If You Can’t Find Your Purpose, Just Find a Reason
09.25.17

There is an old Buddhist proverb called “The 84th Problem.” In it, a farmer seeks advice from Buddha on how to solve his problems. After rattling them off and being told, one by one, that Buddha can’t offer any help, the farmer grows frustrated and asks why.

“You see, at any point in time, you’ll always have 84 problems in your life,” Buddha replies. “The 84th problem is the key. If you solve the 84th problem, the first 83 will resolve themselves.” Intrigued, the farmer asks what the 84th problem is, and how might he solve it. “Your 84th problem is you want to get rid of the first 83 problems,” Buddha says. “If you understand that life is never without problems, it won’t look so bad.”

I discovered this proverb five years ago when I was trapped in a millennial pigeonhole of my own making: Is this really it? Am I doing enough? Is something wrong with me? I had picked up a book on Buddhism after a friend recommended it. I hoped it might curtail my angst and its related shame.

In a way, it worked: “The 84th Problem” showed me the ironic snag in the logic of problem-solving, which is that problems are intrinsic to life. It was a profound learning that stuck with me. And yet, my ennui returned nonetheless, an imposingly clunky problem I didn’t — couldn’t — accept as part of the deal.

That so many of us have gone through the same dizzying existential crises doesn’t surprise me. Imagine the mixed messages: We’re told to strive for more but be content, be content but not complacent, be ambitious but not envious, be grateful but don’t settle, be happy in spite of all of it because life is always hard, every relationship has doubt, every job is difficult, every person has problems. It’s all sound advice in the appropriately-marked vacuum, but it makes the important task of identifying why you feel uneasy really tricky. And so around we go.

It’s been a couple years since I played that specific brand of emotional pinball, and I have a theory as to what it was that got me out of it.


Imagine you’re digging a hole in a dirt field. You don’t know what it’s for, you just know you’re supposed to dig it and enjoy it. After a while, your arms grow heavy, your hands begin to blister and every shovelful of dirt feels heavier than the last. You admit to a friend that you’re tired and unhappy. “That’s part of it,” she tells you. “Just trust me!” So you keep going. You try to feel pride for what you’ve accomplished and find solace in the fact that everyone else is digging too, but mostly you’re frustrated and plagued with self-doubt, because something just doesn’t feel right.

Now imagine, instead, you were digging that hole to plant a tree, and every time you felt that fatigue, you remembered your efforts were going towards something you recognized, understood and respected.

At the end of the day, this is what I want to be doing.

That metaphor may seem a little on-the-nose and woo woo, but my theory as to how I dismantled the pinball machine is not expressly about finding a purpose. It’s more so about the importance of having something larger to lean on when problems inevitably arise — an answer to the question, “Why am I doing this?” that is not, at its deepest root, “because I’m supposed to.”

That wasn’t an answer I had, nor one I placed much importance in finding. And the result was a life — relationship, job, situation — I liked day-to-day, and which was great on paper, but which I constantly, puzzlingly, struggled to find fulfilling on a broader level. I busied myself trying to snap the hell out of it: Everyone’s arms are heavy, everyone’s hands have blisters, I’m lucky to be digging at all. But those reminders were ultimately Band-Aid solutions. As soon as I heard someone say that her relationship was hard, but she knew it was what she wanted; or heard a writer say that her work was hard, but she knew it was what she wanted to be doing; or heard a person say that New York was a hard place to live, but she knew it was where she wanted to be, it would all come crumbling down. Those deeper truths weren’t there for me.

This is hard but, at the end of the day, I’m digging a hole to plant a tree, and that’s important to me. Those six words — “at the end of the day” — eluded me; I could never convincingly apply them to the areas I most wanted to. As in: “At the end of the day, this is the person I want to be with,” or, “At the end of the day, this is what I want to be doing.” It’s a simple phrase that underlines the idea that life’s problems are less daunting when they’re in service of something you believe with gut-certainty. I spent a lot of energy convincing myself that wasn’t true, or that I wasn’t the “type of person” who’d ever be certain of anything, but I was wrong.


So maybe I turned the table over on my life, but I don’t think that’s the only way out of that disquiet. If your answer to why you’re working at your job is: “At the end of the day, it’s paying the bills, and I’m okay with that” — and that feels honest, I say embrace that; let it tether you and accept its associated costs. I’ve seen people do that and they’re much happier for it. But if it doesn’t, and you know it never will? Find or create a new purpose for what you’re doing that does, and accept the costs that come with that, too. What won’t work are fake reasons that just sound right, because you can’t change your feelings by brute force. Believe me, I tried. Truth has a way of bubbling up.

The why questions aren’t easy to answer, but if I’d placed more value in asking them instead of blaming myself for needing to, I would have identified what was up with me much sooner. My life is different now — new job, new relationship, new city — and I still have 83 problems, but they no longer make me spiral with self-doubt, or question my decisions. As soon as I asked myself what I wanted my problems to be, and began rearranging my life around that answer, the existential hand-wringing of my 84th fell away.

Photo by Lisa Larsen/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images.

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  • Anne Dyer

    You may break the internet today between these two articles…. Brilliant.

  • Jess

    This article resonates with me so much at the moment. Thanks for the beautiful piece Haley.

  • Hannah Nichols

    This is so good. Struggling with this right now.

    • Haley Nahman

      Rooting for you/humanity

  • Nikelle

    Haley, you have become one of my favorites at Man Repeller.

  • gracesface

    Thanks for sharing what worked for you. I’ve gotten to a similar place myself. I recently took on a second job and having a reason for it (to pay down my student loans) has really helped me. Sincerity is more important me vs authenticity as I get older.

  • Robin

    This is so extremely helpful and universal yet specific. I can see myself mentally returning to this piece in many, many difficult situations. I am already sure that what you have written here, published today, will be so valuable to me, and I want you to know I find that a very, very grand achievement. Thank you Haley <3

  • Katie

    Thank you thank you, Haley.

  • Louise Allonby

    Thank you. Lots of clarity

  • Katya Lopatko

    I’ve never commented here before but I love this blog with all my heart and your posts are always some of my favorites. Just wanted to say that this is so so spot on and I wish I could’ve read it a few months ago when I was struggling with all the same questions! It feels so creepy saying this as a random internet person but I really love your humor and sensibility and basically just want to be your friend <3 thanks for writing and existing!

    • Haley Nahman

      Not creepy wish it was creepier!

  • Mansi Shah

    This is one of the best pieces I’ve read on MR; very helpful, insightful and simple. Thanks, Haley, for writing this!

  • Amy L Campbell

    ty Haley <3

  • HALEY!! I can’t express how much this article meant to me, nor how timely it was. I usually check MR daily, but missed a few days. Something told me to come today and this headline just hit home. Thanks for always being real on this site. I love your words, and from the comments below and spread across your other wonderful pieces, I’m part of a big club here on MR <3

    • Haley Nahman

      LIZ!! Tysm <3

  • Mollie Ward

    I was talking to a friend about this just this morning. I read this and I felt it HARD, especially today. And then I read comments saying the same thing and it made me feel even better that it’s such a universal problem. In my rational mind I can always say to myself, this is something everyone goes through but that doesn’t make it less shitty. It’s such an exhausting process. Thank you for this.

  • Mercedes Ayala

    I want to be Haley when I grow up
    <3

  • Kalen Nicole Russell

    Haley I love reading all of your articles! You eloquently expressive my thoughts and are extremely relatable!

  • Sehnsational Style

    Such a good post, definitely needed this now and will be revisiting
    xoxo KMS
    http://www.sehnsationalstyle.com

  • This was so good!! So simple but you’re right. I immediately applied the ‘at the end of the day’ thing to my life and it made me feel better. Thank you <3

  • Megan

    Loved this. Thanks, Haley

  • Michelle Pattee

    Haley, by your pic you look considerably younger than my 52 years on the planet. The concept you present in this post, which I define as true acceptance, usually takes decades of life experience to reach (if ever). Thank you for framing the theory within your personal story and for the reminder that the solution often lies within the problem.

    • Haley Nahman

      Profoundly honored by this thank you Michelle

  • Mimi Moss

    Yes.

  • Seconds before my bus driver in Jamaica careened into a string of vans transporting chickens, he turned to us wide-eyed passengers and said, “In Jamaica, there are no problems, only situations.”

    The spilled chickens became a situation. But, most importantly, I no longer see anything as a problem–life’s just a stewing cauldron of situations.

    Always much appreciate your words, Haley. My current situation is I’d like to somehow live inside your head for minimum 24 hours. Next up on Man Repeller: “24 Hrs Inside Haley’s Head.”

    • Haley Nahman

      “The spilled chickens became a situation” is the coolest/most unexpected comment under this story and will be in my brain for the next 24 hours, if that offers any insight

    • There are no problems, only situations. Sometimes – okay – most of the time, this is probably the best outlook to have in life. Preach.

  • One of the best things I have ever read. Thank you.

  • Sabah Malik

    I appreciate so much how you write about mental health in a way that resonates and makes your readers feel like someone gets it. “‘That’s part of it,’ she tells you. ‘Just trust me!’ So you keep going. You try to feel pride for what you’ve accomplished and find solace in the fact that everyone else is digging too, but mostly you’re frustrated and plagued with self-doubt, because something just doesn’t feel right.” Recognizing that specific feeling as something I should pay attention to and not ignore was saving on a number of levels. LOVE! this piece, all caps + exclamation point

    • Haley Nahman

      The all caps and exclamation point were extra appreciated

  • Paola

    “Truth has a way of bubbling up.” this seems to me like the essence of it all (which oddly reminds me of Obama quoting his mother saying “reality has a way of catching up with you”)

    • Haley Nahman

      You’re right!! So similar

  • Eadaoin

    This resonates with me so much right now. Thank you for sharing. What was the Buddhist book your friend recommended please?

  • Erika Galan

    <3

  • damn. that was beautiful how do you do that

  • Laura

    This is exactly how I’m feeling at the moment and that you were able to so beautifully articulate it is really wonderful. I am so ready to dismantle the damn pinball machine.

  • K

    I really like the topic of normal doubt vs real discontent that keeps coming up in your writing, Haley. I’ve actually been having the opposite experience to you: you realised that you didn’t have normal doubt about your life, you had real discontent. I have spent the last year convinced I had real discontent about my job, only to suddenly realised I was going through a period of normal doubt. Or perhaps just a period not-so-normal crisis brought on by other big changes in my life (inevitably, a break-up). The doubt felt so much like real discontent, it was scary. And as you’ve been saying, real discontent masquerades as normal doubt. I wish there was some way to tell the two apart, properly! But I don’t think it’s as easy as you suggest – alas.

  • LAURA

    OH MY GOD, YES.

  • zeynep yilmaz

    oh my my Haley.. I am speechless about both how big of a writer you are becoming and about the context of this amazing piece.

  • yassqueeeen

    As I’m moving into my mid-twenties, I’ve felt this same way too. It’s so easy in this world of curated, perfect lives on social media to think you’re alone in this p̶r̶o̶b̶l̶e̶m̶ situation. Thank you so much for sharing! I love reading your articles.

  • Jay

    Oh yeah… starting into the 30s there is this P word everybody is talking about. Purpose.

    I read a ton of books about it. Really wanted to find it.

    That ONE THING.

    Good book. (The One Thing). Only it is so upsetting and frustrating when you dont know what that one thing is?! When you are a grown-up woman who still doesnt know what her ONE THING, her Purpose, her… whatever is?!

    Purpose sounds so big. Like something “go safe the world”. Like “create an honest legacy”. Like “fight for something”.

    It scares me. Really.

    And I haven’t found anything yet.

    Which scares me more.

    To your point, Haley, that if “at the end of the day, it pays the bills and I’m okay with that” for your job works… then go for it… yeah. I am doing that. Only… It does work only to some extent.

    Why am I sticking to it?

    Because I am scared. Scared of Purpose? Well, yeah, but also scared of risks.

    And I guess this is what you kind of experienced as well, Haley? While you had someone telling you what to do, and everything was a rountine, you were digging, maybe not knowing why, and not really convinced, but you were doing something… and while it didn’t fulfil you, it was … well, say you could blame someone else for it being useless. Not your decision. Not your control. Not your purpose.

    But I feel what this is about is taking responsibility. Questioning what you are doing. And what one wants to do, really.

    That is a process.

    And it is only the first step.

    The second is much harder. Get out of your comfort zone and implement what you are feeling.

    So maybe that’s why we might shy away from finding purpose. Cause that would mean that we would need to change our direction. And get uncomfortable…

    (Excuse the longish rant, but this is something I am really struggling with/trying to figure out what to do/thinking all time about … and it is so good to hear that you guys are in this as well! Yay, I haven’t gone insane yet, but there are others like me…)

  • Majo

    I start reading the articule without notice who’s was the author… But while i was doing it , i instanly thought “it’s that girl, Haley, i’m sure” … I always feel soo align to your writing, that i’m usually afraid before dare me to read it, as usual this Will be torturing my mind for weeks but i know that it’s always a good thing at the end, thanks for your inspiring words.

  • This was so needed. Thank you Haley!

  • Veronica Wilkins

    Haley, you are brilliant beyond words.This article, paired with the right Spotify playlist, had me in tears. Thank you for writing. I love you (and i don’t even know you! what!)

    • Haley Nahman

      Thank you for reading it <3 I also cry when I read things to music.

  • Alexia

    I love this piece so so much.
    I’m a first year college student and I feel like a lot of the things I knew about my life–that I want to go to law school, work in politics–have become kind of hazy. I’m still interested in those areas but the particularities, the reasons, are hard to grasp. I’m not really sure what I want to do anymore. All the “adults” tell me I’ll be fine and that I have plenty of time but it’s hard to truly digest that when it feels like everyone else is doing a million things to get in the direction they want to go and I’m a bit lost.

    • Alexia

      I feel like I should add that a lot of kids I go to school with are also interested in politics, and that’s part of what made me realize that my reasons are a bit hazy. A lot of students here want to go into politics for themselves–not because they have a passion to do something interesting with it for other people. I feel like if I’m going to go into that field it should be because of something larger than me.

      • Haley Nahman

        It’s so cool you’re asking those questions of yourself in college. You probably won’t have answers for a while but I think asking anyway will serve you well!

  • Taylor

    This was so refreshing. Seriously- thank you for sharing!

    I have been severely grappling with this after recently starting a new position. A position that would totally seem like a dream come true. It’s what I went to school for, it’s what I always had imagined myself doing. I should be super happy and thankful, right?

    Ugh. To be honest, I am constantly daydreaming about quitting the 9 to 5 and opening a plant store. I actually think one of the main things holding me back is the guilt of (what feels like) betraying those who have helped me get where I am now.

    Welp. Life.

    • Haley Nahman

      No one stumbles onto the right path without experiencing other ones. Changing course isn’t an insult to people who have helped you explore yourself! I think it’s a natural evolution of that generosity.

  • Ramey Dallimonti

    Wise beyond your years. Love you, Haley!

    • Haley Nahman

      Love you back Ramey Joseph Dallimonti

  • Love the way you wrote this! The last part about what I wanted my problems to be really resonated with me and made everything so simple. I think about Esteban my Persian cat and Bug your cat (I swear I’m not a stalker), their problems or “situations” are literally: when am I going to be fed and when is she going to leave me alone and let me live aka sleep all day …and they probably wouldn’t want it any other way. Anyway, just wanted to say this was a really helpful. I never know if my comments will make sense so hopefully this does.

  • Summer Mosher.

    Haley I just have to read every piece you write. This was quite exceptional. Love ya sista!

  • Lauryn P.C

    Haley! Have you read my mind and experience in life since January? It sure sounds like this. I have been struggling to find *meaning* in all my journeys/situations/jobs since moving west and at times I find this internal sense of peace when I just don’t focus on the big picture and focus on what I am doing presently. Seeing life from this perspective sounds so liberating and I am going to challenge myself to take it on. It doesn’t always have to be “what is the biggest thing I am going to do next?” but it can be “this job is awesome for now and has been allowing me to live in Southern California and fill my small home with anthropologie candles” which is OK! I think often (especially for us big dreamers and doers) we feel as though if we’re not doing a lot, we are doing nothing.

    This is so great to hear and I think what strikes me most about this, and the comments, is that I am not alone. which is incredibly comforting. Thank you to all you millennials and any gen who are along this ride with me and share your experience and lessons!

  • Nicola Needham

    I am very much in to this as well! I really like your stuff Haley. It is very much applicable to the peeps in New Zealand 🙂

  • Kimberley Walker

    I just moved overseas with my work and am struggling with this atm also. Thanks for sharing and making it more normcore.

  • Rachel Lina

    When I open a Man Repeller article and see it’s written by you Haley I feel so excited that my perspective is about to be rocked, that I’m going to learn something valuable, or simply recognise something in myself that you’ve written that reminds me my thoughts are not the first to be had – thank you.