The One Habit You Must Cultivate If You Don’t Want to Waste Your Life

“Become who you are. It happens once in a lifetime.”

Last week, while speaking on finding your purpose at a conference for young accountants, someone asked me an important question.
The One Habit You Must Cultivate If You Don't Want to Waste You Life

I know. When you think Jeff Goins, the first word that comes to mind is accounting. I get that a lot. 😉

But there I was, speaking to a group of a few hundred people, terrified they might to ask me a math question. My topic was on why finding your calling is essential to the journey of success, and someone asked me, “Is it better to focus on your strengths or pay attention to your weaknesses?”

​My answer? Neither.

​This is an important question, a question graduates are asking themselves right now. A question we all ask ourselves at some point in life. It is the constant question, the one we lose sleep over, the one that drives us to mid-life crises if we’re not careful: What should I do with my life?

Or, in the words of Mary Oliver:

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

I love that question. I love the implicit adventure in it. But I wonder if maybe this is the wrong place to start. Maybe not wasting your life doesn’t begin with doing but with being.

Three myths about finding your purpose

The way we answer this question is everything. It determines so much in life, including whether or not we will be successful at things that truly matter. Sadly, I hear so many people offering all kinds of conflicting and often unhelpful advice.

There are three big myths we see when it comes to offering well-meaning but usually bad advice on finding your purpose. And I’m tired of them. Here they are.

Myth #1: Skill is all you need.

​Recently, we have been hearing experts say things like, “Get really good at something, and the world will reward you for that skill, and that’s all you need.”

But what happens when you get so good at something that people can’t ignore you and then it ends up not being the thing you want to do? Or you get great at a skill only to realize it conflicts with your values or vision for your life?

I meet people with stories like this all the time. They regret spending so much energy getting good at the wrong thing. It’s dangerous to focus on skill at the cost of what matters most to you. Greatness, in and of itself, does not give your life meaning.

Myth #2: Just chase your passion.

“​Chase your passion and the money will follow.” We’ve all heard this before, right? But is it really true?

We all have to worry about money in some respect. We have bills to pay and responsibilities to keep. So this isn’t helpful, because one way or another money is a reality for all of us. And if we don’t think about it at all, the lack of money becomes an even greater burden.

Myth #3: Everything works out the way it’s supposed to.

Sometimes, we hear people say, “Don’t worry about it. If it’s meant to be, it’ll happen.” This is called fatalism, and it is a very dangerous belief.

Of course, it’s true that you don’t have to have everything figured out. Nobody does. But so often I see this used as an excuse to drift through life, to waste the precious days and months and years we have to make a difference.

You can’t plan your purpose, but you can’t drift through life, either. It takes intentionality to discover what you’re meant to do. So I say again, what do you plan to do with this life of yours? This is a big question, and it deserves a big answer.

So here goes: Don’t ask yourself, “What should I do with my life?” Instead, ask yourself, “Who am I, really, and how am I becoming more of that person?”

Don’t fear failure, fear this instead

​So many of us worry about failure, when, in fact, what we should fear more than failure is succeeding at the wrong thing. This is a theme I’ve been hammering on lately and something we are covering in this summer’s book study I’m doing.

Note: If you want to join me for a free book study this summer, you can join here for free. Each week, we’ll read a chapter of my best-selling book, The Art of Work, and I’ll do a live video answering any questions you may have. Click here to watch last week’s session.

Focusing on what you’re good at or trying to improve your weaknesses will never answer the question, “What am I here for?” The world is full of answers to the question, “What should I do?” But only you can answer the question, “Who am I?”

So the best thing you can do, if you don’t want to waste your life, is to pay attention. Listen to your life. “See it for the fathomless mystery it is,” author and theologian Frederick Buechner once wrote. Why? Because every moment is a key moment. And the thing we should fear most of all is wasting so many of those moments that it adds up to a life of little consequence.

Your life is a mystery, and your job is to study it. Through prayer, meditation, or simple reflection, we all must become more self-aware. This is the only way we can stop letting life happen to us and become more active participants in it.

Living into a larger story

​You and I are characters in a story that we do not understand. We were born into a narrative that is bigger than us. I believe this. It’s the only way I can make sense of the inexplicable joys and unbelievable tragedies in this life. It’s a mystery.

But when you start listening to your life, simply watching for important and recurring themes throughout those key moments, you start to not feel so lost. Things will begin to make sense — slowly at first and more quickly as momentum builds and clarity comes.

Things do not become perfectly clear. That’s a myth. But you see enough of the path to take the next step. We all want to wait for clarity before we act, but as I share again and again in The Art of Work:

Clarity comes with action.​

Jeff Goins

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The one habit you must cultivate if you don’t want to waste your life is self-awareness.

Become aware of who you really are. Listen to your life. Look for the things that resonate with who you are and avoid the things that do not represent the person you are and are becoming.

Don’t just be yourself, become your true self

Just be yourself is a cliche. I never had a completely clear picture of who I was. But deep down inside, I always had some idea of who I was supposed to be, a sense of destiny, I suppose.

I think we all have this, buried deep down in our souls somewhere. Maybe that sounds a little esoteric to you, but we all have moments when we are caught doing something that just doesn’t seem right for us.

Sometimes, it’s a slight discomfort or nagging feeling that this isn’t the thing we were meant for. Other times, it feels downright wrong. It’s very important, I think, that we learn how to listen to these urges and pay attention to these moments — if we don’t want to waste our lives. Otherwise, you just might miss the real calling on your life.

So, no. Don’t just complacently be yourself. Become your true self, the person you were meant to be, the one you won’t regret dedicating a lifetime of attention and sacrifice to.

We all want to know that we ran our race well and that it was, in fact, our race — not someone else’s. And it begins with this all-important decision to not settle for the status quo, pay close attention to what our lives are trying to tell us about ourselves, and choosing a state of constant growth.

If this resonates, I encourage you to join me and others for a summer book study on my book The Art of Work. It’s completely free. You don’t even need to pick up a book if you don’t want to.

We’ll be talking about purpose, creativity, and how to live the life you were meant to live. Last week was just the introduction (watch the video here). This week we will kick things off, talking about this very topic of listening to your life.

What does “become yourself” mean to you? Do you know who you are? Share in the comments.

64 thoughts on “The One Habit You Must Cultivate If You Don’t Want to Waste Your Life

  1. Yes, yes, and yes. I think we have a world of people that are wandering in a haze of confusion. I’m worried about the generation being raised by technology, likes, and selfies. The true way to find out who we really are is first learned in connection with our families. Being deeply religious, I too know there is a much bigger plan that we get a small role but extremely important role in act in. The question, “Who am I?” can be a tricky quest that might take several years to answer. But you are right to point out that the only way to begin the journey is to act. And acting in a way that brings light to the world with the help of God and good mentors is essential.

    I’m in the process of reading The Art of Work and enjoying it. Thanks for bringing this topic to light!

  2. Great post Jeff. I have been exploring who I am and find that there are so many aspects to who I am that it is hard to find clarity. I feel like I am constantly exploring, and have lots of good options on where I can take my career, but with all those options comes the high-stakes question of “which one is the BEST one?” I’ve definitely experienced “good is the enemy of great” in my life, and I think Great is playing hide-and-seek with me 🙂 I will check out your book study to explore further.

  3. What we do isn’t the same as who we are. When I found true life in Jesus Christ I discovered my true self. You may see this statement as off topic but I would absolutely disagree.

  4. I’ve spent a lifetime trying to find who I was by doing what I thought I ought to do. That didn’t work and doesn’t work. I want to become my true self at last and do the things that matter to me and show the world who I truly am.

  5. I feel like I have found myself in the past 10 years (I only wish it had happened when I was younger!). It took some major life events and the courage to stand up to people who wanted me to be someone else but I’m really glad I can be me now.

    1. Definitely hear you on this one. See my comment elsewhere on the page, though: Although it took me until midlife to take control of my own destiny, it beats the heck out of never having done it.

      The years that are left are now my own. Yours can be yours, too, if you can give yourself permission to own them.

      Also: Don’t discount those 10 years. Maybe there was something you still needed to learn that kept you right where you were. And if not? At least you learned you needed something else.

      1. Absolutely, Donna. I have learned so much. And yes, now the years I have left are 100% mine and I have no problem pushing back on things that aren’t good for me. 🙂

        1. Feel free to contact me at SurvivingAndThriving (at) live (dot) com if you’d like to talk about this. I’d like to send you a couple of links about my own “a-ha!” moments.

  6. This is exactly where I am today, Jeff. In my 27 years of work there has always been a little voice telling me something is not quite right. It’s time for me to start listening and stop wasting time. Thank you!

  7. I am discovering each day who I really am. I am a writer, a teacher, a blogger, an editor, and a coach. All these things work together to shape my work and my daily life. All these things fit together around the fact that I am a cultural observer, and I use what I learn in many different ways. I am currently trying to bring it all together in my blog, redesigning my website to integrate all these types of work. My purpose is to help confessing Christians verbalize, internalize and actualize a Christian worldview with confidence, wisdom and grace. I apply my skills as a teacher, editor and coach to help other people develop skills in writing and blogging in order that the Christian worldview may be presented with skill and artistry. I am motivated by reading the statements of other Christians who are either ill-informed or not well trained to communicate the Christian worldview effectively. I think I will always be learning new facets to this work. When I am distracted by possibilities in other directions, I come back to the core statement, and I ask, How does this opportunity help achieve my real work? I feel confident in ignoring or dropping wonderful work that is a distraction from my real work.

  8. Jeff,
    Every day I am becoming more myself. Thank you for writing the truth, for encouraging, and for really caring about the people who read your words.

  9. I think becoming yourself is a lifetime in the making. Some of it is what we make of ourselves through choices we make and some of it is deeper in our mental and spiritual make up. We can evolve, but will find more joy through serving and helping others. Losing yourself to find yourself really works. Focusing on yourself wholly will not bring you to a good place.

    I know that I can love people and give to those in need. I am a father and a friend. I’m a motivator and a sharing person. I hope to become more, but in my core, I love to help.

  10. This is a great post, @jeffgoins. Becoming your original self is a beautiful example. I, like you, believe that the unhindered self is “buried deep down in our souls somewhere.”

    Thanks for this!

  11. Until 2002 I defined myself as a mother, wife, daughter, sister and newspaper reporter. Two years later, when I finally got the courage to leave an abusive marriage, I became a terrified, slowly-going-broke woman of a certain age who couldn’t see any kind of future for herself.

    Becoming my true self meant thinking something I’d never been allowed to think: “What do *I* want?” Over the past dozen years I’ve still spent a lot of time thinking about others (especially family members), yet I’ve also prioritized thinking about what I can offer to the world and — blasphemy! — what I can offer to myself.

    Still a mom; you never quite leave that behind. Still a professional writer, too, since it’s the best way I know to make a living. But I’m also a university graduate (at 52 — better late than REALLY late), the creator of an online blogging course, a writing coach, an excellent friend and the grandmother without portfolio to my niece’s kids and my partner’s granddaughter.

    About that partner: After I’d decided I wasn’t even going to LOOK for love because it was never going to happen to me, he proved me wrong. (You may recall I talked about him quite a bit at that off-premises al fresco dinner at FinCon15. And I meant every word: He really IS a gem, and a helpmate in the truest, sweetest sense.)

    See what can happen when you think about coming your true self? You might wind up happy and productive.

    I recommend it highly — but then, I would also have recommended it even if it hadn’t turned out the way it did. At my lowest point financially, I knew I’d rather keep living in a run-down apartment and eating a lot of rice and beans than be back in my previous life.

    TL;dr version: Changed desperate circumstances in midlife. Wasn’t always easy. Never been happier.

  12. Amen, you nailed it …..what we should fear more than failure is succeeding at the wrong thing. “

  13. Hi Jeff. Thank you for you commitment to influence others for THEIR benefit. One of the things I’ve been thinking about, yes, at 51, is “Who Am I?”!!! My life has NOT turned out how I expected it to, & I believe there’s a God-shaped purpose behind it. I believe He wants me to identify myself first as His chosen & beloved Child. THEN I can look at myself through the lenses of what He’s doing in my life & making of me. Yes, I am a writer. But I am HIS writer, writing to accomplish His purposes. Thanks for listening!

  14. I’m trying this idea on for size. “Finally I am coming to the conclusion that my highest ambition is to be what I already am.” Thomas Merton. I’ve spent a lot of time focusing on and regretting what I’m not, but think I SHOULD be. Now I’m accepting that the feeling, intuitive part of me is my strength and brings me closer to my true self and who I want to be.

    I heard you speak on Work by Design and loved your ideas. Thank you!

  15. An exceptional article, Jeff. It resonates with the chords I have heard all my life but never truly could quite pick out the melody. (How’s that for a metaphor? Now let’s mix in another.) At seventy-eight, looking in the rear-view mirror is the only way I can see where – and more importantly, WHAT – I have been, and the wreckage along the road hasn’t been pretty or easy. But seeing those way-points makes it possible to easily decipher the general direction and more certainly predict the next one – or make mid-course corrections.

    I don’t think succeeding at the wrong thing is all bad. Any success in life is good. It then remains for us to determine whether we will plod along in that success or use it as a springboard to a greater one. On the other hand we do need to guard against catastrophic failure, but some of us learn more and faster from skinned knuckles and burned fingers than we do from a pat on the back.

    As a teenager, I knew all the answers – well, those big ones that mattered, anyway. The failure however, was in not having a “Plan B” as carefully and as passionately arranged as was the primary scheme. When it crashed and burned I muddled along well enough I suppose, but I never exerted the discipline thoroughly enough to replace my lost, first passion with the second for those vital three decades in the middle. When I started to write however, the process of rigorous organization necessary for an acceptable article translated more easily to a clearer vision for my life.

    “Who am I?” is the basic question, but that is not the end-point of our self-investigation. It is an acknowledgment of our starting point on the course we choose. Finding our place in the overall scheme of things, our purpose in the Eternal plan, and having as a spiritual goal the fulfilling of our divine heritage is key in that, I am sure. First learning, then knowing for certain that I am a child of God makes my choices no less difficult, only clearer.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Robert. I agree that success at the wrong thing has its own lessons from which we can learn. I think, as you pointed out, learning is the point of life and needed in order to move forward. Great points.

  16. All my life I wanted to be about 20 things. Nurse, teacher, writer, taylor, organizer, artist, chef–it was a long list.
    I finally found ONE job wherein I could make really good use of all the things I wanted to do: I became home educating mom.
    When the “Purpose Driven” excitement was floating around, it was just like your introduction: in order to have any purpose, a person had to have a job in a church. Well, I put my foot down and said, “I am a stay-at-home mom. ON PURPOSE.”
    People didn’t get it.
    However, now that I’ve turned six weak and senseless humans into tall, productive members of society, I am so puzzled.
    They call it “empty nest” but I call it not knowing what I am, now.
    The Art of Work has been a great teaser to tease it out of me, but it remains a mystery. I know I am a writer, but in a way, I don’t know if that is what I am supposed to be doing, if that is the best “me”.
    Sorry I cannot do videos, but will try to glean what I can from fb and from here. 🙂

    1. Katharine, I hear you loud and clear on this! I served faithfully for many years before starting to homeschool my oldest at 4 years old. God made it perfectly clear that my calling was to be diligent at home and so I learned to say “no”. However, the modern day church doesn’t recognize that as “enough”. I, too, am about to be that mom who has devoted 20 years of homeschooling and I’m seeking God’s will for my next season.

      Jeff, love your book! In fact, my 16 year old read it this year and loved it! It really inspired him and every day he would come and quote something you said in the book. “Jeff said……” I was really proud of him for getting so much out of your book.

  17. I’m reading The Art of Work at the moment and the biggest problem I’m having with the whole thing is…yeah, this is all well and good, but unfortunately being introspective and listening to my life isn’t going to help me pay my bills. You must have SOME form of interim employment, unless you’re lucky enough to be a wealthy author who has the luxury of telling everyone else that they just need to find their purpose in life. Not everyone is lucky enough to find a small niche that they can make their own.

    I tried listening to my life and discovered everything I’d been studying on my BA, MA and PhD dovetailed with stuff I was actually interested in and passionate about, and I’d be happier than a pig in muck if someone would PAY me to talk about art history, and psychogeography, and cemetery architecture…but sadly such jobs are few and far between, and it’s not the kind of thing where you can even run a successful blog about it because you’re sharing an interest, not something that can actually help people.

    The Art of Work just really made me feel like my life was pointless.

    1. Oh gosh. No, that wasn’t the point at all! Have you finished the book? There are definitely practical things you can be doing to make a living while you figure “it” out. In fact, I’m a big fan of that, pursuing your dream on the side and building bridges towards your calling. One thing I would like to point out, though: looking for someone to pay you to do something you love is hard to come by. Even I don’t have that luxury. You must find a way to add value to others’ lives, which I explain in The Art of Work. That said, here are some jobs I found when I searched “art history”:

      Keep going, Icy. This is a long and hard journey but a rewarding one. If I can help at all, let me know! (This is one reason I started a book study, so I could help readers dig deeper into the practical lessons from the book.)

      1. I’ll have to relocate to the States then! You guys have way more academic vacancies than we do!

        I was thinking about it this morning and I thought, if I won the lottery and didn’t NEED to work, what would I want to do? Didn’t even need to think. I’d want to finish my PhD, continue researching, and write. Maybe that’s a hint I should pick up.

        Just a pity art history and film studies don’t really add value to people’s lives in the same way that being a doula or helping people lose weight does!

  18. Jeff,

    This is an extremely eye-opening post.

    I’ve read so much self-help books and blogs, that I’d would know most of the time what an article or book is about halfway through. But you’ve really debunked a lot of ideas that seemingly sounds romantic but are not 100% true or applicable, in and of itself.

    Your post came right on time as well. I am at a turning point, where I realize things about me that I didn’t know exist. For example, I though I was very open-minded, yet I’m still too stubborn to admit my weaknesses.

    About your question, I think “become yourself” means to let go of all judgements regarding how you should be and how you should feel. We live in a world where we’re constantly pre-defined by our folks.

    It’s to ask yourself questions like “what makes me happy?” instead of “shouldn’t I enjoy doing this? What’s wrong with me?” and accept the answer, whatever it may be. You can only be happy (and not waste your life) when you know exactly what makes you tick.

    Thanks a bunch for sharing. I will be joining your summer book study. I didn’t think The Art of Work is a book I’d need since I found something I’m devoted to (blogging), but looks like it’s about more than that.

    Stay awesome,

  19. I have spent my life helping others. My phone never stopped ringing with requests. Then I thought about this “Who am I” thing. Being the contented helper was not me. So I changed to who I truly believed I was. I am now what I wanted to be. That phone does not ring anymore.

  20. Hmm… This post resonates with me so much. I am realizing who I’m and it’s kind of liberating and terrifying at the same time. Love your blog, your posts are inspiring and practical. Thanks.

  21. No, I do not know who I am. I submit that I grasp very little of the greatness that is in me (and in all of us). Being myself is a lifelong journey filled with exciting moments of discovery! Discovering who I am every day in relation to the bigger picture and how I can help others! It’s also filled with equally important moments of failure, setbacks and intense pain. I have been blessed with one of those major setbacks this last year. Because of this, I had an incredible breakthrough in discovering my identity that I NEVER would have known without the pain. When I told my friend that pain was “a friend”, she was appalled. Maybe this pain is a “horse of a different color” but he can take us to places we never imagined.
    Sohma Rae Hathaway

  22. Everything you talk about makes sense. But HOW do you get there? I’ve taken lots of action to try to find some clarity and direction but things don’t seem to work out, lead me towards finding my true self, or provide any more clarity on how and where I should proceed with my life. I spent 15+ years in a professional career which I really enjoyed at the time. Then I chose to stay home for a few years with my children because my daughter was struggleing developmentally and my husband was always traveling. I ultimatley went back to work out of necessity when the economy took a down turn but it was a job I hated and primary did it for the insurance. So now I find myself in a position where I don’t have to work, my children are grown and I’m lost! I’ve explored many of the things that have brought me pleasure and joy and satisfaction in the past (job, volunteer opportunities, hobbies, church) and I just haven’t had that “aha” moment to lead me forward. I’m working through your book but so far no lightbulbs have been turned on.

    1. It makes me nervous to reply, since I have a lot less life experience behind my thoughts. But I’ve just undergone a career change too (with the cross-country move and friendship disruptions that come with that)–and what you said about trying to immerse yourself in things that you know bring you joy, and then finding that they’ve somehow lost their potency–that resonated with me. As near as I can figure out, it’s not the things that are different, but it is true that they’re only making me a little happy, rather than the soul-filling glow they used to give. I think these hobbies and service projects used to be attached to a larger goal/cause/community/self-image, and now that I’m in a different place, I’m either headed toward different goals or else I need more time to grow attached to the new, good things and people I can devote myself to.

    2. Dear Searcher,
      I hear ya. I’ve been there. It can be frustrating and a little maddening to say the least. First (you may already be doing this), I say, glory in your successes. One of your callings is obviously an amazing parent! Good job on that one!!! Who knows how far that care will trickle into the lives of others. And that calling never goes away no matter how old your kids are. Second, I invite you to envision already being brilliant at whatever you end up doing. You don’t have to know what it looks like. Just know what it FEELS like and envision it whenever you can. I have someone tell me recently that the best 20 minutes you can spend every morning is staring at a vision board, not with the feelings of wanting it but feelings of gratitude as if you are already there. Last, if this resonates with you, I invite you to pray mightily to a God who knows all of your hidden talents and wants you to succeed. ❤️ Happy discovering!

  23. I know who I am, and I’m becoming more myself every day. Some days I learn what I don’t want and other days I discover some of what I do want. Part of my discovery lately has been learning what I can and can’t stand doing for a paycheck while I get my photography and writing career moving.

  24. Who am I?
    Retired herbalist
    Senior citizen (age 71)
    Someone who can barely walk

    Someone just diagnosed with prostate cancer
    A Soul (Conscious being)
    A Creation of the Universe
    Someone who feels the pain of all people who are poor, who are homeless, who cannot feed their families, who feel alone and lost in a harsh world, who have lost hope

    1. Lovely honesty! I hear you and am almost there myself! There’s a certain wisdom that only comes from going around the giant racetrack so many times that you take yourself out of the race and just sit on the bleachers and watch the show!!!

  25. This is an incredible post. Thanks for reminding the world that it’s vitally important to stop. To reflect. To plan. To live intentionally. There is great power in this!

  26. This resonates deeply within me. I joined a group about 7 years ago called Free Agent Academy in order to discover what sort of work truly fits me, only to discover the real me through all the courses I took there. And now that I’ve discovered that, I’m trying to form a business based on who I really am.

    There is power in knowing who you really are!

  27. At this point, “becoming myself” means connecting with those who will benefit from experiencing what I write about. I am what I write. I’ve written seven books and know that I’ve written them for “somebodies.” My focus is my current book, WRITE THE BOOK YOU WANT–BE YOUR OWN COACH.

  28. Can one ‘become myself’ before ‘finding myself?’ Are they one in the same? I am not sure I know who I am … I know who I am according to what others expect me to be. Shocks people when I do or say something that ‘isn’t me.’ My writing has always been my ‘out,’ my way of saying and thinking things people may not understand, or working things out. In a way my writing is me … but it has been a private venture. As much as I want to share those thoughts, I am finding it a little scary. Guess I have the ‘what if …’ phobia. Hoping that my strength will grow as I continue to learn from other writers. I love learning so soaking up everything I can get my hands on.
    Have really enjoyed reading Jeff’s posts.

  29. I am a busy person so I won’t be able to read all the comments. I want to add something that I hope helps readers. I will be 68 in July, that means I am retired, but not totally. I was a truck driver all my life and tried various ventures during off duty hours. I loved selling, not door to door, but having something people want is fulfilling as well as profitable. I took courses in writing and photography, as well as editing the copy or photos. My work now has ups and downs with marginal profits.

    I am now able to consider writing about the items I will begin selling, as well as doing the graphic design for any ads I will use. Because of people like Jeff, I am encouraged to try to go beyond the current limits I am confronted with, and I want to encourage each of you to learn and practice new things throughout life because there is a reward for pursuing challenges.

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