In the never-ending digital hum of our lives, it’s difficult to stop and think: 

Am I happy? Am I doing what I was put here to do?” 

We’re often too busy — and too scared — to ask the question for fear of the answer lurking behind the curtain: we’ve invested years in an unfulfilling path.

Fear not. No path is irreversible and no investment wasted if it gets us to our authentic self in the end. The secret sauce, as we call it, is realizing that getting closer to your purpose is largely about trade-offs.

There are four major trade-offs we face when we start this exploration of meaning and purpose:

  1. Certainty versus uncertainty.
  2. Time for our exploration of purpose versus time for commitments.
  3. Society’s expectations versus our own.
  4. Money versus purpose & impact.

If we check in on how each trade-off is balanced in our lives every month, we’ll get closer and closer to living the meaningful lives we want for ourselves.

Let’s take a look at each one in more detail.

Uncertainty: the biggest trade-off we’ll face in pursuing our purpose

The established path — the one our parents, aunts, and teachers almost always lead us towards — is designed to give us all the security we think we need but little else. “Just follow the rules,” we’re told, and ’’you will make partner, have the white picket fence, 2.2 kids, dream spouse and weekends of bliss.” If following a safe route is that great, why are there so many sleepless nights, bouts of anxiety, and work-related stressors in our society?

In today’s world, comfort and security are not the only things that fulfill us. Exploration, community, the thrill of building something of your own, and the freedom that comes with stepping off the treadmill are also the means to a purposeful life, and they come with increasingly larger uncertainty.

Some people are more comfortable with uncertainty than others, but the good news is that anyone can increase their tolerance for dealing with it. Here is how:

  1. Begin small. If the idea of leaving a stable job is paralyzing, begin with a smaller step. Start volunteering on the weekends or craft a small passion project where you can devote time after work.
  2. Start running micro-experiments. Take action first (without over-analyzing). See how the world responds, adjust and proceed further with another small action. For example, if you’re stuck in corporate finance but have always wanted to be a pastry chef, bake two dozen cupcakes, take them to the neighborhood park on the weekend and see if people would buy your creation.
  3. Build a community that can support you through your search and transition. No one can survive the tectonic shift of making a life and career change on their own.

“Beware of the barrenness of a busy life.” — Socrates

3 ways to begin stealing time for yourself

The only way to commit time to finding your purpose is to steal it from somewhere else. For most of us, figuring out how to find time to commit to this exploration can be more paralyzing than the search for purpose itself. We have lots of excuses as to why we can’t give up our commitments:

  • If we’re perfectionists, we believe there has to be a way to fit everything in. If we are unable to do so, we’re just failing at being the perfect perfectionist.
  • We mistake giving something up for failing. It’s not. In fact, it is one of the first steps of true success.
  • Overcommitting is A LOT easier than narrowing down our options.
  • Committing to others feels more important than committing to ourselves.

Whichever one resonates most with you, here are 3 easy ways to begin stealing time for yourself:

  1. Pick a specific date and time for the week ahead that you will make just for yourself. Ideally, this should be early in the day before all other elements of life get in the way.
  2. Find a friend to hold you accountable. Text one another your promised times you’re going to commit to yourselves. Follow up and make sure you both did it.
  3. Pick one thing each week to say no to. We’re starting small here. Build this number up each week.

Expectations: society’s definition of success versus your own

Our society’s long-established definitions of success — an MBA from an IVY league school, a six-figure salary, a lofty title — can come with baggage: stress, fewer deep friendships, and a gnawing feeling of a life lived on someone else’s terms. A participant in our programs once told us a story: by 33, she was working as a brand manager at a large corporation making more money than her family has ever seen. She had an MBA and a successful corporate future in front of her. And she has never been more miserable in her life, fighting fires at the office often until 11 pm and crying herself to sleep, day in and day out. She finally reached a point of burnout that allowed her to see: her life was no longer her own. She made a trade-off, forgoing her prestigious job, title, and salary and slowly building a new life on her own terms as a travel journalist.

Take a moment to answer these questions for yourself:

  • What markers of a successful life dictated by our society have you encountered on your career path?
  • If you lived on a small, isolated island without today’s pressures, how would you define success and happiness differently?

Money versus purpose: a moving target

The first step is admitting that the perfect balance  between money and purpose, between home size and family size, between hours doing meaningful work and hours doing nothing  is always a moving target. As you move through the world and encounter different milestones, your priorities and required level of comfort will shift  and that is ok.

Here’s how we like to think about this at Project X:

What would your ‘money versus impact’ map look like? 

Think about some of these questions to help you understand your comfort level and what you’re willing to give up in order to build a new lifestyle: 

  • Do you know what your minimum monthly income needs to be for you to give up a stable monthly salary? 
  • Do you need health insurance or a large car? 
  • Are you able to stop going out three times a week in order to increase your “screw-it-all” savings account? 

Each one of these questions involves a trade-off and only you can answer them for yourself.

How does getting comfortable with trade-offs help us find our purpose?

Getting a good understanding of the different types of trade-offs we are — or are not — willing to make is a crucial step towards crafting our own vision of a meaningful life and creating lasting change. When we look deeply at each one, we will discover how many assumptions we take from society as “fact.” The reality is much more fluid than this. We can change the balance of critical success factors in our lives all the time. Get comfortable with your trade-offs and start crafting your version of a meaningful career and a life with our weekly TOP 10 Purposeful Jobs listing.