What the Heck is "Fulfullment," Anyway?

At Motivational Millennial, we are big advocates of the value and possibility of living a fulfilling life. We don’t believe it is a pipe dream, or only for “some people,” or just some buzzword that personal development folks use.

But truthfully, that’s how the concept of “fulfillment” can come across, right? Like that’s all it is…a concept, and an abstract one at that. So I thought it would be good to break it down a bit and share what fulfillment is and what it can look like in your life.

First, fulfillment isn’t a goal that you reach or some permanent state that once achieved will always be present. It is a process, an orientation, an ever-changing experience of life. Living a fulfilling life is all about how you approach life itself.

Here is what the process looks like:

Step 1: Discover Your Values

First, it is important here to make a distinction between values and morals. Morals are agreements or decisions made by your culture and are often unwritten. Values are completely unique to each individual. They are what drive us. They are our “DNA” and how we make meaning of the world. They are so unique to each person that even two individuals with the same value, for example “security,” may take this to mean two totally different things. One may mean financial security and other emotional security. Then each of those distinctions can be fleshed out even further for more unique possibilities.

These nuances are interesting because whenever I do a values assessment with a coachee, they often feel like it will be a really obvious process. I know I felt that way when I did my first assessment, and in some ways it is fairly straightforward. If I ask you “What are your values?” you may name a few off the top of your head. The first that comes to mind for me is “personal growth.” This is an obvious value of mine because it is the lens through which I see the world.

However, there are some values we hold that are under the surface, or that are so intrinsic we take them for granted. Or, to complicate things further, we may hold values that aren’t even really OUR values, but those of our society, our culture, or our family.

This is why the process of naming, understanding, and refining your values is such an important experience and can take some time. For example, it took me years to finally understand that I have a value around “novelty” or “newness.” When I combined that with my value around learning, I understood why I have explored so many different hobbies and often don’t finish books I start reading. Once I understood that value and how it comes to play in my life, I was able to release the shame I had around not “just sticking to something” (which was a societal value I had adopted about what it means to be productive). Now I just let myself enjoy new things until I am satiated, and I find I actually read more than I ever did before. I am so much more fulfilled.

Step 2: Take Actions That Honor Your Values

Once you begin understanding the values that are true to you, it is time to begin living life in alignment with those values. This is what fulfillment is really all about: taking actions that honor your values and creating a life that allows you to do so.

Here’s what it can look like: Whenever you are struggling with a decision, ask yourself, “What values am I honoring with this choice? What values am I sacrificing?” Or you can do an inventory of your life and see which values are being honored, which are being ignored, and brainstorm how to bring more balance into your life.

The actions you take to honor your values can be big or small, because by simply acting you are creating more fulfillment. Take note, however, that our values aren’t stationary and they aren’t black and white. You may have values that seem to conflict (e.g. productivity and relaxation), and the values you prioritize may change throughout the different stages of your life.

One other thing to keep in mind is that fulfillment doesn’t always equal happiness. Fulfillment is about richness and depth of life. It is about being who you truly are for this world and honoring yourself like never before. For example, if “family” is one of your highest values, then taking care of an ailing parent may result in a more fulfillment, but not necessarily more joy. Ultimately, you will feel more in alignment with your true self if you stay to care for your parent than if you left to do anything else, even if that option may seem more “fun” on the surface.

As you can probably tell, this is truly on ongoing process. This is why we say that fulfillment is not a state of permanence that we reach, but a way to approach life.

Step 3: Reflect on Your Growth and Your Experience of Honoring Your Values

One of the elements we don’t always think about is the way we must grow in order to live a fulfilling life. As I mentioned, honoring our values is really about honoring ourselves, which can be a difficult task. Although society or cultures may make us feel this way, there is no grand hierarchy of values. Therefore, personal growth occurs when we begin to honor values we never knew we had or that we thought were “bad” or “unimportant” in some way.

There are many reasons we may have negative perceptions around certain values, but it isn’t until we take honest stock of what we truly value that we can live a fulfilling life. We have to release guilt or shame or “shoulds” around certain values so we can focus on what really makes us come alive.

Here is a hypothetical example of this: Sandra discovered that she values prestige and achievement. Even though her parents want her to start a family as soon as possible, she would really rather focus on building her career. In fact, Sandra is unsure she wants to have children at all, but feels society will question her for that choice. Once Sandra releases guilt about this societal value, she we will be able to enjoy her life in a richer, fuller way.

Here is another example: Jessica discovered that her top priority is the value of family and she really wants to stay home with her children rather give that time to work. She feels that society looks down on stay-at-home moms, so she has a part-time job she doesn’t really enjoy just so she doesn’t have to keep answering the question, “What do you do all day?” Once Jessica releases any shame she may feel around these outside expectations, she can get down to the business of enjoying her fulfilling life.

When I write it out like that it seems so simple, right? (Other than the obvious societal double-bind that women face on the regular, but we can save that discussion for another post, lol.) Each woman has accomplished Step 1, which is discovering what their true values are, but Step 2 is where things can really get challenging.

There is so much more to honoring our values than just taking action (although that is a big part of it). We have to understand what the experience of honoring our values is like for us. Is it scary, difficult, exciting, invigorating? This will help us overcome challenges that arise and allow us to freely honor our true values.

Step 4: Rinse and Repeat

Fulfillment is an ongoing process, but after you get started it gets easier and easier. Once you overcome one external pressure or expectation it becomes easier to overcome others in service of living a fulfilling life. It’s just like building a muscle, and every day becomes richer and richer. And when things seem out of balance or a big change happens in your life, it’s time to take another inventory and see where you are. What values are now taking priority? What do you need more or less of in your life?

It is a journey, but with an orientation of fulfillment it will make your experience all the richer and more valuable.

P.S. I'd like to give a big shout-out to Co-Active Coaching - the book, the model, and the training - for giving me the tools to understand "fulfillment" in a whole new way.