Written by Russell Johnson
The most widespread, and the most disabling, of all awareness gaps is the lack of a clear, sound, compelling and enduring sense of purpose. If you don’t have such a vision of the future you want to create, then you’re in the company of the overwhelming majority of people, everywhere. As Abraham Maslow, the author of the well-known Hierarchy of Human Needs, stated:
It isn’t normal to know what we want. It is a rare and difficult psychological achievement.
That’s actually part of the reason the problem is so pervasive; it seems so utterly normal to be less than fully engaged that most people simply accept it. Meanwhile, they attempt to dull the sense of ‘something missing’ with self-indulgence and/or a focus on trivia.
Unfortunately, neither is capable of filling the gap.
The Blind Spots We Don’t Know About
The things we don’t know, but know that we need to know, are certainly barriers to achieving the conditions we want. However, the fact that we know about them helps to make them manageable. It’s the barriers we aren’t aware of that are the most dangerous.
These can arise in the judgments we make and embed, as if they were facts, about how the world works, what we should do about it, and what is and isn’t possible for us. They tend to operate at a level below our conscious awareness, and to express themselves in generally consistent patterns of behaviour.
If they’re invalid, or valid only in limited circumstances, the actions that flow from them will often cause us problems, and we won’t even recognize that they’re self-inflicted. As long as they remain unrecognized and therefore unexamined, they will operate as our default settings. They will function like the hammer in Abraham Maslow’s famous saying “If the only tool you have is a hammer, you’ll tend to see every problem as a nail”.
This is too large a subject to discuss deeply here. It brings us up against the question of how much we may be ready to change, or able to change, for purposes that matter to us. What is vital is to be ready to spend time in coming to more deeply understand ourselves, our preferences, and how these may be helping or hindering us in achieving what we want.
And in assessing to what extent we may be willing and able to ‘reprogram’ ourselves to achieve what might otherwise be impossible for us.
The ‘Midlife Crisis’
The ‘midlife crisis’ isn’t necessarily just a one-time experience. Depending on how our careers have unfolded to date, and on our motivation to continue to develop, it may be repeated several times, and not necessarily just in midlife.
What matters is to avoid attempts to ‘sweep it under the carpet’. A career crisis of any sort is an opportunity to find higher and more fulfilling levels of self-development and fulfilment. Unfortunately, we usually stand too close to our own situations to see them and our possibilities clearly. Objective and dispassionate feedback is needed, so don’t be afraid or ashamed to seek it if you’re finding yourself stuck.
Don’t start by attempting to assess your strengths and where they will be most marketable. That’s the wrong starting point; it bypasses the fundamental issue of our need for a motivating purpose.
Your motivation is what’s critical; your strengths are secondary. So lead with your motivation, not with your strengths. Ask yourself what sort of difference you want to make.
A Stepwise Process
The reality is that growth toward a compelling vision is usually a stepwise process. It’s generally good to be at peace with this fact. As we achieve a new level of growth, our confidence increases. This allows our imagination to take flight and contemplate new possibilities. As we examine these possibilities, we recognize that they hold the potential for new levels of growth. We become excited about this and decide to reach for them.
This stepwise growth, if continued, will lead us on to the fulfilling life we are seeking. It’s not a journey for the fainthearted, and most people never take it beyond its early stages. But those who commit to its continuation have vastly more fulfilling lives.
Teasing out a compelling vision for your future can be one of the most profoundly rewarding activities of a lifetime, because it will give you an endlessly compelling project to work on. You’ll be able to pause for rest and for all of the activities that make up a full life. Yet your vision will always be there, with new pieces of the puzzle waiting to fall into place when you’re ready for them.
At times, it may look to others as though you are tilting at windmills. But you will know differently because you’re actually experiencing the deep success that most only dream of.