I had a harder time figuring out what I really wanted out of life than I did actually going after it.

I wrote this entirely and exclusively for people who are like I was, and who have great difficulty finding their passion or purpose. If that isn’t you, if you know exactly what you want out of life, you can stop reading. You’ll get nothing from this.

But if you are like I was, and you genuinely can’t figure out what you want out of life, here is the process for figuring it out.

Step one is taking out the trash. It’s the process of elimination.

Start by eliminating all the stuff that is just emotional baggage. Delete from your list of possibilities all the things that your over-busy conscious brain tries to beat you up with.

If you are with someone, pursuing something, or doing something because you are trying to win an argument that keeps replaying in your head, that’s not what you really want. If you are acting out of either sympathy or jealousy, that’s not what you really want. If you’re doing what other people say you should (or rebelling against it), if you’re doing what’s “normal” (or rebelling against it), if you’re doing what someone you love did (or rebelling against it), that’s not what you really want.

If you’re doing something because that’s what you’ve always done then that definitely is not what you want. If it was, you wouldn’t be reading this right now.

If you’re compromising before even having a discussion, that’s not what you really want. If you’re afraid to say no (or yes), if you’re afraid to hurt peoples’ feelings (or if you’re trying to hurt them), if you’re hiding something (or if you feel the need to impress people and display it) then you’re not going after what you really want.

If all you care about is winning, then you are definitely on the wrong path. Because you are going to care about winning no matter what, even if you are pursuing something you hate, something that’s toxic for you, something that will grind you down into dust. (This is a big part of how manipulative people and crappy jobs keep you around–by getting you to focus exclusively on winning.)

Finally, and this one matters: if you are ONLY going to be happy if you are successful (however you define success), then what you are pursuing isn’t what you really want.

OK now be honest.

Is there anything at all left?

Because there might not be.

For me, once I eliminated all the ideas that were banging around my skull simply because I was stuck in a time warp still trying to win some argument or other, or because I thought I could control outcomes or people…there wasn’t much left.

What I had left was a connection to the city I had grown up in, Tacoma, and a persistent sense that something was terribly wrong with our prison system. Many of my friends from Tacoma had gotten caught up in an unhinged criminal justice system. I also knew I cared about being independent and I was (and am) extraordinarily loyal.

By following those minimal hints, I kept trying new things, including things that were leagues out of my comfort zone. I now own my own business, which allows me to be independent. I also do prison ministry. With the benefit of hindsight it’s easy to see how all this fits, but I would have laughed hysterically if you had told me ten years ago that some day I would be financially independent, preaching in jail while doing business consulting for a comic-book company. I got where I needed to be through trial and error, not by thinking about it.

For you, it is unlikely that you value the same things I do. You’re not going to end up working with convicts and comic books. But it is highly likely that, just like me, you are going to need to go out, experiment and take emotional risks.

But there has to be a discipline to the experimentation or else you’ll end up with nothing other than exhaustion and burn-out (and a nice heaping dose of financial insecurity.) So here are two questions to ask yourself that will help you map out the experiments.

Let’s start with the people you know. Who do you feel protective of? That feeling of protectiveness is the root of genuine caring.

Now look out at the world. If you could solve one problem, what would it be? I don’t care if it’s big or small, important or unimportant. The only thing that matters is that the problem emotionally affects you.

Once you’ve asked those two questions, now it’s time to take action.

What are the steps you can take right now to connect more with people you feel protective of?

What are the steps you can take right now to make some sort of progress, no matter how insignificant, on the one problem you would solve if you could?

Take those steps.

Journal about them. And/or use some method of reflection to see how effective the steps were.

Plan out your next steps. Write them down!

Continue the process of taking whatever steps you can, reflecting on them, and planning out your next steps.

Keep repeating the process and, this part is critical, be willing to do things that you think will never work.

See, if you are like I was, your true purpose in life is somewhere WAY outside your current comfort zone. It’s so far outside of where you are comfortable now that you can’t even imagine or fantasize about it. Not because it’s so “big” or “scary”. Just because you don’t have a frame of reference within which to put it.

Your life’s purpose could be sitting right in front of you, and you wouldn’t see it. You would just trip over it. Because you don’t have a theory yet in your head that it even exists.

And so you need to experiment without prejudgment. Even if what you really want is something that years later (or even right now!) you will see as trivial, redundant or even childish, you have to go after it. Why? If you don’t, you’ll be stuck in the emotional state you’re at now, unable to move forward. In our dreams, we work through our emotions. In our waking lives, we have to do the same thing, through our actions.

The process of disciplined experimentation, guided by the two simple questions about who you feel protective of and what problem you would solve, will lead you to a place where you can finally hear clearly that small whisper called intuition. Right now, your intuition is being drowned out by other people’s voices echoing in your head. It’s not that you don’t hear your intuition, it’s that you have been distracted to the point of ignoring it.

So one final thought. What you really want could be something as simple as independence. Or to enjoy nature. Or to be with someone who listens to you. It doesn’t need to be anything grandiose or important. It just needs to be what that tiny little whisper that you try to ignore pushes you towards when your over-busy conscious mind finally calms down and stops yelling at you.

Go after what you really want, even if you know that some day, it won’t matter to you. Even if it doesn’t seem “important”. Even if your parents think you’re crazy. Even if YOU think you’re crazy. No, I’m not kidding. This is how I replaced the constant need for short-term highs, by living according to my deepest values. And yes, those values can change. But serving your own deep values, even if they eventually change, will still lead you to the self-respect and compassion towards others that nothing else can provide.