On the surface, things are good.
If people scrolled through your Facebook, LinkedIn, or Instagram profiles, they might think you have it all figured out. You have the job you fought so hard to get. You’re in the relationship you craved. You took a vacation to a place you’ve always wanted visit. You have family and friends you love and who love you too. You’re even in good health.
But you know something they don’t know. The truth: You aren’t even close to having it all figured out – actually, you’re making it up as you go along. You’re not as happy or as successful as you look on social media or on your resume. You feel like something is missing, but you just can’t seem to put your finger on it.
And then, it hits you. You feel empty inside. Like, blah. You feel like a powerful jet barreling down the runway at full speed but you just can’t seem to take off. You’re starting to question your path and decisions – what’s it all for? Not only are you feeling empty, you’re also starting to feel indifferent. And that’s a scary proposition.
You look in the mirror and ask yourself: Are you really doing what you originally set out to do? Or, are you wasting your talent and ignoring your true purpose?
That’s when you realize that you’ve been on a conveyor belt – you know, the “cruise control” of life. You got your education. Got a job. Got the guy or girl. Maybe you have the house, kids, and dog. And yet, you still feel empty. So what gives?
Here you are, at a fork in the road. You’re presented with a choice: self-destruction or self-correction. In other words, are you about to experience a crisis or an awakening?
The first thing to do is pause and realize there’s a reason why you feel empty inside – and in fact, it’s quite simple. You’ve stopped learning.
When we stop learning, we can’t grow. When we stop growing, our dreams fall by the wayside. When we stop dreaming, a little bit of us dies inside.
Take a hard look at yourself. You’ve stopped challenging yourself. You’ve stopped building. You’ve become dull around the edges. You no longer seek out good friction like you once did.
The good news is, there are three things you can start doing to reignite that fire inside you.
1. Start Learning Again
The foundation of your life was built on learning. On growing. On challenging yourself and regularly doing things outside your comfort zone.
From grade school to college to maybe even graduate school, we regularly found ourselves in ongoing learning environments. During this time, we were exposed to new ideas. We were intellectually challenged. We were regularly tested on what we learned. And then, like clockwork, each semester or school year, we’d be challenged to learn something new yet again before moving on to the next level.
The challenge in your life now, whether you’re a recent graduate or a longtime employee, is that there is no next level per se. After we complete our formal education, we’re thrown into the wild and our education comes to an abrupt stop. We transition from educating ourselves to showing up for a job and collecting a salary. Sure, some jobs provide a “level” you can attain through promotions, but for many of us this feels more extrinsically rather than intrinsically rewarding.
The opportunity you do have now is to become a student again on your own terms – to get yourself back in the classroom. The good news is, now you get to choose what classroom you spend time in.
Consider taking a continuing education class at a local college or university. There are a plethora of online and in-person education outlets like that will teach you pretty much anything you want to know. Want to start smaller? Smartphone apps can help teach you a new language. You can attend one-day trainings or workshops on everything from improv comedy to woodworking to watercolor painting. And the public library (yes, they still exist) is full of books, software, and more to keep you growing and alive.
Look at your calendar right now. If you don’t see any classroom moments on there, commit to scheduling at least one in the next week.
2. Regularly Finish Something – Anything
When was the last time you finished something that was important to you? Like really finished something that had a firm beginning, middle, and end? And no, binge watching 12 episodes of a Netflix series or making your bed this morning doesn’t count.
For some, “finishing something” could be that major home improvement project that took a few months to complete. For others, this could be finishing the first draft of a novel or screenplay that you’ve toiled away on for years. (Who cares if it sells? You finished it.) For many, it’s pressing “publish” on a blog post each week or finally learning how to make apps. Maybe it’s showing your photography at a local art gallery or restaurant – or even just grabbing your camera and committing to taking photos every week.
The bottom line is that you cared enough to finish it. If you experience “finishing stuff” regularly throughout the year, then emptiness starts to get filled with a feeling of accomplishment that’s driven not by the demands of work, but by your favorite activities and biggest dreams.
Research in positive psychology finds that regular achievement is a critical component of happiness, or to be more specific, flourishing in life. A small secret to finishing stuff is that it also increases your confidence and makes you feel better about yourself – and your ability to finish stuff again and again.
Look over the last few months of your life and identify what you achieved. Now look at the next three months of your life and identify one thing that you’d like to achieve or finish. Then, take action.
3. Surround Yourself with Allies
Admittedly, this is a tough question. It’s not meant to illicit judgment of others but to really assess if the people you spend time with have a positive influence on your life. If you feel empty inside, odds are your circle of friends aren’t bringing out the best in you – or, you’ve retreated to spending too much time alone.
The opportunity you have is to identify and spend time with allies. Allies are the people that encourage you, support you, inspire you, challenge you, and test you to be the absolute best version of yourself.
Allies provide something called “good friction.” This means that they hold you accountable and support you in doing what you say you’re going to do (like with finishing projects and seeking out learning opportunities). Further, allies are individuals who have positive things going on in their lives, not drama. These are people who give you energy when you spend time with them.
To be sure, allies don’t have to be your best friends or people you engage with every day. They’re simply people who are on your team – and in turn, you’re an ally to them as well.
These three tips aren’t meant to make you feel guilty for what you haven’t done. Rather, they’re meant to provide you with an action plan for creating purpose in your life again. So when life feels empty, remember:
1. Start learning again.
2. Finish something.
3. Spend time with allies.
Life’s about the choices we’ve made, and the ones we make moving forward. It’s an opportunity to stay on the treadmill or turn it off so we can feel the ground beneath our feet again.
Note to reader: The word “empty” can mean different things to different people. If you find yourself struggling, the support of a professional counselor or coach could be just what you need. Don’t be afraid to reach out.
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