First published on Happify.
When my four children were little, we spent a good part of one summer break creating vision boards. A decade or so later, I found the four boards up in the attic, stacked alongside school projects from years ago and old furniture they’d outgrown. As I brushed the dust off the boards to reveal the collages they’d assembled, beginning to relive the sweet memory of that summer, I wondered whether their childhood dreams were now as outdated as the rest of the things in the room.
The lives my children are now living don’t bear much resemblance to the magazine cutouts they’d meticulously pasted on the wooden boards. And I began to wonder about the words they’d written with squiggly pens and adorned in glitter: joy, laughter, peace. Has the world betrayed their childhood trust?
Finding Your Authentic Self in Adulthood
Growing up is a strange journey that follows a predictable pattern, at least in the first few decades of our lives. It’s a stage dedicated mostly to growing older, learning the ways of the world, adapting to it, surviving through it, and making a place for ourselves in it.
For some of us, this stage continues all the way to the end. For others, the cognitive journey of growing older takes a back seat to the spiritual journey of growing up. The catalyst may be anything that moves you deep within: heartbreak, seeing something in yourself you never knew existed, or something in nature that takes your breath away. It could be a job loss, or achieving success and realizing it didn’t bring you the fulfillment you sought.
That’s when you may begin to realize that the life you’re living is not the one you were born to live. It’s the feeling of inauthenticity, of not being true to yourself, of being a fish out of water. When that feeling strikes, you’re being called to take the deep dive within, to find what truly brings you joy, and to express it in a world that needs the real you to flourish.
Vision boards can be hugely helpful in this internal journey. But creating a vision board as an adult, unlike in childhood, requires more time because we’re likely to be far less connected with what truly brings us joy and makes us come alive. We’ve spent decades in a world that tries hard to remake us in its own image, and its guideposts, along with our own fears of judgment and rejection, can cloud our vision of success.
How to Go from Vision to Reality
The three-step process below can help you not only connect inward but also live with integrity. As Franciscan friar Richard Rohr writes in his book Falling Upward, these are the two parts of the spiritual journey: finding yourself, and then expressing yourself in the world.
Step 1: What Do I Want?
Project yourself five to 10 years from now and imagine the life you’d be living if everything went your way. Stepping into the future allows you to disconnect with the fears and challenges of the present moment. If your mind veers toward asking how this future life for you came to be, gently redirect it back to focusing on just that best-future vision. We’ll figure out the how once you’re clear on the what.
Here are a few questions that can help:
- What brings me joy?
- How would I define success in my life?
- What would I regret not doing or not being?
- What does my ideal day look like?
You can also do this exercise concentrating on a particular area of your life, like your professional vision or your ideal relationship. If you find your ideals being colored by external measures of success, ask yourself, Is this what I truly want? Would I be happy in my life if I had this? Because the greatest measure of success is happiness.
Step 2: How Will I Get There?
Now that you have a what, it’s time to turn your attention to the how. But unlike what we commonly believe, a how is not necessarily working back from a goal to steps we can take toward the next milestone. This used to work well when the world was more in our control, and still works for goals that are clear and tangible, like moving homes or making a major purchase.
But soulful goals are different because the outcome is your unlimited potential. Your vision serves as a North Star, not a destination. As such, you’re guided by a compass and not a plan. Your compass, like your vision, is internal—you listen to your bodily sensations and to what feels right. You’re connected to your intuition because it scans the environment for opportunities.
Putting your head down and following a plan not only blinds you to these opportunities but also proves to be a bad strategy in a world as uncertain and chaotic as ours.
Here are a few questions that can help:
- What’s important right now?
- What’s one thing I need to remember?
- Who will I reach out to?
- Where is my joy leading me?
Step 3: What Will I Focus On?
While the journey toward your vision must be flexible and adaptive to the world around you, you do need to put a structure in place that keeps you grounded in what’s important. This means doing small things every day that are consistent with your vision.
They can be related to your areas of growth. For example, you may need to strengthen your muscle of empathy because you tend to be judgmental of people. How will you do that every day?
They can also be small things that help you feel alive and joyful every day. As the author Joseph Campbell teaches, each of us is not only the light we’re here to shine but also the bulb through which this light will project itself.
Taking care of your physical, emotional, and mental health is absolutely important, because if there’s no “me,” there’s no mission.
Here are questions that can help:
- Am I sleeping soundly, moving enough, and eating well?
- Are my thoughts positive, uplifting, and hopeful?
- Have I created structures in my day that help me do my best work?
- Am I consistent in living by my dreams in small ways every day?
Consistency has power. It not only gives your life meaning but also becomes the stuff of the legacy you leave behind. “How we spend our days is of course how we spend our lives,” writes author Annie Dillard in her book The Writing Life. There’s nothing trivial about the small ways in which you live in alignment with yourself.