“Find the thing you want to do most intensely, make sure that’s it, and do it with all your might. If you live, well and good. If you die, well and good. Your purpose is done”
― H.G. Wells
The school year ended and summer vacation started for me a week ago (woo!). On the last day of work I had a friend come in to town, spent time with them over the holiday weekend, then immediately drove South to the border through New Mexico, West Texas, and three National Parks along the way. I got back late Sunday night to teach summer school the next morning -- 3 hours a day/3x per week/3 weeks - hardly work. Anyways, after the 3 hours of work, I had a couple errands to run and then went home to relax. (I’ve waited all year for this!) But, not surprisingly, I was up again within minutes to go to the drugstore to buy hair bleach and pink hair dye (don't worry - it's subtle). I don’t do well with unstructured time -- never have. I have to be doing something. Like everyone -- I need a greater purpose.
So what is my purpose? Where do I find it? I think, for most people, purpose comes through their family and their work. My family is a thousand miles away and, in the summer, I don’t really work. If I didn’t have a clear purpose I honestly don’t know what I would do.
What It's Not
When I first started teaching I put all of my effort, enthusiasm, and energy into my students. I distinctly remember actually being nervous for the weekends because I wasn’t sure how to spend all of the free time. I needed structure -- I still do -- but I didn’t know how to create structure around a life of purpose beyond my job.
I don’t find my purpose in my job anymore (sorry kids). I find happiness, yes - but it isn’t what I live for - and I would argue that it shouldn’t be for anyone. What’s the phrase, “do something you love and you’ll never work a day in your life”? Well, I beg to differ. No matter how much you love your job or how much you help those in need or change the world -- it’s still a job. You are still getting paid. Would you do the exact same job, with all the same duties, same hours, same emails, etc. if you didn’t get paid for it? I didn’t think so. Then your job is not your purpose. It contributes to your full, awesome life, but it isn’t the driving force.
What It Is
Purpose is elusive. It's always changing. It stretches, enriches, and keeps you up at night (in a good way!). It’s not a job, and it’s also not a person. People are fallible -- they will disappoint you. You can’t control a person no matter how hard you try. People and community are a part of a purposeful life, but they are not the purpose. Purpose is more. It is the things you do just because you want to do them. Because they bring you joy. They give you a reason to change. To plan. To travel. To research. To go. To MOVE. Purpose is rooted in forward motion -- even if you don’t know the destination.
How do you know when you’ve found your purpose? Well, it’s always changing, so there will never be a moment of “this is my purpose. I have found it. I am done now.” The end point is sort of the antithesis of all of this. But, I can tell you when you know you haven’t. It’s when you’re stagnant. If purpose is movement -- the opposite is inaction. Like Leonardo da Vinci said, “Iron rusts from disuse; water loses its purity from stagnation.. even so does inaction sap the vigor of the mind.”
So here’s a humblebrag (sorry) -- I’ve been offered every job I’ve interviewed for (except the first job I ever interviewed for because, come on) and I’ve interviewed for tons. Like I said, I like movement. But back to my point. In my mind, I get offered jobs for one main reason -- I am interested in new things. I am interested in challenge. I specifically always point out that my greatest fear is stagnation and that in order to be successful I have to keep moving and taking on new roles. I was an interviewer for a teaching program once and that was the biggest predictor of success -- the interviewees PR score. Their personal responsibility. Do they take responsibility for their classroom? Do they invite challenges or do they make excuses?
Excuses are at the core of stagnation. “It’s not my fault that…” “I can’t do ____ because of _____” “I don’t have enough ______.” You know the drill. I have this Annie Dillard quote on my bookshelf and it’s become something of a mantra: “How we spend our days is - of course - how we spend our lives.” Seems so simple right? But, when we’re making excuses for all the things we can’t do, or why our life is a certain way, we are in effect taking a backseat on our own lives. The most important thing that we have.
I did a lot of work in the graduate sociological theory class I took this semester on meaning making. How people create meaning through their interactions with each other, through symbols, language… blah blah I can send you some dense articles for more, but the point is -- I create my own meaning. I create my purpose. I create my day -- which, in turn, creates my life. Following others or the excuses you’ve made will never lead to satisfaction.
Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin (or lots of other people, the internet is unclear) famously said that they “feel sorry for people who don’t drink. When they wake up in the morning, that’s as good as they’re going to feel all day.” While it’s obviously (I hope) in jest, I think some people live their lives in a similar way. They wake up with the mindset that things are going to happen to them - not because of them. They're not living for a purpose, they are living for the purpose of others.
How Do I Find It?
So how do you find your purpose in life? For the day? For the hour? I’m sure it’s different for everyone -- just like a purpose is going to be different for everyone -- but there are actions that will help us all in the process.
1. Identify your core values - This is key in everything in your life. So you get a job making tons of money that you hate - what is the point? If wealth is your core value, then you’ve got a great thing going, but I’d say for most people -- when they really dig deep -- don't have stockpiling tons of money as a core value.
Make a list of things that are truly important to you. Pay attention to the things that make you feel alive. The things you want all other parts of your life to flow from. Meditate on these things, write them somewhere you can see them, talk about them with others. Then use them! When you’re faced with any decision, activity, relationship, opportunity etc.. ask yourself if it fits in with those core values. If it doesn’t, you’re an adult and hey cool, you can say no! If it does -- go for it -- even if it’s scary.
One of my core values is generosity. This manifests in all sorts of ways, but through it I have found deeper purpose. I am generous with my time through volunteering, I am generous with my money by contributing to causes I believe in, and I try to be generous with others by always assuming positive intentions.
2. Risk Taking - Now, I’m not actually that risky of a person. I mostly take small, calculated risks in my daily life. But when it comes to the things that align with my core values, I take the big risks. For example, I value movement (not stagnation), so when I found myself in the same place for five years -- even though I had a job and friends I loved -- I knew that I was too comfortable. So I moved to a new city in a new state all alone and knowing basically no one. And it’s been great. And if it wasn't, well, then I'd take another risk and do something else. But I'd be moving forward.
3. Check-ins - This is the micro part. You have to check in with yourself. Like, on paper. In a structured way. That you schedule. On a calendar. Trust me here. “The days are long, but the years are short” couldn’t be more accurate (as anyone over 30 like me -- yikes -- is fully aware of). If you read a book or article (or this blog post :)) and get all fired up about something to change or move in your life -- you have to also strategically schedule times to check in with yourself about it.
Ask yourself if you’re where you want to be with ______. Have you made progress on _______. Are you being proactive in _______? Purpose can seem wishy washy, but just like goal setting -- you have to be specific. Even if the specificity is based on what you don’t want (I don’t want to be in the same place, same mindset, same whatever), you need to know what you’re trying to achieve. Again, identifying core values is the core (ha) of this work. "Is my _______ in line with my core values?" And what will you do if it isn’t? Set trip wires for yourself. “If I am still _______ by ______ I will ______.” And stick to it!
4. Movement - Just do something! Move forward! Trust the process and don’t judge yourself too harshly. We are meant to do more than go to work and come home to sit on the couch. I try to think about my life as a series of action verbs. I literally think about how I would write what I am currently doing on a resume. I am doing things. I am active. If I can’t describe what I’m doing in this way, then I don’t do it.
What Holds Us Back?
All of this, I’m sure, seems like common sense. But isn’t this also the biggest question of human existence? There are no easy answers, but there are common things holding us back.
I’m not _____ enough - This is me way more than I’d like to admit. I am confident, intelligent, and as independent as anyone I know, but I still feel like I don’t have any place giving advice on, well, things like this blog post. Who am I to ____? What can I offer that isn’t already out there? What if everyone already knows all of this?
I love painting, but I know people who are better (duh). I like writing, but. The but will always be there. Because there will always be someone better than you at something. At everything. But they won’t be you. They won’t have your unique perspective. They will have all of their own unique and interesting ways of creating their world and making meaning -- and it will be great -- but it won’t be you. You are different and that is enough!
Comparison - This goes hand in hand with not feeling good enough. We don’t feel good enough because we spend time comparing. Comparing our lives to others when we really don’t know much about them at all. Social media is a breeding ground for all kinds of unhealthy comparison. I could see someone who is successful in all the ways I want to be, doing the things I want to do (at least on Instagram), and wonder why I should even bother trying. It’s been done. They’ve done it better. They’re prettier. All the guys like them more blah blah you know how it goes. Well snap out of it. Comparison is the thief of joy and joy is, in my opinion, the most important of all emotions (feelings?) that we need to cultivate and protect.
“He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” - Friedrich Nietzsche
Our culture is obsessed with productivity. Efficiency. Life hacks. Mental Strength. Mental Toughness. Mental Powerlifting (I mean I wouldn’t be surprised), but none of those things mean anything if you don’t have a purpose. A why. It will be different for everyone - and it will be different for you - it’s ever changing. It doesn’t have to be some overly ambitious spiritually enlightened thing. Right now, if I had to describe my purpose it would boil down to “seeing things”. The thing that keeps me up at night and gets me up in the morning is all there is to see. I want to see it all. Immerse myself in experiences. Learn from them and share them. And that’s enough. I won’t go weeks without an adventure (or even days) because I know this is important to me. It gives me strength, life, energy -- purpose.
So take some time and get really honest with yourself. Where are you at? Where do you want to be? Where do you find your joy? Is it consistent (because it should be!) What keeps you up at night? Why aren't you doing more of that? And most importantly -- where are you going? Are you going at all? And remember:
You don’t have to be great to start, but you have to start to be great. -- Zig Ziglar