Trapped by the Search for Significance

Why our search for fulfillment can be an opportunity—and a risk.

I have an insatiable need to feel extraordinary, to be a woman of influence and to leave a mark on the world. Some might say it’s because I grew up as a “third-culture kid,” a global nomad. By that, I mean I’m a blend of two cultures—the daughter of an American mother and an Iranian father. My family traveled the world with my father’s international airline career. I spent time in cities like Rome, Frankfurt, London, Tehran and New York and attended a bilingual, private British school before the age of 10. It’s in my blood—I’m desperate for significance.

Many of my peers—girlfriends, college students and young professionals I have worked among—are feeling the growing itch for significance too. They want to know they matter and that their life has a purpose. They want to help change the world for good, not just watch from the sidelines. I hear it in the way we talk about our dreams and vocational aspirations: “I want to open a shelter for poor and disenfranchised women.” “I want to make movies like Steven Spielberg.” “I want to be a neurosurgeon.” We believe our God-given destiny is where our greatest happiness lies.

Gone are the days when 18-year-olds went off to college to find a spouse, had two or three kids and settled for a predictable life in suburbia. We want to feel like individuals, unique and set apart. Many of us embody a mixture of bohemian and bourgeois ideals, seeking to find our distinguished space in the universe. We like to try new things, and we wouldn’t think twice about moving across the country to do medical research, pursue the big screen, go into politics, help with relief work or teach inner-city kids.

What Drives Us

Perhaps our obsession with celebrities and powerful people also compels us toward celebrity status. After learning our ABCs on Sesame Street, we’re saturated every waking moment by success stories and the lifestyles of the rich and famous. We want to be stars too. We’re a generation desperate for significance. Good or bad, it propels us forward, making us breathless for influence, as we desire to have our voices heard.

When I was a college student, only a handful of students ventured out, despite their parents’ fears, to spend an entire year overseas. Today students are leaving the comforts of home to help change the world en masse. Brave men and women are going off to fight the war in Iraq, heading to Siberia as missionaries, backpacking their way through India as relief workers and teaching English in China. And girls, in particular, are going where they’ve never gone before. And why wouldn’t we? We were bred to believe we can do anything, go anywhere—even if it might cost us our lives. Gender no longer holds us back. But is there a dark side to our drive, our need to achieve, shine and even outdo others?

Measuring Stick

My hunger for significance is rooted in a desperate need to feel valued as a young woman from a broken home with a nominal religious upbringing. Perhaps you’ve felt like you’ve been there, too. Based on my work among college students and young professionals, I will venture to say that the drive for significance in many young women today is rooted in the desperation to feel known and to know that our lives count. We’re not just significance addicts, after all. We’re hoping that if we can keep up with the big boys, then we will be truly worthwhile and interesting.

On another level, my obsession with success is a cry for attention, security and, ultimately, the need for spiritual healing. I need my heavenly Father to show me that I matter to Him. The broken and missing parts still need to be restored. I long for affirmation and validation. When parents don’t tell their children that they love them, they will look for other relationships and experiences to speak to their aching hearts. The significance-shaped vacuum seeks the comfort of the world’s applause.

One of the negative byproducts of living in an affluent society is that I’ll never completely feel significant. Someone will always seem smarter, richer or more beautiful. The media constantly bombards me with the message that I don’t measure up. I always need some new gadget, beauty product or degree to make me feel good about myself. I’m up when I feel skinny like a fashion model, but down when my home doesn’t look like the cover of a Pottery Barn catalog. Up, down. Down, up. My significance barometer can be as erratic as a pogo stick.

Something’s Got to Give

There comes a time in many of our lives—whether we’re single or married with children, 23 or 43—when we instinctively know we’re destined for something great, and when the turning point comes, we seize it with a vengeance.

The dark side of a need for significance is the anxiety and desperation it can suddenly bring to our lives when things don’t turn out as we expect. We can drive ourselves and everyone around us crazy when we fixate furiously on “our plans and goals.” If you’re like me, you want to see results right away. You want instant gratification, and you want everyone to love your ideas, to open doors for you and to treat you like royalty. Sound familiar?

Studies show our generation is prone to perfectionism. Anxiety begins to rear its ugly head in our lives when “we can’t have it all.” We lose our joy when we find that we can’t manage everything—timelines to fulfill, limited finances, baby-sitting needs, a crazy job, homework, kids to take care of and dinner to have ready by 6 p.m.

I’m learning that when I’m faced with the reality that I may not see my dreams fulfilled, or when I feel attacked or disregarded by others who “just don’t get” what I am after, I need to take my feelings to God. Philippians 4:6 says, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” (TNIV).

As I grow in my relationship with God and sense His enduring commitment to me, I see that His plans for me are greater than anything I could have imagined. God hears my cry for significance and whispers, “I put those longings in your heart because I have plans for you. I gave you that voracious hunger for greatness and beauty and purpose because I’m calling you to serve Me and reveal My purpose.” He is a generous and willing Father who tells His children, “Ask me, and I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession” (Psalm 2:8). He tells me that I’m part of His family, “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession” (1 Peter 2:9). As I step out in faith and take hold of the opportunities He gives me, I can trust that He will enable me to leave a lasting influence.  

Shirin Taber is the author of Wanting All the Right Things (RELEVANT Books). This article originally appeared in Radiant.

Top Comments

85,538

gabriellemckver commented…

Thank you so much for this.

My dad died in 2006 from pancreatic cancer. He passed away three months from the date of his diagnosis. It was very quick and my dad was in such immense pain. I was very traumatized by his death. I became terrified that I could die any minute and that I was wasting my life and
have already wasted my life. I wanted to do everything I could possibly do and do it as soon as possible.

Then anything that could go wrong in my life, did. I mean, everything. It would take hours to explain how much as happened to me. In a nutshell, it has been a miserable few years. In fact, a year and a half after my father died, my mother's mother died...from pancreatic cancer. So we had to live through it again.

Anyway, because of all of this, I have lived with my mother. I haven't been able to move out. I did go to school and finish.

Anyway, I started to feel like a failure. I live at home with my mom, I don't have a job, my mom has to pay for my dental work, I don't have a car that works, etc. etc. I had to quit my job to help my mom take care of my dad, and my car was neglected because I had to help my mom, etc. I wasn't lazy. It's just want happened. Life fell apart for me and my mother.

Then I see my brother. He doesn't have to be with my mom when she's crying because she misses our dad. He's not there to try to get our mother out of bed and help her find a job, or help her get the motivation to work and LIVE again. He's in the military, so obviously he can't be with us. However, even when he did spend time with us, he would judge our mother and complain about how we were living, while he was traveling to Australia, etc. He has called me a loser. He has claimed that I haven't done anything with my life.

And I have started to believe him.

Then I reconnected with a girl that I knew when I was a teenager who turned out to be venomous in my life. She told me that I needed to grow up, because I still live with my mom. And all I can think is, "And leave my mother in that big house all by herself?!"

Anyway, I'm so happy that I ignored these idiots, because my mother was suicidal. Deeply suicidal after my father died...and yet people are telling me what to do and how I'm living my life improperly.

Okay, the point of all of this? I feel insignificant. I feel like I've done nothing worthy in my life. I feel like my life is passing me by. Life has improved a little, but a lot is still the same. I have gotten so furious with God for allowing years of my life to be wasted on grief and trials. I cannot even explain that amount of severe psychological pain that I have gone through. And all of it makes me feel like I am nothing. I am worthless. I am boring. While everyone I know is getting married and having children and moving and being a missionary, I am here helping my mother. I firmly believe it is the right thing to do, but at the same time, I feel so insignificant. I mean, people tell me what they're doing for Christ and then they ask me what I'm doing for Christ, I say, "Living with my mom".

No one praises you for that. That is not significant to people. You are overlooked.

85,538

Brian commented…

We are way to concerned with MY purpose, MY lasting influence and MY story. We take scripture out of context to pump ourselves up or reassure ourselves. We are simply blips on the timeline of God's great story. If you flip it around to His purpose, His lasting influence and His story, you should find that it is a privilege to play any small part. The earliest examples of the church in the book of Acts emphasize, not individual purposes and dreams, but common purpose, unity and oneness in His service. Even the stories of individuals, such as Paul and Timothy are ones of sacrifice rather than achievement or personal fulfillment.

26 Comments

85,538

keith commented…

thanks for this, this is great.

85,538

Brian commented…

We are way to concerned with MY purpose, MY lasting influence and MY story. We take scripture out of context to pump ourselves up or reassure ourselves. We are simply blips on the timeline of God's great story. If you flip it around to His purpose, His lasting influence and His story, you should find that it is a privilege to play any small part. The earliest examples of the church in the book of Acts emphasize, not individual purposes and dreams, but common purpose, unity and oneness in His service. Even the stories of individuals, such as Paul and Timothy are ones of sacrifice rather than achievement or personal fulfillment.

85,538

Robert Coss commented…

This was a great article.

I think if we seek for one solitary thing, to know God, we will see the door of significance open wide to us. I think of the apostle John who fell in love with Christ and followed him. He committed himself obeying the Lord's command to make disciples. He felt significance. He said as much when he said, I have no greater joy than this, to hear of my children walking in the truth. 3 John 4

Then there is Paul. Do you hear any regrets in these words spoken at the end of his life? I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith; 8 in the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who have loved His appearing. 2 Tim 4:7-8

85,538

Dbarr commented…

Thanks Dawn. Our significance is wrapped up by the truth that we are created in the image of God. At the risk of over simplifying let me suggest that we find our significance in the pursuit of a growing relationship with our Creator and correctly representing our Creator to the rest of the world who have yet to realize that they are created in God's image also.

Jessica Leep Fick

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Jessica Leep Fick commented…

I resonate with this- it's difficult not to search for significance in being the most unique, creative, articulate....etc. Sometimes I feel like Christian community can even fuel this with a desire for Christian celebrities or who is doing the most cutting edge ministry. Thanks for your thoughts on where and from whom our real significance comes from.

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