by Brad Bollenbach

Long Road to Nowhere

I have learned, that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.

– Henry David Thoreau

We often think of personal growth as being top-down. You start by asking yourself the Big Questions (TM), followed by a moment of clarity which reveals your life purpose, and finally you’re captured by this irresistible drive which launches you into purposeful motion, and everything just falls into place from there.

Unfortunately, real life isn’t always such a Disney movie. The path to growth is less like a railroad, and more like a gravel road…that’s under construction. It’s full of potholes and ditches, the occasional tree planted right in the middle, and some stretches where there is no road at all, and there’s no map telling you where to turn. It’s no wonder that we all feel lost from time to time, wondering what direction we want to take with our lives, debating whether to leave our soul-sucking job, facing the reality of an unhappy relationship, even struggling to find a reason to get out of bed in the morning.

As I wrote about in Finding Your Passion, I advocate relying less on self-interviews and more on taking massive action across a wide variety of domains, using serendipity as a weapon to hunt down the things that interest you. But what if that hasn’t worked yet either? What if you tried a bunch of stuff but haven’t yet found anything that sticks?

Bottom-Up Growth

The top-down approach implies that you have a clear idea of what you want. But self-fulfillment has another another entry point. Bottom-up development focusses on building the framework you need for living a life of purpose. It’s all about installing good habits that are independent of any specific goal. It’s an action plan you can start on this afternoon or this evening, that allows you to do incredibly productive and useful things, even if you’re still unsure about the big picture.

You don’t need to have a grandiose mission statement to figure out that you want to quit smoking or that drinking seven nights a week is unhealthy. By taking a bottom-up approach, you can immediately go from feeling bored and lost to becoming a busy proactivist. Happiness requires a velocity and a direction, the pursuit of a meaningful objective, and we all have a list of personal challenges waiting to be tackled.

There’s all sorts of useful stuff we can do with ourselves that doesn’t require a sixth sense to see, yet these projects can still provide a gratifying source of challenge, inspiration, and meaning in our lives, while the big picture continues to take shape. Here are some suggestions for bottom-up tasks you might find useful and fun, taken from what I’m doing in my own life at the moment:

  • Raise your standards. With whatever you do, ask yourself “Is this the best possible use of my time?” Is this the best possible book I can be reading? Is this the best possible tool I can be using to build a website? Do I need to read this mailing list? Raising your standards is more of a meta-goal, but consciously doing so will improve the quality of both your inputs and outputs. It may also result in ideas for bottom-up projects, like deciding to change your job when you realize that what you’re doing right now is a mediocre application of your skills, or choosing to leave a relationship when you finally acknowledge how much it’s pulling you down.
  • Break an addiction. We’ve all got vices. At any moment, you can choose to command and conquer yours, even though it may require a lot of time and effort to do so. I recently gave up alcohol for 30 days when I realized that, while it was hardly an “addiction”, I was drinking a little too regularly. I ultimately got back into red wine after that, but in a couple-glasses-with-dinner sort of way, which is pretty standard in Montreal. :) And now I actually enjoy it again.
  • Fix your sleep schedule. Figuring out the larger meaning of your existence is hard, but it’s ten times harder when you’re running on fumes. If you want a challenge, set a time in the morning that you want to wake up and commit to it. My own circadian rhythm was a mess until recently. I fixed it this month by committing to waking up every morning at 5:30 AM, and have since noticed a huge energy boost. The difference between sleeping poorly and sleeping well is the difference between Clark Kent and Superman.
  • Go organic. I spent literally years of my life eating at Subway for lunch almost every day of the week. I usually ordered something low-fat, but it was still far from the best food choice. I recently decided to change that. I found an amazing organic food restaurant nearby, and it’s become my new home away from home. They actually make…food there. Learning how to fuel your body using top-quality ingredients, in combination with sleeping better, will give you such an energy advantage over the current You that it’ll almost seem like cheating.
  • Hack reality. Spirituality is about hacking consciousness. Good spirituality, to me, provides tools with which to expand your awareness and renegotiate your contract with reality. It’s not about choosing to adopt someone else’s belief system, it’s about using first-hand experience to find an empowering perspective through which to interact with the world. Two books I highly recommend are The Power of Now and A New Earth.
  • Establish consistency. You’ve probably had those moments where you have goals, but hit points where you feel unsure about your next step. For example, I’ve had moments with 30 sleeps where I wrestle between focussing exclusively on the blog, or scaling back my writing a bit to focus more on the application. In moments like these, it’s important to keep moving forward, and not get paralyzed by indecision. My solution was to commit to three articles per week, between Monday and Sunday, no matter what, for at least 30 days. When you have a goal, but it sometimes gets a little blurry, establishing consistency about some aspect of it will ensure you keep making progress.
  • Become a social adventurer. No matter what your starting point, what day of the week it is, where you live, or what you look like, anyone can become a social adventurer. You don’t need a purpose in life to interact with the people around you. And this process will teach you far more about yourself than even the most brilliant “self-help” book. I’ve written more about this in Social Skydiving and How to Be Adventurous.
  • Write about it. Whether you’re feeling bored with life, or trying to sort your head out after a rough breakup, writing your thoughts down is one of the best ways to clarify them. It won’t necessarily reveal your true purpose overnight, but writing can definitely shed light on areas you can work on right now.

You’ll notice that, even though none of these suggestions necessarily has a direct relationship to your life purpose, they all provide a starting line for forward progress. As you can tell, I’ve found 30-day trials to be an effective vehicle for bottom-up projects as much as for top-down pursuits.

Of course, it’s not hard to generate new leads for things that could use your time and attention right now. Just ask yourself, “What sucks about my life right now?” and let the bug fixing begin.

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  1. D. More says:

    Hi, I always enjoy reading what others have to say about personal development.
    I myself write on a daily basis on anything that has to do with self improvement and I enjoy it tremendously. Personal Growth.

  2. Marni says:

    I’m so grateful to have been led to your blog, Brad. I am down a deep, dark hole right now, and I just needed someone to hand me a spoon. Each of your tasks is a step closer to the light, and offered with such certainty it’s as though the spoon came attached with a ribbon of faith.

  3. nisreen says:

    that was really great bud, im still a highschool student trying to figure out what to do with my life. i have decided to take your advice on life and maybe start with quitting smoking :). your words have given me hope, keep up your good work this meant alot to me and has inspired me. thanks alot for everything though i dont know you i could say you made a difference .

  4. dee says:

    I’m feeling blue to the 2nd power… I probably just got myself fired..from my job…. life kinds sux right now, its like I’m frozen in time… BUT I Greatly appreciate your words… I needed to read this, and I feel a tad bit better.


  5. Building the framework you need for living a life of purpose takes some time to get rid of all the structures we built to get rid of this “purpose”.

    It took me a long time, but I am happy at last.

  6. yogi says:


    Thank youu! my friend

    What you have written is very helpful.

    Bless you!!


  7. brit says:

    im goin to be 31 next weekend n I feel empty. I was a foster kids growin up, from age 5 to 18. was adopted for 3 to 4 yrs but givin back up to the state. I really grew up by myself anyways. I should be use to it by now. the last foster home I was in, the parents have past away. so at this point in time im livin with my foster sister, I lived with her before n when I lived with then it ended badly n im back again. I had friends that used me but I had friends before I got with my x. they all stoped talkin to me cuz I got with him, was good at first had an ok live for bout 3 to 4 yrs. then it can to him brakin up with me for bout a wk out of a month, but every month well after 6 yrs, I called quits n finally left. that how I got here (foster sister house.) now livin here isn’t fun either. she has two kids 13 n 14 n I feel they have no responsibility, or punished when they do wrong, nothing. their 14 daughter sits in her room all day on the computer, their 13 yr old son does nothing. yes he has disabilities n I understand, I have disabilities to, but man everything he does, oo its cuz of “this” disability n he does “this” cuz of this disability, not everything this kids does has nothing to do with his disabilities, cant take it anymore. her son has 4-5yr old fits, cuz he don’t get what he wants, hits his parents, beats full fists on his sister cuz she has more done on a internet game than he does, yells at everyone, swears at them, grr. just want to pull my hair out just writing it down. both are disrespectful to everyone.
    me, I don’t go no were, cuz im not good enough, but to walmart once a month n I feel its only cuz I buy her dogs dog food for her, n I take care of him 95% of the time, kids wont do itunless they want something. don’t really have friends, but a couple but still debating on if their real or not. I don’t have a car cuz mentally, im a lil slow, don’t dare to drive cuz im afraid I wont be fast enough to step on the brake, n I live out of town (here), so I have to get rides from others for now.
    anyways I want out, I want to meet people, tho im nervous to meet people but I need to. I gotta brake free of that. with the president upping everything n taken “this” n “that” away, I cant even get my own place to live cuz I don’t get enough money to do it myself. I know I really need a life but its hard to do so when when I have no one n nothing.
    I would like to donate but im broke rite now but ill check back, n when I do ill do it then I only get money once a month so I gotta wait. sorry

  8. brit says:

    im sorry if mine is so long but im the type to bottle everything in cuz no one round here cares how I feel. they get pissed off at me when I share my feeling n when it gotta come out I cant stop. I know I gotta change my own life. I just don’t know were to start…sigh sorry again for it being so long

  9. brit says:

    wow! just reading what I wrote my adhd/add is real noticeable. holy! im all over the place.

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