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“If you are waiting for anything in order to live and love without holding back, then you suffer.”
The word fulfilment is embedded in everyday language. Maybe we express a wish for fulfilling relationships, fulfilling work, or even big-picture life fulfilment.
But as with any abstract concept, I find it easy to lose sight of the wood for the trees. I forget to ask a pertinent question: what does fulfilment really mean to me?
It’s a difficult question to answer. Not only because I’m impatient, but also because I struggle to nail down an accurate picture of what fulfilment truly is. In this article, I explore fulfilment through this lens, taking three myths and using them to expose its essential nature.
Myth 1: Fulfilment lies out there
For much of my life, the focus has been staying busy, achieving, and operating from doing mode. Given my training as a doctor, this isn’t surprising; almost every day on the wards demanded that I acted from a place of urgency.
But outside work, I brought this same mentality along for the ride. I monopolised my own downtime in the name of personal growth and self-improvement, using every spare moment to plan my future, become ‘well-read’, or strive for greater accomplishment in my hobbies.
While there’s nothing wrong with these activities, my relationship to them wasn’t healthy. I wasn’t learning, creating and thinking for their own reward. Rather, I was labouring under the weight of my obsessions, expectations and strivings.
I now see I was falling for the first myth (and I still frequently do). Such is the power of the following illusion: that fulfilment is somewhere out there, somewhere in the future, tied to what I do in order to get it.
The reality, which is quite freeing, is that fulfilment is an internal state.
When I’m feeling fulfilled, it’s because my body is basking in the warm glow of positive states such as connection, gratitude and serenity. Granted, something in the outside world may have triggered those feelings. But the true source is still internal and it always will be.
This is liberating because in a sense, my body is a compass. So long as I choose to read it carefully, I can make fulfilment available in my life every day. This leads onto the second myth.
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Myth 2: Fulfilment is a grind
How many times have you heard the following cliché? Man climbs to the executive C-suite after decades of toil. He becomes staggeringly wealthy. But in parallel with his success, he feels increasingly empty inside.
It’s a tragic archetype of modern society. We’re conditioned to think that happiness is contingent on our ability to pain and suffering. Never mind that our most treasured relationships, our health, our core values and even our sense of self often get trampled underfoot.
Fulfilment is much broader than what we achieve in a single sphere of life. In medical school, I regularly prioritised study above my personal life. This wasn’t out of love for the subject, but out of a compulsive sense of duty. After years of hustle and grind, I qualified as a doctor, but it didn’t take long for my dissatisfaction to sink in. This left me feeling confused; wasn’t I supposed to be in my element? Hadn’t I worked hard for this?
Is it really surprising I couldn’t enjoy the destination when it was traded for years of joyless work? I had given up my day-to-day fulfilment, holding out for a future emotional payoff that never came.
Long before, I’d been seduced by a dangerous idea: that work is suffering. If my path doesn’t involve some hefty sacrifice, it can’t be right – so I went the route of martyrdom, for which I was subtly validated. At the same time, I also abandoned routes based on authentic joy.
When I decided to leave medicine years later, I came to realise something which was revolutionary to me at the time: I have the power to create fulfilment every day. I appreciated this to be an issue of basic self-worth; did I believe I deserved to be happy on most days? If not, what could reasonably be a higher priority?
I think the antidote to the ‘hustle and grind’ myth is realising that we can bake fulfilment into each day by selecting the things we do, or don’t do, very mindfully.
Staying with this simple idea meant reorienting my career, but it also led to small yet impactful changes in how I structure my free time. When I started reading my body more carefully, I noticed that activities like being in nature, practising tai chi and flexing my creativity all reliably engender peaceful, contented feelings in me.
Reflect on this for yourself. Which actions are likeliest to stimulate fulfilment within you? Which actions diminish your joy?
This isn’t about letting go of future-oriented striving. Engaging with that might be fulfilling too. It also isn’t about trying to feel fulfilled 100% of the time, which is neither possible nor desirable. This leads to the third and final myth.
Myth 3: Fulfilment means no more trouble
We can trace the word fulfilment back to the Old English term fullfyllan, literally meaning ‘to fill up, make full’.
This creates a further misunderstanding, namely that fulfilment is a case of filling ourselves up for good and saying adios to our problems. Understandably, it’s an alluring prospect.
When I forget that fulfilment is essentially a constellation of feelings, I also forget that like all other states, it is transient. Fulfilment waxes and wanes, sometimes in a short space of time. Ironically, it’s the lack of acceptance about this which creates the most ‘trouble’.
Even in my most blissful moments of purposeful work, artistic triumph and deep connection, I can often detect an underlying sense of grasping. It’s natural to want to cling onto good feelings. I know they’ll fade, and I don’t want that to happen. But grasping only amplifies the pain.
I’m learning to swallow this bitter medicine. It’s starting to hit home that nobody has a perfect day every day. It just isn’t in the realm of reality.
Even more importantly, my nature as a human being is far more expansive than what I feel in each passing moment. Whether I feel elated, deflated, fulfilled or empty, I know there is an eternal reservoir of deep stillness within. From this intelligent place, I can recognise that passing stories, feelings and sensations cannot take away the wellbeing that resides in my core.
So when I fall prey to the illusion that fulfilment will set me up for an eternally peaceful, trouble-free existence, I remember that eternal peace is already my essential nature. I invite you look within and entertain this possibility for yourself.
That concludes my exploration of fulfilment. I recognise how subjective this all is, so don’t let my views become another conceptual prison.
That said, I hope these three myths have prompted you to consider fulfilment from new angles, while reflecting on what you’d love to create in your own life. What does fulfilment mean to you?