Every so often, we need to check in with ourselves, take a hard look at our thoughts and emotions and decisions, and ask ourselves if our lives are on the right track.
If we engage with that process honestly, we can learn to stop blaming other people for our shortcomings, shrug off any false positivity keeping us in denial, and embrace the kind of self-help that doesn’t make us miserable.
Of course, that process can be pretty daunting. Where do we begin? Which questions do we ask? What’s the difference between a momentary dip and a fundamental problem? The answers to these questions are subtle, complicated, and sometimes downright confusing.
Luckily for us, there are a handful of indicators that tell us when our lives are off track. When we choose to pay attention to them, they can act as a kind of existential “check engine” light that signals when it’s time to make an adjustment.
And it all starts with the degree to which you’re concerned only about your own life.
You’re only focused on yourself.
Ironically, people whose lives are stagnant are usually focused primarily on themselves. They spend so much time obsessing about their own interests that they forget to invest in other people’s — a classic mistake, even among ambitious people.
As a result, they have very few (if any) fruitful relationships, and therefore fewer opportunities automatically coming their way. Which makes them worry about themselves even more, cutting them off further from other people, and perpetuating the vicious cycle.
Self-absorbed people also miss the chance to understand themselves through the lens of other people’s experiences.
Because they don’t take the time to study and learn from other people, they miss out on critical insights and perspectives other than their own. They also miss out on the fulfillment we can only find in close relationships. And so they remain stuck in their own isolated experiences — professionally, emotionally, spiritually — which narrows their lives even more.
And then there’s the toxicity of living a self-absorbed life. Focusing exclusively on yourself, to the exclusion of anyone and anything else, is an excellent recipe for burnout, depression, and anxiety. So in addition to being isolated, self-absorbed people also tend to suffer unnecessarily, which only makes it harder for them to succeed.
We all fall prey to this tendency in various moments. There’s a healthy narcissism in all of us that can easily tip over into self-obsession. So how do we break out of it?
How to Stop Focusing Only on Yourself
Fortunately, the solution to excessive self-interest is simple: start focusing on the people around you. And not just focusing on them, but identifying with them, listening to them, and investing in their journeys as much as you invest in your own.
In other words, the key to breaking out of self-absorption is to prioritize your relationships with other people, alongside the one you have with yourself.
You could start with the friends you have, the colleagues who sit near you, the acquaintances in your larger circle. You could reach out to new people on LinkedIn, chat up a stranger at a conference, or call a relative you haven’t spoken to in some time. You could focus on new friends or old ones, distant ones or close ones. The important thing is to take their experiences seriously, and temporarily mute the script in your head that wants to always put you first.
As you do, pay attention to where your interest generates a response, where you investment pays dividends. Follow that energy, and make that other-focus a systematic part of your everyday life, with the tools and principles we teach in our Six-Minute Networking Course.
At the same time, notice the inner experience of your self-interest.
Do you find yourself ruminating about your wants, vulnerabilities, and mistakes throughout the day? Do you fixate excessively on how other people see you in social situations? Do you enter conversations thinking exclusively about what you can get out of them?
This is the inner dimension of self-interest, and it’s just as important as the outer.
To work on this side of the equation, bring more attention to your everyday thoughts. Catch yourself in moments of unproductive rumination or dysfunctional self-talk. And when you do, try turning the inner thought outward. Become curious about other people’s wants and vulnerabilities. Focus on other people’s experiences in social events. Ask yourself what someone else might want in a conversation — and how you can help them achieve it.
This is how you train your mind to stop orienting exclusively toward itself, and begin orienting toward other people.
Of course, in a healthy psychology, these two interests — self and other — coexist in a balanced way. This allows us to look out for ourselves while also joining meaningful relationships with other people — which, ironically enough, is usually where we find and help ourselves the most.
You talk yourself out of commitments.
If you find yourself regularly talking yourself out of commitments — professional or personal — then you’re stuck in a common cycle that is usually a symptom of a larger problem.
Of course, motivation will always be an uphill battle. It’s a struggle every single human being shares. Whether it’s dragging yourself to the gym or stepping up on projects at work, the brain has a tendency to resist anything that requires additional energy for an uncertain reward. It’s just the way we’re wired.
But if you find yourself cycling between motivation and inertia, between being pumped and feeling avoidant, then it’s time to make some adjustments. Otherwise, you could remain a victim to one of the most common forms of self-sabotage.
How to Stick to Your Commitments
The first step in sticking with commitments is getting clear on the stakes of your goal.
What will happen if you fulfill the commitment you made? What will happen if you don’t? What feelings, accomplishments, and benefits will you enjoy if you complete it? Which ones will you be left with if you don’t?
Take a moment and write down the answers to these questions. That will make the importance of your goal (and abandoning it) real for you. It’s much easier to bail on “going to the gym this week” than it is to bail on “taking care of my weight, energy, and long-term health today.” Conversely, it’s much easier to show up at the gym when you know you’re there to get stronger, lose weight and invest in your body and mind for the long term.
Another powerful technique is to create accountability for your commitments. The key is to create a form of accountability that actually works for you and is appropriate to your goal.
For some people, just telling their friends about their commitment is enough to make them follow through. For others, booking a standing phone call to check in on progress does the trick.
But accountability can take many other forms: writing down a short mission statement, taking photos to track progress, celebrating wins with a close friend, creating financial incentives or disincentives, posting the journey on social media, inviting other people to join you in your goal, or journaling about the experience along the way. All of these can help a commitment stick.
There’s no “right” form of accountability. (That’s what can be so frustrating about it — and where lots of people get hung up.) The only correct form of accountability is the one that succeeds in keeping you on track, especially when things get tough.
Finally, one of the best ways to stick with a commitment is to systematize it.
Break your goal into discrete tasks (conversations, to-dos, stages, etc.). Turn those discrete tasks into planned processes (calendar invites, automated emails, standing phone calls, collaboration software, task reminders, etc.). Then make a commitment to respond to each of those systematized tasks and steps as they arise.
When you do, resist the urge to fixate on the bigger picture, either positively (with hope and excitement) or negatively (with despair and indifference). The whole point of systematizing your goals is to make them super small and super actionable, so you can’t use the size of the goal as a reason to bail on it.
If you do all that, the larger commitment will always take care of itself, as if by magic. And the battle to stick with it will ease up too.
You’re constantly bored or tired.
Another common sign that your life is off track: persistent boredom and fatigue.
While these can be signs of a physical health problem, in most cases, boredom, and fatigue are key indicators that the content of your life — your career, your goals, your values, your relationships — are not in alignment.
Which means that we should listen to those indicators very carefully, because they’re trying to teach us something.
Any form of boredom — whether it’s indifference to your projects at work or dissatisfaction with a romantic relationship — is a symptom of a deeper issue. That issue might be that the work or relationship in question is not a fit. It might be that your approach to the work or relationship needs adjustment. Or it might be that you haven’t invested in these goals the right way to make them meaningful to you.
Every situation is different, of course, but the answer to boredom usually comes down to one of those two options.
Fatigue works in a similar way. Our bodies are generally designed to provide enough energy to sustain us. Assuming we’re getting enough sleep, food, and exercise — and the right kinds and amounts of it, of course — then persistent fatigue is often a sign that our mental-emotional experience needs some calibration.
We could be taking on too little in our lives — or we could be taking on too much. We could be wrestling with depression and anxiety, which are, among other things, exhausting. We could be defending ourselves against some difficult truths, like the burden of obligation or the limits of our talent. Or we could just be using sleep as an escape, which is a common ejection button to push when life gets overwhelming.
How to Fight Boredom and Fatigue
The best solution to boredom and fatigue — assuming that the source of mental-emotional — is a combination of stepping up in your commitments and forming stronger habits.
Start by exploring one new commitment. Can you step up to work on one extra project outside of your immediate role at work? Is there a new experience (a workout at a different studio, a foreign film at a local theater, an online book club) you could check out? Is there a subject you could brush up on (a deep dive into a historical event, a new group of Excel skills, an online leadership workshop)?
The key here is to take on something that requires more than you usually give, but isn’t so demanding that you can easily abandon it. Look for new opportunities and commitments that pull you deeper into your life and work without carving out a ton of extra time or energy. If you enjoy them, you can become more involved. But sometimes all we need is the willingness to try something new to snap us out of our boredom.
On the physical side of the equation, exercising regularly is essential. Working out 3–4 times a week — whether it’s restorative yoga or advanced CrossFit, a chill hike or an open-ocean row — will strengthen your connection to your body and increase serotonin, dopamine, and countless other assets that maintain energy and focus. To cement your physical practice, form atomic habits that have the power to change your life with the latest scientific research.
Boredom arises when we don’t give our minds enough stimulating and challenging material to work through. Fatigue sets in when we don’t give our brains and bodies a reason to summon and sustain energy and neurotransmitter levels.
In other words, if you’re bored or fatigued, it’s often because you’re not participating fully in life. And participating fully in life is the key to feeling consistently engaged and energetic. Sometimes, we have to consciously commit to participating, especially when routine and complacency set in. Interestingly, even high performers deal with this problem, as they tend to level up to every challenge they take on. It’s one of those ongoing processes we have to come back to time and time again.
According to a recent study, nearly half of Americans report feeling alone or left out, while one in four rarely or never feel like there are people who really understand them. Findings like these support the idea that loneliness has now become a public health epidemic. And younger people appear to suffer from it the most.
Feeling lonely has a massive effect on our lives. Of course, there are physical effects — higher risk of coronary disease and stroke, impacts to our genes and immune systems, and diminished ability to recover from serious disease. But it’s the mental effects that often feel the most deleterious: alienation, self-doubt, depression, feelings of worthlessness, and a general disconnection from the world around us.
We’re all bound to feel lonely at some point or another. In the wake of major life events, especially traumatic ones, these feelings can become quite powerful. But if they’re chronic — if they become a normal part of your everyday life — then loneliness is a sign that you need to make some adjustments.
Because given our design, we’re not supposed to be lonely — and we don’t have to be.
How to Feel Less Lonely
Loneliness is a function of alienation. Luckily for us, there are a number of cures for alienation, since it’s such an integral part of being human.
The most important one, of course, is building close relationships. As we discussed at the beginning of this piece, developing meaningful connections is how we access meaning, connection, and fulfillment, and create opportunities for ourselves that bring us into deeper contact with other people.
When we share our experiences within those relationships — by being authentically vulnerable, opening up about ourselves, and making friends later in life — we open ourselves up to conversations, ideas, and experiences that combat loneliness. In fact, one of the most powerful things to discuss with another person is loneliness itself.
When we do, we usually discover a few reassuring things.
First, that everyone experiences loneliness. Second, that acknowledging your loneliness to someone else goes a long way in reducing it, since part of the power of loneliness is feeling like you’re the only one who experiences it. Third, that you can learn a lot from other people’s methods of coping with loneliness. And most importantly, that as soon as you start addressing your loneliness with another person, it’s very difficult to feel lonely in that moment.
The answer to alienation is relationship.
It’s much harder to feel misunderstood when you’re being listened to. It’s impossible to feel missed when you’re vulnerable. That’s why we need to build these close connections, in addition to the practical benefits of a strong network.
Another cure for loneliness is reading.
Fiction is especially great, since the novel was literally invented to get inside another person’s experience, and discover how much you share with a fictional person. But nonfiction is great too — especially biographies, which bring us into a relationship with remarkable people we’d never get to meet. Of course, any form of writing can help reduce alienation, but straight news articles usually don’t do much, and usually end up making us feel worse.
The last step to addressing loneliness is being of service to other people.
Volunteer work with a nonprofit or other charitable cause is especially powerful, since it brings you into contact with other people in a moment of need and vulnerability. But there are tons of ways to be of service: contributing to career organizations, participating in hobbyist groups, advising a nonprofit, organizing meetups, and so on. All of these will bring you closer to other people, and serve up opportunities to build connections in the context of community, connection, and service.
It’s also worth mentioning a few things that won’t help with loneliness.
These include watching more Netflix, going down Internet rabbit holes, and drinking or drugging excessively. I call these out not because they’re always or inherently bad, but because they often look like solutions to loneliness. I love binging Black Mirror, but it won’t bring me closer to other people. I love geeking out on obscure historical facts, but it won’t make me feel more vulnerable. And while I’ve enjoyed a night of whiskey in my living room, unless I was with my wife or a good friend, I never woke up the next morning feeling more connected.
One last word about loneliness.
Pursuing all of these options will massively increase your chances of forming relationships and decrease your feeling of alienation. But if you have persistent and debilitating feelings of alienation, then it’s worth exploring them with a licensed professional. Therapy is an important process and a worthwhile investment, especially in conjunction with everything we’ve been discussing so far.
A nice place to begin is BetterHelp, an online counseling and therapy service, which offers a discount to listeners of The Jordan Harbinger Show. (Full disclosure: BetterHelp is one of our sponsors as well, but as you know, we only take sponsors that we think are legit). Of course, there are tons of resources available at your fingertips, and I encourage you to explore them.
You feel like it’s all meaningless.
Whether you believe that life is a dazzling miracle or you believe it’s just a charade of passing forms, you will struggle at some point with finding meaning in your life. That’s because humans are meaning-making machines. We’re always looking for significance, for purpose, for a larger objective to the journey.
When we connect to that deeper purpose — whatever it is — our lives become a lot more interesting. Goals become more exciting. Challenges become more navigable. Relationships become more vibrant. It’s almost like finding your purpose fills the world in with color, by allowing us to access the richer content beneath the surface of our everyday lives.
And even if you think there is no grand purpose to life, I’d argue that the pursuit of meaning is part of that purpose — even when it seems impossible, even for people who insist that it can’t be found. Even nihilists believe in something, and that something helps them understand their world a little better. No matter how hard we try, we can’t escape the search for meaning.
So if you find yourself failing to find significance in anything — if you feel like life is devoid of meaning, your career is pointless, your decisions unimportant — then it’s probably a sign that you’ve lost sight of something along the way.
How to Rediscover Meaning and Purpose
The pursuit of purpose is an ongoing process, not a task. There is no exercise, workshop or sudden revelation that will check this item off your list. Meaning is something we create every single day, and it changes over the course of our lives. Which means that we get to decide what our lives are really about — and that we create meaning not through abstract ideas from other people, but what through the actions we choose to pursue.
So what are those actions?
Well, that’s up to you. But here’s a handy shortcut. At the end of the day, meaning really gets created in a handful of spheres:
- Relationships (friendship, family, partnership, romance)
- Beauty (art, nature, appreciation)
- Suffering (struggle, pain, learning, and the lessons they teach)
- Service (giving, helping, advising, generosity)
- Creativity (art, entrepreneurship, invention, ideas)
- Personal growth (ambition, achievement, knowledge, skill, talent, improvement, self-understanding)
So if you’re struggling to create meaning, then the key to your purpose lies in some or all of those categories. Accessing them depends on how much investment you put in. Are you present and generous in your relationships? How do you make sense of what your struggles are trying to teach you? How much time do you carve out to be of service to other people? How much are you investing in your skills, knowledge, and self-awareness?
If these questions are daunting, then another helpful approach is to ask yourself what you enjoy doing for the sake of it — that is, even if you aren’t being compensated in some way. For most people, this is another key to finding purposeful activity. Which is not to say that you need to turn that activity into your full-time career. But if you do something for its own sake, then it’s probably inherently enjoyable and interesting, which means it’s probably quite meaningful to you.
Building Relationships: The Common Thread
At the end of the day, the solutions to these problems always come down to relationship.
It could be relationship with a significant other, close friend, or trusted business partner.
It could be relationship with an ambitious target, a creative project, or an artistic medium.
It could be relationship with yourself, your desires, or your values.
Or it could be a more general relationship with the journey, the big questions, and the pursuit of answers.
But making the most of our lives always involves connections to other human beings, which is why relationships underpin the answers to every existential struggle.
It’s only in close, meaningful, productive connections that we find the important insights to life’s challenges. “Networking” isn’t just about professional success and opportunities. It’s actually a way to navigate the world with and through other people who share your desire for addressing these questions and challenges.
For a long time, I thought about these warning signs as a burden, a source of anxiety, and a personal failing. As I worked on the solutions, though, I learned to view them as opportunities.
Now, when I catch myself fixating exclusively on myself, I’m grateful for the reminder to turn my attention toward someone else.
When I’m bored or tired, I’m happy to discover that I need to feed my curiosity and ambition.
And when I’m struggling to find meaning in what I’m doing, I know that I’ve lost sight of something much more important — the real stuff of life — the reason these life-track indicators exist in the first place.
[Featured image by Charles 🇵🇭]