The One Exercise to Solve Life’s Biggest Questions

by Alexander Heyne · 25 comments

Lost

“I Have No Clue Which Path to Take”

Every day people email me saying, “I have no clue what path to take, which decision to make, which way to go, or what I should do next…. HELP!?”

The truth is that there is one REALLY easy way to figure it out.

Many of you struggle with something financial or job-related in nature, and then there’s meaning/purpose/passion, and then there’s relationships. So how in the hell do you know which path to take, and what to focus on?

Here’s the formula.

maslow's hierarchy

So this is Maslow’s hierarchy, right?

Maslow was a dude ultimately concerned with “potential” and people “reaching their potential” in life.

“What a man can be, he must be” is a famous phrase he mentions in one of his books. And I know many of you are concerned with that very thing: you feel like you have a HUGE, powerful, exciting adventure or mission out there for you… you just can’t figure out how to make it happen. How to make it a reality.

… So how does this help you know which path to take?

Easy.

Maslow’s hierarchy goes like this: Anytime a human being fulfills the requirement for each stage in the pyramid, he/she naturally craves the next level.

So, generally speaking, starving people in the third world aren’t too concerned about meaning, creativity, and being famous. They just need to eat and survive.

But what happens once they have enough food? Now they go for a career. For advancement. For “security” and financial freedom. They take care of their family.

On and on it goes until that person is living comfortably in the third world wondering about the “ultimate purpose” of his/her life, and climbing the ladder of success and achievement – because that’s simply the next level.

Here’s How to Answer Your Biggest Questions

Here’s how you use this:

Here is Maslow’s hierarchy simplified a bit, to some of the biggest facets of life:

Level 1 – HEALTH

Level 2 – WORK

Level 3 – RELATIONSHIPS

Level 4 – ACHIEVEMENT/ATTAINMENT OF GOALS

Level 5 – MEANING/PURPOSE

So, if you have a bunch of issues like relationships, meaning, health,  only focus on the levels in the order of the pyramid.

If you have a shitty job, wonder about purpose in life, and then also have health issues holding you back… fix the health stuff first (it’s level 1).

Then you can move onto work without having to worry about it.

If you have a horrible job (but your health is fine), and you’re wondering about relationships, big goals, meaning and purpose… don’t focus on any level other than the one you’re on.

Just spend the next year getting a better job, or investing in programs that will help you get a higher salary, figure out what career you love, etc.

Once you are in a job that is secure enough (or that you like), then go onto the next level – finding a fulfilling relationship.

And after that, and only then, focus on meaning and purpose.

Here’s the Big Problem

You can, but should not, move to a higher level without making sure the lower levels are taken care of.

You get into really shitty, tough life circumstances when more than one level has gone haywire. Let me give an example.

A few years back I had a number of health problems that miraculously came out of the blue. Unfortunately, they came in my early 20′s – while I was looking for my first job.

So I had health issues. Job/money issues. Purpose/meaning issues. And I was getting paralyzed because I wanted to fix them all.. and I was working on them all at once, when in reality, I should’ve followed this formula. I should have ignored meaning and purpose for a year or two while I got my health, and then my finances, figured out.

Each level will hold you back if you do not address it. If you are seriously ill, you can’t do anything. Health has to be the foundation. Trying to change jobs or start a business while you have pressing health issues is almost impossible.

Another common situation: Trying to find “purpose and meaning” when you can’t even pay your bills.

Don’t do it. Pay your bills first, otherwise you will put immense pressure on yourself.

I personally know people that have been in the “thinking about purpose and meaning without being able to pay rent” phase… and 40 years later are still there. They were actually stuck at level 1, but they were thinking about level 5 – are you following?

The problem is that they never addressed the fundamental, base, critical levels of the pyramid. It’s almost impossible to address meaning when you can’t even pay your bills or you’re seriously overweight from neglecting your health.

The Easy Fix

I’m amazed at how simple this is, and shocked that more people don’t work this way.

If you have life problems – sort them out into levels based on the hierarchy.

#1 Health ==>

#2 Financial ==>

#3 Relationships ==>

#4 Self-esteem/Goals ==>

#5 Meaning/purpose/spirituality ==>

… And ONLY address them in that order. And fully resolve them.

So for many of you wondering about your passion and what your purpose is in life, start with health.

Is it good? Okay, then move onto financial. Is it messed up? Okay, stay at this level for a year. Just focus on finding a job you like, or a job that pays your bills, or getting in a secure enough position you do not need to worry about it.

This surprisingly simple exercise has saved me dozens of times. Try it and let me know how it goes.

- Alex

P.S. I’m opening up very limited enrollment for some affordable coaching in the next week or two. If you want to ensure you get in and you want info, email me with the subject line: MILK THE PIGEON COACHING.

Image: Freedigitalphotos.net

Struggling to Make Life Meaningful And Don't Know What to do?

Snag my free report "What The Hell Should I Do With My Life?"

My guide will help you figure out:

  • What the hell to do with your life
  • Why life feels so unfulfilling - even though you might have it all
  • Why pursuing success and searching for happiness actually make you less successful and less happy
Just enter your email below:

{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

Daniel January 6, 2014 at 10:55 pm

Yet another amazing and interesting blog post. Thanks Alexander!

Reply

Alexander Heyne January 7, 2014 at 11:45 am

Cheers Daniel! Glad you liked it.

Reply

Elizabeth Goddard January 7, 2014 at 4:01 pm

This post is just kinda offensive…
For starters, I’m sure many people in the developing world care deeply about ‘taking care of their family’, regardless of how much food they have personally. Plus ‘third world’ is a pretty outdated term.
Ok, moving on to the main message. I have a bunch of chronic illnesses (Chronic Fatigue Syndrome/ME and Fibromyalgia, amongst others), which I’ve had for pushing 8 years. I’m only 24. I’ve been ill my entire adult life. It’s kinda offensive to say that I should be working on fixing my health. I spent years doing that, and got nowhere, and was missing out on other stuff in life as a result. Plus you’re also working on the premise that all health issues can be solved, which I strongly dispute. I think we have the right, particularly chronically ill people, to determine how we spend our energies. Trying to ‘get better’ is so excruciatingly draining, and a lot of the world is telling us “if you don’t try X, Y and Z and devote all your energy to getting better then you must not really want to get better”. It’s my right to spend energy on things that make me happy. I’m in a very happy relationship, have good friendships, have just started a business, and am exploring my self-awareness and spirituality at the moment. Sure, sometimes my health does limit me in doing these and I get overwhelmed and pulled in different directions, but if I just spend the next 5-10 years ‘working on’ my health, then I’d not have got to them or be enjoying them. Plus, my happy relationship, good friendships, business and self-awareness actively contribute to my improved health.
Of the list, I’d say I only have health and financial problems. And I can’t just ignore my financial problems to work on my health. My financial problems are because of my health (and I realise that’s what you’re arguing). But can you see where I’m coming from…?

Reply

Alexander Heyne January 8, 2014 at 10:13 am

Hi Elizabeth,

You bring up some good points – I’m just suggesting that health should always be the priority – and yeah, at least with our current medical system not all illnesses can be cured. But people that are very very ill don’t really have a choice – good luck getting someone bed ridden to try and find a fulfilling relationship or job.

It’s all a work in progress.

Reply

Victor January 7, 2014 at 5:20 pm

I wish I had this months ago…

Reply

Alexander Heyne January 8, 2014 at 10:13 am

Haha sorry Victor!

Reply

N. Smith January 7, 2014 at 5:47 pm

Damn. This is good stuff. Your website has quickly become one of my favorites because your perspective is always soooo on target. And needed. Thanks!

Reply

Alexander Heyne January 8, 2014 at 10:01 am

Haha cheers! Glad you liked it.

Reply

Matt January 7, 2014 at 6:09 pm

I struggled with my first few months at my new job, feeling like I had totally sold out to the corporate world.

Then I realized that being broke, unemployed, stressed about student loans, having no insurance to help pay for some overdue medical treatment, etc, wasn’t exactly helping me work towards my ultimate goals either.

Your pyramid is a good reflection of what I was going through then.

Ideally, you’d want a job you were both passionate about and that could help you make the climb. Sometimes you just gotta do something, ANYTHING, to get paid, then think about the next steps.

Thanks for posting this!

Reply

Alexander Heyne January 8, 2014 at 10:15 am

Matt,

100% agree. Even if you don’t stay in the corporate world forever and hate it… who cares? Right now it’s your first step. Especially with loans, money has to become a primary motivating factor unfortunately.

“Ideally, you’d want a job you were both passionate about and that could help you make the climb. Sometimes you just gotta do something, ANYTHING, to get paid, then think about the next steps.” With you there completely! Just do what it takes. And slowly work towards finding something you are more passionate about.

Reply

Christopher Dennis January 8, 2014 at 4:22 am

This post is very insightful – thanks. I’ve always been a big fan of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Your take on this issue is very logical and makes a lot of practical sense. I’ve been looking at my own experience using a similar method of thinking. However, I have found an interesting line of thought that appears frequently in the self-help genre known generally as the ” be, do, have” paradigm, that seems may contradict a sensible application of Maslow. The “be, do, have” paradigm, in simple terms, says the standard approach of thinking that you need to have something (e.g. money), in order to do something else (e.g. travel), in order to be something (e.g. happy, knowledgeable, fulfilled, etc.) is all wrong – we’ve got it backwards. This line of thought proposes ‘being’ what you choose to be at the outset, and the ‘doing’ and subsequent ‘having’ will flow from that. It seems like this system might be at odds with the practical advice that you’ve given (and with how I’ve been looking at my own life). Do you think that the two modes of understanding are mutually exclusive? Both schools of thought have useful things to say about the nature of that all-important first step on the journey of 1000 miles/how to ‘begin’. How do we understand them together?

Reply

Alexander Heyne January 8, 2014 at 1:05 pm

Hi Christopher,

That’s pretty cool – haven’t heard of the model before, but it makes sense. I think you can do it either way – e.g. Buddha kinda ditched the financial word, and left his family, and went for level 5. Some “vagabonds” may also be able to do that. Or sometimes we pursue multiple levels at the same time and it works. E.g. right now I meditate multiple times per day, also work on my business, have a day job, and have a relationship – but my lower tiers are pretty stable.

So I think you could approach it from either way honestly – but for the majority of people in the modern 21st century with jobs, rent, and potentially families, maslow’s approach is a good one.

Reply

Tammy January 8, 2014 at 11:12 am

I have seen Maslow’s hierarchy but never thought of approaching it like that. It does make sense to tackle the lower levels first instead of tackling multiple levels or trying to stretch to higher levels. This makes it easier to focus on one thing at a time and fix it properly.

Maybe that is why so many persons are frustrated. You fix one level then another one breaks down but you ignore it and try to move on which makes things worse. For e.g. persons feel that you should shift to focusing on community service or going out to restaurants when my career and finances needs solving so I cannot concentrate and then feel badly. Hence, if I worry about bills then I cannot truly enjoy time when hanging out because my focus is on another restaurant bill coming in.

Great line “Trying to find “purpose and meaning” when you can’t even pay your bills.” Of course it still means finding a job you love/like to ensure that your health does not become affected. Therefore, I think both health and finances need to be tackled together even if not simultaneously since each one affects the other. Poor finances can lead to bad health while great finances mean enough money to handle various illnesses.

Reply

Bekki January 10, 2014 at 5:55 am

I’m sorry but I don’t think life is that simple. You cant put things into categories and order them and say that they should be completed in that order.
What if you have the relationships sorted and you are working on your self esteem but hate your job and have no career? And what if your self esteem issues at level 4 are holding you back from getting that job you want at level 2? You must solve 4 before 2 then surely.

I think this is just a little outdated, there are so many different things going on and everyone is so very different, it is impossible to even SUGGEST in what order things should be completed.

Reply

Alexander Heyne January 22, 2014 at 1:01 pm

Bekki,

There are of course exceptions to every rule, or every formula, and you brought up good points. Like anything it’s just a suggestion for where to begin.

Reply

rob January 13, 2014 at 1:28 am

What if the decisions you make regarding work/ money and or love and relationships leave you well off but terribly dissatisfied to the extent that you regret many of the decisions you made?

Surely, finding some purpose or meaning gives everything else a reason/place in your life?

Reply

Alexander Heyne January 22, 2014 at 1:00 pm

Hi Rob,

You can definitely look for meaning in anything, you’re right. I would suggest avoiding the situation you mentioned, where your work, money, love and life situation leave you feeling unfulfilled. Sometimes each step of the pyramid means the previous steps need to change a bit.

Reply

Angela January 21, 2014 at 5:47 pm

In your other post, you wrote about a meaningful life. You wrote that first you need to find meaning and purpose and develop a “flow”, and happiness, success, etc. will follow. But in this article, it lists “meaning and purpose” as the last priority. It seems the two posts are contradictory.

Reply

Alexander Heyne January 22, 2014 at 12:48 pm

Hi Angela,

Good point.

What I’m suggesting here is that yes, meaning and happiness are always important and always critical if you can swing it. If you can’t, and you have a lot of stuff on your mind, and a lot to work on, this is the path I would recommend following for minimal stress.

Reply

Laura G. Jones January 27, 2014 at 6:29 pm

Interesting perspective, although I’m not sure I agree with you. First off, happiness comes from the inside – yearning for more on the outside isn’t going to make you happy, no matter how much you achieve. The reason Maslow’s hierarchy is the way it is is because this follows the “craving series” of people. Basically, once they achieve one level, they are not happy until they achieve the other level, but then they are still not happy so they go for the next level, etc.

What we should really get to, in my opinion, is the fact that solving any one of these levels (or all of them) isn’t going to make you happy. There are people who are dying of cancer who are happier than people in perfect health with millions in the bank, and that’s because they have realized that happiness can’t come from something you achieve, it’s a decision you make. It comes from contentment and acceptance, something we continuously ignore in today’s society where all we focus on is “the next big thing.”

Also, health issues will always be there – many people will never be “in perfect health.” There is always more weight to lose, a healthier diet to adhere to, etc. What happens is that we continuously cycle through these stages because we continue to be emotionally hungry for happiness no matter how much we achieve. So we keep going back to our health, our finances, our security, upgrading everything, aiming for more, without realizing that what we are looking for was right there all along.

By the way – you wrote that “you’ll find yourself in the third world” – I’m sure you meant the first world.

Reply

Alexander Heyne January 28, 2014 at 12:55 pm

Hi Laura,

Good points. Some other thoughts:

“First off, happiness comes from the inside – yearning for more on the outside isn’t going to make you happy, no matter how much you achieve.”

This is a great theory – and yes it’s true – but for the majority of humans who aren’t buddhist monks, I think this is significantly harder. It’s much easier to combine internal happiness with external – e.g. if you’re in a bad relationship, leave. If you’re in a horrible job, change it. Would you advise someone who is in a horrible abusive relationship to stay and just “find a way to be happy?” I think it’s a bit more complex.

And you’re spot on that this is the craving cycle. I think sharing it with people was worthwhile though because it helps compartmentalize life a bit to make it more manageable. Many readers are dealing with multiple ongoing issues in life, and sometimes being able to see them all in relationship to eachother can help.

Reply

ThOmas February 20, 2014 at 5:00 am

Classic it’s taken me almost 2 years of failing again and again to decide to take a different course of actions.

I tried to start 2 careers off last year and ended up getting REALLY lonely, my social life became even more of a drought, I was broke and I was in the habit of thinking I can just do more contemplating and more writing exercises to try ‘figure it all out’ on paper (haha) including the meaning of my life… (i.e jumping to “#5 Meaning/purpose/spirituality ==>”)

Didn’t work.

I discovered what I was doing had a name – philosophy (not a much known thing where I’m from). And people past have tried the same ish for thousands of years, with no concrete answer.

That thing of hearing of people who do that ‘figuring out’ shit for years, with nothing to show it is scary, these days I try to rather ‘figure things out…while moving forward’.
Personally I’ve never met anyone like this, but I’ve been to 3 seminars and I saw some people who took them like religion, like the magic bullet was there, boasting in excitement about how they been there before many times.

Become a seminar/self-help junkie in the hopes of eventually ‘figuring it all out’? F*ck that.

Now the difference now is that I cut down the input and decided to be selective of what I choose to consume and I also selected the main ‘theme’ change I’m aiming for in life. The emphasis is just getting some principles accustomed to my life that support the other things that are important to me
Discipline & Consistency. How ? Through doing some important but simple things like
- Sleeping…Consistently
- Morning routine…Discipline
- Getting up and exercising even when I don’t feel like it…(Sometimes I’d be like ‘I’m broke why the eff should I exercise? Because it’s something I can push myself in for free and it’s a good way to challenge myself in doing something *important*)…Discipline which supports the consistency.

That’s the basic idea of how I’m working at it, but it connects the different things I’m choosing to do…which is hard to focus on but it’s better than not sticking to anything with nothing to show for it in the end.
Alex a big challenge in the past for me was, feeling like whatever I chose to work on wasn’t enough. So I think it’s a gratification thing. I used to try implement a couple of new habits a month and by the middle of the next one, I DIDN’T even remember the shit I wanted to do.

But yeah I think you really have to feel the pain& frustration of falling, to ‘get it’ (that ‘okay I need to focus on less things to stick it through’). Now I’m more cautious (it’s tough) to not overwhelm my stuff with a bunch of stuff achieve in a short span of time but – in the end of the year I want to have something to show for my efforts.

I’m currently looking for work and working on habits that will benefit me both long and short term

Cool blog maayne.

Reply

Domitamoro March 2, 2014 at 2:40 am

thank you Alex

Reply

Alexander Heyne March 4, 2014 at 11:00 pm

You’re welcome! :)

Reply

Leave a Comment

{ 1 trackback }

Previous post:

Next post: