I quit searching for happiness and found purpose instead.
The driver coming towards me must have thought I was on drugs. There I was, driving my convertible with my arms outstretched above me; my left knee steering the car – grinning like a fool.
I frequently ignore my own advice on many things – particularly the subject of work/life balance. I've done hundreds of 15-hour days and dozens of 20-hour ones. Often, instead of doing a dozen sprints, I'll do two to three marathons in a typical 12-hour day. That's not good, I know, but I'm working on it. One way I'm doing it – especially when the weather suits – is to get in my car for an hour, peel back the roof and just drive.
We're about half an hour north of Melbourne, in Australia. And despite the spread of suburbia, our home is still only five minutes from the countryside. So when burnout approaches and the sun is shining, I steal myself away and top up my vitamin D levels, aided by V-8 propulsion.
Most times I'll work through a project-related issue while I'm driving, using the voice recorder app on my phone to document ideas. Yesterday, though, I just wanted to get out and bask in the first flush of spring sunshine.
It usually takes just takes a few minutes before my speeds rise and I'm hunting corners with wilful abandon. This time was different, though. This time I wanted to coast, to drink in the sun's warmth and the scent of freshly-cut roadside grass. Through each twist and turn, I maintained the same wafting pace – my bare arm on the door and one hand on the wheel. It was beautiful, peaceful and oh-so-satisfying. And it got me thinking.
Unlocking Happiness Through Purpose
For as long as I can remember, ambition has been my primary source of fuel. It's what made those 20-hour stints possible. It's also what gave me my first – and hopefully only – heart attack. Don't misunderstand me; ambition is good. Indeed, it's essential if you want to achieve anything beyond eating, sleeping and procreating.
But ambition tied to self-flagellation wears thin.
Big Macs, Red Bulls and Mars bars offer a temporary high with none of the sustenance. Likewise, an ambition that only serves ourselves leaves us hollow and unfulfilled. It has us questioning the things that drove us here in the first place. Eventually, it makes us miserable and we have to change our diet.
Contrast this with my experience yesterday. One could argue that the convertible, the sunshine, and working from home were the cause of my glee. Yes, they helped; no doubt about it. But the car cost bugger-all (it's 18-years-old); I've worked from home for over 15 years, and the sunshine wasn't exactly new, either.
Cruising east through Wildwood, the tree-filtered light strobing against my cheek, I found myself counting off the reasons for my good cheer.
- I have people in my life I care about and who care about me.
- I get to play this one-in-400-trillion game called life.
- I'm doing something that matters with my life.
None of us gets to choose our family, and finding and forging friendships with good people can be hard. But as Joshua Fields Millburn says, “You can't change the people around you, but you can change the people around you.” In other words, we decide how much time and attention we give to others. And since we become the average of those we're with, being deliberate about this can have a huge impact on our lives.
My dad's father was an abusive tyrant and my mum's mother beat and neglected her. Both of them had to make a deliberate effort to surround themselves with good people to counteract the trauma each of them endured. They both succeeded, and they raised my sister and me with genuine love and support. My good fortune doesn't end there, either. My own children are healthy, wonderful people; my wife is amazing and my sister and I are buddies. And then there are my closest friends – people I can count on, and who know they can count on me. It's meant letting go of a few people while reconnecting with some others, but the rewards have been remarkable.
Now, think about this for a minute: for you to be reading this right now required an unbroken succession of fertile women stretching back more than 250,000 generations. Those are terrible odds, yet here you are. Whenever I start taking things too seriously, I remember what an amazing game this is, how lucky I am to be here to play it, and how soon it will all end. I'm always saying we're lucky to be here, but the word ‘luck' is grossly inadequate – ‘impossible' is closer.
The third reason for my wanton joy yesterday is this: I feel like I'm making a dent in the universe. Granted, it's a small one, but it's a dent nonetheless. Some of it relates to the time I devote to those I care about – especially at the opposite ends of the age spectrum – my 7-yo son and my crusty old parents. Some of it is the way I approach the work I do for clients, and my desire to go beyond ‘services-for-money'.
The other thing is the work I'm doing right here, and of the three, I reckon this one has been the key. The other two are immensely rewarding, but they also come naturally and don't require nearly as much effort. With this work, I've found something I can do that helps people, that feels right and is difficult – for me, anyway. I've written stories since I was a teenager (first published at sixteen), but it's never been easy. I have to work at it, but I'm glad I continue to try.
The ROI of Finding Your Purpose
Like you, I have a unique set of experiences, skills and perspectives. Likewise, I have my own collection of embarrassing failures and hard-won lessons. The best thing I can do is share them and help someone like you avoid the same traps while hopefully, scoring a few victories as well.
It's a simple enough endeavour, but it's fraught with risk, too – most of it created by my own internal resistance. There's the self-doubt and unrealistic expectations to deal with. There are lulls in enthusiasm, the lure of inertia, and the inevitable desire to quit. Often.
But what I've discovered is once you make a long-term commitment (at least five years) to something like this, the rewards are greater than anything money can buy. This explains why people I respect like Seth Godin, Chris Guillebeau, Corbett Bar and Marie Forleo are usually pretty happy. They're doing work that matters. They're making a difference in people's lives. It's why Gary Vaynerchuk doesn't wear a Rolex or live in a mansion despite a nine-digit net worth. For them, it's all about the work. It's about the change they seek to make in the world; that's their buzz.
You've heard over and over that money alone doesn't buy happiness – at least not beyond our basic needs. What seems to work is pursuing a longterm project that feels good, helps others, and challenges us a little. But it must do all three or else we quit early and never experience the outcomes we seek. Your project might include making a lot of money; after all, charities can't run on good intentions, and nothing beats money where money works. But the point is, it needs to tick those boxes:
- Feels good
- Helps others
- Challenges us
Bottom line: finding your purpose through a project of some kind, and then working on it consistently, will give you a much better ROI than searching for happiness. I know this because I've tried both.
I don't know what yours is, and like me, it'll probably change over time. But if you want to be happy, and I mean stick your arms out the roof of your car happy, you need to find it. Pick something and try it on for six months. Stick with it and see where it leads. Then adjust, iterate or pivot if required, but be very mindful of how you feel about it. Don't let other people's opinions come into it. You've done that sh*t long enough.
I began writing about midlife in February 2016, and I've done it every week since. Never missed one. I've had a lot to share on the subject because I've been through a lot. The feedback has been extraordinary and it's been a tremendous joy for me.
Now, I'm directing some of my energy to another topic – getting your life back by working from anywhere.
I've worked this way for over 15 years, and it's allowed me to do things my city-bound colleagues can't, like hang out with my son right after school. Also, my workplace changes all the time. One day it's my home office; another it's a lakeside park 30 minutes north, a secluded mountain restaurant, or it's my car. It's anywhere I want.
The point is, by sharing the things that transformed my life, I'm transcending my own selfish desires; I'm helping others to have a better life, too.
And that's why my hands were in the air yesterday. By doing work that matters, by finding my purpose, happiness found its way to me.
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