Finding Your Role In Life as a Man

We’ve all heard about the ways that young men are struggling in the world today. 

The volume of dysfunction, disillusionment, and inability to find meaning in life is one of the biggest hurdles that modern men have to face.

But how have we gotten so far off track? 

How did older generations of men seem to have life more figured out and able to cope with life’s challenges?

What has caused this inability to function well, to be healthy, and to live a happy life?

This is something I have been thinking a lot about recently and trying to figure out for myself. As a man in my mid-40s, I have had my share of failure, frustration, and a sense of uncertainty.

In this article, I want to explore this topic and look at what I believe is a core reason why so many men in their 40s, 30s, and 20s have seemingly lost their way. 

Obviously, there is no right or wrong way to live your life. But for the most part, all of us want to be happy and fulfilled and feel like our time was spent on something worthwhile.

I also want to acknowledge that many women are also struggling in the same way and have their own unique set of challenges and obstacles. 

Modern men are facing a crisis of identity and meaning. Despite an abundance of opportunities, options, and the freedom to be whomever we want to be, the majority of men are struggling to find themselves and their path in life.

What could be the cause?

The Purpose Void

Recently I was reading the book ‘The Boy Crisis’ by Warren Farrel. Warren is one of the earliest writers and researchers on the struggles that men face in growing and developing themselves.

In the book foreword, he said something that made me stop and think deeply:

“When grandpa grew up, masculinity came with a built-in sense of purpose of being the provider-protector. Today there is a purpose void.”

Those two words, ‘purpose void,’ stood out to me. 

It explained exactly how I felt for much of my adult life as a man. I was always trying to find happiness, seeking the next form of fun or entertainment and indulging in pleasure. 

But what was always missing was a sense of true purpose.

Even though I lived a high quality of life and had all my needs met, there was still a deeper desire for my life to have some significance beyond the everyday.

And I’m guessing, if you’ve read this far, that you felt this way too.

The Loss of a Role

We often hear that young men need role models and people to look up to. It’s been proven that young men who grow up without the influence of adult males will often have development problems and struggle more. 

But I think that is only half the problem.

While it can be extremely beneficial to have strong male examples around us to show us how to think and behave, very often, we are still not sure what to do.

We aren’t given a direction or a map, or even a specific task to undertake. 

I recall my Dad telling me at the age of sixteen that I better ‘figure out’ what I wanted to do with my life and feeling overwhelmed and terrified.

The ‘Good Old Days’ of Men

As a boy who grew up in the 1980s and into a teenager in the 1990s, I saw some of these traditionally male roles in place in my family. 

Both my fathers and grandfathers worked hard, paid for the roof over their family’s heads, and put food on the table. But they did little else. 

The men in my family didn’t help with raising kids, doing household chores, or even getting involved in family business. If they weren’t busy working, there wasn’t much else to them. 

As my grandfathers both retired, they underwent a significant change. They became softer, lower energy, and didn’t seem like they were enjoying life. 

What I didn’t realize back then was that by retiring from work, both my grandparents lost their role in life. 

And with this loss, they also lost their power, their sense of purpose, and their zest for life. 

In a sense, without their role, they were just waiting around to die.

The Paradox of Life Choices

Unlike the men from our father’s and grandfather’s eras, men today have unlimited choices in what they want to be and how they want to live.

We aren’t tied into the traditional roles and archetypes or criticized if we choose something different than the conventional. We’re applauded if we decide to be an individual, and thanks to 

the internet, we can learn anything we want to.

However, having an open slate of unlimited life choices causes us a big problem.

In the seminal psychology book The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz explains that when we are faced with too many choices, it can be hard to make one.

“Learning to choose is hard. Learning to choose well is harder. And learning to choose well in a world of unlimited possibilities is harder still, perhaps too hard.” 

In the past, men didn’t have the choices we have today. Instead, they were forced into a conventional or traditional model. 

But despite the restrictiveness, older generations of men did have a clear sense of purpose.

Their limited options gave them a sense of role. They were breadwinners. They were leaders of the household. They were providers. 

Today, men aren’t anything. 

We’re just people who go to work to earn money, try to experience as much of life as we can, and not cause too much trouble.

As Warren Farrel explained, modern men today are living in a purpose void. 

The Psychology of Life Purpose

Modern scientific research on human purpose had its origins in an unlikely place. While a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp, Viennese psychologist Viktor Frankl noticed that his fellow prisoners who had a sense of purpose showed greater resilience. They could withstand torture and slave labor and stay alive on starvation rations.

Writing of his experiences, Dr. Frankl used a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche to explain this incredible inner strength and resilience. 

“Those who have a ‘why’ to live can bear almost any ‘how.’’

Frankl’s book ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ sparked an entire movement of new psychology termed Logotherapy. The core belief of Logotherapy is that the search for meaning – even while facing misery – can become a solution to human suffering.

Michael Steger, a researcher from the University of Colorado, explains in his paper Making Meaning in Life that to create meaning in life, people must have ‘the ability to make sense of and understand one’s life, including one’s self, the external world, and how one fits with and operates within the world.’

In another psychology study, Steger and Martela share that there are likely three components to finding meaning in life.

  • Coherence – the actions and choices of our life ‘making sense.’
  • Purpose – a sense of goals, aims, and direction in life. 
  • Significance – experiencing life’s inherent value and having a ‘life worth living.’ 

I believe these three components are worth looking at in our own lives from time to time. As our lives evolve and change, it’s essential to see that these three elements of coherence, purpose, and significance still exist. And, if, for some reason, they are lacking, we must find them for ourselves once again.

The Rise of Virtual Roles

One thing that has always fascinated me is how many men love video games. Almost 60% of all video game players are male, compared with just over 40% being women. 

I believe the attraction to video games for adult men is that they create a role to play. In a video game, you become a protagonist with a path to follow, a mission, a quest, and a purpose. 

The challenge and learning required to play video games are part of the fun, but the greater enjoyment comes from the fact you have a clear role.  

I believe this is the same reason men love sports. Men identify with the players of the game in their favorite sport, and supporting a team or individual gives them a purpose and focus. 

Similarly, this is why some men are obsessed with becoming successful, famous, or influential.

It gives them a role and a purpose to lean into.

These virtual roles and life goals all fill the purpose void, but only on a superficial level. After we finish the game or reach the goal, we still feel a sense of emptiness. 

This is not to say that leisure and tangible goals are not a worthwhile part of life, but only focusing on them will cause a sense of malaise and discontent that you can’t escape.

Discovering Your Life Role

Obviously, there is no perfect way to determine how to find purpose and role in your life, but these are some interesting starting points. 

In the rest of this article, I want to share some ideas that I have learned both through experience and study that have helped me to discover my role and more meaning in life.

Only You Can Choose

Perhaps the most critical aspect of finding meaning in life is that you (and only you) can choose it. 

We often look to others to try to find direction and advice, but ultimately, we have to decide for ourselves.

If you decide on a life path that is suggested by your family, your peers, or even society, you will find over time that you begin to lose motivation. 

Living another person’s version of your life is not fulfilling and will lead you to feel empty. You may even feel resentful at some stage because you’re not really living the life you truly want.

For this reason, you have to listen to yourself and know that the answers are within you.

Your Role is Self Appointed

Men often wait for other people in their lives to tell them when they can do, be, or have something. 

We wait in school to be told when we pass tests or graduate. We wait for bosses to tell us when we are promoted. 

We wait for friends and family to tell us what to do and how to live.

But at some point, we must choose. We must look for the answers inside ourselves.

When we find a role that we want to play, no matter if it matches the norms that surround us or not, we have to choose to take it on.

You Already Have An Inkling

When deciding on our role in life, we have to look for something that interests us. Something that we believe in, that we want to contribute to.

This area of interest and passion becomes our role in life and defines our purpose.

The chances are you already have an inkling about what it is you want to do.

You have always had a calling or interest in some area. But maybe you haven’t pursued it because of the fear of ridicule or judgment from others. Or because you don’t think you have the ability to do it.

Choosing a role in life doesn’t mean we have to announce it to the world in some dramatic fashion, but we have to start taking action.

Even the action of learning more about a particular vocation, passion, or activity means we are moving closer to having a role in life.

Your Role Evolves

The final step here is to realize that as you change and grow, your role evolves. At a younger age, men may take on the role of a brother, son, nephew, friend, or member of a team or group. As we grow older, we may become a boyfriend, partner, husband, father, uncle, and eventually grandparent. At work, we may be a colleague, a supervisor, a manager, a leader, or an entrepreneur.

The main point to remember is that your role in life is not constant or fixed. It evolves as you make new choices and take on different responsibilities.

As your identity shifts, so do the ways your role is part of your life.

The key is to embrace the change and allow your role to adapt as you grow.

Let Your Life Roles Guide You

Without a role, we feel listless, disengaged, and lost.

With a role, we feel directed, confident, and like we are contributing.

Avoiding the big questions about the meaning of our lives is one of the reasons that so many men feel listless and empty today. It is only when we take the time to understand our own life roles and the purpose we want to fulfill that we begin to become fully engaged with life.

It can be scary to make a choice and give yourself a life role, but it is even more terrifying to live a life of uncertainty and purposelessness.

The key is to listen to your inner compass and let the life roles you believe you want to take on guide your action.

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