Searching for Purpose? 5 Ways to Embrace Not Knowing What You Want

Relaxation

“Omnipotence is not knowing how everything is done; it’s just doing it.” ~Alan Watts

We sometimes hear of remarkable people who just knew what they wanted to become from a young age. I, however, was not one of them.

When I was about eight years old, I told my cousin that I wanted to become a scientist. Looking back, I find that pronouncement baffling since I wasn’t particularly interested in science at the time. What I did love doing, though, was making art.

My interest in art eventually led me to study graphic design. I thought that design would be a perfect fit since I’m creative and logical. But at a certain point, I realized that while design made some sense logically, it didn’t feel right to me.

I wondered, how could I have put so much time and effort into something I didn’t enjoy doing? It was only much later that I recognized my error: I believed that I had to have everything figured out completely.

Embracing Not-Knowing

What do you do when you realize what you worked so hard to attain isn’t what you want anymore? In this situation, many feelings may come up. I felt despair, fear, anger, resentment, sadness, hopelessness, and desperation.

These powerful emotions can overwhelm us and bring us into a state of paralysis. I remember wanting to pivot, but seeing numerous obstacles before me. If I make a drastic change now, I will have to start from zero, I thought.

I believe those thoughts and emotions stem from putting too much emphasis on the need to know. In the book The Overweight Brain, Lois Holzman, Ph.D., describes how our obsession with knowing “constrains creativity and risk-taking, keeps us and our dreams and ideas small, and stops us from continuing to grow and learn new things.”

As Holzman explains, infants don’t know much of anything. However, they grow tremendously in a relatively short period. They can develop this way by “not-knowing growing,” which one does through play.

Learning to Play Again

Let’s think for a moment. When you play a game, do you want to know what will happen next? If you did, then the game wouldn’t be any fun—there would be no point in playing it.

After working for seven years in my full-time job, I ended up quitting with nothing lined up and no idea of what to do next. Leaving your day job like this isn’t something I would suggest to everyone. But for me, it felt like the best thing to do at the time.

Taking a risk like that was exhilarating. I felt like a newborn child, free to explore the world and its possibilities again.

Before I made that decision, I used to sit in my office thinking, once I figure out what I want to do, I’ll be able to take some action. But I didn’t need to figure anything out. I just needed to begin by exploring.

As I tried many new things, I gained insight into who I was becoming. By interacting with the world with openness and curiosity, I found the clarity I needed to create my life with purpose.

Five Ways to Embrace Not-Knowing

So, how do you start embracing not-knowing to realize your true potential? Here are five ways for you to consider.

1. Question your situation.

Notice the assumptions you’re making about what is and isn’t possible. Like a child, be curious about what opportunities are already available at this moment. Instead of thinking, “Things can’t change because (some reason),” ask yourself: “I wonder what would happen if I said this… looked that way… went over there… tried this and that…?”

2. Take tiny risks.

You don’t have to quit your job to find a sense of purpose. Once you’ve identified the possibilities by questioning your situation, see what would happen if you did something different.

For example, if you’re passionate about diversity, inclusion, and belonging, how can you contribute to supporting that in your current role, or even outside your job? Perhaps you can spark a conversation about it with a few people. Because the risk is low, you may feel a rush of excitement from breaking your regular pattern.

3. Alchemize the experiences you’ve gained.

If you lose interest in something you worked hard for, realize that it wasn’t all for naught. Think instead, “Okay, so this is how I feel about it right now. How can I transmute this thing by combining it with other elements to produce something new and life-affirming?”

For example, I already had design and writing skills. I also had an interest in anthropology, psychology, learning, and human development. So, I tried to combine my existing skills with my interest in learning and human development to become an instructional designer. That pivot eventually led me to join a team in designing an online course that teaches intercultural skills to internationally trained professionals.

4. Give an improv performance.

If you’re a person who feels the need to plan everything, see if you can give an improv performance of a different version of yourself. For example, you can perform the version of yourself that finds the unknown exciting. Go out and walk like that version of you, speak like that version of you, listen like that version of you, eat like that version of you.

If it helps, imagine that you are an actor in a movie scene.

5. Do something unexpected.

Do you have a routine that you follow? What if you broke out of that routine for one day? Choose a day when you have no plans and do something that would surprise people who know you well. Maybe you will end up having a conversation with a total stranger and make a new friend.

Final Thoughts

From my journey, I’ve learned that not knowing what we want isn’t a sign that something’s wrong. It’s an invitation to walk the path of self-discovery. The journey is not a straight line—there are twists and turns, and sometimes we find ourselves at crossroads.

Remember that we are constantly in a state of becoming. We can shape each instance of our life by choosing to stay open, be curious, and explore the world with a sense of child-like wonder, which releases us from the confines of the mind.

Living this way, we give ourselves the space to grow into our true potential.

About Thomas Lai

Thomas Lai is the founder of Lifted Being. Through coaching, he helps creative and sensitive people who feel stuck, unfulfilled, and overwhelmed to start living an authentic and meaningful life. In addition to mindfulness practices and non-dual embodiment work, he offers tools and resources that help people navigate life transitions, such as the Self-Discovery Guide. Visit his website at www.liftedbeing.ca 

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