Next fall, my oldest son will go off to college. This will be a marking point in a life transition that has already started in my life and career. In recent times, I've found myself looking back over my life and wondering what will lie ahead.
What We Strive For
As I look back, I realize that ever since college, I have been striving to build a meaningful life and career. I wanted to do something important and meaningful. I assumed it would be a fairly linear pathway toward meaningful work and success. I assumed all the pieces of my life would fit together neatly like a puzzle framed on a wall. I thought once I finished my training, my life would quickly become, in a word—integrated. Nearly 25 years later, I can look back and see that the pathway has been anything but linear, and that it’s a never-ending journey to make the pieces of my life fit together into a meaningful whole. I think I have made progress, but I am still striving to build a meaningful and integrated life. I think we all want to make a positive difference in this world. And we all want our lives to be integrated or coherent—to make sense. These are deep psychological needs that are part of what it means to be human. While this is a messy, non-linear process, there are mindsets and practices that will help you create this kind of life gradually over time.
Lessons for an Integrated, Coherent Life
I’ve learned a few lessons along the way that I can hope can be helpful to you. Here is one: In order to find your true work, you must find your true self. The first step in knowing the work that is true for you (at any given point in your life), is knowing and accepting yourself. If you don’t accept yourself, you won’t know yourself. If you don’t know yourself, you won’t know what motivates you, what you’re talents and strengths are, your own story and how that contributes to everything you do, your core beliefs, values, and message, the deeper themes of your work, and the unifying theme of your work. These things represent your true self, and you will find them in your core, undefended emotions that reveal the meaning of events to you, based on your unique personality and history.
I grew up with a mother who wasn't emotionally present. I learned to shut my emotions down at a very early age. So it took a lot of work for me to know and accept myself. I did a lot of the foundational work in my early- to mid-20, but it’s an ongoing process of discovering who I am and how I’m wired to contribute. Over the years, I’ve spent a lot of time in my own therapy and with coaches to become a healthier person and to continually develop self-awareness.
Shape Your True Work
So, do the work to know and accept yourself, which requires sharing your story with safe people. As you’re doing this, invest in understanding your talents, strengths, core motivations, your core message, and the unifying theme of your work. This self-awareness and understanding will help you shape your life and career to be meaningful and integrated.
Here are a few questions to reflect on to help you understand how your story shapes your life and work. (Many of these questions are drawn from Dan McAdams in his book The Stories We Live By, which I highly recommend.)
1. Life Events
- What are the chapters of your life? How would you title them? What does this reveal about you?
- What are the key events of your life? Consider the following:
- Peak experience
- Low point
- Key turning points
- Earliest memory
- An important childhood memory
- An important adolescent memory
- An important adult memory
- Another important memory
2. Significant People
- Describe four of the most significant people in your life story
- One should be a non-relative
- Describe any particular heroes or heroines
3. Attachment History and Tendencies
- When you are distressed, do you tend to shut down emotionally? (dismissing attachment)
- Or, become anxious about close others being there for you (preoccupied attachment)
- Or, feel comfortable seeking comfort from close others? (secure attachment)
- How does this play out in different relationships?
4. What are your Future Goals?
5. what are the Core Challenges you've experienced?
6. what is your Personal Ideology or Worldview?
7. what are the Deeper themes of your work?
Feel free to share your story below!
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