A life isn’t significant except for its impact on other lives.
Whoever convinced us that finding purpose or identity was primarily about landing a dream job or line of work was shortsighted. It is hard to escape such thinking, though, because of the sheer number of hours we work to survive. Hence, the desire to humanize the workplace, and one thread of that effort has been to match people with jobs and fields that match their aptitudes.
But it is not always so simple, is it? For we know that just because we have certain aptitudes does not mean the opportunity to pursue them is only an arm’s length away. Sometimes it takes an enormous amount of maneuvering to seize the opportunities before us – possibly working for years in the wrong field so we can save enough money to move out of town or go back to school – or maybe not. Perhaps an economic recession lands us back where we started. (Life happens in the most unfair ways to the nicest people!)
What I am really driving at, though, is that whatever your choices or lack thereof, finding purpose is really about how you approach everything in your life. If you have a choice, great. If not, don’t fall victim to the idea that nothing you do matters. It just may not matter directly in the field you currently work in, but it has everything to do with how you interact with people, how you do your job, what you gravitate to, and the effect you have on the world around you (even if you don’t see what that is). Living your purpose in all that you do also draws opportunities your way. Don’t underestimate that. Who you are inside stamps all that you do, and you have a choice to mark all your undertakings with the scent of perfume or the stench of a skunk.
There’s a precarious balance, too. If you hold your breath forever, waiting for the next thing just around the corner, you may also run the risk of never living. (I’m sorry nothing is simple here. I wish I’d taken my own advice thirty years ago. I could have breathed. I could have had better relationships, a better outlook on life, and done cooler things instead of jumping through hoops to make other people’s dreams come true.) Keep in mind that purpose is built into your structure. You can be fired from a job and you can lose a career. You cannot lose your purpose, though–only your sight of it. So live your purpose now, whatever may come.
The most spectacular talk I ever heard on finding your purpose came from a TED Talk delivered by Adam Leipzig, film and theater producer and author. At a 25th reunion with his fellow Yale grads he discovered that 80% of them were unhappy with their lives. They had been a privileged lot with all sorts of opportunities and yet they felt their lives had been wasted.
The 20% who were happy were the ones who had studied literature and theater and had taken classes for the joy of learning rather than simply positioning themselves for a certain kind of job. It wasn’t that they had escaped the ups and downs of life outside of college. It was just that they knew five things about themselves: “Who they were, what they did, who they did it for, what those people wanted or needed, and what they got out of it–how they changed as a result.”
Do what you love, regardless of whether it lands a great career or not. You will find your purpose doing things you love and care about, and directing your abilities where they can benefit others. You are a gift to be shared, not to be smothered. Use that gift wisely, for you may never have another chance.
Header photo: Charles J Sharp / CC BY-SA