It's that time of year again, when everyone seems to be shrilly offering advice - how to be more successful, make a fortune, find the perfect job. The really annoying ones tell you how you can have them all at once - plus how to meditate, write a best selling novel, and solve world hunger at the same time.
In recent years social media has exacerbated this trend. If my newsfeeds this week are anything to go by things seem to have reached a new frenzy. There's bite-sized self-help blogs coming off the line faster than Happy Meals at a Maccas drive-thru. TED has gone into repackaging overdrive sending me pieces by earnest individuals with great teeth who all want to tell me a story about how to recondition my brain, my body, and even my DNA. And then there's the honey skinned tech Goddess sharing about how she become a start-up multi-millionaire with an ethical business the details of which slip my mind (how come every person starting up these days is so goddam pretty?)
That is all before the inspirational quotes and kittens.
It is not that a lot of it isn't useful. The thing is though much of it is actually missing the mark. As we start to dig into the new millennium what I have seen in my work is a gradual but very profound shift in what people see as important and therefore crave.
The two words that come up over and over are 'purpose' and 'meaning'. This burgeoning desire has been associated with the millennial generation, but it is a trend that I see runs across generations. It is like we have become collectively sick of the endless toil for greater goals with no substance.
So how do you find 'it'? That thing. How do you satisfy that hankering for a life and work with true meaning and depth?
The American philosopher Joseph Campbell famously said: "If you follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while waiting for you, and the life you ought to be living is the one you are living."
Now I am a great fan of Joseph Campbell. He is one of the 20th Century's great thinkers, whose work among other things created the template for George Lucas to write Star Wars.
But it is also the kind of statement that stops many people in their tracks, rather than helps them find their tracks. They become paralyzed trying to find the perfect 'it', their real purpose, and while they fret and suffer life just keeps rolling by.
In my job what I essentially do is help people find a common sense of purpose. And what I have discovered is that there are no rails.
What there is though is a process.
So if you find yourself stuck, here's three things I have seen that help lead people to their bliss.
1. Get with a group of people you have an affinity with - the flipside of which is: stop working with assholes
The reason a lot of self-help approaches don't deliver that intangible sense of real fulfillment is they focus on the self. What I have experienced is that genuine fulfillment seems to come from working with others, people you respect, can learn from, grow with, collaborate, support and also - and importantly - have fun with.
As I wrote this one of those social media fortune cookies popped up on my screen that actually underlines this beautifully.
"Surround yourself with people who make you hungry for life, touch your heart, and nourish your soul." (source unknown)
That nails it well. If you want to find your bliss, get with good people.
2. Make sure you are up to something
There's a great paradox in being human. If I ask people to envisage a perfect future, they will often talk about holidays, and beaches, and not having to work. But when I observe what makes people really happy and fulfilled it is being involved in an interesting and really difficult challenge. Real fulfillment comes from a combination of growth and contribution and that only comes about in situations that are difficult and stretch us.
This doesn't mean what you are up to has to be world changing or worthy - in fact some of the most dysfunctional and ineffective cultures I have seen are charities and NGOs - just something that is clear, tangible, and challenging, where everyone is working towards the same end game.
3. Work on becoming really good at something.
Some professions demand that you specialise and constantly improve. Being a surgeon or a dentist for example. But for the majority of us our jobs involve a set of nebulas and often ever changing tasks and goals. A common refrain I hear from my clients is 'if I could only get through all my meetings and emails I could then get on with my real work." They never like it when I confront them with an uncomfortable truth - meetings and emails are your work.
One of the most fulfilled human beings I have the pleasure of working with is a senior leader in a major oil company. He is a thirty year Oil & Gas man and very good at his job. His real passion though is playing the guitar. He has a studio, and jams wherever he can. He is not just a good guitarist, he is a brilliant guitarist and when he talks about that or plays he lights up. Some people are lucky enough to find something they genuinely love and can make a living out of it, but more often it is the mastery of a skill for the sheer love of it where real fulfillment lies. It is not about having a hobby it is about having a passion and a craft.
The process is the prize
It is very easy to get caught up in trying to figure out what you are meant to be doing. What this tends to do though is actually make matters worse - frustration and desperation grow. When it comes to finding meaning and purpose in life the process is the prize. So start today.
The novelist William Gibson said: "Before you diagnose yourself with depression first make sure you are not surrounded by assholes."
Get with a group of people you have an affinity with. Make sure you are up to something. Work on becoming really good at something. And one day, without realising it, you will find that the life you ought to be living is the one you are living.
This article was first published in The Huffington Post, 9 Jan 2014.