If you are having difficulty discovering your purpose in life, start by defining your favorite problems.
We often feel lost in life when we lack purpose. Traditionally, we have been trained to rely on our ideas, our passions, and our skills to find direction. While this puts us on track to find something, this mindset is horrendously inadequate and inefficient in discovering purpose.
We all have ideas. We all have a purpose. Some of us lack the former and most of us lack the latter. In either case, we must work systematically to discover these and form a cohesive connection between the two. And by systematically, I mean implementing a set of selective filters that will take us from idea to purpose with precision and effectiveness.
A System of Filters
Most ideas are just plain bad. Some are good. And very few are great. Your objective is to find those great ideas which serve your life’s purpose. An effective way to approach this is to first define your favorite problems. You might think it’s an odd way of referring to your problems. But this filter is absolutely critical to the process.
Here is Richard Feynman, a Nobel-Prize winning physicist, describing it in his typical playful and observational style:
“You have to keep a dozen of your favorite problems constantly present in your mind, although by and large they will lay in a dormant state. Every time you hear a new trick or a new result, test it against each of your twelve problems to see whether it helps. Every once in a while, there will be a hit, and people will say, ‘How did he do it? He must be a genius!”
Think of your favorite problems as a set of receptors. They take in information, sort it into relevant applications, and allow you to apply your ideas in a much more focused way to achieve your purpose.
But this alone is not sufficient. What good is your “favorite problems” filter if you are throwing any and every idea at it like a blindfolded dart-thrower? Therein lies the need for a preceding filter: asking better questions.
A set of specific and useful questions is the filter through which you will examine your ideas. You may not be actively thinking about the questions you are asking on a day-to-day basis, but every action you take, every decision you make, and every cake you bake (sorry, I had to…) is in some form generated by a question.
When you combine the two filters of questions and problems, you will have a robust vetting system in place for your ideas.
Here are a couple basic examples as a warm-up:
When a restaurant manager envisions building an efficient and seamless operation, she must begin by identifying the problems that will prevent her from achieving it.
- She has many ideas on how it can be achieved, so she begins to ask questions that define her problems.
- One of her problems might be in hiring, so she asks herself “how can I construct a reliable and repeatable hiring process that is effective in identifying the best candidate?”
- She vets her ideas through the questions she asks. The questions inform the problem. And through acute awareness of the problem, she is able to achieve her purpose.
You want to achieve financial freedom (purpose).
- You have an idea to go on Indeed and apply for the highest paying job you can find. Conventional wisdom applauds this approach. You’re beginning to see why it’s all wrong.
- By implementing your filters, you start to ask questions like: “how can I develop an income stream that will allow me to achieve financial freedom in 5-10 years?” (Remember: specific and useful)
- By asking the right question relative to your purpose, you identify the problem in achieving your goal of financial freedom: Indeed is useful for stacking the odds against you for jobs with a finite yearly salary. Hardly the most effective way to reach your goal.
- Due to your effective filters, you save yourself the headache of implementing your bad ideas, and you begin to think of better ideas that will serve your ultimate purpose!
Here is an easy way to visualize the process:
Identifying Your 12 Favorite Problems Through Effective Questions
Let’s now apply this method to discovering your life’s purpose. In this case, you are starting from incomplete information: you lack purpose.
Instead, start by identifying your favorite problems. These are problems you often think about, which could be related to any of your deepest interests, skills, and passions. These are problems that inspire you and captivate you, ones that go beyond the scope of day-to-day problems. Write these down. Make them specific enough to be actionable, yet broad enough to think about them for years to come. To give you an idea:
- “What is the meaning of life?” = Too broad
- “What is the weather going to be like tomorrow?” = Too specific, and useless in the grand scheme of things.
- “How can I surround myself with optimistic, curious, and supportive people who give me energy?” (Courtesy of David Perell) = This is the realm you want to be in.
If your questions are precise and relevant to your favorite problems, you will have a more direct path to discovering your purpose. Begin a habit of consciously formulating and referring back to your questions. You will miss the mark often (see dotted arrows above), but that is all part of the learning process. The more deliberate and thoughtful you are in this process, the closer you will be to achieving the life you want to live.
My Personal Journey
For the last 15 years of my working life, I have wandered aimlessly, jumping from job to job, curiosity to curiosity, and never focusing my energies in one primary direction. I haven’t quite found my true purpose yet, but with this system, I am more on the path than I have ever been in my entire life.
If you want to begin a more deliberate approach to discovering your purpose, it helps to have an example to gain inspiration. Here are my 12 favorite problems, divided my scope:
30-Foot View (The Scope of My Daily Life)
1. Am I hunting antelope or chasing mice? This question originated from former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. This helps me refocus on my priorities when I get bogged down in minutiae. Every action I take is put through this filter to ensure that I am consistently effective in the most relevant areas.
2. How can I balance my time between cultivating meaningful relationships and meaningful work? I put this tweet out recently, which sums up my passion for what I’m currently building:
When you do unfulfilling work, 8 hrs/5x a week is full-time.— Joe Balcom (@thejoebalcom) July 6, 2020
When you do meaningful, self-directed work, 16 hrs/7x a week feels like part-time.
While I’ve finally found a meaningful path worth travelling, I still struggle to make time for those closest to me. Perhaps this will solve itself as I become more efficient in my work, but tomorrow is never guaranteed. It must be a priority.
3. How can I overcome the tyranny of perfectionism? Even as I write this post, I am suffering from the effects of perfectionism. I constantly check and recheck my work, just to make sure everything is “perfect.” Eventually, I let my work out into the world, but not after hours of painstaking attention to detail.
4. How can I find my 1,000 True Fans? Anyone trying to build an online business should read this article by Kevin Kelly. The intimidation level of building something that sells is immense. This article is so good at lowering it and making you feel that your goals are well within reach.
5. What is the least crowded channel? I’ve asked this question to myself for over a decade. It is why I’m done submitting resumes, it’s why I didn’t get a master’s degree (I didn’t catch myself in time for undergrad), and it is why I’ve been able to identify entry points to otherwise “inaccessible” leadership positions and unique adventures. It is why you are reading this today.
6. What would this look like if it were easy? Thanks to Tim Ferriss for this one. This is particularly useful when overwhelmed, frustrated, or intimidated. When I first became a restaurant manager, it was easy to get lost in the million tasks I needed to get done. By asking this question, I was able to devise a system for reducing stress and achieving my goal in a more effective way.
30,000-Foot View (The Scope of Joebalcom.com)
7. How can I help change the paradigm of travel—to help people aim for meaningful exploration rather than frivolous luxury?
8. How do I articulate the importance and, dare I say, necessity of travel in a compelling and persuasive way?
9. How can I help change the paradigm of work—to look at it through the lens of meaningfulness instead of working by default (for money, approval, necessity)?
10. How can I shepherd people into the age of leverage and teach people that a prosperous future is in divorcing their time from their income?
11. How can I help change the paradigm of mental health—to look at it through the lens of community and togetherness, rather than through shame and secrecy?
12. How can I inspire and teach people in a convincing way how to overcome self-imposed limitations—to not just step outside their comfort zone, but to demolish it altogether?
If Nobody Calls Your Vision Arrogant…
These questions aren’t perfect, and will probably adjust over time. But they serve as a way to focus my energies in the most effective directions, and get closer to my true purpose than ever before.
I hope this helps you begin to formulate your approach to life in a more thoughtful way. Having things written down, illustrated, and listed will free your mind. You will have the mental lightness to move forward and towards a defined goal with purpose and precision.
Cultivate your vision of what you want in life. If laying on the couch eating chips doesn’t serve your overall vision, do less of that. You will now be able to calibrate your habits in service of your life’s purpose.
And remember, if nobody calls your vision arrogant, you’re probably not thinking big enough.
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