People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.”
- The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell
What are you searching for in life?
What are you seeking?
What are you chasing after?
Is your life working the way you want it to?
Just over a year ago, I launched an idea called Complete, a paradigm for finding new possibilities in life and work, pushing the boundaries of what is possible, living on a higher and deeper level. This year (early 2020 - early 2021) has provided plenty of pause for reflection, new roles and experiences, and an opportunity to flesh out the initial idea of Complete into a philosophy, principles and process, and so on.
Recently, I’ve begun to feel that this “fleshing out” is now at a stage where I have enough to share to be useful to you.
I’ve seen again and again how applying creative tools to your personal and professional goals can be an effective way to not only know and get what you want, but also some of what you deeply need. Bridging the gap between the external world, and your internal world of meaning, purpose, potential, spirituality and Self-realization.
In the next article I’ll explain the philosophy and principles of Complete, and in the article after that, a preview of what I call Creative Personal Growth (CPG). CPG covers the creative tools and techniques that you’ll learn and use to be more creative in life and work, and begin to “live on a higher and deeper level”.
But before I dive into a solution, let me ask, what is the problem that you (and I) are trying to solve (by using Complete and CPG)?
If we are clear on what the problem is (i.e. what we are, and should, be driving for in life), then we’re more likely to know what to search for.
If you know what you are really searching for (many of us do not know precisely what we want, and even less of what we need) then it is more likely that you can get on with finding that, and living life now rather than living in the future.
I’ve spent the past seven years reflecting on questions such as “What is a good life?” “What is success in life?” and “What are the elements of a well lived life, and how do (I help) you to achieve that?” I’ve been doing the work of trying to run a business, and develop as an artist.
When I look back on everything I’ve done, three observations come to the fore.
The first, is that many of the things that I’m most proud of in life have happened in the past couple of years, since I left my corporate job. These are things I deeply care about, done with people I care about.
The second observation is that it took a really long time to get to the point of doing those things.
Years or perhaps even decades building up to do things that might have eventually taken a couple of hours to do.
But, first I had to get to the place where those new things were natural, inevitable, even required things to do in the framework of priorities and the situation I’d created for myself.
What was I doing in that entire time prior? Working, sure, but also searching, procrastinating, learning, ruminating, and being distracted.
I was looking for fulfillment using the wrong definition of success. Nobody ever laid out (or at least I never found) the kind of nuanced, multi-layered blueprint for living that I could apply to myself, and thus cut to the chase of putting that into place, rather than search.
The third observation, and a major through-line of Complete, is that self-expression (in the broadest sense) is key. Things started to change not when I'd thought more, but when I'd done something different that let me express myself honestly. Self-expression is more than drawing or painting, for example, it’s a way of being in, and relating to, the world.
We’ll return to self-expression in more detail in the next article.
If transforming your life is like climbing a mountain, then how do you even get to the base of the mountain from where you are now? Have you ever thought about that?
By the time you’re at the bottom of the mountain then you, at least, have a clear goal (i.e. get to the top), and you must find the right path to get there, and of course deal with local conditions, put in the work and be resilient.
But most of us are not at base camp yet, we are still roaming around in the wilderness, because we haven’t pinpointed/discovered what we really want, and committed to trying to get that (and perhaps we committed to get other things in the past that didn’t turn out to be the thing).
This article, continuing that metaphor, is about getting to the base of the mountain: that searching, finding the right mountain, understanding the terrain, moving towards it…understanding why you need to climb the mountain in the first place.
Climbing a big mountain is not for tourists and, I’ve found, neither is life.
Most of us inherit a definition of success that is not actually about climbing the mountain, but instead about surviving in the wilderness.
We learn, from early childhood, a very rudimentary definition of self-sufficiency: how to find our own food and shelter after we leave home.
We learn how to be part of a capitalistic society, how to accumulate abstract knowledge, how to get and keep a job. We don’t learn how to be happy, or learn much about meaning or much about who we really are.
We learn how to seek pleasure in society, and try to avoid pain. We seek approval from our parents, bosses, friends and society as gatekeepers to ensure that we are on the right track.
We express ourselves through variations on external, tangible artifacts of success: what job / house / car / vacation / kids schools etc. that we have. And through zany socks.
Although pursuing prestige and status and “success” seems like climbing a mountain, we are still really just foraging around in the wilderness. We are foraging until we find out what we were really put on this earth for.
If accumulation was all there is, then why after achieving a basic level of success do we immediately feel a gap again, the need to do and have more? This dynamic of seeking external things, then quickly wanting more because of hedonic adaptation, peer pressure/social comparison and so on, is well known, I think, to all of us.
Of course there are nuances around why we stick with chasing a particular definition of success. I am an immigrant (twice over) and the “upwardly mobile” first child of a working class family. I was the first to graduate college out of school (the second ever after my Mum who did it in her 40’s), the first to get a masters degree, have a professional job, and achieve a comfortably middle class standard of living.
I, and people that relate to what I just said, know that we seek and search, because we have something to prove (to whom, anyway?), and that has nothing to do with being happy or balanced or finding the meaning of life. We are driven by what we can do and proving ourselves, rather than by what we really want or need.
We’re driven to focus externally by the norms and expectations of our parents, for example, and the culture and society we grow up in (and capitalism is about material things, “fame” etc. equating with success).
There is another type of searching, which is inward and internal. We look for meaning, purpose, destiny, connection and love and so on.
Jung talks about an individuation process where, after Ego (external) needs are satisfied, we might decide to do the work to journey internally and attempt to integrate different aspects of our self (I’ll return to individuation in the next article).
Typically, historically, this impulse for integration bubbles up while approaching middle age. Now, people talk about “quarter life crisis” where one deeply evaluates what is really important in life before, rather than after, achieving traditional measures of success.
But, whenever the "crisis" does happen, not all of us heed the call. Some of us are just generally happy to keep going with the status quo.
You can live your whole life without heeding the call for a deeper understanding of the self and the world. I’m not a psychologist but I know that some people are better at compartmentalizing and rationalizing than others, some try to ignore or suppress what is bubbling up from their subconscious / unconsciousness / intuition but it squeezes out in other forms: neuroses, anxiety and depression. Sometimes this ongoing suppression leads to dysfunctional coping mechanisms.
Ignore the call at your own peril!
I think that we search because we eventually feel that what society says is important by default (and is “success”) does not, and is not meeting our deepest desires.
We feel that there is more to life. And there is.
What are you searching for?
What satisfies you, and what satisfies someone else might be completely different things. There is no objective standard for satisfaction, it (and meaning generally) all comes down to conditioning, values, life experiences and so on.
Despite this, I think that most of us are really looking for what you might call a package of external and internal things. Success, nice stuff, esteem on one hand, and meaning, purpose and to reach our potential (including spiritual potential) on the other.
In my own personal experience, having success, nice stuff and esteem didn’t deliver ongoing meaning and purpose, and I didn’t feel that I was on track to my potential.
Stuff wasn’t “enough”.
I was just over 10 years into my consulting career, and finally I was getting to reap some of the rewards of being good at something that had an economic value, within a well established mechanism to monetize that (a job at a big consulting firm).
But, I’d had the seed of an idea of a business for a while (even before I started in consulting), and saw my immediate future doing that rather than climbing further up the same ladder.
Looking back, I see that I’d kind of suppressed a creative side of myself that was trying to emerge. Also the “work hard, play hard” lifestyle I’d adopted (and kind of wore as a badge of honor), was probably the result of not loving myself, or making the change I knew deep down I needed to make.
The success I’d had, all of a sudden didn’t mean much any more, and the work hard, play hard lifestyle I’d adopted to try to create some meaning, took up all my time and energy and meant I never got around to changing.
All sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Meaning is such a significant part of life, so we are all searching, at some level, for meaning and its somewhat proxies: growth, community and contribution. In The Good Life Book (2017), I described five “important” and meaningful “pillars” of: vocation, health, people, spirit and expression as a basis of designing and living a balanced and meaningful life. Sensible and useful, but not the complete picture.
In the time since publishing the book, I’ve had a lot of new experiences, focused on different sides of myself e.g. the creative and artistic sides, and met, interviewed and collaborated with different people in different ways than before.
I’ve experienced that although meaning is a bedrock of life, it is not the entirety of a positive experience of life. As Campbell alludes to in the quote at the start of this article, life goes beyond simple meaning (a head concept) to a felt connection with the universe. A rapture in the everyday.
And, perhaps cruelly and ironically, this rapture (at least in my experience) comes not from finding yourself, and making more out of yourself, but from losing yourself. Dismantling your old identity and starting afresh.
The answer to all this searching isn’t at the top of a mountain, it is part of consciousness, and the big “S” Self.
What you are seeking is a life lived beyond your own Ego. It is letting go your desires and attachments to stuff, and just being.
What you are searching for is your Self.
While the “ultimate” thing that we might (need to) search for could be called spiritual maturity and transcendence, I don’t believe that for most of us that this means becoming a monk and pursuing an ascetic existence.
Instead, it comes from living a life doing stuff you care about with people you care about. It comes from meditation and time in nature (and perhaps prayer) and from getting into a situation where you can be authentic, vulnerable and express yourself fully and honestly.
I’ve found a path “there” by living and working creatively in the broadest sense (and in a specific sense that I’ll explain in coming articles).
“There”, the package of external and internal things that we are seeking, along with meaning and experience/self-expression and Self-realization is what I now call “living on a higher and deeper level”, living complete, or simply Complete.
As I’ve mentioned, the thing that I’ve observed in my own life that I think is most applicable to others is that creativity can be a bridge between personal and professional growth on one side, and spiritual growth on the other.
Creativity is a way to combine tangible things like solving for being able to work and support your family, for example, on one side, with seemingly intangible but critically important things on the other such feeling grounded, present, connected. Happy.
A very practical example, and an obvious need for creativity, is if you’re in the situation where you believe that you need to completely change careers in order to be happy (as I did).
There is no playbook for total career change, I think that it is one of the notable blindspots of personal and professional growth literature.
I’ve used this example, because it illustrates that if you want to live a life that delivers what you want in the way you want it, then you often need to forge your own path. Sure, you need to be lucky and work hard, but you also need to challenge assumptions and the typical ways of doing things.
You need to make a door where previously there was only a wall.
By learning and practicing basic creative techniques you’ll get more comfortable with things like iteration and ideation, but perhaps more importantly you’ll be more confident in your ability to break a problem down into small chunks and find a way to make things happen.
Instead of giving up, you’ll persevere. And by persevering you'll either get there, or get to an even better there that you can't even see from where you are now.
The personal creative journey starts with understanding your own individuality and feelings.
This creative journey is a different, more action oriented, path to building self-awareness, and self-knowledge than the typical self-help exercises that you’ve probably already done (and that might not have led to any real change).
You’ll realize that, for example, the path to finding/creating your value in the market (an enabler to being able to do what you love and get paid for it) lies not in trying to be like everyone else, but by embracing and expressing your uniqueness. By finding an effective and tailored mechanism for converting your energy and creativity to money.
Your creative growth journey will mean that you’ll begin to engage and relate to world in a different way.
And that is what I believe is the real prize out of all this searching and doing. I can’t wait to see everything that you’ll do and achieve in the future, but my one wish for you is that you’ll learn how to be here now.
The rest is icing.
In the next article, I’ll explain more about how Complete works as a philosophy and set of principles to help you to begin living on a higher and deeper level.
The final article in this series is a preview of the creative tools and techniques that you can use to work more specifically on the package of external and internal things that we’ve been talking about here. .
Until next time.