Have you fallen for one of the biggest lies surrounding meaning and purpose?
Over the last year, I noticed something interesting happening. More and more people were coming to my events and saying things like “since the pandemic started, I don’t know who I am anymore”. They may have lost their jobs; for some, their usual routine had been thrown off so much that they didn’t have a clue who they were any more without their usual routines.
More and more friends are also telling me they feel a gnawing anxiety in their bones, which usually leads to the questions who am I, and what am I doing with my life? What should I do? What is my purpose?
Have you felt as if none of the jobs you do really ‘stick’? Does it bother you that there is no specific career path that really excites you or calls to you, or that your ideal life is made up of things that don’t seem to bring in any money?
You probably know a few people who have always known what they wanted to do with their lives. There are some people who seem born to become doctors; others who decide from a young age that they want to work to preserve marine life, and they just seem to go for it and make it happen. But I’m sure you also know people who are racked with confusion and anxiety over who they are and what they are doing with their life. Maybe you are one of those people. In that case, you may want to read on.
Where do we get our ideas about “purpose”?
From a young age, we are pressured with the question — what do you want to be when you grow up?
When we respond with things like “I want to be a TREE!”, the adults laugh, tell us not to be silly, and point us to specific, cookie-cutter jobs. Of course, the jobs we choose are usually exciting and glamorous — doctor, astronaut, ballerina. Having no idea of what our future selves will want, we usually pick our answers based on characters in books, people we know and are impressed by, or things that sound fun. I don’t know any children who dream of becoming a recruiter or chartered accountant (no offense if this is your calling).
As we grow up, being constantly steered into choosing our subjects and locking ourselves into a career path from a young age, the idea is drilled into our heads over and over again — who you become when you grow up = your job or profession.
It is hardly surprising, then, that those of us who don’t feel a strong, unshakeable certainty around what we want to “do” (read: what job we want to have) end up feeling as if we are somehow broken. On top of that, it seems that society shames people who jump from job to job — we may be accused of being hippies, drifters, wasters, even losers. Many of us internalise this and start to think we need to find our path, our purpose, our calling, and that if we aren’t able to settle on that one thing that lights us up inside, then something is wrong.
In a recent Six Seconds article called Why Telling Your Coaching Clients to “Find Their Purpose” is Bad Advice, the author identifies three “Hollywood myths” surrounding purpose:
#1—Your purpose is something out there, waiting to be discovered.
#2—Your purpose is fully formed and neatly packaged.
#3—Discovering purpose makes everything easy.
They cite a series of fascinating experiments by Carol Dweck, in which people who carried a “fixed” mindset surrounding passion — that is, the idea that your passions and purpose are pre-programmed, unchangeable, and that finding them would awaken some kind of unlimited enthusiasm — were likely to have less creativity, less motivation, and to “put all their eggs in one basket, but then to drop that basket when it becomes too heavy to carry”.
On the other hand, people who believed that their passions could be developed and shaped (the “growth” mindset) were more likely to be enthusiastic about things outside their current range of interests. The Six Seconds article highlights the ways in which you can use and develop your emotional intelligence in order to nurture and grow your passions in various areas.
In other words, spending time perfecting and working on a skill will lead you to be more interested in and passionate about it, rather than expecting a strong rush of enthusiasm to hit you out of nowhere. Have you ever found that it’s really hard to get into doing something, only to find yourself getting into a “flow” state once you get started?
Of course, this doesn’t mean that you should spend hours trying to force yourself to love something that feels abhorrent to you. The idea is that interests and passions can be nurtured and grown with time; we can plant and nurture our own garden, rather than waiting to stumble upon one that’s already complete.
When Your Purpose Doesn’t Bring in the Money
But what if you already know your calling? Maybe it’s to create, to raise children, to weave together community, to heal the divide between humans and nature, or to fight injustice in the world; the only problem is, those things are hard to monetise. Or perhaps your calling is nothing so grandiose: your dream could be simply to live well in a safe, comfortable, beautiful place surrounded by people that you love. And that’s OK, too.
When the existing labour market does not reward us financially for the things that bring us to life, we may start to think that we must have chosen the wrong path. Such is the result of the capitalist system that we live in- we start to believe that our internal worth as human beings is equal to the financial ‘worth’ we possess.
It is possible that the things you do — being a supportive shoulder for your friends, getting involved in your local community, or raising awareness about important issues — have millions of ripple-effect consequences. That one time you showed kindness to a stranger may have led to them extending that kindness to others, which in turn may have made the world a much brighter place.
The problem is, we can never tangibly see the results of these actions and we can never truly know what the world would have been like had we not performed that action. But money? Money you can count and see; it feels like achieving points in a game, and it activates our brain’s reward system in much the same way as food or sex. And because it is quantifiable, it gives us an easy metric by which to measure our progress or compare ourselves to other people.
And so, a lot of entrepreneurs that I meet who are actually doing amazing work — but not really managing to make a living from it — start to question whether they have really found “their calling” or path, and whether it would be better to throw in the towel and start something else.
The message reinforced by the media and society seems to be simple — the more money you’re making, the higher your value as a person. I have noticed this far more with my US-based clients (it’s worth reading Umair Haque’s Why Do Americans Idolize the Rich? for more on this), but the messaging is reaching people all over the world — if you are not making money doing what you love, then you have not found your calling (or you need to try harder). So I would add to the list of myths about purpose:
#4— Your purpose is your job, and it must align with the current demands of the labour market.
In other words, if you don’t feel a deep soul yearning to be a programmer, sales manager or pharmacist (or anything else that happens to bring in the big bucks), then you’re out of luck.
But the job market isn’t what it used to be.
There was, perhaps, a time when you would pick a subject or profession, and perhaps after an apprenticeship, you would start to do your thing. The idea of a “job for life” was widespread, and often your profession was decided by what your family trade was (mostly if you were a man, because of course, if you were a woman your “calling” was to be a housewife and mother). If you were privileged enough to be able to work for money at all, or to have any say in the matter of where you ended up.
These days, the average person will have 12 or more jobs in their working lives, and Millennials are the most “job-hopping” generation as well as the least engaged in the workplace. But is that a sign that we are trying to find our purpose, that we are bored by meaningless work, or just that the economy has destroyed the notion of a ‘job for life’ and we have to keep re-skilling and moving if we want to stay afloat?
All of these things may be simultaneously true. It is hard to pick a life-long career in an ever-shifting market, where the skills you spend years acquiring may become worthless once the demands of the job market change (or robots steal your job).
Millennials are less likely to be satisfied with the things that our parents settled for; we want our work to be engaging, challenging, and to be making a difference in the world, while valuing all our skills and giving us a healthy work/life balance. And while we can argue that it is only fair to set high standards for the thing we commit most of our waking hours to, we must also recognise the massive privilege that comes with being able to have such a say in what we do. In many times and places across the globe, people are just happy to be able to meet their basic living costs.
The Fear of Choosing the “Wrong” Path
Plenty of studies have also shown that, counterintuitively, having too many choices can result in anxiety — if you’ve ever been to a restaurant with a massive menu and freaked out over what to order, then you know what I’m talking about. Psychologists refer to this as the tyranny or paradox of choice, and the idea is that we are so worried about not making the best possible choice that we might become paralysed by indecision.
Interestingly, a 2012 study that compared participants from the US, Europe and China, found that those in Western societies — where choices are supposedly more abundant — were more likely to experience lower wellbeing mediated by regret over their decisions. In the words of the researchers:
“In societies where abundant individual choice is highly valued and considered the ultimate route to personal happiness, maximizers’ [those seeking to make the single best choice, rather than a choice that is merely good enough] dissatisfaction and regret over imperfect choices is a detrimental factor in well-being, whereas it is a much less crucial determinant of well-being in societies that place less emphasis on choice as the way to happiness.”
Now, I’m not arguing that the solution is to take away individual choice, but it is worth thinking for a moment about why we feel so much anxiety over making the wrong choice. There is literally no way for us to know whether choosing a different career path would have led us to a happier outcome, and yet this form of FOMO can keep us from choosing anything at all, terrified that we might find ourselves on an unstoppable roller-coaster that we can’t get off.
Of course, sometimes we are just being realistic. Some career paths take decades to build, and the thought of doing a 180 and completely changing careers when we’re already quite old and tired doesn’t sound appealing to most of us. On top of that, there are professions where you will be discriminated against for being “too old”. But how much do we let these visions keep us frozen in fear, terrified of taking the wrong step in case we can never turn back?
A reminder, again — your job/career does NOT need to define who you are, or be your primary source of meaning. But, if the thought of switching paths later on does scare you, there are plenty of inspiring examples of people who started new careers well into their 50’s and 60’s.
If your purpose IS career-based, who says it has to be just one thing for your entire life? So, I would add to that list another lie:
#5 — Your Purpose is just one thing, and there will be one perfect job that neatly encapsulates all your strengths, interests and desires.
This is very restrictive and constraining if you happen to be a multipotentialite: someone with many interests, creative pursuits, and potential paths.
Confusing Happiness and Purpose
I saw a lovely meme recently that said: Dream job? No thanks, I don’t dream of labour.
Perhaps some of us just don’t like the idea of having to work in order to earn currency to survive; especially when we are trying to process the realities of political instability, climate collapse, and rising mental health issues.
I don’t know about you, but when I know that I have to do something in order to make money, it loses a lot of its magic — even if it’s something I used to do for the sheer joy of it. Even painting, singing, helping others, or travel blogging can lose its lustre when you’re being pressured to do it in exchange for a paycheck.
There’s a growing movement of companies trying to increase their staff’s engagement, and even happiness, at work. But how reasonable is it to expect, even demand, constant happiness from your job? In fact, how reasonable is to to expect constant happiness or satisfaction from your life in general?
My father and his generation look at Millennials and they grumble — “work is work. Work isn’t a thing that’s supposed to make you happy”. They definitely have a good point; why are we expecting our jobs to meet so many of our emotional needs? But on the other hand, isn’t it a positive thing that we are refusing to settle for mediocre or “bullshit” jobs? Maybe we have bought into lie…
#6 — When you find your purpose, every day will be a joy.
So influential is the culture of staying busy and making money that many of us feel a huge pressure to turn what we love into a side-hustle or thriving business. Author Adam J Kurtz has re-written the popular saying: “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life” into “ Do what you love and you’ll work super f*cking hard all the time with no separation or any boundaries and also take everything extremely personally.”
The reality is that even career paths that seem like a good idea from a distance are going to come with a lot of the same problems as everything else: annoying colleagues, out-of-touch bosses, monotony, long meetings, trying to please customers/clients/investors, sorting out your taxes and accounting. And even if your ideas around purpose are not work-related, there are going to be crappy and boring days in whatever life you choose.
In Positive Psychology, there is a huge distinction between hedonic happiness — the kind that feels good and fun and happy — and eudaemonic happiness, which is connected to feeling meaning or purpose. What is fun and pleasurable may be meaningless, while work that brings you great meaning might be boring or heart-wrenching on a day-to-day basis. But modern myths try to tell us that we can, and should, have both joy and meaning — all the time.
Tara Mohr, author of Playing Big, writes that you can, in fact, recognise your “calling” as something that you feel great resistance against; the task feels too big, you are not yet equipped, and you feel as if you want to run away. Your “purpose” may come to you in a form that you don’t like at all — while you were hoping it was starting a coaching business or selling pretty eco-friendly handbags, it may sneak up on you and let you know that you need to get into politics or go and defend a forest with your body. Who knows?
What if I don’t have a dream?
And what does it even mean to have a dream at all? Perhaps you feel a force pulling you forward towards a specific type of life, but you’ve been ignoring it because it doesn’t line up with the previously mentioned lies and myths surrounding purpose. You might just have a clear idea of what you don’t want — which is to feel bored, restricted, or overworked.
On the other hand, you might have no idea what you want, and so when asked to “picture your ideal life” you close your eyes and settle for the kind of thing you’ve unconsciously absorbed from the messaging around you. Try it, now, if you’re not sure. What does your ideal day look like? Don’t read the next paragraph until you’ve imagined it.
If your ideal day went something like this… wake up, do some yoga, relax, meditate, eat a healthy breakfast, do a little work (not sure what it is, but it’s meaningful and fun), take lunch, go for a walk, do a little more work (maybe some exciting teamwork where you see the results of your actions), work on something fun/creative, have dinner, relax or spend time with loved ones… then join the club!
Just because a specific thing that you do for money didn’t leap out at you doesn’t mean that there is something wrong with you. I am pretty sure that, at the core, most people derive meaning and happiness from similar things — good social connections, a good work/life balance, seeing tangible results from our actions, spending time in nature, and a healthy balance where we are just challenged enough to feel as if we are growing and learning, but not so challenged that we feel overwhelmed and stressed.
In the movies, romantic love is typically portrayed as a magical, perfect “knowing” that happens between two people who barely know each other. They see each other, fall in love, and live happily ever after (after a few comedic misunderstandings and conflicts, of course). These high expectations that we place on our potential partners might mean that we often overlook people who we could be in wonderful relationships with, or that we give up on somebody as soon as something goes wrong. The tyranny of choice might also be at play here — how do you “know” who The One is when there are so many people to swipe through on Tinder?
The same thing might be happening to us with our purpose. Ask yourself this — from where did you get the expectation that you would feel a strong sense of knowing and certainty around one single life path? Where did the idea come from that everybody has a purpose? Perhaps that can lead us to the last myth:
#7 — Purpose exists.
It’s worth unpacking the assumptions that lie behind belief in a purpose at all. Where does your purpose come from? Who set it? Does it require a belief in a God, destiny or fate, or a lack of belief in free will? If your purpose really is written in the stars, won’t destiny find a way of delivering it to you no matter what decisions you make?
I don’t truly know whether there is a higher force that dictates our purpose for us. It might be comforting for you to imagine that the decision has already been made for you by somebody else; it might also be massively disempowering. All I know is that some people feel a strong sense of conviction that they need to be doing a certain thing; others don’t.
And if you’re one of those that doesn’t, then that doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with you at all.
Perhaps you can ask yourself this: who benefits from convincing me that all these myths around purpose are true?
Living a Meaningful Life
In the world of Psychology, there is a difference between Purpose and Meaning. To be more specific, Purpose is just one strand of Meaning.
Things that people find give their lives meaning include a strong sense of morality (right/wrong), cultivating gratitude, altruism and wonder, helping others, a strong sense of community, and a sense of coherence — that is, being able to see a clear and coherent story about who we are.
It is possible that if you are lacking a sense of meaning from these other areas in your life, you may be leaning heavily on your career/job to give you a sense of purpose. In other words, and this may be a harsh pill to swallow; you may be lonely, unsure of who you are, and unhappy in general, and you are looking to “purpose” as some kind of superhero that will swoop in and save the day for you.
I will devote a longer article to building up a general sense of meaning in your life, but for now, here are a few small steps you can take to start:
- Look for a community of people who believe in the same things that you do; people who are moved by the same issues as you, or even who just share a common interest. Right now, of course, this will need to be an online community!
- Connect with nature. Spend time in natural environments, even if it’s just with a plant on your window ledge. Practice mindfulness and stillness, experiencing what it is like to be in the moment rather than constantly reaching out for an imaginary future in which you might be happy.
- Help someone, somehow. This could be donating some money or time to a cause that you feel strongly towards, or helping a friend to achieve their own goals.
- Cultivate your emotional intelligence. This will help you tune in with how you really feel about different options and paths in your life, and deepen your sense of connection with yourself.
I don’t mean to suggest that you do not have a deep, spiritual calling, or that there isn’t a purpose lying ahead for you to somehow discover, craft and refine. It would be wonderful and exciting if you did, but it’s also OK if you don’t.
Hopefully you will now have a greater idea of how our ideas surrounding purpose, dreams and desires are shaped by other forces in our lives — and not always for our benefit.
So, what would it look like if you were to let go of these myths around purpose, even just for a while? What might your life begin to look like?