“What do you desire? What makes you itch? What sort of a situation would you like?…What would you like to do if money were no object? How would you really enjoy spending your life?”
These questions posed by philosopher Alan Watts have been reverberating around in my head recently. Though these are seemingly simple – and, some may argue, impractical – they are important questions, nonetheless.
Answering the question of what you would like to do if money were no object is one of the keys to finding and refining your purpose – it makes you dig deep to find out what lights you up regardless of external circumstances and social markers of success.
How I found my purpose and my why
Since I was a young teenager who firmly believed she could never paint, I wanted to be an artist, photographer, and writer. All three. The impulse was pretty illogical, considering I couldn’t draw or paint to save my life; I was a good photographer, though, and I could string words together into sentences. But I never dropped artist from my list of desires.
Of course, growing up as an ‘80s child meant that a career as a photographer, writer, or artist was pretty much unheard of. I ended up in a commerce program, followed it up with mass communication, and started my career as a content writer on the internet before quickly moving into research and business editing.
Those desires, though, never died down. Over the years, I refined my photography skills and won a few photography awards along the way. I wrote some award-winning poetry and started writing, but it took me many more years to try my hand at art.
My first brush with art in early 2003/2004 ended in disaster, and I spent the next decade as a blocked artist. It’s only in 2015 that I picked up the paintbrush again and finally breathed my inner artist into being.
Looking back at my journey now, it’s in answering these questions, coming at them slowly, relentlessly; being burned and rising from the ashes; that have brought me where I am today – an artist and writer.
The key to finding your purpose
Because here’s the thing: your desires aren’t a one and done thing. They constantly change and evolve. Some desires may fall by the wayside. New desires may make themselves known.
You need to constantly check in with these questions. That process of constant checking in made me realize that photography is no longer a burning desire for me – I still enjoy it, but I don’t identify as closely with it.
This is something to be mindful of – your purpose can and most likely will change, and there is nothing wrong with that. Each skill that you spend time learning and mastering informs how you approach everything else. In my case, the time I spent refining my photography skills helped me to develop an intuitive understanding of composition and color combinations in my art practice.
The link between your life purpose and success
But there is an area where you may struggle with Alan Watts’ philosophy, which is his seeming disregard for money:
“…forget the money, because, if you say that getting the money is the most important thing, you will spend your life completely wasting your time. You’ll be doing things you don’t like doing in order to go on living, that is to go on doing things you don’t like doing, which is stupid.”
You may think that he’s asking you to give your labor away for free, or saying that holding down a job equates selling out. And you may rail against his exhortation to “forget the money”, because unless you were born with a silver spoon in your mouth, money is important too!
Instead of taking his statement at face value, I think it’s important to engage with a philosopher’s thoughts with some deep thinking of your own!
So, what does it mean to “forget the money”?
The first thing to remember, in my opinion, is that the rags to riches stories you hear can be very inspiring. And while they may motivate and inspire you to pursue your desires and goals, just remember that there are numerous stories of rags to…not riches?
For every success story there are many more stories of failure. So unless you have a cushion of support, it is important to make choices that can give you both – the means to put the bread on the table and the time to focus on your purpose.
This means that you need to build your life around your desires, in ways that support your purpose. In my case, it meant making choices that would support my art and creative practices, instead of turning around and demanding that my art pay the bills.
“I held onto my day jobs for so long because I wanted to keep my creativity free and safe… I was always willing to work hard so that my creativity could play lightly. In so doing, I became my own patron… So many times I have longed to say to stressed-out, financially strapped artists, ‘Just take the pressure off yourself, dude, and get a job!’”
All your choices – related to your job, your relationships, how you spend your time and your energy, everything – have to support your why…your purpose…your deepest desires. It may mean that you treat your job as just something that pays the bills; that instead of partying on the weekends, or spending all your free time watching Netflix, you spend it refining and working on your craft.
It may mean that you will never be conventionally successful – you may not have the fancy designation and the corner office; the big car and the bigger house. You may never even find conventional success with your purpose. And here’s the real kicker: Your purpose, your calling, doesn’t have to put the bread on the table. I think that is where so many of us trip up, thinking that our purpose equals our job. It could, but it doesn’t have to.
What is most important, I believe, is to give your purpose….your calling…the time and attention that it needs, instead of getting tripped up over external validation and conventional markers of success. What is most important, most urgent, is the honing of your craft.
After all, as Alan Watts says,
“It’s absolutely stupid to spend your time doing things you don’t like, in order to go on spending on things you don’t like, doing things you don’t like…”
So, tell me: what is your life’s purpose? Where do you find meaning? What do you desire? What would you like to spend your time doing if money were no object?
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