When I was younger, I thought that working hard and getting good grades would lead to a fulfilling job and help me advance up the ladder at work. But now that I’ve been employed for more than a decade, I find myself going through the motions of meaningless work, still facing student debt, and feeling like no matter how hard I work, I’m treading water and not advancing. I could leave, but I worry that every corporate job is like this. What do I do?
It sounds like you’re in a struggle that many young adults share. These are the challenges of modern times, in which you are trying to lay down solid roots and advance in a career. You are frustrated, working away with your wheels spinning in the mud on what seems like a dead-end road. At the same time, you’re working hard to stay employed and chip away at compounding student debt. When we consider all of these factors together, it makes sense that you have concluded that life is unfulfilling and devoid of real meaning and purpose. It all feels rather futile, I imagine.
Nevertheless, there remains an opportunity in this strife to author a meaningful existence for your life. To author one’s existence is an intention that you must choose to live by every day. This kind of existential authorship requires you to be a present, creative, brave, and active participant in your life.
In your question, there is a dilemma in which you must choose between carving out a new path for yourself or establishing meaning in your current situation. Each of these two paths has pros and cons. I invite you to take some time to map those out on your own.
My goal is to give you a dialectical behavior therapy (DBT, as described by Lane Pederson) method to create a more fulfilling life path. This method is rooted in the notion that human beings are creatures of habit and benefit from consistent and predictable routines. Therefore, I recommend keeping your sleep, wake, and mealtimes consistent throughout the week.
However, the shadow side of developing consistent routines is that you can get bored and burn out. If you get too rigid, you will likely rebel against the beneficial structures that you are creating. Hence, according to Pederson, you must also infuse your routine with open space and time during which you can be creative and unstructured.
You see, within our lives is a tension between the things that we must do to survive and those activities that bring us joy and meaning. To maximize our sense of leading a fulfilling life, these two poles must exist in a balanced relationship.
It sounds like your focus is currently on the “must do” end of the scale, and weight is needed on the “meaningful activities” side. Therefore, a helpful and immediate step forward is to intentionally add back into your life those things that you love to do. If you do not know what those are, then it is a time to be playful and experiment with different activities and see what brings you joy. Be curious and explore!
A straightforward and effective way of protecting yourself from boredom is to put creative playtime on your schedule. During this time, be spontaneous, go with the flow, and do something unexpected and exciting. Also remember that (aside from sleeping, waking, and eating) every day does not have to be identical.
From this general framework of a daily routine, there are other components recommended in this DBT approach, based on Pederson’s work. For instance, part of your structured routine must include a commitment to fulfilling ongoing responsibilities. You will increase your success if you break long-term responsibilities into smaller actionable steps to be completed weekly. So create a daily, weekly, and monthly action plan to ensure you are meeting your life duties.
Be sure your responsibilities are also inclusive of activities oriented toward fulfilling your life values, goals, and plans. By attending to these, you will begin to notice a growing sense of fulfillment. Integrate daily practices that enhance the mind, body, and spiritual well-being. These practices can include many different things, such as meditation, yoga, exercise, and time in nature.
Then consider what rituals or traditions you would like to add to or restore in your life. These can be traditions connected with the seasons, holidays, or simple daily ones like a morning coffee or tea ritual. The possibilities are endless. Ask yourself, what interests me? How can I keep life fresh? What can I do to be playful and engage in something new, even if it’s driving home via a different route? When you identify these, place them on your daily schedule and do these activities often. It is like putting money in the bank that increases your vitality, and you can make withdrawals when you are attending to those “have to” tasks.
The last component Pederson outlines is to envision a wholesome, full, and fulfilling life. The best advice I have here is to keep your end goals in focus every day, and, at the same time, stay patient, dedicated, and steadfast in your pursuit. You must remember that developing a fulfilling life plan and path takes time and repetition. Forgive yourself when you fall back on old habits, and then get right back at it without any energy expended on judging yourself.
You may consider keeping a journal or notebook that you can use to map out the above components and have a writing space that you can refer to in order to hold yourself accountable.
Life is continuously happening and will continue to do so with or without anyone’s participation. The constant invitation to us is to take charge and dive into life, knowing every moment is precious and tomorrow is not guaranteed. We must never waste a single moment!
I thank you for writing in with your inquiry. It is a question for an entire generation of folks working to carve out a meaningful and fulfilling future. I wish you the best on your journey!
Pederson, Lane. The Expanded Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Training Manual, 2nd Edition: DBT for Self-Help and Individual & Group Treatment Settings. PESI Publishing & Media. Kindle Edition.