Finding Flow, The Definition Of A Meaningful Life And How To Discover Your True Purpose
For over a decade I’ve made my living — and a very good one — writing.
I’m still surprised to say this. I never thought of writing as my path while growing up.
In 2005 I started a blog. The blog grew into a real business, grossing over two million dollars in revenue. All of that money was and continues to be derived from my writing.
While the money is fantastic, the discovery of writing as my passion, my calling, my purpose — is more profound.
Almost every single day I get to do what I am doing right now. I’m sitting in a cafe, typing on my laptop, sharing my thoughts and ideas with you.
When I do this I frequently enter was is commonly known as Flow-State, or simply Flow.
Flow is that feeling where time loses meaning. Your surroundings disappear and you enter a place where pure creativity flows through you.
You can enter flow doing any activity you truly enjoy, from rock climbing, to painting, flying a plane, playing an instrument, programming a video game, talking on a video live stream or solving a statistics calculation.
I’m confident you’ve already experienced flow at some point in your life, so I don’t need to explain what it feels like.
While In Flow You Feel No Fear
While in flow-state you’re never anxious. There’s no fear or anxiety when you’re doing what you truly enjoy.
You might be nervous just before the activity, for example as you prepare to walk out on stage and deliver your talk or play an instrument, but once you get there, once you enter the flow, the fear is gone.
You exist as a pure expression of your creative passion.
Fear can’t exist there. You live in the moment, there is no past or future to worry about, you are being your creation.
I didn’t realize how important flow-state was until just recently.
I was sleeping, when suddenly I woke up for no apparent reason.
A thought immediately came to me…
Anxiety can’t exist while in flow.
I thought back over my own experiences of being in flow and there was never any sense of anxiety. In fact, it felt like the opposite – pure joy, pure expression, pure focus.
Then I thought back to days earlier in my life where I was plagued with constant anxiety. I rarely went into flow-state back then, and it was very clear why…
I wasn’t doing what I was meant to do. In fact, I had no clue what I was meant to do.
Discovering My Purpose
When I experienced anxiety that led to panic attacks, I discovered that much of my problem was rooted in my own negative thought patterns about myself and life.
Through a process of observing my thoughts and then slowly restructuring them, I was able to emerge from this unhealthy frame.
On my 25th birthday I felt like I had turned a corner. The panic attacks were gone and I had developed a powerful mindfulness skill as a result of my positivity training and practice.
However, there was something else that happened when I turned 25 – I discovered writing.
My 25th year coincides with the beginning of my blogging and writing career. It was at this point that I realized writing was my passion and my destination.
This went beyond the desire to make money. By this point I was already making a full-time income from my business at the time, an editing company.
As I began writing every day, it became clear that not only did I enjoy writing and see it as a possible new business, it was something I could see myself doing for the rest of my life.
This was huge for me. Nothing that came before had felt like this.
Hobbies and business projects had felt enjoyable for a period of time, perhaps as a means to experience something or even avoid something, or simply a way to make enough money to pay my bills. Nothing had felt permanent, something I would do and keep doing because I wanted to day after day.
To put it simply, I came to see writing as what I was going to do for the rest of my life.
Over the months and years that followed, this realization of my lifelong purpose cemented itself. Writing became the heart of my business (I sold all my other businesses), and sitting in cafes typing away on my laptop became a daily activity.
When I Grow Up I Want To Be A…
When I was 18 years old I graduated from Kelvin Grove High School in Brisbane Australia with a clear intention: I did not want a job.
I went to university because I didn’t know what else to do. I wasn’t excited about continuing study, but I needed somewhere to go each day. Since a job was less desirable, off to tertiary studies I went.
I chose business management as a degree because I knew that if was to avoid a full-time job I needed to make money another way, and business seemed like the logical path. I wasn’t sure what kind of business, but I figured I would decide by the end of my degree.
Little did I realize my business management degree wasn’t going to teach me how to run a business. Instead, the program manufactured worker drones, people designed to fit into a corporate structure and climb the ladder of the nine-to-five regiment.
I completed most of my subjects in university with a passing grade (a year-long statistics course required two attempts, one of which ate into my holidays as I repeated it during summer school).
My best grades, not surprisingly, came from the only two entrepreneurial subjects I could take. These courses focused on independence and creating your own path, rather than teaching you how to fit into a worker-bee environment and perform a role under a boss.
Throughout my university experience, I felt lost about my future life direction. Even as I headed towards graduation I wasn’t sure what came next. I still had no intention to get a job, but since all my soon-to-graduate university friends were looking for jobs or already had them, the sense of feeling lost heightened.
No Purpose = More Anxiety
I spent most of my university days forcing myself to attend classes I didn’t like and complete assignments I didn’t care about.
Entering flow state was not exactly a common experience during this time.
What was much more common was feeling lost, confused, and directionless about life in general. It seems obvious in hindsight, but this was a significant contributing factor to my anxiety at the time.
When you’re not sure what your purpose is, nothing feels right. You still have to do something, in particular to make money, so you end up exerting energy on things you don’t enjoy.
This kind of work is soulless. You force yourself to do things you don’t want to do, watching the clock as the day slowly ticks by.
While you are in flow-state, time doesn’t exist — hours pass by in a flash. When you force yourself to do work you don’t enjoy, your perception of time is the opposite, everything slows down to a snails-pace.
If your life is made up of this kind of work and you don’t see a way out, there is no light at the end of the tunnel, it’s not surprising anxiety can set in.
Anxiety Is A Signpost For Change
If you’re currently experiencing anxiety it’s important to first manage your thought process. That is step one, you must be your own cheerleader within your mind.
As a next step, consider this powerful reframe…
Rather than see anxiety as something scary and uncomfortable and out of your control, see it as a nudge to change direction (you can look at panic attacks as a big slap in the face to change!).
Your anxiety likely stems from a sense of dissonance between what you really want, and what you are thinking and doing.
You may not be clear about exactly what you want yet, but it will be clear when you are doing the WRONG thing.
When you feel anxious, stop and ask yourself — Why is this feeling there? What is the root cause?
If you’re nervous because you’re about to create something or perform something that is important to you, that’s not anxiety that comes from being on the wrong path. Those nerves are a form of excitement because you care about what you are doing and want to do your best work.
If however, you feel anxious or angry or just down, like a steady sense of dis-ease, which can hang around for days at a time even when you are doing nothing important, then you know, you’re on the wrong path.
This is a sign you need to change. You need to make the conscious decision to look for what you are meant to do, to do so with a powerful intention to find it.
If you’re reading this and you feel like shouting back at me that you’ve been looking for what you are ‘meant to do’ for your entire life, then I have one piece of advice…
Treat your search for purpose AS your purpose.
When you live your life in pursuit of what you truly enjoy, when you deliberately experiment to find what leads to flow-state, slowly refining and restructuring your life until it’s what you want it to be, then the search itself becomes just as meaningful as the outcome.
Most people don’t truly live this way. They don’t treat the search for what gives them meaning as the most important thing to do in life. Instead, they float around, do things they don’t enjoy, copy what others do, sit on the couch and procrastinate, putting in only enough effort to get by.
This is the path that leads to anxiety and panic. These emotions are a wake-up call to the changes you need to make.
I believe there is nothing more important in life than what gives you true meaning, with flow-state being one of the best indicators that you have found it.
This is why you are here, it’s how you can be happy, and of course it’s a big piece of the puzzle when it comes to curing your anxiety.
Do Your Best Work Because That Is All That Matters
Rand’s books are incredible explorations of human character. She presents an ideal man or woman, who lives to express their reason for existing through their work. All her other characters represent a spectrum of values that contrast against this ideal protagonist, sometimes in very subtle ways, sometimes as a stark polarity.
When I read her books the dominant emotion I am left with is a desire to do my best and to do it for one reason – because I have to.
It’s not about money, it’s not about fame, it’s not about impressing your family or friends, or representing an ideal that the rest of the world defines as desirable.
It’s about your work, your purpose, the reason you were placed here on earth.
At the heart of this idea is a beautifully liberating concept: You don’t have to perform for anyone else but yourself.
The only person grading you is you.
Even if people take your work and change it, as long as you know that when you created it you did your best, you are content.
You don’t have to do something or buy something or earn a certain amount of money or dress or a certain way just because other people have decided that is right or wrong.
I see this as a key mindset shift to adopt when it comes to finding your purpose and also eliminating anxiety.
When you remove any external criteria as a judgment of your work, then all you are left with is you and your work.
Of course, the world always has an opinion. We operate in a society that loves to measure and rank and judge — to keep score and decide who is best.
You don’t have to opt-in to this world if you don’t want to. You can be your own score-keeper, measuring your performance only against your potential as the metric that matters.
The Answer Comes Through Creation
After graduating from university I lived in a shared rental townhouse in Brisbane. Initially, I lived with two girls, both working full time in the city. Eventually one left and a male friend moved in for a year to take the spare bedroom.
My friend didn’t have a job and seemed aimless in general. He had some interests, which he indulged in all day long, sitting on his computer listening to music or watching television.
As the months wore on, it became clear that not only was my friend lost, he was experiencing depression, the not so-distant-cousin of anxiety.
With no job, no girlfriend and no sense of direction, it was easy to see why he was unhappy.
However, I didn’t see his situation as the problem. We all have aspects of our lives we want to change, especially when young, and my friend was no different.
What concerned me — and frustrated me daily since I lived with him — was the complete lack of effort to change things.
I understood what it feels like to be lost and lonely in life. My own situation at the time wasn’t very different from my friend. I didn’t have a girlfriend, I just made enough money to survive from my business projects and a part time job, and spent most of my time in front of the computer at home too.
The difference between us, at least as I saw it, was I actively worked to change my circumstances.
I spent my days and nights working on my business projects, studying subjects I wanted to improve in my own life (meeting women and growing a business), and experimenting to see what worked for me and what didn’t.
My friend was a passive consumer of what other people created, listening to music, watching videos and television, staying up late and waking up late. While I didn’t know what was going on inside his head, it appeared to me that he was lost and stuck, and not doing anything to change.
I came to realize while living with this friend how vital creation is to change.
It’s very difficult to change something in your life without working to create something for the world or impacting other people in a meaningful way.
Even if you spend time doing something that ends up not being right for you, by taking action to create something, you discover it was not the right path. This distinction brings you closer to the right path, to your true life’s purpose.
While I’m all for studying and contemplation and thinking, at some point those things must give way to creative action.
You can’t consume your way to change.
The world demands that you interact with it. We, as people, derive purpose through interacting with our environment and the other people who live in it. If we do not exert some kind of influence over our environment, or impact other people in a productive way, then we stagnate.
Progress Through Continuous Creation
This idea of creation over consumption as the path to purpose became clearer and clearer to me as years went by. Life continued to demonstrate that creators are rewarded, even if at first they seemed to fail more than succeed.
1. I noticed the guys who had the most success with women weren’t always the most attractive. Instead, it was the guy who kept interacting with girls day-after-day who got results.
Even if they repeatedly failed when they approached girls, the growth that came from each interaction gave them insight to improve. Eventually, that accumulated experience led to positive results.
That growth couldn’t come from reading a book, watching a movie, or positive visualizations. These things might be building blocks for your mindset, but the result and real growth comes from creating an interaction with another person… and then doing it again and again.
2. Successful entrepreneurs reached big financial success because they continued to put something out there for other people.
Similar to the guy who just keeps going up and talking to girls, the entrepreneur who continues to launch businesses even after repeated failures, is the one who eventually makes it big.
No amount of planning, research, tweaking and contemplating your business idea or product will get you there. You must build something, do marketing, offer a product – and do these things over and over again until you succeed.
In fact, based on the biographies of many successful entrepreneurs, a pre-requisite for success is failure. You must fail in business in order to figure out what works. Stories of first-time success are rare, and often based more on luck than anything else.
3. In the world of sales, it’s standard procedure to make more than one offer.
In my businesses, I learned a long time ago that I must consistently and repeatedly present my product or service for sale.
A person needs to be in the right circumstances to buy from you, and that might take time. If they only receive one, or two or even three offers, you probably won’t have a buyer. It’s the seventh or eighth or ninth time that you offer your product that leads to the sale.
4. The success story behind top musicians, artists, screenwriters, authors or actors, always began with on action — produce… produce… produce — until you make it.
How many audition rejections does it take for an actor to succeed? How many publisher rejections does it take for an author to get a bestseller? How many small gigs must a band play in order to get the big break?
The same can be said for success in sport, or science, or horticulture, or cooking – the only way to make progress, and ultimately find what you are meant to do, and then do your best work, is take creative action.
Life is built to reward this process. We call it evolution.
Create, Find Flow, Then Be Your Purpose
If you’re not sure what your purpose is yet, your job is to make finding your purpose your purpose.
Everything is an experiment, with failure merely being a tool you use to refine and guide you to what works and what feels right.
As you go about your experimentation process, the more frequently you enter flow-state, the closer you are to what you are meant to do.
Once you find what you are meant to do, your goal is a simple one…
Do your best work because your best work is all that matters.
Don’t worry about external judgment criteria, or what other people think. Your true happiness can only come from this work because that is why you are here alive today.
No human being has ever become joyously happy by settling for a role in life that doesn’t give them meaning. They might get by, they may be satisfied that they are living life to a certain standard, but they are not experiencing a soul-level sense of purpose.
If anxiety and emotional agitation are constant companions, then use them as warning signs for change. This is your soul telling you that you’re not on the right path.
Feelings are the best metric you have for assessing your own choices. You can’t lie to yourself. If something is off, your feelings will tell you. Your job is to listen and adjust your actions.
If you don’t, the path forward will be more of what you have already experienced.
Why would you choose suffering over joy, especially when you have the power to change it?
P.S. If as you read this article you were thinking… “this is great, but how do I make money if I find out my purpose isn’t something that people get paid to do?”
…then I recommend you read this – What Is The 80/20 Rule And Why It Will Change Your Life.