Writing this isn’t fulfilling to me. Writing isn’t necessarily something that comes easily to me. Especially right now. I’m writing this on a Sunday night at 11 pm. I’m writing this right now because I made a commitment to myself to write one thing a week for 6 months. And I have 1 hour remaining in my week so I’m writing. I’m writing because I believe writing is part of moving toward my vision. And I really want to make progress toward it. My vision excites me. It makes me feel alive as a journey toward it. It’s a source of deep fulfillment both dreaming about it and working towards it. And while I’d rather be sleeping right now, it’s fulfilling to know that I’ve chosen to work towards my vision and honor the commitment I’ve made to myself. Actually, this is feeling much more fulfilling.
What is fulfillment?
If you look up the definition of fulfillment, you might find something like “the act or process of fulfilling.” And then of course you might look up fulfill, which you might notice is a verb. To fulfill is an act and an action. It’s about doing something in addition to attaining something. Indeed, fulfill is a verb that means “to convert into reality”, “to measure up”, or “to make full”. Indeed, I’ve found that fulfillment is about doing things that excite me and take move me toward my vision of my future reality. Fulfillment is about activities that make me come alive and feel full. If my vision is the north star that guides me along my life journey, fulfillment is choosing a path that satisfies me along the way. Marcus Aurelius famously said “Every living organism is fulfilled when it follows the right path for its own nature.” over 2,000 years ago. Fulfillment has stood the test of time as a key part of a life well-lived. But how do you figure out what fulfills you?
Like most journeys, finding a fulfilling path isn’t always easy but it often starts by making a decision to take the first step, and then another, and then another. Yvon Chouinard the founder of Patagonia said “If I get an idea, I immediately take a step forward and see how that feels. If it feels good, I take another step forward. If it feels bad, I take a step back. I learn by doing.” Sometimes the journey is easy. Sometimes there’s a steep and hard section. And sometimes the journey is pure effortless flow. In fact, these moments and feelings can teach you a lot about what fulfills you. That is if you’re paying attention.
What does fulfillment feel like?
Carl Rogers a leading psychologist and founder of the humanistic approach in psychology said “I have never regretted moving in directions which “felt right,” even though I have often felt lonely or foolish at the time.” Indeed many people use their feelings as a compass to find what’s fulfilling to them. Feelings can take many forms, probably in part because language is an imprecise tool for describing such rich experiences. For me, fulfilling activities often have a tone of energy feelings. They’re activities that excite me when I think about doing them. Activities that make me feel lighter like a weight has been lifted from my shoulders. Activities that make me come alive and leave me with more energy than I started with. Activities that leave me feeling these feelings beyond the moment of doing the activity, reverberating into the coming hours, days, weeks, and months often to motivate me to keep going. Doing fulfilling things can indeed be a fortuitous cycle that keeps you energized and motivated to keep moving forward on your life journey. But as with most journeys, sometimes there are obstacles.
Activities that are fulfilling aren’t always easy or fun. As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi said in Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, “Contrary to what we usually believe, moments like these, the best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times—although such experiences can also be enjoyable, if we have worked hard to attain them. The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”
One of the biggest obstacles to journeying along a fulfilling life path is often the expectations that we are taught but that aren’t our own. These expectations often start with phrases such as “I want to…” not “I should…”. They’re based on expectations of borrowed beliefs and philosophies given to us by the people and places that we encounter as we grow up. These expectations are often a good place for starting your journey. But these expectations are based on other people’s definitions of fulfillment and over time will likely cause friction. So let’s explore tools that can aid you in discovering what fulfills you to help you navigate these obstacles. As Parker Palmer said in "Let Your Life Speak" “Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you.”
How to find what fulfills you?
I’ve tried many tools and have found some that are trusted friends that I always carry with me on my journey. The following are the tools that I’ve found most helpful.
Mindfulness is about being present in the current moment. It’s about being able to pause and reflect, noticing what’s going on. And being able to notice what’s going on is the first step in noticing what fulfills you. For me, meditation is how I get better at mindfulness. Apps such as Headspace and now Waking Up have helped me to learn about meditation, create daily habits, and more deeply understand how and why to meditate. As Sam Haris said during a Waking Up meditation, “Simply connect with experience in this moment. Feel the weight of your body. The energy of it.”
Journaling and Self-Reflection
Journaling has been one of my most helpful tools for understanding what fulfills me. Combined with meditation, it’s probably the most powerful tool I’ve found for understanding what fulfills me and making choices that support my fulfillment. I started journaling after learning about daily gratitude practices from a coworker who shared how impactful it had been for their energy and mood. I started by writing down three things for which I am grateful each morning. Not only has this helped me to start my day with more energy, but it also helped me to notice the things and activities that fulfill me. Over time, I’ve deepened my journaling practice using Onward.ly’s observation questions and loops to explore the nuance of my thoughts, feelings, and moments to learn more about myself and what fulfills me. Asking questions such as “what was my most interesting activity today?” or “what have I been dreaming about doing that’s exciting me?” can be powerful signals.
Self-care is about taking care of myself, helping me to have the energy, endurance, and motivation to keep moving forward on my journey. Not every activity in life is going to be fulfilling. Life will always have its share of activities which are chores that need to be done in order to be able to do fulfilling activities. For me, this starts with getting enough sleep, eating food that makes me feel good and energizes me, and moving my body. It’s also about taking breaks to recharge. For me, I might take a walk, play a game, read a book, call a friend, etc. I’ve also found that I need a balanced diet in my life, a variety of activities that are varied with different types of energy even if they’re all highly fulfilling to me.
Conversations and Connections
Connecting with friends, family, and co-workers can be a great way to help understand what fulfills you. Telling your own story and hearing the stories of other people can help clarify what’s fulfilling to you. Listen for what interests you and what excites you. Conversations with other people can also be helpful in getting an outsider’s perspective of what seems to really energize you and make you come alive. Just make sure it’s an “I want to…” not an “I should…”.
As you learn what fulfills you, use your knowledge to help choose which activities are “hell yes!” and which activities are “no”. After all, a fulfilling journey is really just a journey of a thousand steps of saying “yes” to the right things. As Annie Dillard said, "How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives."
What fulfills you and what doesn't? Perhaps start by listening for the next time you say or think “I should…” and ask yourself “but do I want to…?” And consider keeping a daily journal, starting with a simple daily gratitude practice writing down three things that you’re grateful for. Over time, perhaps it will help you learn more about yourself and what makes you come alive.
As Howard Thurman said, "Don't ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive."