There are some common myths about purpose that are very unhelpful. One is that once you know your purpose you’ll be filled with passion and never feel lost or confused again. Another is that your purpose is the work you should be doing and it will make sense of the rest of your life. There’s also a belief that people who know their purpose also know the impact they’re having in the world.
I’m calling these myths because they’re popular understandings but I haven’t found them to be true, and often they’re downright unhelpful. They cause many people to feel inadequate and prevent them from contributing as much as they could – even people who have a strong sense of purpose and direction.
When you know your purpose you’ll be filled with passion.
I frequently meet brilliant, effective people who aren’t particularly passionate and they believe something is missing or they’re doing something wrong. They long to feel totally absorbed in what they’re doing, totally clear about where they’re going and totally engaged in an amazing vision.
But life doesn’t work very well on a “totally” basis. That’s a modern exaggeration that arises from being over-exposed to marketing messages that suggest we should be extraordinary in every moment of life – and that we’re somehow inadequate when we’re not.
Can you imagine what it would be like if you were “totally passionate” in your relationship all the time? It would be exhausting and the appeal would quickly wear off. It’s moments of passion, moments of connection, moments of calmness, moments of sharing and many other rhythms that make for a rich and fulfilling relationship.
A deep sense of purpose can make you very passionate about your work at times, if you’re that type of person. If you’re very creative, or you love to have an audience, you’re more likely to display passion than if you tend to be more analytical or pragmatic. If you’re highly emotional you may appear more passionate than if you tend to be more calm or balanced.
Interestingly the word passion comes from the Latin verb to “suffer.” In my experience it has its uses but it’s not a constant source of fuel and nor should it be.
There are times when some passion is very useful. Other people like to see someone who has the courage to show they care deeply about their work. It’s inspiring and encouraging. At other times it’s much more useful to be pragmatic and get things done. A lot of work isn’t particularly inspiring in its own right but it’s valuable. You may or may not feel passionate about it. It still needs to be done.
Passion is an ingredient of life, and therefore of a purposeful life, but it’s not equal to purpose and it’s not a consequence of purpose. Our films are full of passionate killers, lovers, bankers, cowboys and space explorers along with many other people with questionable purpose.
Let’s not confuse the two.
When you know your purpose you’ll never feel lost or confused again.
There’s a torture in feeling confused. It’s easy to imagine that someone with a greater sense of purpose never feels lost and always knows what they’re doing. Isn’t that exactly the point of purpose?
Well yes… and no.
If you’ve found your purpose at any time in the past you’ve probably also lost it again – and found it again and lost it again. If you’ve been crystal clear what your life is all about at a deeper level you’ve certainly felt murkily confused as well. This is a cycle.
Many people believe that discovering your purpose happens in a single moment and is then clear. It may appear like that in stories and movies, but the reality for the people I’ve worked with, and myself, is very different.
A sense of purpose emerges over time. There can be moments of blinding clarity that feel like they will last for ever. Strangely, even days later you may lose that clarity and feel doubt again. Sometimes you can articulate your purpose beautifully, but then it shifts and develops and grows and what felt so right last year now feels old and lacks something and you need to articulate it all over again.
This isn’t a sign that something’s wrong. It’s a sign that you’re alive and engaged with your purpose and your purpose is alive in you.
Purpose emerges and deepens throughout life. It arises usually through periods of confusion that lead to a new clarification and depth of expression. The times of confusion and feeling lost are critical to the development of your purpose and your maturing as a human being.
If you want to live a life of purpose, please expect and relish feeling lost and confused. It will enrich your life greatly.
Your purpose is the work you SHOULD be doing and it will make sense of the rest of your life.
Many people who have stepped up to live a more purposeful life (or who are ready to) are looking for the “right” job or business. They believe that once they’re doing the right work (and no longer running the business they’ve owned and grown for the last 20 years or doing the job they’re so good at) all their problems will be solved and life will flow naturally and beautifully.
Yes, even very sensible, successful people who’ve been driven by a sense of purpose for years can get caught with a feeling of unease that they’re “doing the wrong thing” and that somewhere out there is a “right thing”. The question you’ll find yourself asking is, “What should I be doing?”
This question implies that there’s someone or something out there who has your total life plan written and it’s up to you to guess or figure out what it is. Along with this belief comes the notion that you’re suffering because you’re doing the wrong thing and you’ll be rewarded if you do the right thing. So it puts the responsibility for what you do out of your hands in a strange, unacknowledged way that leaves you with the vague, uncomfortable feeling all the time that you “should” be doing something different.
This has nothing to do with purpose. Anyone can feel it, whether you have a strong sense of purpose or not. It arises largely from a religious belief that’s deeply embedded in our culture, that God has a plan for you. Even if you haven’t grown up with religion, you can feel as if there’s some destiny or right way of living your life. It sets a standard against which you’re constantly failing.
For sure, if there’s work you’d love to do, which has meaning for you and gives you a sense of fulfilment, please find a way to do it. Far too many people are living lives that make them miserable because they’re constantly denying their desire to do something different. When you do what you love, you come from a different place within yourself which gives you peace and much greater enjoyment.
But you’ll discover then that your work is not your purpose. Purpose isn’t the right job, the right business or the right plan. The right work won’t make sense of the rest of your life because that’s not where the deepest sense of purpose comes from.
Your purpose is much deeper than your work. It connects you with who you really are and the deepest values of human life, for example love, peace and freedom. You can always express your purpose, even when you’re in the “wrong business”.
When you connect more deeply with your true purpose you’ll have the energy and clarity to find the “right business”. Your work becomes an expression of your purpose. You might find yourself doing many different kinds of work over time.
The meaning in your life will come not so much from the work you do but from who you are and how you express it through your work and in your personal life.
You’ll feel you’re doing what you “should” be doing, not because you got it right but because you’re coming from the right place inside you.
People who know their purpose know what impact they’re having in the world.
We’re talking a lot about impact these days. We’re looking for ways to increase and expand our impact. This means we need to measure our impact. And then it starts to get difficult.
You experience a sense of unease because you’re not having enough impact. That becomes part of your general feeling of not being enough – not good enough, not attractive enough, not successful enough, not kind enough, never enough.
Then you try to assess your impact. You compare yourself with others who seem to have so much more than you. This adds to your sense of not being enough. And then you hold yourself back, because you’re not good enough, and decrease your impact as a result.
But what if everyone is the same? What if those much more successful people are feeling they’re not having the impact they’d like to have too? Then we’re all chasing another goal with a constant sense of failure lurking beneath the surface. This, for sure, is not going to create a positive impact.
There’s a principle described by Buckminster Fuller, called precession. It says that when you pursue a goal your impact occurs at a 90-degree angle to your direction. For example, when a stone is dropped into a pond, the stone is dropping downwards and the ripples move away from the stone at a 90-degree angle.
As a human being, the same principle applies. As you pursue your goals, your impact is occurring at a 90-degree angle to your direction. This means you are unlikely to see most of it because it is beyond your peripheral vision. It also means that you should keep moving in the same direction, towards your goal, if you want to create the greatest impact.
When an acorn sprouts its first root and pushes up its first leaves, it has no idea that it will become a tree that will support a vast and richly diverse ecosystem all around it. Nor does it realise all the tiny inputs that are supporting it from the moment it bursts into life – the bacteria, the rotted leaves, the drops of water, the worms and many more.
When a bee is searching for nectar it has no idea that it’s supporting the entire food chain on this planet. It’s not even looking for the pollen that enables it to have this extraordinary impact.
What if you’ll never know most of the impact you’re going to have? What if the entire system of life is depending on you at some level? What if you’re not even supposed to know your impact? What if it’s impossible to know your impact?
Then there’s only one thing to do. Get on with what you can see and know is right for you to do, do it wholeheartedly and leave your impact to take care of itself.
As you become more aligned with your purpose you may find your life becoming more ordinary. You have less need to prove yourself as someone extremely special and different. You find peace with who you are and what you do and so you get on with it without much need for display. You let go of the hyper-stimulation of extraordinary marketing claims and the need to be the best, the only and the mostest.
Of course this isn’t an ordinary life at all. It has a quiet passion, an inner sense of direction even when the outer world looks confused and confusing, Your work is an expression of who you are and your greatest impact is being made, like the bee’s, without your awareness.
There’s a deep pleasure in being ordinary.