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Instead of worrying about missed opportunities, unfulfilled dreams, and untapped potential, identify the thread in your experiences so far and build upon it to maximise your potential. Use the Why Statement Generator to define your Why.
"Am I living below my potential?"
This was a question a very good friend asked me while we had a walk a few weeks ago. At first, the question surprised me a bit. I know him for quite a while. And we have been talking about purpose and life during the last year or so. In hindsight, what strikes me is not the content of the question but the tone, the underlying feeling. It was a sense of resignation as if it were already too late to jump on the purpose train. I have felt the same every once in a while. It seems to be human nature to have a fame FOMO (fear of missing out) to some degree. One of the reasons, if not the main, for FOMO, is our propensity to compare ourselves. Let's be honest: What other reason is there to be on Instagram these days? (I know I am exaggerating a bit, but I am trying to make a point here.)
The comparison trap
But if there is anything where comparisons are of shart, it should be purpose—at least to a certain degree. My approach to purpose underlines its uniqueness. I believe that everyone has a unique calling and a unique purpose for life (you can read about the difference between purpose and calling here). Nevertheless, many people fall into the comparison trap. And believe me when I say it is a trap.
Interestingly, when people compare themselves, they do it superficially. Let's take Instagram as an example. What we are presented with is never the whole picture. And as users, we know it. We do the same when I post a photo or story. I tinker, select, filter, and edit. I am very conscious about what aspect of my life I want people to perceive. However, as the observer, I am prone to believe that what I am presented with is the whole truth, the real persona.
The same happens with purpose. We observe people from the outside. We perceive them and think: She's got her shit together. If I perceive it like that, it must be true. But if I look at myself, I have to deal with an abundance of information, including information I would like to but cannot ignore. I see my flaws, shortcomings, my inner demons and scars. If I compare my true self with the perceived other, it is natural that I will always fall short. Hence, my conclusion: Comparisons are a trap.
Breaking free your past and the comparison trap
When my friend asked me about his "missed potential", I struggled for a bit to answer. On the one hand, I wanted to be as honest and as helpful as possible. In the end, I want to encourage him to continue thinking seriously about his purpose. On the other hand, I do not want to hurt his feelings. Most of all, I do not want to give in to his conclusion based on a false premise (the comparison).
Then it hit me: It makes no sense to compare your purpose with the purpose anyone else has. Consequently, it does not make any sense either to compare the progress. The only advice I have for my friend and you folks is: focus on your own journey. When looking at your past, do not look at missed opportunities and untapped potential. You always had a purpose. You simply might not be aware of it because you have been kept busy comparing yourself.
To break out, all you need to do is to dig deep. I am always astonished at the superficiality people treat purpose with. When I ask people about their purpose in life, most answer with commonplaces, e.g., be a loving father/partner/etc. or always be growing. There is nothing wrong with these aspirations. But they do not make you unique. I want to encourage you to find your reason why you want to be X or achieve Y. I mean, everyone wants to be happy, meaningful, effective, right?
Digging deep to understand why you are unique
Working as a career counsellor at Cologne Business School, I started to apply the 5 Whys technique with a twist. My version of the 5 Whys begins with a simple assumption (you won 100 billion USD), proposes a challenge (what will you do?) and then starts digging (why would you do that?). When applying it with students, they found compelling reasons why they wanted to pursue a certain career (or not). Working with the 5 Whys is liberating! Being conscious about your motivation to do what you do and be what you want to be, helps you break free from the comparison trap.
Let me explain it, stressing the example of my former students. Many business school students want to work for one of the big four consultancy firms (EY, KPMG, PwC, BCG). But after digging deep with the 5 Whys, all of them had a different core or intrinsic motivation to do so. The effect, then, was manifold. Some students realised that they should not pursue a career at a firm but be entrepreneurs instead. All of them were more confident with themselves after being able to verbalise their raison d'être. Others had newly gained the confidence to apply. They knew they would be a good match (based on hard skills) and a good fit (based on purpose and personality) for the vacancy they wanted to fill.
Now, back to my friend and our walk. I shared with him that it makes no sense to worry about the past and untapped potential. Instead, the best he can do now is to start digging. Once he defines his purpose, he can connect the dots that have been there and identify the threat through his life. He can deliberate to foster and nourish this threat, consequently being more meaningful and becoming more effective with a purpose-driven life. As a consequence, his outlook for the future will change. He will recognise a lot of dots, waiting to be connected and threaded into his purpose.
It is my hope that anyone has a why moment at least once in a lifetime. There are lots of techniques out there. Simon Sinek famously proposed that we should start with why. You could also seek out a coach or a confidant to explore your why. Or you could use a simple tool I built to help you explore and verbalise your why. You can find it here: Generate Your Why Statement.
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