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Illustration by Chanelle Nibbelink

Over the years, every self-improvement personality, book, article, and podcast has challenged me to find my “why.” The elusive reason behind your success and general outlook on the world. The thing that gets you up in the morning or keeps you staring at the ceiling all night driving you to do, build, accomplish.

The pressure to name this reason is the beginning of every influencer, magnate, or mentors story – “it was a Tuesday, in the grocery store, looking at the goat cheese, when like a lighten bolt it hit me, my ‘why,’ finally defined.”

You read countless stories about how this realization then catapults them to the success you see in front of you because they found, and could finally name, their reason.

Imagine the frustration and sheer fear that I couldn’t find mine. When I listened or read about these people I admired and they told me – first and most importantly find your “why,” find your life. How could these trusted and beloved personalities in my life do this to me? How could they imply that because I couldn’t name something that my life would not be my vision of success and happiness?

So the absence of my “why” became it. Finding it (the why) became the thing that kept me up at night, at the edge of my mind always taunting me, just out of grasp. This wasn’t something I could share with the other women in my life. I assumed that they knew their reason for building a life that they adored. They had obviously found it, written it in it their journey, and had begun fulfilling it.

What a disappointment I would be if they knew I was out in the world without an end point. Without that thing – be it a person, place, life motto, the list goes on – to guide my every turn of life. How could I tell them that the advice I had offered over the years was simply a best guess because I myself was completely unmoored without a “why” to keep me warm at night.

So, I drove deeper into the concept of the “why” – reading more, listening harder, searching more far flung. Surely I could make a list of things to do to find this. A list I could point to and neatly check off to define an original, ground breaking raison d’être. I was after all a success in my own right, wasn’t I? I was building a career, healthy relationships, a cute wardrobe, with a little mad money every pay cheque. Could just existing be my “why?” Had I been able to transcend beyond these lifestyle books and outsmart the concept of having to define why I moved forward?

What a relief it would be to explain that despite not be able to define a reason, after decades searching, that I didn’t need to. I was moving forward without such things, yet at night, it was missing and I knew it.

Over the years, I had thought that the right job, partner, body type, network, those were the missing pieces to my happiness. If I could only make these things fit it would all work out, like it was for the people I admired, both in my real life and the ones from the books, screens and magazines. But it was this “reason” that was missing, that I couldn’t put my finger on, the definition of myself that was impossible to put to words.

Then my mother died. And all at once I completely understood and lost my “why” in a matter of moments.

I know what you are thinking – another one to add to the list of people who found their “why” and now are magically healed. Not the case. I finally put the label of what I thought was a “why” on the relationship and person that defined it, but was too late. The thing I had been searching for was gone, leaving me with only the lessons from the past, with the lens of today and hindsight.

My “why” doesn’t have the happy ending that the magazines told me it would to live that idealized life between their pages. Once I found the words for this profound piece of myself, I had lost not it, but her. My Mother unknown, to both of us, had been that force my whole life. Making her proud made things real.

So the stress, fear and feeling of unrest returns to my world. Now the absence of my “why” is not just a concept but a person. Someone I knew, could count on, and adored. How do you replace that? Can a “why” be a ghost of that person you lost? I don’t know and I doubt that the self-improvement gurus do either.

Instead I’m beginning the journey to not define but to simply live with a wider “why.” Not putting it in one box to check off, but adding to it each day as I struggle to redefine my success, happiness and outlook in that moment without her.

I can’t build another 36 years of life worrying that my definition of it can’t be put to paper when I know it’s gone. Is this what the literature tells me to do? No. It is going to work every day? No. Is it the only way I see forward at this moment in time? Yes, I think.

It is both powerful and heartbreaking to find your “why.” Once you do, what’s left to search for, to move toward, to build? Imagine, not trying to find a “why” but to live it. Simply free of the concept that finding it is the start of your success, happiness and a life well lived, but instead to know that you are in it every day. Accepting that you are not something that can be defined by this thing but that defines it. Imagine what you could do with the heartbreak of finding a “why” and losing it. Imagine that drive.

Rachel MacLeod lives in Toronto.

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