I remember wandering across the beach directionless. Sand crunching beneath my feet. The hollow feeling inside.
My brain lost in a maze of thoughts with no apparent exit. Why was I feeling this way?
I had done everything right.
At school I achieved the marks required to study at the university of my choice. I earned the degree required to get a well-respected job. I did internships to gain experience and differentiate myself from other candidates. I landed my dream job. But now that I had achieved all that I was striving for, I fell into a place of deep perturbation.
It didn’t make sense. I had moved up the system as it was designed but found myself having a midlife crisis at 23. All the usual existential questions gripped me: What was it all for? What was my purpose? Why?
I learnt I was suffering from ‘self-actualisation’ - a higher order need on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. It is the need to realise or fulfil one’s talents and potential.
It’s only now I see why.
I wrongly assumed following the system was a recipe for finding my purpose. However, in seventeen years of formal education not one syllabus taught this.
Upon reflection I realised that formal education focuses on the knowledge required for a job. Without ever teaching us the self-knowledge that helps us define what that job may be.
School is a microcosm of our society. It caters to achieve Maslow’s first four levels of needs, but neglects the fifth.
Growing up the first two levels of the pyramid are cared for by your family. The third level, love and belonging is found within the classroom. However, from here we become misguided. I thought my desire for good marks were driven by a desire for self-actualisation. However, the subjects I studied - communications, mathematics and economics - didn’t equate to what I wanted to be when I grew up. In reality, I was motivated by the esteem associated with high grades and the promise of employment in the future.
Upon leaving school, I thought employment itself equated to self-actualisation however, it merely provided the support needed to once again satisfy the first four levels of the pyramid. Pay cheques are used for satisfying physiological needs and safety needs. The office a place for love and belonging. Job titles and salaries for esteem.
Once these are all satisfied, then what? This is why I found myself feeling lost on the beach.
It’s like building a home. Your physiological needs are the foundation. Your safety needs the walls. Your love is found with the people inside. Your esteem needs are your car. However, once you have these, what’s your purpose?
You crave self-actualisation but it becomes a mid-life crisis because you have never been taught how to connect with a greater purpose, a mission, a why.
We accept these crises as a fact of life, however what if they were more of a symptom of the society we found ourselves in? That it’s from a failure of ever learning about ourselves and connecting with a deeper purpose.
It’s why we reply with a job title, rather than the meaning of the work when asked “what do you want to be when you grow up?”.
However, we are capable of defining our purpose. To do so requires changing the lens of work from what, to why. To connect with the value created by the job. A brick layer isn’t laying bricks, they’re building the city of tomorrow. An advertiser isn’t selling ads, they’re telling stories. A photographer isn’t taking photos, they’re capturing memories.
To find your current purpose, ask yourself, what value do you create?
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One thing i’ve learnt to ponder between sips of your iced oat latte.
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One drawing visualising a concept.
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