebook that I think is apt here:

“The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlin, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That’s the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the only thing for you. Look what a lot of things there are to learn.”

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