I used to think that people who searched for meaning in life were idiots. But then again, I’ve thought a lot of things and ruined a lot of relationships along the way, so maybe the truth of the matter is, I just didn’t value meaning or anything intangible at all.
I was the biggest spiritual baby. I’d sigh loudly at the back of yoga class, having squeezed myself into the requisite Lululemon gear for spiritual enlightenment, grimacing while doing the downward dog, and generally seething at the girlfriend who had convinced me that I needed an inner makeover.
Who was I to question the righteousness of spirituality within the great halls of Equinox? It was all around me.
Between the nights of yoga, and coming home to my family, and meditation practice and coming home again, I discerned no inner change. Maybe my inner thing was broken. Or searching for meaning was a sham. I couldn’t tell.
I wasn’t working then. I was a full-time mom and feeling terribly unfit for the job. And there was my problem, only I didn’t know it at the time. I couldn’t tell what I cared about and what had meaning for me at all because I had skipped over an essential part of the process of finding meaning, or purpose.
I was doing nothing. I was trying to find meaning in meditation and yoga, but those practices were only meant to illuminate the other values in my life. And my other values blew.
I wasn’t trying anything hard or new.
I wasn’t trying to overcome anything except a general sense of ennui.
I became depressed. None of the healers I had hired were going to save me. The tarot card readers, the meditation instructors, the gurus. I was an entitled woman-child, spending all of my time waiting to be rescued rather than figuring out how to rescue others and ultimately, myself.
Ever more people today have the means to live, but no meaning to live for. — Viktor E. Frankl
I’ve been blessed all my life. But if you walked in my shoes, you would feel the pain I have felt as well. Many things didn’t go as planned.
And every time something didn’t work out, I ran from it. I understood pain as an experience to be avoided at all costs.
When I broke up with a guy, I cut off all ties to minimize the pain. When a job didn’t work out, I burned all relationships associated with the job to the ground. When a career didn’t yield the financial reward I thought I deserved, I left.
Saying no is a valuable life skill. But always running from problems is not. My refusal to sit with pain and take responsibility for my negative situation had kept me from creating anything meaningful in my life for twenty years.
My depression lasted for about two years. I thought my heart would stop beating, but it didn’t. I guess I was supposed to try again.
I only knew a few things for sure. The way money worked, and how confusing life was by the time we were adults. Maybe I could help with that.
My efforts were embarrassing the first year. I’d write a crappy blog or two, no one would read them, and in another effort to avoid the pain, I’d hire a PR firm to help speed up the process of gaining an audience. I hired branding experts, a high-end tech guy, and assistants. I called our website the Money School, because I was arrogant enough to think people needed to be “schooled” with their money. The Money School was a big expensive failure. It exhausted me emotionally, physically and financially.
But then a miracle happened after the failure. I didn’t run. I tried again. We honed our message based on our core values and how we were different from every other money management coaching program out there. I started writing. I started writing a lot. Since I had never been a “writer,” the process turned me inside out, wrung me dry, killed me many times, and spit me out a little dazed. But I kept going.
I never knew pain like I did during those months. Nothing was certain, the money was running out, and there was zero traction. I was busting my ass to get better at something I had no reason to suspect would be successful. But as beaten up as I felt during the nights, I would wake up equally determined to get better at what I was doing in the mornings.
Who knew that pain had a lot to do with finding purpose?
I’m now teaching, coaching and writing about money mindfulness without a moment’s rest. There are still challenges left and right. There isn’t a wisp of a guarantee that I’ll make a dent in the world as hard as I try. But I can’t stop trying. This is purpose. I’ve found meaning.
If you’re currently searching for your own purpose, keep these two things in mind.
First, your purpose lies beyond the pain. What you’re willing to do despite ongoing, relentless, humbling pain is the smoke signal you’re looking for. There’s a fire beneath them woods.
Conversely, if you’ve built a life around avoiding pain in search of pleasure and ease, you’ll need to let go of some of your most comfortable crutches in order to find your purpose. One way or another, you’ll need to say goodbye to your comfort zone.
You may feel like you’re drowning at first and that’s okay. You’re learning to cope with pain.
Second, know that you can live a meaningful life and create financial stability at the same time. They’re not necessarily at odds with each other, no matter what we’ve been told by well-meaning people. These beliefs are fear-based and completely understandable, but still wrong. I have a real beef with people who moan about money and don’t necessarily put in the effort to understand its power or harness its possibilities, and also for those who put other people down for being successful with it. I grew up poor. Believing money isn’t real is just another form of running and refusing to take responsibility.
Learn the basics instead. Find ways to make tough financial choices that feel right. Own your situation. You may not be able to work at your purpose full-time right off the bat. That’s okay too.
The choice is yours. Either find meaning in a less comfortable life, or live a comfortable life with no meaning. Pick your pain.
I hope you choose a life of meaning.
Jane Hwangbo is a Harvard-trained entrepreneur, writer and teacher. She writes about ways to increase your mental clarity, motivation and passion for making wise financial choices, while investigating the link between living a life of purpose and financial empowerment. Jane has been interviewed as a financial expert by Forbes, The Huffington Post, and The Financial Diet, and contributes articles to Business Insider, The Observer and the Thought Catalog. Read more of her work at janehwangbo.com.