With all that talk about growth and purpose last week, the obvious path forward is to dive more into what purpose is and how to find it. However, it occurred to us that we accidentally violated one of our own rules by introducing what growth and purpose are without really discussing why they’re important. We mentioned that experiencing a life that resonates with us involves finding a purpose and growing toward it, and then we never went on to explain what the purpose of talking about purpose is. We’ve put the purpose-cart before the fulfillment-horse.
As you continue to follow along with this blog, you’ll see a common theme, which is that any sort of personal growth or lifestyle improvement must always start with an underlying purpose or motivation.1For us to succeed in doing a thing, we must understand why we are doing it, why it is the right thing, why it fits, why we want it. We must start with a horse.2
So, this week we will step back and explore why growth matters in our lives. It’s time to discuss where growth must take us. We need to talk about the pinnacle of our experience: fulfillment.3
In our first five posts, we’ve already thrown around the word “fulfillment” (or its variations) about 15 times, and yet we haven’t talked about what it really means. We did say that “If we want to be fulfilled, we must experience life in a way that resonates with us”, which gives us some idea of its implications, but what does that really mean? What is fulfillment?
Perhaps the largest underlying motivation for starting Realize Renaissance is that the field of personal growth 4is a convoluted mess. Each year, several thousand new books are published in the field of “self-help”, each one claiming to contain the next secret to life. At the same time, researchers in disparate fields continue to publish articles about each new, isolated finding that supports the benefits of their specific field. As readers, we tend to like very simple, specific solutions, because they sound so easy. But when thousands of authors all claim to have the new, simple, specific solution, and none of them are the same, or even connected, what are we to do? We are left with a near-impossible task: making sense of it all.5
What’s needed is for someone to sift through this massive pile and distill it into something that’s not only accurate, but more importantly, useful. The next thing to be integrated and demystified is fulfillment.
It turns out there is no common definition or understanding of fulfillment. Everywhere you look, people are saying something different about it, many completely contradicting each other. This is problematic. How can we expect to attain a thing we haven’t defined? We’d never know if we were on the right track, let alone if we’ve made it. Of all the things to not be understood, the pinnacle of our experience seems like the most unfortunate.
To illustrate just how disjointed the field of fulfillment is, below is a sampling of what you’ll find when you try to figure our what fulfillment really is. First, we Googled “what is fulfillment”, and got the following results:
The top three results are about fulfilling business orders. Solid start. Next up: dictionary.com:
Classic case of defining the word by using the word itself. However, it does include fulfilling hopes and dreams, so that’s something at least.6Thankfully, if we head over to the Oxford Dictionary, we find a more useful definition, and one we actually like quite a bit: “Satisfaction or happiness as a result of fully developing one’s potential.” The idea of developing and being satisfied is a strong pairing that we obviously stand by.
Like any good research project, the next step was to see what Wikipedia has to say. This was perhaps one of the most disappointing explanations we found. Using a total of one reference from 1995, this Wikipedia page defines personal fulfillment as follows:
“Key components then of personal fulfillment are:
- Consciousness – of oneself and the environment
- Consciousness – of people around oneself
- Exploration – of something new that one may be capable of
- Initial failure – as one’s initial attempts at exploration leads to stumbles and fails
- Trying – again and again till such time that one does not stumble and fall
- Experiencing joy – of having tried and achieved something new
- Commendation and applause – of those around, especially of the ones that the individual values
- Boredom – as one performs the ‘not so new anymore’ task as a matter of habit
- Then back to step three for something new to explore
- The cycle continuing throughout one’s life as the individual grows and expands into newer and unexplored dimensions of personal fulfillment.”
First, they state that awareness of oneself and others is a necessary component of fulfillment, which makes sense, because that is literally what it means to be sentient life in the first place. Thank you for that incredibly helpful insight! The page then goes on to state that fulfillment is the process of exploring a new activity, failing at it, continuing to try at it, feeling joy after success in said task,7being praised by other people, then getting bored and picking a new thing.
To reduce fulfillment to mere pride, and imply that it is fleeting and pointless, is reductionistic at best, and depressingly pessimistic at worst. The fact that this information exists on Wikipedia does humanity a disservice.
However, they do recover a bit with their page on self-fulfillment here. Definitions on this page include:
- the realizing of one’s deepest desires and capacities
- carrying to fruition one’s deepest desires or one’s worthiest capacities
- the attainment of a satisfying and worthwhile life well lived
These definitions might be getting us somewhere, though two focus on reaching your potential, and the third mentions the corresponding satisfaction, but offers up the ambiguous term “well-lived”. It also offers criticisms from moral philosophers who claim that the term self-fulfillment is an outdated concept because it does not include connection and others in its definition. All good points. That being said, you’d only find this by searching the term “self-fulfillment”; either “fulfillment” or “personal fulfillment” would bring you to considerably less helpful pages.
Next in the line of high-quality sources, we’ll make a quick stop in the dubious world of public forums. If you’re interested, you can read some of the answers here:
The top rated answer does a lot of describing symptoms and methods of fulfillment, but does not present any sort of working definition. This person mentions positivity and visualization techniques, which is interesting and useful. However, they also said that if you start to feel like you’re on the wrong path, you should just ignore those thoughts and emotions and press on anyways, which is advice we consider questionable, to say the least.
There’s also our favorite response: “I have no idea.”
Moving on to the realm of blogs and websites, our first stop is a mirror of Maslow’s hierarchy (which, by the way, isn’t really accurate in the first place – more on that here).
The author is basically claiming that fulfillment is synonymous with “self-actualization”. The author does go on to describe the symptoms of fulfillment quite nicely, such as a deep sense of love and belonging, confidence, and feeling alive. He also states that giving and contribution are the key to maintaining one’s fulfillment, which is a notion worth accounting for in a definition of fulfillment.
Another article from Psychology Today is called “Seeking long-term fulfillment, not happiness, will get you through economic hard times.” With a name like that, we figured it would be a shoo-in for helpful information! On the positive side, the best part of this article was the following quote: “Fulfillment is found by making a difference in the lives of others.” Having impacts and adding value to others’ lives can be an important part of fulfillment.
However, this best attempt was undermined by a sentence that followed shortly after: “Your true merit is measured in how much you’ve mattered to others.” To have a positive impact is an aim we believe is necessary for fulfillment. However that does not mean that the merit of your life is measured purely by your impact and how much others care about us. There are plenty of instances in life when our best efforts are not fully appreciated, no matter how much we try to help. Surely we maintain some control of our destiny and fulfillment, no?
Next up, let’s go to the source of wisdom himself: His Holiness, The Dalai Lama. In an article called “The Seven Point Guide to Self Fulfillment”, the author writes about an interview with the Dalai Lama. According to this author, the Dalai Lama has the following to say about fulfillment:
- The practice of love can be expressed in one sentence: ‘Do not harm others’.
- The true hero is one who conquers his own anger and hatred.
- The point of our existence as human beings is that we live purposeful, meaning lives.
- If we want spiritual development, than the practice of patience is essential.
- We have the ability and the responsibility to choose whether our actions follow a virtuous path or not.
- With inner strength or mental stability we can endure all kinds of adversity
- Love, compassion and concern for others are real sources of happiness.
Once again, there is no clear definition of what fulfillment is, and so this advice, while sincere, loses some of its practicality. That being said, if we read into these seven items, we can infer that fulfillment has something to do with inner peace, mental toughness/inner strength, showing love and compassion for others, being patient, taking responsibility for our actions, and living with purpose and meaning.
If we distill it even further, we can say that fulfillment has something to do with feeling like we have control over ourselves and our lives, enjoying the process, and living with love and compassion. Now it feels like we’re getting somewhere!
Here’s another favorite. While we think things need to be simplified and understood in one’s own personal way, it is rarely appropriate to define a word with the components of the word itself (full, fill) nor a deeply personal reference that includes other novel definitions. As this blogger says: “fulfillment: “Filling your life with the fullness of your true self.” While this counts as a definition, it doesn’t hold much power because it’s meaning and achievement cannot be simply understood or applied.
Finally, one of the best entries we found was called The Short Guide to Finding Fulfillment. In this 4-step guide, the author first makes a point of describing what fulfillment is and what it isn’t. Much like Psychology Today, he keeps fulfillment distinct from happiness or pleasure, yet confines fulfillment to a mere emotion. Unfortunately, he did not take a swing at defining this elusive word, but we think he was one of the closest among the many participants in this discussion. Importantly, this short guide provides steps that include finding and aligning one’s values with life and strategizing a plan.
So, what did we get out of all this?
As we mentioned at the beginning of this article, the discussion of fulfillment is a convoluted mess. Because fulfillment has no consistent, clear, and useful definition, if you were to go seeking out fulfillment via the internet, you’d likely walk away more confused than when you started.8
However, the one thing all these sites have in common is that everyone tries to describe what fulfillment is like, but no one actually defines it. And so, since it needs to be done, it would appear the onus is on us. But before we create our definition of fulfillment, there’s one important thing to note, which is that, clearly, the word fulfillment has been so misappropriated as to render it almost useless. In fact, Amazon now has a service called “Fulfillment by Amazon”. When fulfillment is owned by Amazon, it’s time to either pack it in or pick a new word. Since we’re not going to pack it in, we’ll have to pick a new word. From this point forward, we will no longer be referring to “fulfillment”. Instead, we will talk about thrivelihood.
The word “thrivelihood” suits our needs well. It’s basically never been used, which means it has yet to be misused. It is our fresh start. Further, consider the definitions of the words it is composed of: livelihood and thrive. Livelihood is defined as “a means of securing the necessities of life,” and Thrive is defined as “to grow or develop well or vigorously.”
So, in pursuit of the era of thrivelihood, let’s summarize some of the common themes across these sources.
- Thrivelihood demands having, and executing, through action and growth, a purpose that represents our fullest potential.
- This purpose may vary based on individual values and the meaning we want our lives to have, though many consider some element of love, compassion, and care for others to be necessary.
- Thrivelihood involves not just pursuing and making progress towards this purpose or meaning, but also appreciating the process of pursuit.
- Thrivelihood transcends and includes positive emotions. While thrivelihood definitely evokes positive emotions, having positive emotions does not constitute thrivelihood on its own.
- When experiencing thrivelihood, we may experience inner peace and a deep sense of love and belonging.
Keeping all this in mind, we offer the following definition:
Thrivelihood: “The process of realizing and appreciating a meaningful life through the vigorous pursuit of purposeful growth.”
Thrivelihood is not just an emotion; it is a state and a way of life. It is both the end goal and the process. It is the pursuit and the pinnacle. This is something that was missing from every other definition we encountered.
Let’s break that definition down:
- “The process”: Perhaps most importantly, describing thrivelihood as a process makes it clear that thrivelihood is not something to put on a pedestal and gawk at; it is not a noun or a thing that some of us have and others do not. That which you want to realize, appreciate, give meaning to, pursue, and grow towards is your own decision. This is your process. We are all experiencing thrivelihood in every moment. It is simply a matter of degree.
- “of realizing”: To realize means to make real. This implies that we must have progress, which means we must be in pursuit of something. While the process is important, there is also an ideal state or goal in mind.
- “and appreciating”: An important part of this definition is the necessity that we appreciate our lives and make progress toward the life we desire. We cannot sacrifice the appreciation of our present lives for the promise of future realization. We cannot push our happiness over the cognitive horizon, a concept we will discuss further in coming posts.
- “a meaningful life”: We have purposefully left some very important facets of life out of this definition. This is because the word meaningful represents something different for each of us, and importantly, it may change as our process develops. While we didn’t directly include the concepts of connection or personal impact, these are undoubtedly pieces of every life that wishes to appreciate, contribute, and love.
- “through”: A preposition meaning: continuing in time toward completion of.9
- “the vigorous pursuit of”: This brings the concept of energy and passion into our process. To have directed growth is a necessary component of thrivelihood, but to inject passion and vigor into our time is what allows us to realize our fullest potential.
- “purposeful growth”: Once again, to simply grow is not enough to give our lives meaning. We must have congruence in our beliefs and actions, which is to say, to grow in a way that upholds our values.
There you have it: thrivelihood defined. This definition will allow us to speak of growth with a common vocabulary, which will be critical to our effectiveness. But perhaps most importantly, we got a really sweet mascot out of it.