When we talk about purpose, it’s often in the context of our paid employment.
This is hardly surprising – the gears of modern society need us to be obsessed with buying and consuming stuff. Meanwhile, school teachers tirelessly ferry our children through neverending hoops, all in the name of getting a “decent” and “respectable” job far in the future.
I too fell into this tunnel – for me it was always head down, work hard. And I came to believe that purpose is something you can extract from that work. I was hunting for a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow – purpose became an object which seemed to exist “out there”.
Although I’m beginning to pierce through this conditioning, it continues to live on. For instance, my knee-jerk reaction is still to make a quiet snap judgement based on someone’s title or industry.
That former classmate who now works for a pharmaceutical conglomerate? “Well, that’s not very meaningful”, I tell myself, while lionising the non-profit founder I met yesterday.
All along, I’ve been hijacking a distorted notion of “purpose”, using it as a vehicle through which to make covert value judgements. Not cool. And as you might imagine, I turned that judgement inward.
Hanging up my stethoscope
At the age of 15, I chose to pursue a medical degree. This piece of paper became my pot of gold – I believed it would come with a purpose, prepackaged and ready to go.
But that didn’t transpire; soon into the career, I started to feel incongruent. After years of study and emotional investment, I was supposed to be in my element – but it felt like I was adrift from my core self.
It wasn’t all bad: I sometimes enjoyed the high pace of work, I loved counselling patients/relatives, and the team camaraderie was often palpable. But in general, I felt distinctly off purpose.
At the time, this didn’t make sense. Isn’t medicine one of the most purposeful careers you could have? I understood how the corporate grind might feel empty, but medicine? I beat myself up, told myself I was the problem, and hung my head in shame.
But I’m now starting to get it: purpose doesn’t work that way. We can’t force it, or acquire it from a job title. Take the most menial, monotonous job you can imagine, and someone somewhere derives a profound sense of meaning from it. The opposite is also true.
I ended up leaving medicine, bringing these mistaken notions of purpose along for the ride. It was an exciting time – I discovered nascent passions for writing, coaching, and spirituality – but part of me felt those passions were pointless (i.e. “purposeless”) until I could monetise them. I was continuing to objectify purpose.
I knew this would poison the chalice. In fact, my first attempts at coaching fell flat because of my needy energy. Desperate for this to be my “thing”, I resorted to manipulative sales tactics that likely did more harm than good. I would need to rethink everything.
Reframing the meaning of work
One big mindset shift happened when I came across a piece of research led by Amy Wrzesniewski. In the paper, she describes three orientations that determine how we perceive work:
- Job orientation: with this perspective, work is simply a way to “get by” and sustain our preferred standard of living. The job is just that – a job.
- Career orientation: through this lens, work is a way to climb ladders, acquire prestige, and improve our social standing. But beyond these goals, we aren’t concerned with issues like “purpose” and “calling”.
- Calling orientation: some people long to serve others in a way that’s authentic to who they are. The aim is to walk a path on which our purpose can come to life. And we may see our work in transcendent, spiritual terms.
Regardless of our title, allegedly we’re quite evenly divided among the orientations. Which one do you presently fall into?
Consider that each orientation is nothing more than a “tool”, or a “lens”, meaning that you’re free to put one down and try another.
This insight confronted my old way of thinking in a big way. I had been stuck in the calling orientation for years, refusing to budge a single inch. This only magnified my disillusionment, because I was forcing myself to feel a certain way about work.
Adjusting my outlook allowed for some much-needed acceptance to blossom – I began to understand that no orientation is “right” or “better”:
- Take person A, with mountains of high-interest debt and a family to feed. Perhaps all they can think about right now is landing any job that’ll take them.
- Consider person B, fresh out of school, with a need to establish independence and experience certain achievements. The career orientation could work for them right now.
- Lastly, there’s person C – someone undergoing a crisis of integrity, while burning out in their career. Perhaps this is the moment to embrace purpose and prioritise meaning, which they weren’t ready to do until now.
While these are stereotypical cases, the point is this: each orientation serves a particular purpose at a particular point in time. Wherever you’re at, I hope you don’t feel pressured to want more out of your career. But if you do, you certainly aren’t alone…
An overloaded “calling” basket
As I’ve said, there’s nothing wrong with the calling orientation itself. Problems arise when we get overly attached to the idea that our worldly pursuits must appear profound.
As mentioned, one danger here is that we end up mentally sorting people into binary groups like “purpose-driven” and “purposeless”. As you can imagine, this isn’t helpful if we want to generate compassion for others. But the dangers don’t end there.
Gratefully, I was able to take a much-needed sabbatical in Southeast Asia. Reflecting deeply on my life, I started to repair my wounded relationship with work. That meant recognising the risk of seeking purpose through work, to the exclusion of all else.
Let’s call this phenomenon putting all my “purpose eggs” in one basket:
Would you bet your life savings on a single stock, and then expect it to yield you a comfortable retirement? Of course not. That would be unfair on the poor company you now scrutinise with great intensity.
Likewise, if we only cultivate purpose through a single arena, we’re playing a risky game. When our sense of purpose is tied-up in paid work, what happens when we’re made redundant, put on furlough, or forced into early retirement? Too often, people become sick and suicidal in such cases.
In the same way, many of us put an enormous burden on employment to provide everything we feel we’re missing:
We can apply the same reasoning to any area of life, in fact. If your one true purpose is to be a nurturing parent, what happens when your children are no longer children?
Many parents can’t cope with this, so they refuse to acknowledge – or worse, actively block – the maturation process. Clinging to an illusory mirage, they see purpose as being “out there” in their child. Except their child is now a 36-year old woman. In the end, overidentifying as a parent becomes a good way to sabotage our ability to perform the role.
I’ve noticed a similar pattern in some life coaches and therapists. Eager to validate their one true path, they use a client’s suffering to fuel a contrived sense of purpose. If nobody needs (or wants) their help, how are they supposed to feel at ease? In the worst cases, they might subconsciously thwart progress and create further dependency. Don’t underestimate how destructive this can be.
Putting all our purpose eggs in one basket is a colossal mismanagement of energy, throwing our emotional world off-kilter. But nature has a way of correcting imbalances. If we don’t unload our basket, some form of breakdown awaits – burnout, sickness, midlife crisis, divorce.
I decided this wasn’t the future I wanted.
The many faces of living purposefully
Life itself is your career, and your interaction with life is your most meaningful relationship.
After talking at length about what purpose isn’t, I want to revisit what purpose is. But let’s back up a minute, because all this talk of metaphorical “purpose eggs” may have created some confusion!
I don’t mean to imply that purpose is a finite resource we can portion out, like real eggs. That would be a further objectification of purpose. Instead, think of purpose as a form of internal energy, tied inextricably to our quality of presence. It’s an expression of love that can touch everyone and everything throughout the course of our lives.
Purpose is essentially a present-moment state of being in which we’re fully connected and fully authentic. When we give a heartfelt smile to the cashier, perhaps we’re in-sync with our purpose at that moment. I say perhaps, because only you would know – purpose has a subjective, felt-sense to it.
In this way, purpose directly reflects our inner work as much as it’s informed by our outer work. It’s an ongoing, two-way, cyclical, process. And this year, I’m committed to channelling my purpose not only at work, but across many other baskets as well:
- Standing up for my beliefs – such as launching a new vegan blog with my wife 🙂
- Being a compassionate presence in general
- Personal health and healing
- Nurturing friendships
- Intentional rest
- Having fun!
How about you? Which of your life baskets need a little TLC? And which baskets do you need to let go of entirely, so you can create new ones?
I’ll leave you with one final thought.
If we pay attention, we’re only ever doing one thing at a time, in this moment. Opening the car door. Greeting a friend. Making the bed. Turning on the laptop.
One at a time – that’s all there is.
And as soon as our actions become purely a means to an end – divorced from the present – we’ve lost touch with the transcendent purpose that already lives within us. All we need to do is notice it.
Mother Teresa said it best: “we can do no great things – only small things with great love.”
Thanks for reading.