The Power of Purpose, Meaning, and Fulfillment

In my late teens and early twenties I knew what it meant to have a sense of purpose, but what I didn’t know was just how powerful its effect really was on my life. My discharge on January 11, 2008, was the first day of a new life where I had no purpose or meaning, and thus any potential sense of fulfillment felt impossible to attain.

I struggled a lot in the years since then, trying to find a new sense of direction. Through this experience I have learned that goals are the essence of purpose, the product of meaning, and eventual source of fulfillment. They empower us to push through when we face obstacles and setbacks in life.  Goals that challenge us also make us stronger when we have the support we need to achieve success.

When you feel lost in life, it’s because you’re not striving towards anything.  In behavioral health recovery, we talk about the importance of establishing and working towards attainable goals because it’s an essential process to living a better life. Goals are the threshold of a self-directed life.

A life without a goal is like a ship without a rudder, sure you may be tossed about here or there by the current or the waves or may even be caught up by the wind in your sails but in all of those scenarios you are at the mercy of the elements. Maybe they will take you somewhere great or maybe they will lead you to disaster, either way you are not making decisions for yourself about the direction of your own life. The core of recovery is to take back control, to regain a sense of self-determination.

Whether you’re still a teenager or you’re retired from your career, a goal can carry you through the hardships brought about in every stage of life.  But it’s important to understand that any goal you may choose, must be yours alone, it cannot be given to you by anyone else. It must be personal, it must be self-directed.

You have to believe in the goal if you ever hope to believe in your ability to achieve it.  You have to feel it, hear the calling, and hunger for its embrace.  Only then will it ever matter to you and only then will it ever give you the strength you need to find your way through the darkness that is the human experience.

Over the years I have developed something of a triage model for evaluating my life. For me, this model has been the guiding compass of my life since my discharge and I have continuously come back to it when I have begun to feel lost. It includes: purpose, meaning, and fulfillment. This article will cover these three factors and how they impact our lives in profound ways. In these first few paragraphs I want to give a brief introduction to all three and then give a thorough exploration of the methods and tools you can implement to help you identify your own sense of purpose, meaning, and fulfillment so that you can live the best life possible.

Our purpose is the collection of dreams, goals, and intentions that we set for ourselves. Our meaning is the sense of yearning or justification that we feel about those goals and ambitions, and our fulfillment emerges from the sense of satisfaction we get upon completing them. Meaning is what drives purpose because we yearn for things long before we ever understand why. You will know your goals long before you know the deep “why” behind your desire to accomplish them. Think of it this way, you may choose to go on a journey (purpose) and you may give yourself all kinds of reasons, but the true justification (meaning) will not come clear to you until you are on that journey and experiencing its hardships. If you complete that journey and find success, then you will know fulfillment, for fulfillment will only come at the end of struggle.

For example, I knew that I wanted to enlist in the United States Marine Corps, but I honestly didn’t truly know why, I just knew that I wanted to accomplish that dream. I had several reasons I gave myself and other people, but those were surface-level explanations, they weren’t the deeply held “why” that I didn’t yet fully understand. It took me a really long time to know why I wanted it so badly, to learn the meaning behind it all. I think a lot of things in life are exactly like that, particularly the big choices that we make in the various stages we go through. Think about it, how many times have you asked someone why they did something only to receive the response, “I don’t know.”

Meaning will always remain indescribable until you have begun the process and have set out in pursuit of your goal. Meaning drives purpose by calling to you in the distance, begging you to take action, but it remains hidden and obscure until you have chosen to take action and pursue your goal (purpose). You will likely give yourself all kinds of reasons as to why you want to chase after a dream, but those reasons are all false, true meaning can only be revealed during the pursuit itself.

A more concise explanation of my model would be this:

Sometimes I come across people who will roll their eyes upon hearing the word “goal.” For these individuals it summons to mind images of pushy parents, eager teachers, micromanaging bosses, life coaches, new age gurus, multi-level marketing schemers, or perhaps even those ‘law of attraction’ peddlers.

It’s unfortunate that people use the core principles of strife and success as tools to enrich and empower themselves at the expense of people who are struggling. But you don’t need to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars to learn how to use the power of purpose, meaning, and fulfillment for yourself. All you need is a sense of longing, the curiosity to ask why, and the courage to take the first step. Though, I do caution that it will be the scariest step you will ever take and it is likely that you will initially find failure upon the path, but if your tenacity has been forged in the fires of deep desire then you will not wallow in your despair but rise to face adversity.

Theodore Roosevelt perhaps said it best in his famous speech, “The Strenuous Life”:

“…I wish to preach, not the doctrine of ignoble ease, but the doctrine of the strenuous life, the life of toil and effort, of labor and strife; to preach that highest form of success which comes, not to the man who desires mere easy peace, but to the man who does not shrink from danger, from hardship, or from bitter toil, and who out of these wins the splendid ultimate triumph…

It is hard to fail, but it is worse never to have tried to succeed. In this life we get nothing save by effort… A mere life of ease is not in the end a very satisfactory life, and, above all, it is a life which ultimately unfits those who follow it for serious work in the world…

Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.”

~ Theodore Roosevelt, April 10, 1899, Chicago, Illinois

The goal itself can be anything, it doesn’t even have to be life-changing. Instead of reinventing your life, maybe you just want to remodel the kitchen? Instead of restarting your career, maybe you want to learn basic survival skills? My point is the goal you pursue can literally be anything as long as it presents a challenge. Without that it’s not worth pursuing. Nothing in life worth anything ever comes easy and the greater the challenge the more rewarding the eventual success.

Part One: Resiliency

Through this process of seeking challenges to overcome you are developing what’s known as active resiliency. By it’s very nature, resilience simply means that the more you encounter or experience something that challenges you and overcome it, the less negatively impacted you will be if you encounter or experience it again in the future. Active resiliency is not merely something you have, it is something that you do.

There is also a type of resiliency known as inactive. This type of resiliency is discovered through no intention of your own. These are the types of unexpected and unplanned-for scenarios in our lives that seem to come out of nowhere. For example, your health suddenly declines, your vehicle breaks down, your romantic partner cheats on you, your employer decides to terminate you for budgetary reasons, the list goes on and on. When challenged, your ability to not give up because of them or not be sidetracked or defeated by them, allows your resiliency to grow.

In the face of either type of adversity (active or inactive) you have two options: you can either engage with it and try to overcome the setback or obstacle, or you can choose to disengage and do nothing. The potential outcomes to engaging or disengaging are either gain or loss. Choosing to disengage with a challenge may initially feel like relief, safety, or even stability with the immediate reduction in anxiety, but it could also be demoralizing and regretful overtime. You must have the wisdom to know when to engage or disengage with the situation.

For example, perhaps you want a pay-increase but you are too fearful to ask for it, or too hesitant to take on the additional work to prove your value in the workplace. Avoidance of the challenge in this situation will feel as though you’re avoiding short-term stress and anxiety, but it will eventually lead you to long-term regret. On the other hand, if you’re out hiking a trail and suddenly see a bull moose charging at you, it’s highly likely you’ll seek an alternative path and not experience long-term regret over disengaging with this short-term stress and anxiety-inducing challenge.

In the more universal situation of a pay-increase, when you choose to not engage with your employer in fear of potential rejection or because of anxiety, it’s more than just being lazy – the behavior is addictive and destructive. Quitting or taking the easy way out is so very seductive and the more you do it the more desirable it becomes and the more likely you will do it again in the future. You will essentially train your brain to avoid difficult situations by rewarding it with those short-term feel-good brain chemicals, causing it to become weak and less resilient. I know this from personal experience.

Disengaging is a choice we are making for ourselves, a choice we have the power to transform. Thankfully, when you choose active resiliency you are forcing yourself into challenging situations and the more you do this the easier it also becomes in the future. It’s the hard choices in life that are the most meaningful and the most rewarding in the long-term. Aside from anxiety-avoidance, one of the other reasons so many people choose to disengage is because they try to accomplish something huge right out of the gate. Doing too much, too quickly is a terrible mistake.

It’s important to note that I’m not talking about merely exposing yourself to difficult situations or challenging experiences and then running away and never returning to it. It’s not enough to just acknowledge the fear, you must also struggle with it and overcome it. For example, if you’re afraid of heights you might consider riding an elevator to the top floor of a high-rise building. This is a good first step, but it should never be your last step. Progress further by looking out the window or over the edge the next time. Eventually your goal should be bungee-jumping or sky-diving. This practice is based on exposure therapy, what’s sometimes referred to as desensitization.

The goal is not to compete, but to win – there are no ‘participation trophies’ in adult life. Start small and push yourself to accomplish little objectives each day. Starting with major life changes will end in failure due to the enormous commitment required. Set goals that are achievable for you right now, based on your time, energy, abilities, and resources. Don’t overwhelm yourself and never set yourself up for failure. Build momentum by completing progressively bigger challenges and don’t ever be afraid to ask for help or to take time to rest and recharge so that you avoid burnout.

Too much, too fast is the enemy of many ambitious people. As of 2019, burnout has dramatically impacted so many people’s lives that it has been recognized by the World Health Organization as a mental health condition requiring treatment, and even though the American Psychiatric Association didn’t include the condition in their 5th Edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, published in 2013, they will likely follow suit and include it in a future publication.

Part Two: Setting a Goal

There are methods and models that you can follow to become better at setting attainable goals and actually following through with them. These tools have been around for decades and have been proven effective in clinical, non-clinical, and professional settings.

One of the big hurdles I’ve heard people say is “I don’t have a goal” or “I don’t know what I want to do.” I actually beg to differ, in fact, there’s always something you want to do if you just take the time to listen to your inner self. Somewhere in there you’ll hear a calling, a yearning to go and do something. You won’t understand it at first and that’s absolutely okay because the first thing we want to do is determine what kinds of things you feel a desire to do, we do not yet need justification.

Remember, “what” is the easy question, it’s the question we want to tackle first. The “why” is so much more challenging to figure out and should be considered your secondary step as it cannot be understood until you have already begun the pursuit. Potentially, spending time worrying about the “why” before taking action on the “what” is one of the worst mindsets to be in because you will just stand there, paralyzed with indecision, thinking and worrying. This demonstrates a trap of cyclic thinking that can easily turn into catastrophic thinking or even worse, learned helplessness. These states of mind must be avoided as much as possible.

So, the first obstacle to overcome is your purpose or identifying a clear goal. A model that can be used for this purpose is called Dissatisfaction Goal Setting, wherein you’re literally evaluating your life and determining if something feels unsatisfactory. This tool can not only help us identify a goal but also begin to bridge the distance between purpose and meaning.

Ask yourself these questions:

  1. What am I unhappy with?
  2. What do I not like about it?
  3. What would I rather be doing?
  4. What is keeping me from doing that?
  5. Who can support me in that goal?
  6. When do I want to start?

What you eventually identify by using the tool could be anything, there is no such thing as a wrong answer. This will be personal to you and your life and no one else can tell you what personal goal you should be setting for yourself. If someone attempts to do so, walk away from them – they don’t care about you, they care about manipulating you to do what they want or what they think would be best for you. A purpose-driven life is one lived by your own choices, not by the choices of others. You may ask for counsel or perspectives on the matter, but your path must be determined by you alone and walked by you. Though others may come along with you on the journey, they cannot lead you. Think of them as lanterns that you carry along with you, there to shine light into the darkness so that you may see possible paths, but only you must choose in which direction to travel.

Another model that can be valuable in helping identify a goal is the P.E.R.M.A. Model, developed by American psychologist, Martin Seligman. This model sets out to define what makes life worth living, what elements or factors make us feel as though we are living a flourishing life. He identified positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishments as measurement markers in determining whether or not you are currently living a flourishing life. Using this model we can identify areas of your life where perhaps it’s underdeveloped or missing something.

Positive Emotions can encapsulate just about anything that gives you a sense of joy. Whether it’s spending time with your loved ones, baking your favorite cake, going to the comedy club, going bowling on the weekends, adopting a pet, watching your favorite team, attending theater, starting or raising a family, or taking an annual summer vacation to your favorite wilderness area. No matter what you enjoy doing or experiencing, it is essential that you make time for it in your life and allow yourself to be present in the moment so that the experience can provide you with the positivity you need.

Engagement takes your enjoyment one step further. This is about more than just having fun or enjoying a spectacle, this is about becoming enthralled by the experience, mind and body, so much so that you lose track of time and become fully engrossed. Athletes, musicians, artists, all typically have the potential for this type of experience, but just because you don’t play soccer or play the violin or have the talent to paint a mural, doesn’t mean you can’t also satisfy this element of a flourishing life. From rock climbing to gardening, and furniture building to cooking, so many things can count as long as it requires mental focus and physical dedication and interaction.

Relationships are integral in the lives of pretty much everyone. Many of us strive for the social benefits of human interaction and crave the attention of someone who cares for us. While family is often the stereotypical go-to for relationships, it doesn’t have to be the sole source. We can find deep and meaningful connections with our friends – the family we choose. Whatever your circumstance, we all need at least one person who can be there for us at any time, for any situation, without judgment and with unconditional love and support.

Meaning is so critical because it keeps you going when everything is overwhelming, not just during the pursuit of a goal but throughout your whole life. Whatever you choose to do, you must make certain that either your professional life or your personal life is providing you with a sense of meaning. Many people look to spirituality to satisfy their meaning, but it doesn’t have to be that – you can also find meaning in advocacy and volunteering or even in parenting, anything that puts you into a situation of serving something larger than yourself. Like everything else I’ve discussed, it cannot be given to you, it must be self-determined – you must feel summoned to it if you ever hope to achieve meaning. Remember, meaning is derived from the doing and not the conclusion, or in other words it comes from the pursuit of a goal and not from its achievement.

Accomplishment is separate from meaning in this model for a reason, they are not the same. Fulfillment is the offspring of purpose and meaning, it is the product at the end of your journey. If you have strategized and prepared, planned and organized, then in time you will know accomplishment. Just as your purpose can be anything, your accomplishment can be anything and no one can tell you what should or should not be celebrated. Whether you have received an A+ on a test at school, received a job offer, remodeled your backyard, proposed to the love of your life, overcame cancer, whatever you have accomplished at any stage of life – you must celebrate that victory! And don’t do it alone, celebrate with your family, friends, or colleagues. Acknowledgement of your hard work and dedication matters, so share it with others! Whether you go out to eat, throw a party, buy yourself something nice, or just receive congratulations, revel in the glory of your accomplishment!

In review, answer these questions to make sure you’re not missing an essential element of a flourishing life:

  • What experiences in your life give you joy?
  • Which of your physical activities cause you to lose track of time?
  • Who do you have in your life that offers you unconditional love and support?
  • What in your life gives you meaning?
  • How do you celebrate your accomplishments?

At this point you should be able to identify a goal. Once you’ve done that we need to evaluate that goal or goals, to make sure that it’s reasonable for you based on various criteria including abilities, energy, resources, and time. There is another model that can be valuable here and it’s called the S.M.A.R.T. model.

S.M.A.R.T. is an acronym for specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and timely. Think of these factors as a checklist with which to compare your goal. Have you taken all of these factors into consideration when selecting a goal?

Specific – every goal needs to be defined in as precise detail as possible. Saying that your goal is to run a race is too vague, you need to define what kind of race, how far, the location, and what kind of terrain. Selecting a specific race you’d like to sign up for would be best. All of these elements will help you determine the resources and training you will need to acquire prior to participation. Precision is key, peel away the layers of uncertainty until an absolute is all that remains.

Measurable – will you be able to track this goal over time? How will you know the goal has been achieved? Will there be milestones? If I continue the race analogy, will you set mini-goals of accomplishing a progressively longer practice distance each week or two until you are able to run competitively at your ultimate goal distance? Always establish a goal that can be measured.

Attainable – goals are great only when they’re achievable. Take into consideration your abilities, energy, resources, and time, do you have enough to actually be able to accomplish your goal? Don’t set yourself up for failure by underutilizing preparation, planning, and proper organization. Remember that other people are a type of resource, consider who you may be able to reach out to if you need assistance. Be realistic with your goals.

Relevant – consider your personal and professional life, your goal needs to be something that is relevant to these aspects of your existence. Just like you wouldn’t select a goal that was unattainable, you will not select a goal that has absolutely nothing to do with who and what you are authentically. My mom would have referred to an irrelevant goal as a “hair-brained idea” – something that sounded fun in the moment but had no connection to my current life or future ambitions. If you’re going to be pouring your energy, resources, and time into something, make sure it’s worth your while. Utilize the tried-and-true pros and cons model. Think about what will enhance your life experience.

Timely – just as important as being measurable, establishing a timeframe for your goal can be the difference between success and failure. When should this goal be accomplished by? Without an endpoint in mind, you are far more likely to lose track, become distracted, or even lose interest. Setting mini-goals or milestones for long-term goals can aid in mitigating distractions or lost interest, and consider what intervals these will be established at along the greater timeline. It’s okay to move your final goalpost if need be, but it’s preferable to have a more static idea of when things should be accomplished and try as much as you can to stick to that original timeframe.

Part Three: Barriers to Success

Once you have decided upon a goal that satisfies the criteria we have set forth, then it’s time to evaluate your potential to be successful. Not only will you experience the joys of little victories along the path to a greater success in the ultimate goal, you will also face many barriers on your journey. In your planning and preparation you need to consider what these potential obstacles and setbacks might occur. While I cannot possibly identify each and every thing you may encounter, I can provide you with a quick overview of different types of problems and solutions which will encourage you to consider additional possibilities and help you deal with them.

There are three categories of forces that may keep you from success:

  • Exterior
  • Interior
  • Ulterior

Exterior barriers are those imposed upon you by external factors that are sometimes beyond your ability to control. For example, your goal was to run in a specific race that you registered for and have trained for months to compete in, but the race gets canceled due to the weather. You can’t control the weather!

Interior are those that you actually cause yourself either through action or inaction. For example, you have pushed yourself too hard during the training process and have injured yourself, rendering you incapable of competing at an acceptable level by the time the race occurs. Or if we are talking about inaction, perhaps you lacked the motivation to train often enough or you didn’t set aside the time to train and are thus unprepared to compete and withdraw your registration so as to cease further embarrassment.

Ulterior are barriers that are difficult to detect or predict as they are neither explicitly internal nor external, but that are within your ability to influence or manipulate. These types of barriers are frequently manifested by other people who may or may not be aware of your goal. You may know these individuals or they may be complete strangers, the common factor being that they will attempt to interfere either directly or indirectly with your goal. Sometimes their sabotage is nefarious, intentionally trying to bring about your failure, other times they are ignorant of how negatively their actions are affecting your progress. An example would be your husband taking on activities that prevent him from watching the kids on the days when it’s supposed to be your time to train for your upcoming race.

Though you may not always be aware of these three types of barriers and their interference with your goal, you can establish action plans to preemptively deter their potential to be a setback, or perhaps even dilute the impact of consequence if they become an obstacle. There’s the old adage, “Hope for the best, plan for the worst,” or “Expect the best, prepare for the worst.”

Once you have encountered a barrier, try utilizing this two-phase evaluation process:

  1. Assess the Issue
    1. What happened? Was the barrier exterior, interior, or ulterior?
    2. What damage has it caused? Slight inconvenience or major setback?
    3. What’s the potential for overcoming this barrier? What are the pros and cons of trying?
    4. What resources of support do you have or need to challenge this barrier?
    5. Do you need to take action? If yes, move to next phase.
  2. Action Plan
    • Consider the objective, what’s the desired outcome?
    • Utilize a problem solving method that fits you and the situation:
      • Analytical Problem Solving
        1. Come up with two or more potential solutions to the problem
        2. Take action
        3. Take stock of the effects of your action
        4. Learn from the feedback you get
        5. Modify your efforts
      • Practical Problem Solving
        1. Set aside emotional responses to problems
        2. Begin work on positive solutions
        3. Choose action over words and feelings
      • Creative Problem Solving
        1. Be fearless and curious – try new ways of thinking
        2. Avoid the usual comfort zone responses of doing what’s familiar or perceived to be safe and predictable
        3. Listen, observe, explore, experiment, ask questions, challenge the status quo, imagine, learn

When planning and preparing for potential exterior issues it’s important to think about what you already have in your repertoire. These are resources or systems of support that can shield you from external obstacles or setbacks. Think about the inner and outer social circles that surround you, the inner being your household, your immediate family, close friends, trusted colleagues, all of which you interact with in your daily life; and the outer being your distant relation, your neighbors, community members, organization fellows, social media contacts, the types of people you are connected to as acquaintances but are not close with. You can also consider non-profits and community agencies as part of your outer circle, you may not know them or be familiar with their services and resources, but they are their for you all the same.

Think about these entities as buffer zones, protective layers that keep you safe from those exterior factors that you may not be aware are lurking in the distance. Their role is to shield you in your time of need, but like any good shield they won’t be effective if you don’t utilize them properly.

The reality is that we cannot prevent all exterior setbacks or obstacles – it wouldn’t be a challenge if we could. Sometimes there’s going to be failures and sometimes they will be your fault (as when they are interior) and you will learn from those mistakes, but other times those failures will be outside your ability to prevent and you won’t have anything to learn, just wounds to heal. In those circumstances you should try your best to look for the positive. For example, perhaps inclement weather on your day to compete will allow you additional training time to become even more prepared for the next competitive event.

If the barrier you are facing is interior, your approach may need to be slightly different as the culprit here is always you. If you are the barrier that stands in your own way, it may be related to your attitude or motivation and you might be struggling with catastrophic thinking or learned helplessness. Your first step is evaluate your attitude.

Once again, Dr. Martin Seligman has a model for us to utilize:

In Karen Reivich and Andrew Shatte’s book, The Resilience Factor, they describe two types of people based on Dr. Martin Seligman’s work in the Positive Psychology field and his “Explanatory Styles.” The first group are those who blame themselves for everything bad that happens to them, they are convinced that these problems will always occur and are therefore unavoidable, and that the consequences of these problems will affect every aspect of their lives. The second group faces problems without blaming it all on themselves, they believe that these problems are not permanent, and that they will not impact every aspect of their lives.

Based on Dr. Seligman’s work, the first group consists of people who think more pessimistically, they are prone to depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and paralyzing fear and inertia in the face of setbacks and obstacles. This thought process is known as “learned helplessness” due to their habitual behavior of focusing only on negative events and outcomes that have occurred throughout their lives. The second group are more optimistic and they tend to be healthier, happier, significantly more successful at work, at school, and in sports.

It’s important to note that there is such a thing a chronic optimism, the sort that causes someone to be blinded and unaware of the risks of their thoughts and behaviors, rendering them detached from reality. For this reason, we never want to fully eliminate pessimism, there can be a healthy dose that grants us the ability to weigh pros and cons, calculate risks, and abstain from being dangerously naïve.

Learned helplessness is the thought process that results from regular exposure to negative experiences wherein the circumstances seem unavoidable and overwhelming, rendering the individual convinced that any future negative experience will also be unavoidable and overwhelming. Individuals who have fallen into the trap of learned helplessness will make no attempts to improve their own situations and will either remain idle or will rely on others to do the work of improvement for them.

When dealing with this type of barrier consider these factors:

  • Adversity – what is the obstacle or setback that you are facing?
  • Belief – what is your perception of the obstacle or setback?
  • Consequences – what’s the result of your perception?

The most important factor here is belief because your perception of a barrier has a profound determination on whether or not you’ll be able to overcome it.

Dr. Martin Seligman suggests using the following 4-step evaluation model.

  1. Evidence – what are the real facts in the situation and does this evidence support or eliminate your perceptions?
  2. Alternatives – pessimists tend to latch onto the most dire of explanations for obstacles and setbacks, often ignoring the more positive explanations.
  3. Implications – pessimists have a tendency to jump from negative implications to more and more catastrophic ones, but what are the chances of these implications actually happening?
  4. Usefulness – just because a belief is true doesn’t mean it’s useful. Clinging to useless beliefs keeps us from working on the things that we can actually change about ourselves.

Acquiring motivation sometimes requires understanding and explanation before it can be used. Here are three recommendations for putting the above model into action:

  • Internal Dialogue – talk yourself through the process step-by-step, even if that means speaking aloud. Ask yourself questions and make mental notes as you formulate answers. Thinking alone sometimes traps or prevents clarity from happening and hearing yourself talk through the process can help guide you to clear conclusions.
  • Journal Writing – write out your specific circumstance using the 4-step evaluation outlined above. Visually seeing the questions and writing out the answers is an aid to our thought process and can not only guide us but also keep us on track until we reach clarity.
  • Third Party – bring in someone who is external to and not bias of the situation or the consequences of any decision you make. This will allow you to see and understand the situation from a fresh perspective and could ultimately change your approach in such a drastic way that what you first thought was a detrimental outcome, might actually be a beneficial opportunity.

To help keep your thoughts and brainstorming sessions coherent, you really should document everything. Even if you’re not a writer, writing down your thoughts as you go through these models and tools can be incredibly helpful. Not writing anything down will cause your beneficial thoughts to dissipate. Think of it like rain falling on a hard surface, the sun is just going to cause the droplets to evaporate into nothing.

Use tools like task lists, action programs (which are categorized and layered task lists), or software like Sticky Notes, Evernote, or OneNote to keep track of the things you need to do. If you really want to be thorough use software like Excel or Google Sheets. The point here is to stay organized, you are far more likely to implement a transcribed action plan than one that just flutters around in your head, passing in and out of your awareness.

Similar to learned helplessness, catastrophic thinking can render you paralyzed in a cycle of fear, worry, and what ifs. This narrative of negativity is sometimes referred to as a chain of consequences, each one leading to the next. It’s this snowball effect that causes people to become paralyzed unable to make decisions or take action. Each link in this chain becomes more dire than the one that preceded it and by the end of the chain we have imagined a scenario where everything has collapsed all around us and life as we know it has become unrepairable. Nothing destroys our motivation faster than giving in to the seduction of fear, worry, and doubt.

Thankfully, this chain of thought can be broken and we can do so by following these four steps:

  1. Have an awareness of thought patterns
  2. Weigh the pros and cons of the situation
  3. Rank negative outcomes from one to ten by probability
  4. Develop an action plan for top three most likely negative scenarios

Awareness can go a long way in helping break the chain of catastrophic thinking. Being able to realize that our thinking is only taking us further and further into worry and despair is the first and most important step. The second step is to do something about it. We can do this a couple of ways, both require us to evaluate the thoughts we’re having. The first of the two methods is to weigh the pros and cons of the event or situation that we’re facing, as our minds tend to gravitate towards the negative – the worst-case scenario.

We can’t hope to build motivation if all we think about is how things might go wrong or all the negative consequences of a setback. Shifting the focus to the pros and not just the cons of every situation we face, can help us alleviate some of the stress and anxiety that obstacles and setbacks may bring. The other method is to rank the outcomes we’re imagining from one to ten, ten being the most likely to occur. Then you want to look at the top three and develop a plan of action for each of those scenarios. Having a plan can also help alleviate the stress and anxiety that we’re feeling and give us back some sense of confidence and control over the situation.

Stress and anxiety can be powerful deterrents to the pursuit of goals. For that reason I want to discuss them further and provide preventative measures and management techniques. The terms “stress” and “anxiety” are frequently used interchangeably. However, these terms do have separate definitions, based on when the response is occurring in relation to the event. In other words, each is a response occurring at different points of time, to any given experience.

  • Stress – A temporary response to present circumstances that causes mental or emotional strain.
    • Example: you’re currently experiencing a motor vehicle accident (in the present moment)
  • Anxiety – A potentially ongoing sensation of uncertainty in response to future potential circumstances or past experiences.
    • Example 1: when riding with someone who is driving erratically, you’re not afraid of the wild ride – you’re afraid of the imminent consequences (potential future).
    • Example 2: you have trauma over an accident that occurred a week ago (past event)

Though stress and anxiety are normal aspects of life, anxiety that continues for two weeks or more may be a symptom of a more serious mental health condition. Frequently, those who endure traumatic experiences may develop an anxiety disorder or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), in addition to the stress the event initially caused. Stress is used in the term PTSD because the individual experiencing this disorder relives the event in the present moment, not just the fear of it occurring again in the future or the ongoing trauma from it occurring in the past. Those who suffer from PTSD, experience both stress and anxiety at the same time (past, present, future).

Dr. Karl Albrecht outlined in his book, Stress and the Manager, the most common causes of stress and anxiety. He determined that we experience these responses due to time constraints, anticipation (anxiety), personal situations, and through encounters with others.

He identified the following:

Time – This type of stress is frequently attributed to feeling rushed to accomplish certain tasks, such as errands, meeting deadlines for projects and assignments, and arriving to an event before it starts. Though it might make us feel hectic in the moment to be rushing around, the stress of getting something done by the deadline, can actually reinforce our commitment to it and ensure it is actually accomplished. Establishing a deadline and intentionally introducing that stress, can be very helpful in keeping us on track and maintaining our focus. Without that stress, things may never be accomplished, particularly for procrastinators.

Anticipation – This type of stress should really be called anxiety, as it focuses on a response to future events and potential situations, those that have not yet occurred or are not yet being experienced or realized.

Some common examples may include upcoming:

  • Speeches / presentations / interviews
  • Family gatherings / holidays / weddings
  • First day on the job or first day of school

These impending events can trigger our anxiety not because of the event itself, but of our fear of not knowing how the event will unfold. For this reason, anticipatory responses such as these are self-induced or self-inflicted. Our fear of things going wrong or being a bad experience sets us up for unnecessary negativity, fear, worry, and all the other symptoms of anxiety. Individuals who are naturally pessimistic will find managing or overcoming this experience to be very difficult. However, if we are able to shift our focus away from the what-ifs our minds conjure up, and instead focus on the things we can actually control, such as our attitude, behaviors, and choices, the anxiety about these types of events can subside to a more manageable level.

Situations – Though it is a very broad category, situational stress can be clearly defined as anything we are currently experiencing. These categories would include life changes, physical illness or injuries, medication or substance use, and mental health conditions.

Some of the most common examples would include:

  • Getting married / divorced / becoming pregnant
  • Purchasing a new home / packing up or unpacking due to moving
  • Employed at a new job / recently assigned a new supervisor
  • Chronic or debilitating disease
  • Motor vehicle accident
  • Side-effects of prescription medication
  • Excessive alcohol consumption
  • Illicit substance use
  • Anxiety disorders (yes, you can be stressed and anxious about your anxiety!)
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
  • Depression or mood disorders

Encounters – The fourth group includes experiences that those close to you are going through that are impacting you due to proximity. There are a few categories that fall into this group, such as illness or injury of loved one, loss of a loved one, conflicts with those close to you such as family, friends, and coworkers.

Some specific examples of conditions and circumstances include:

  • Alzheimer’s Disease
  • Cancer
  • Chronic pain
  • Diabetes
  • Bereavement
  • Financial costs of funeral services
  • Disrupted emotional support network (friendships ending)
  • Animosity or isolation
  • Perpetually negative environment / attitudes

Knowing what stress and anxiety are and even their causes is only skimming the surface of how they impact our lives. The effects of these two mental and emotional responses can affect us in many different ways, even physically. Many studies have been conducted on the effects of stress and anxiety, especially when we are exposed to these things long-term. This long-term exposure is often referred to as chronic stress and the development of an anxiety disorder. While there is no cure for either of these, understanding their effect on us can help us understand just how important it is to utilize prevention and management strategies.

When stress and anxiety occur short-term and in mild to moderate levels, they can actually provide benefits to us. Research has shown that these responses can cause us to better react to circumstances we are currently facing or will face in the near future, and even provoke us to be proactive and be better prepared if they occur again. Experiencing stress and anxiety in the short-term can help build our resiliency to challenges and setbacks that we all experience throughout our lives. When someone is confronted by difficult events that trigger stress and anxiety, the exposure to those events strengthens their resolve to endure and triumph over any future hardship. This resilience means the individual will be less likely to feel overwhelmed or perturbed by obstacles they face. Even if success is not initially attained, a resilient person will continue to strive towards their goal because their past experience with stress and anxiety proved to them they can endure and overcome.

Clinical studies at Stanford University School of Medicine have shown that short-term exposure to mild or moderate levels of stress and anxiety can boost the immune system and speed up recovery time, due to the increase in stress hormones. A prolonged exposure has been shown to do the exact opposite – suppressing the immune system and creating greater risk for infection, as well as increasing the risk of heart disease and even cancer. The consequences of stress and anxiety highlight just how serious prolonged exposure to them can be. These consequences are vast and varied across both the mental and physical health spectrums. Listed below are the most common effects of prolonged exposure to stress and anxiety.

HeadachesLack of Energy
DizzinessIncreased or Decreased Appetite
Racing ThoughtsWeight Gain or Loss
Feelings of Despair / Panic AttacksAcne
SadnessMuscle or Joint Pain
Nervousness / WorryIncreased Heart Rate
Anger / IrritabilityRapid Breathing
Confusion / ForgetfulnessShortness of Breath
Behavioral Health Conditions (Depression, Substance Use)Trembling
Reduced LibidoNumbness
Social AvoidanceHigh Blood Pressure
ObsessivenessIncreased Risk of High Cholesterol
Increased Risk of Diabetes
Increased Risk of Heart Attack
Abdominal Pain
Heartburn / Indigestion
Diarrhea or Constipation
Compromised Immune System

Due to some of the debilitating symptoms of prolonged exposure to stress and anxiety, the effects can stretch beyond our bodies and minds and affect every other aspect of our lives. If your goals are profession-related then employment can often be a source of stress and anxiety. From workload to deadlines, and coworker relationships to performance expectations, it is no surprise that levels of stress and anxiety have continued to be on the rise.

This increasing mental strain is not just felt in extreme work environments such as those in the labor industry, but also in business offices where sitting in front of computer screens for extended hours on a daily basis causes physical strain that mixes with mental fatigue. There has been a major shift in focus towards workplace mental health and burnout, as more and more employers are beginning to realize the consequences of not addressing the stress and anxiety felt by their employees.

Some of the initially observable consequences of not addressing this issue include:

  • Reduced ability to cope with deadlines and responsibilities
  • Irritability and loss of social support
  • Loss of productivity, confidence, and integrity

As with any loss in employee productivity and performance, stress and anxiety can ultimately affect the financial security and stability of an industry if left unchecked. Feeling stressed out and anxious can make us act in ways we normally wouldn’t. The effects of stress and anxiety on the connections we have with coworkers, family, and friends should not be downplayed.

Some of the most common effects that can hinder, damage, or even end our relationships include:

  • Irritability, loss of patience, overreacting
  • Pressure resulting in conflict escalation
  • Lack of interest in socializing

While it is not possible to completely remove stress and anxiety from our lives, there are things we can put into practice that will help us prevent unnecessary stress and anxiety, or at least make it possible to manage them and the symptoms that arise. When it comes to dealing with stress and anxiety, whether we are talking about prevention or management, our first step is to identify the things that cause us to feel stressed or anxious. These causes can be quite varied, some are obvious and others may not be obvious at all. Each individual person perceives and responds to things in different ways. What might feel overwhelming to you, may not feel overwhelming to another person.

For this reason, triggers for stress and anxiety can be put into three broad categories:

  • Control
  • Inaction
  • Pressure

Control – The sensation of a lack of control over circumstances, events, other people, and our lives in general is a very common trigger for many people. As human beings we naturally want to feel a sense of stability and safety. Any time we are facing situations where that stability or safety is interrupted and it’s beyond our ability to control, we become very unsettled, frustrated, fearful, and insecure.

Inaction – Procrastination is frequently attributed to creating unnecessary stress in our lives. For some, however, procrastination creates the stress they need to push themselves to accomplish certain goals that initially seem impossible. Without that stress, they may never achieve success. For the rest of us, our lack of desire to engage with, take on, attend, or pursue something may actually be the result of stress and anxiety. Meaning, inaction can both be a trigger for stress and anxiety, and also be a consequence of stress and anxiety.

Pressure – Any time we experience a sense of urgency or expectation, such as in pursuit of goals, we can accumulate ever-increasing levels of stress and anxiety. This pressure may be due to any number of other circumstances, particularly in regards to performance. Perhaps we have team members counting on us to accomplish a task in a timely manner, or management has expectations for high performance and a quality outcome.

In some situations, we may experience all three of these categories. We may face circumstances where we convince ourselves of, and feel as though, we have no control over the situation, but we may be under a lot of pressure to act anyway. Whether the pressure to perform is being put on us from others or we place it on ourselves, it can create such overwhelming and debilitating stress or anxiety that we become inactive and unable to do anything at all.

Research has shown that there are various methods for preventing chronic levels of stress and anxiety from accumulating, and methods for managing it in a healthy way if we do find ourselves struggling. Below are a few common practices that often get overlooked.

1.    Eat nutritious & portioned foods7.  Pursue enjoyable or laugh-inducing experiences
2.    Limit caffeine, sugar, nicotine, & alcohol consumption8.  Celebrate accomplishments
3.    Get sufficient sleep9.  Journal for self-awareness
4.    Exercise10. Take breaks from social media
5.    Practice mindfulness11. Develop physical social connections
6.    Set aside personal time12. Speak with a mental health professional (medication or therapy)

Now that we have thoroughly covered the most significant interior barriers, we can move on to those that can be considered ulterior. Remember that ulterior barriers are difficult to detect or predict as they are neither explicitly internal nor external, but are within your ability to influence or manipulate because they are caused by individuals somewhere within your periphery. Sometimes these people’s actions are nefarious, but sometimes they are merely not cognizant of the consequences of their actions. In fact, they may at times think they are helping you. Regardless of their intentions, what often results is drama and conflict, which is a mire that you will want to bypass or overcome as much as possible either through prevention or management.

There are a vast array of practices intended to help you prevent conflict from occurring, some of these are as basic as being mindful of your words and actions, practicing empathy, listening effectively and speaking deliberately. Conflict has many causes (misinformation, misinterpretation, miscommunication) and consequently there are many things you can do to prevent it from developing, but just know that you don’t have to wait for other people to begin this process, you can proactively lean into conversations by following the V.O.C.A.B. Model created by Clair Canfield, a professional mediator.

V.O.C.A.B. is an acronym for:

Vulnerability – be open and honest about how you feel, how you’ve been impacted, and your expectations
Ownership – own up to any part you may have played in creating an unfavorable situation, know your biases
Communication – ask questions, listen to responses, learn to practice emotional intelligence
Acceptance – you cannot control other people, only your own attitude, behaviors, and choices
Boundaries – identify goals and rules such as what topics or actions you’ll avoid or engage in

One of the most useful tools for examining how to handle conflict is the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument, or TKI Model for short. This model was created by Kenneth Thomas, Ph.D., and Ralph Kilmann, Ph.D., for helping people select from a number of identified styles (or what they referred to as modes) for handling conflict.

Within the model they identified five separate styles:

  • Avoiding – unassertive and uncooperative
  • Accommodating – unassertive and cooperative
  • Competing – assertive and uncooperative
  • Compromising – somewhat assertive and cooperative
  • Collaborating – very assertive and cooperative

These can be better understood by examining the visual representation they created as part of the model:

Competing – an individual pursues his own concerns at the other person’s expense. This is a power-oriented mode in which you use whatever power seems appropriate to win your own position—your ability to argue, your rank, or economic sanctions. Competing means “standing up for your rights,” defending a position which you believe is correct, or simply trying to win.

Accommodating – the complete opposite of competing. When accommodating, the individual neglects his own concerns to satisfy the concerns of the other person; there is an element of self-sacrifice in this mode. Accommodating might take the form of selfless generosity or charity, obeying another person’s order when you would prefer not to, or yielding to another’s point of view.

Avoiding – the person neither pursues his own concerns nor those of the other individual. Thus he does not deal with the conflict. Avoiding might take the form of diplomatically sidestepping an issue, postponing an issue until a better time, or simply withdrawing from a threatening situation.

Collaborating – the complete opposite of avoiding. Collaborating involves an attempt to work with others to find some solution that fully satisfies their concerns. It means digging into an issue to pinpoint the underlying needs and wants of the two individuals. Collaborating between two persons might take the form of exploring a disagreement to learn from each other’s insights or trying to find a creative solution to an interpersonal problem.

Compromising – the objective is to find some expedient, mutually acceptable solution that partially satisfies both parties. It falls intermediate between competing and accommodating. Compromising gives up more than competing but less than accommodating. Likewise, it addresses an issue more directly than avoiding, but does not explore it in as much depth as collaborating. In some situations, compromising might mean splitting the difference between the two positions, exchanging concessions, or seeking a quick middle-ground solution.

Part Four: In Conclusion

There’s not a lot more to address in regards to purpose, meaning, and fulfillment. It may seem like I dedicated most of this article to the aspects of purpose, but remember that purpose delivers us to our meaning and provides a pathway to eventual fulfillment. So, understanding how to establish an achievable purpose and how to handle obstacles and setbacks during the pursuit of that goal is critical to your success with the other two.

This model has been so incredibly important to me, I’ve been developing it and preaching it for years. It has helped guide me through some of my darkest hours, when I have felt immensely frustrated and lost in life. I know that many young people especially experience these sensations, and sometimes these feelings lead them down a path that is not so healthy, nor fulfilling.

When we ask ourselves that massive question, “What’s the meaning of life?” we can become incredibly overwhelmed and perhaps even have an existential crisis, or at the least become nihilistic. I think we should let go of that question for our own individual lives, it certainly has never served me any good. Particularly when I have come to the realization that life has no greater meaning than to merely exist, that life’s purpose is life itself: to be born, to reproduce, and to die.

I think for us as individuals, we must choose our own destiny, to choose our own path through life and not rely on someone or something else to choose for us. Each of us has a small and smoldering ember inside of us, pleading to be sparked into flame. That little glowing ember is your meaning, yearning to be known and pursued. It calls to you, lures you in the direction of your dreams because it wants to be realized, it wants you to know it – to know yourself. There can be distractions and mistaken goals that lead you astray and into misfortune and dismay, so do be careful with what beckons you. The loudest call is not always the true meaning.

It can be terrifying to answer any call, but the only way fulfillment can ever happen is if you gather the courage to wander in the direction of your dreams. After all, dreams are just really big goals. Breathe life into that little ember, feed it the kindling it needs to grow. Once you do and begin your pursuit of purpose through strife and success, you will begin to reveal your meaning in life and ultimately come to know yourself. There is perhaps nothing more fulfilling at the end of a journey than to say that you have discovered yourself.

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