What is our everyday purpose?
“The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”Henry G. Bohn (1855)
I use this provocative proverb to help frame the challenge facing many individuals: finding everyday purpose in anything but a normal environment!
Media coverage around the world actively forwards ideas around using lockdowns to better oneself. From baking to fitness to learning a new language, the list of helpful self-improvement suggestions is endless. Wonderful intentions to be sure, but what effect is this social pressure having on our psyche and well-being?
Two “typical” scenarios
|Rena’s alarm sounds at 7:30 am 90 mins later than it would have pre-pandemic. She has a quick shower and jumps into something comfortable, more along the lines of weekend wear! She starts her workday at 8:30 am and spends her day on video calls, responding to emails, or calling customers. The day flies by and she disconnects from her work devices at 5 pm. She immediately rolls over into her home life and continues until 8 pm; after which she does a few chores and plays her piano. One day rolls into the next and she is increasingly tired as each week goes by. She misses seeing her friends and family and can’t wait for this nightmare to end. She had good intentions for getting fit and learning to create themed birthday cakes. Her good intentions have not happened, she is unsure why but feels a sense of guilt about it.|
|Joshua’s alarm is turned off. His company has temporarily suspended activities and he is on a pandemic wage subsidy program receiving 75% of his Warehouse Manager’s salary. His days have been filled helping his two young children (who are receiving school lessons online) with homework. When he isn’t being a hands-on dad, he spends time watching Netflix, playing online games, or in video calls. He spends no time in the gym, something he misses. Joshua’s wife, Alice, is a doctor working longer hours than ever so Joshua manages the household chores too. They support their aging vulnerable parents doing grocery runs and doctor visits. Joshua and Alice are exhausted by the end of the week as one-week blends into the next and months fly by. Neither of them has had the energy during the pandemic to take on any new challenges, they are simply treading water.|
How it fits with our basic needs
This naturally leads us to wonder how others might be considering the effects the pandemic has had on their own hierarchy of needs. Maslow defined these as physiological, safety and security, love and belonging, self-esteem, and self-actualization.
If the pandemic effects severely disrupt our most basic needs for sleep, access to food, employment, or healthcare (i.e.: Maslow’s physiological, safety, and security needs) – then is it a surprise that millions are feeling overloaded and unable to tap into the inspiration, motivation, and creativity needed for developing new skills?
How are the Rena, Joshua, and Alice’s of the world feeling with the constant media-driven pressure to use lockdowns “constructively”? The reality is, as predicted by Maslow’s hierarchy, many individuals feel inadequate for not doing more with “lockdown time”. Mental health issues are on the rise with little sign of immediate reprieve. It begs the question: How do I find purpose? But wait, is that even the right question to ask ourselves?
A way to identify your purpose
The journey starts by recognizing that purpose is not a thing you find, it is something you create for yourself. It is about how you see what you do as meaningful. For example, my sister is a police officer. Her purpose, beyond enforcing laws, is one of community security, childhood education, and often a reassuring face when we might be at our most vulnerable. Contrasting this example with a barista, an equally purposeful role. Beyond serving coffee, they are a friendly and uplifting part of someone’s day, often when it is most needed. The key point is recognizing the importance of focusing on what’s meaningful and purposeful about what we’re doing.
Our journey continues by recognizing that purpose is more than one single thing in our lives, akin to “not putting all of our eggs in one basket”. For instance, President Joe Biden is obviously the president but he’s also a husband, a father, a grandfather, and a lawyer, amongst others things, Why is this important? If he attaches his purpose only to the presidency then transition after office will be challenging. If he sees purpose in the multitude of things he does and is, then the transition is more meaningful. Personally, I find purpose in my marriage, my girls, my friends and family, my writing, and my ESG/sustainability initiatives. The key point here is recognizing that we look for purposes, not a purpose, to help us recognize the value in our work and lives.
The journey is complete when we recognize that purpose is an evolutionary experience, one that changes over time. My focus and sense of purpose at 30 was quite different than it is now. For instance, at 25 I was quite ambitious with a clear sense of where I wanted to land on the corporate ladder. Two decades later, my youthful objectives achieved, my work focus shifted to meaningful roles that contribute value to the global community rather than a job title. This story is a familiar one, and one you’ll hear from most people you meet.
Evolving to see your purpose in everyday little things
Mel B. and Dr. Susan Biali Haas share their personal stories on finding purpose, often equating it with passion and being in the moment. Both examples encapsulate the three guiding principles I shared about purpose:
Returning to our everyday purpose examples
Having established some guiding principles, how might we help Rena, Joshua, and Alice see things differently? We can do so by helping them see:
- They play many purposeful roles – parent, spouse, son/daughter, teacher, musician, and friend amongst other things.
- That it’s important to address basic needs before aspiring to higher needs because pandemics can quickly throw a personal hierarchy into disarray. Acknowledging this is the first step to accepting that “it’s ok”.
- The pandemic will pass, and physical isolation from friends and family will end. In the meantime, many technologies enabling connection are available.
- That it is okay to prioritize where they focus their time each day. I share tips on this in Juggling Work-Life Balance during Social Restrictions.
On a final note, the chaos we’ve all been thrown into is generally not conducive to creativity. So, taking on even more self-improvement commitments or pressuring oneself to be superhuman because others appear to be so is often an unhelpful wellbeing strategy.
There will be time to learn how to bake a perfect cake, learn a new language, or write a book once stability and our basic hierarchy needs are restored.
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