I recently lost a loved one.

My uncle was many things, to many people. To me, he was effervescent. A devoted family man. Someone who lived his life with integrity. He was completely unapologetic about who he was - a trait I desperately coveted. 

To others, he was a talented chef. A hardworking businessman. The joker of his soccer team. A fiercely loyal friend. A dedicated husband. 

My uncle was a resolute man. He lived his life purposefully, and with passion. 

Grief is a funny old thing. For weeks, I was buried in brain fog, unable to make sense of a world without him in it. When well-meaning people asked how I was coping, I’d mumble platitudes about “life being short” and “the importance of living to the fullest.” Meanwhile, I’d pass the days avoiding human interaction, binge-watching Selling Sunsets, and doom-scrolling through Instagram. 

But death comes bearing an uncomfortable reminder - that time is a precious resource. And, in the weeks that went by after my uncle’s passing, I became obsessed with how I spent my time. After my initial binge-watch-doomscroll-spiral, I felt jolted into action. Who knew how much time I had left on this planet? I’d been GIFTED this one life, and how DARE I waste each day sinking deeper into my couch cushions, frittering my PRECIOUS brain cells on trash TV? 

It was time to change the world. And, it was time to change the track pants I’d been wearing for seven days straight.

I needed post-its. I needed worksheets. I needed motivational podcasts. I needed lists charting the world’s problems and how I, Blair Olivia Kemp would single-handedly fix them all.

In a matter of days, my Chrome window had approximately 1,091 tabs open - a visual representation of my scatterbrain in action. I reassessed my career path, how I spent my leisure time, and what causes I invested my energy into. 

My Google history was a manic mishmash, with searches encompassing anything from “creative writing masters course”’ to “how to become a politician.” I pondered retraining in psychology. I entertained the idea of being a journalist. I even considering enrolling in a mother-fucking marathon for god’s sake. 

The more I brainstormed, the more I unraveled. It turns out finding your purpose in life isn’t as easy as locating the lost tv remote between the cushions. 

Burnt out and bummed out, I turned back to Netflix to numb the pain of being purposeless.

Illustration of a woman who is worrying about 'who she is'

The pursuit of purpose

Your inner truth. Your authentic self. Your life purpose. Whatever banal buzzword you choose, we are a generation obsessed with purposeful living. We’re all eager to answer the existential question: “why am I on this god-forsaken planet?”

And, we’re expected to sum up our life’s purpose in a pithy one-liner. Ideally, it should be malleable enough to fit in your Instagram bio, your LinkedIn job title, and your email signature to boot. If you’ve ever gotten a LinkedIn request from a “visionary truth seeker” you’ll know what I’m talking about. 

But what about us mere mortals whose calling in life evades us? Are we rendered purposeless plebs, doomed for a life void of any meaning? 

Illustration of a woman in a peaceful yoga pose

Be more likeable, hireable, and unstoppable

We are all searching for meaning in our lives. I sure as hell know I was destined to do more than binge-watch women with massive ta-tas sell massive mansions. 

There’s plenty of research that links purposeful living to high levels of emotional and mental wellbeing, better physical health, and overall life satisfaction. Some studies even cite that having a life purpose is a predictor of mortality across adulthood. No fucking pressure. 

We are regularly sold the benefits of having a clear purpose. “Use your purpose to guide you!” they say. “When you show up authentically, you’ll know who your true friends are!” they promise. “Having a personal brand makes you more attractive to potential employers!” they reiterate.

This hard-sell puts pressure on people who have no clue what their purpose is, or where to find it. If you’re like me and are becoming acutely aware that you don’t have a pithy one-liner to rationalise why you exist, you’re not alone.

Illustration of a woman scrolling through various different news items about mental health care, forest fires and so on

Purpose anxiety, it’s a thing

The thing is, researchers have put a lot of time and effort into studying the benefits of purposeful, authentic living. Far less is known about the search process. The inevitable struggles, the confusion, and the feverish feeling that your life lacks meaning. 

Researcher Larissa Rainey writes in her paper on purposeful living that “purpose anxiety can be defined as the negative emotions experienced in direct relation to the search for purpose.”

In other words, purpose anxiety is how we feel when we don’t have a sense of purpose and are all too aware that it’s missing. It’s that niggly voice in the back of your mind that asks: “surely, this isn’t it? Surely there’s more to life?” 

And so, we desperately look outward for guidance. We buy the self-help books, we DM the life coach on Insta, we sign up for a million hobbies, and we set ourselves lofty, unrealistic goals. 

Much like my Saturday nights spent on Courtney Place, I went LARGE in my search for meaning. I mirrored my goals based on what other people I admired were doing. I spent less time turning my attention inward. I sought my purpose from a grandiose philosophical perspective and paid little attention to the minutiae of my day to day existence. 

Having experienced intense grief and loss, purpose anxiety began gnawing away at me. More than ever, I was left feeling suffocated by the pressure to:

  1. Uncover what my purpose is 
  2. Attempt to enact or ‘live’ my purpose 
  3. Show up as my authentic self

And funnily enough, I was no closer to finding my purpose. I became more and more aware of how royally fucked the world is. There was too much shit to care about. Inequitable access to mental health care. Burning bushfires. Trans rights. Food poverty. 

My search for purpose was paralysing. 

Feeling increasingly inept, I closed my 1091 Chrome tabs, and said goodbye to the idea that I might make a fabulous politician. Then, I started exploring why purpose anxiety is such a widely felt, but rarely discussed phenomenon.

Hands raised up in the air, praising the word 'authenticity'

Agonising over authenticity 

Let’s face it: we crave authenticity. We live in an era where all hot girls on Insta look exactly the same, where it’s hard to distinguish between truth and propaganda in the media, and where we hire designer bags to give the illusion of being a rich bish from the North Shore, for fucks sake. 

We’re longing for the real, the sincere, and the natural. Think about our obsession with organic superfood, vintage clothing, and vinyl records. Consider how the likes of Instagram and Snapchat promise to give us a glimpse into the ‘real lives’ of ‘real people.’ Ponder why almost every high school graduate takes off on a soul searching, backpacking holiday. We’re in a panic-stricken pursuit of authentic experiences. We want to taste real food. Meet real people. Be immersed in real nature. And most of all, we want these experiences to help us reveal and express our true inner selves. 

Forever idealistic, and drunk on the idea of living a “real and purposeful life”, we worship at the altar of authenticity. 

In fact, the concept of authenticity has a long and complicated history. Rewind approx. 400 years ago and Shakespeare was penning the verse “to thine own self be true.” Fast forward to Jan last year and Kanye West imparted the sage advice to not “trade your authenticity for approval” on Twitter. 

There’s no denying it - we’re obsessed with authenticity.  Once I realised this, I couldn’t unsee it. You can find the ideal of authenticity literally everywhere. 

Philosophers have spent years bickering over what authenticity means, and whether being authentic means anything at all. Advertising and self-improvement industries have been cashing in on the authenticity buzz since the early 20th Century. Social media platforms have been built around the idea of “sharing authentic moments with friends.” In fact, Facebook mogul Mark Zuckerberg famously said “having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.” We’re cancelling celebrities when their online self is incongruent with their offline self. Dating apps like Hinge and Bumble regularly remind their users that honest, genuine profiles do best. So hun, you better change your Bumble pics from you doing hot girl shit, to you doing purposeful life shit. 

Even brands are clamouring to appear authentic. Coke promises us “the real thing.” Dove has been praised for celebrating “real beauty” in their advertising. Every influencer under the sun has made a profit from pedalling their “real and raw” cookbooks.  Authenticity is a commercial strategy, and it works.

Now, authenticity is the social currency in which we trade to get more Insta followers, more job offers, more right swipes on Tinder, and generally, more respect from our peers. 

All of this contributes to our purpose anxiety. After all, you need a clear purpose in order to live an authentic life, right? The two go hand in hand.  

It’s hard not to feel this weird moral pressure to “show up authentically.” We’re expected to wear our innermost purpose on our sleeve at all times.  

Illustration of targeted ads on Facebook

Purposeful posting

So, you’ve done some soul searching (or some online worksheets), sought out ‘authentic’ experiences, and found your inner purpose. Well done you clever cherub! You’re one step away from erasing your existential dread once and for all! 

But to be truly authentic hun, you need to perform your purpose for an audience. A social media audience, specifically. 

I hate to be the writer that uses social media as a scapegoat for ALL THAT IS WRONG WITH THIS WORLD, but I do think the way we project our lives online can amplify the pressure to find one’s purpose.  After all, social media platforms are built around the idea of self-expression. And, the more old mate Zuckerberg knows your inner-most desires, the more he can target you with creepily on-the-nose ads (yes, I DO want to sign up for that online creative writing course, thanks Mark buddy). In fact, your authenticity makes his advertising algorithms more accurate. Ka-ching. 

If authenticity is our new apex, then social media is the marketplace that cashes in on this demand. 

And there’s no doubt about it - we’ve seen a huge shift in how social media is used over the past few years. We’re growing tired of seeing unrealistic lifestyles and picture-perfect aesthetics on our feed. 

Authenticity is in. Filters are out.

We used to brag about our before & after weight loss photos, our brunch dates at the newest urban eatery, or our latest Sephora haul.

Now we brag about our messy lives. About our ability to be “raw and vulnerable.” About how in tune we are with our purpose.  It’s an authenticity race, and the woman with the most performative activism posts, no-makeup selfies, and “I’m about to get real with you guys” captions wins. 

Insta stories are the new confessional booth, Facebook captions are becoming mini-essays, and LinkedIn is now a place to market our personal identities for the interest of employers.

Illustration of a influencer doing an Instagram live

Being real, raw, and rich 

The rise of the “getting real moment” is complicated. Arguably, my own reader base enjoys my ability to be candid and talk about my mental health struggles. And indeed, it’s great to see people using their social media as a means of solidarity. As a way to say, I too am navigating a similar trauma to you. Or, I too care about the things you care about. 

At their worst, the “getting real” post leverages insecurity for profit. A new wave of influencers are realising that having a clear purpose - one that’s marketable and can align neatly with a range of brands they’d like to partner with - can earn them likes, followers, and therefore, money. 

When an influencer’s ‘life purpose’ is manufactured to meet a brand’s sponsored content brief, things start to get weird. Their regularly scheduled broadcast of paid product promotions become punctuated with thinly veiled attempts to perform their ‘purpose.’ “I care about body positivity! That’s why I’m partnering with *insert brand here* to sell you (and ultimately profit from) these sexy knickers! Get it, girl!” Sound familiar? 

Is profiting from your purpose really a bad thing, though? It’s very easy to take the moral high road. Arguably, if you’re passionate about a particular cause, and advocating for it helps pay your bills, are you a terrible person? 

Here, intent matters. Does the thing you’re supporting genuinely excite you? Or does the prospect of making some extra cash to buy that new Deadly Ponies bag excite you? 

What you do offline, without the gaze of your Insta followers, also matters. Are you posting about Black Lives Matter because you’re moved to your very core? Or, do you just want to look relevant and woke? Are you posting to raise awareness, or to seek validation? 

We’re so busy performing for our audience, that we forget to check in with ourselves and ask: do I actually give a fuck about this cause/idea/issue/trending news story? 

Don’t get me wrong - it’s great to share what you’re passionate about on social media. It can be a way to encourage connection, meet like-minded individuals, grow a community, rally collectively around a cause, and destigmaise issues. 

Ultimately though, an ‘authentic’ Instagram feed is not a fundamental part of finding your life’s purpose. Your purpose doesn’t live in posts and pictures. It exists in your everyday actions and experiences. 

Illustration of a woman drinking wine and reading her laptop

Ease that existential dread sis

So, am I any closer to finding my life’s purpose? Or have I started binging a new Netflix series and abandoned my quest? Admittedly, I have watched my fair share of Bridgerton over the last week. I have, however, realised a thing or two. 

Your purpose doesn’t have to be grandiose. You don’t need to be indoctrinated into the Hall of Fame, or feature on a Forbes Under 30 list to be considered important or influential. 

Your purpose doesn’t have to be absolute. Inevitably, like the shifting seasons of life, the things you care about will change. 

Your purpose doesn’t have to be for public consumption. Don’t feel the pressure to broadcast a “real and raw” moment to your 367 followers. You’re not the sum of your published experiences. 

Your purpose will grow from daily life experiences and challenges. It is not simply ‘found’ after doing a series of online worksheets. 

I wonder now, what my uncle would have said if I asked about his life’s purpose. Would he mention being an award-winning chef? Would he talk of his travels? His best score on the golf course? 

I know what his answer would be. The reason he existed, the reason he got out of bed every morning was for my Aunty. His purpose was to love her endlessly. To see the world with her. To build a life full of adventure, fun, and exploration. He may have never won a Nobel Prize, had a breakthrough scientific discovery, or built an Instagram following, but he lived. He didn’t seek the validation of others. He lived without obligation. And that to me, is purposeful, authentic living.

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