And what you should do instead.
If you’d rather listen than read, find this on Sound Insight , episode 7.
Have you ever gotten “life advice” that inspired you but just didn’t work?
It seems whenever we have to make a big life decision – what to study, what career path to follow, what goals to pursue – there are no shortage of platitudes on offer. A lot of them have been around so long, we never question whether they really help.
The problem is, some of this advice, when taken to heart, can do more harm than good.
Here are two examples that sound inspiring, but for most of us, aren’t actually helpful and can even point you in the wrong direction.
Find your purpose.
So many people (me included) torture themselves with this old chestnut.
Clients often ask me, “How do I find my purpose?”
Sometimes it can feel as if our purpose is a secret hidden somewhere deep in our psyche. Or we can feel we are missing some ambiguous signal from the universe.
If you are one of those people who is animated by a strong and clear sense of purpose; if you can articulate a billboard-appropriate reason you are on this planet, then you have indeed found your purpose (at least for now) and you should use that to fuel everything you do. A strong sense of purpose is a powerful motivator and clarifier to support you to achieve great things.
The problem is, most of us do not get strong signals toward a singular path to greatness. Worse, when we look for them, we often misread the signals we do get.
There are three problems with the “Find Your Purpose” advice.
Problem 1: The one true path.
First there is the assumption that we are all born to a singular vocation and that our gifts are locked somewhere in our DNA.
Sometimes hidden in the angst around finding our one true purpose, is the mistaken notion that living to one’s full potential is about uncovering that one path to greatness.
It’s true that there are people who are called to pursue singular extraordinary gifts. Mozart, for example, got some pretty compelling signals at a very young age about how he should spend his time. But even feeling ‘called’ to something does not assure you a good and fulfilling life. Being gifted does not exempt you from suffering, self-doubt, or existential angst.
Even if you are lucky enough to be born with extraordinary gifts, they do not guarantee you a life of purpose. You still need to develop both you and your gifts and apply them in a way that they are of service to the world. Further, even if you don’t have a single obvious talent, you can still develop extraordinary skills and use them to great impact.
Problem 2: It has to be BIG.
We are inspired by BIG things – big dreams, big ambitions, big achievements. Pursuing high hard goals builds both our skill and results. Aiming high is a good strategy but measuring the value of your life based on the altitude of your achievements is not.
There’s a statement commonly attributed to Mother Teresa. “Not all of us can do great things But we can do small things with great love.” As I first read those words, I felt a huge sense of relief wash over me. Small things with great love. This was something I could do.
Recently, my husband called me to the TV during a Yankees – Blue Jays baseball game. Aaron Judge of the New York Yankees had just hit a home run. A man in the stands wearing a Blue Jays ball cap caught the ball. He spotted a young boy wearing a Yankees cap and gave him the ball. That young boy’s reaction would have made a hardened criminal well up. For the man, it was a small thing, a simple act of kindness. For the boy, the camera crew that caught it and for the millions who watched, it was a profound moment of generosity and inspiration.
When we do small things with great love and allow ourselves to learn and grow in the process, small things can have a great impact far beyond what we will ever know.
Problem 3: How do we find our purpose?
Exercises, visualizations, powerful questions can offer clarity and help you articulate what you already know, but they rarely deliver “THE ANSWER.”
That’s because the purpose of a life is more than a clever or inspiring slogan.
The most useful guidance I received to the question “how” came from an old Quaker saying I found on the cover of a book by Parker Palmer, “Let Your Life Speak.”
“Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you. Before you tell your life what truths and values you have decided to live up to, let your life tell you what truths you embody, what values you represent.”From Let Your Life Speak by Parker J. Palmer
As I reflected on what it meant to let my life speak, I began to ask different questions. “What if our purpose is not something to find, but something to unfold over a lifetime? What if we sometimes only find our purpose in retrospect, only after we can see a large swath of our life? If so, what then?
If an inspiring purpose statement is not appearing in flashing neon lights, maybe it’s time to get on with living and trust your life to reveal its purpose over time.
Let your life grow and shape you. Develop yourself and your skills and use them in service of others.
Stay attentive and open to what the challenges and circumstances of your life are trying to teach you. Pay attention to who you are becoming. And most important, try to be useful. This will reveal a more nuanced and complex purpose over time. It might not fit on a billboard, but it will be meaningful.
This leads to a second common piece of advice that can lead you astray.
Follow your passion
In grade 5, when my teacher told me my writing showed promise, I decided then and there, I wanted to become a famous author. I had a dream that I would write the great Canadian novel, win awards, accolades and become independently wealthy. I was passionate about this dream. I told everyone I knew. More than once in my career, I even quit my day job to write “the novel”.
There were two problems with this dream. One, it was all about me and two, it had nothing to do with writing. It was all about having written.
The writing itself was hard, stressful, lonely, and gruelling. Further, I was tortured with self-doubt. Did I have talent? Was I any good? This led to procrastination, which led to more stress. I started several novels. Each one died an early death around chapter three.
Lots of passion, lots of desire, very little progress.
Passion is an emotion, not a direction. It is fleeting and it’s not reliable. Dr. Laurie Santos, Yale professor and host of the podcast The Happiness Lab, offers Yale University’s most popular course ever, The Science of Well-Being. In it, she shares study after study that shows, humans suck at predicting what will make them happy.
Let your curiosity lead and your passion will follow.
I have found the more reliable and sustainable path forward is to follow is my curiosity. Curiosity is long-term fuel. It doesn’t flame out. The more you feed it, the more it grows. It invites focus and attention. It is expansive and can help you make novel connections and gain new insights.
Because it leads to things that fascinate you, it fuels your intrinsic motivation and drive. It ignites passion, which is like a turbo boost to something already in motion.
Despite my early repeated failures, I didn’t give up on my writing. In fact, for most of my life, I have earned my living in one way or another through writing. But when I followed my curiosity, I noticed something interesting – my reading habits. I noticed that I read very few novels. But I devour non-fiction. I read about human behaviour, psychology, neuroscience, leadership, creativity, and personal development. I read about politics and philosophy. I am fascinated by great thinkers and big ideas. These books and articles keep surfacing the enduring questions that fascinate and illuminate my life.
When I began to write about these questions, the writing became less tortuous. One article led to the next. Soon, my gruelling writing process became a daily, rewarding practice. I stopped worrying if I was good enough. I stopped suffering. I just wrote. I fell in love with the process of writing and before I knew it, I had a body of work to share.
Following my curiosity did not lead to just one thing. It led to many things and many fascinating and rewarding opportunities. And over time, I refined those curiosities and worked on putting them to good use.
Here’s what it didn’t lead to. It didn’t lead to fulfillment.
It was already fulfilling. When I was on a good path, fulfillment was part of the process. When I wasn’t, a lack of fulfillment over a period of time was my signal that I had made a wrong turn. The fulfillment was never in my achievements or what I was driving toward, it was embedded in the process itself.
And it still is.
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