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What’s Your Why?

Getty/Anhelina Lisna

Don’t get lost on the path to finding your purpose. Discover your “why” in three ways.

What if we feel like we have no purpose? Many people in our culture keep their busy lives full to the brim so that they are distracted from confronting this question. Others suffer greatly from an acute awareness of feeling aimless, bored, and clueless about their purposes.

I had a boyfriend in college who felt lost and aimless in this regard. Hanging out in his dorm room (bored myself) while he was in class one day, I noticed a leather notebook sitting on his nightstand. I flipped it open, not exactly with the intention of snooping, but more with the curiosity of a teenage girl, thinking it was a little bit funny and adorable that he actually wrote in a journal. My eye caught the first sentence that said, “My life feels like I’m a painter who is holding a paintbrush, sitting in front of a canvas, who cannot decide what to paint, and who is waiting so long for the inspiration, that the paint has long since dried on his brush.”

I realized I had just violated his privacy in a major way and slammed the book shut. But my heart ached for the anguish I knew it caused him to feel so paralyzed with uncertainty and disconnected from his purpose in life. I’ve always felt haunted by reading that line, and even now I feel that it is a perfect description of what lacking a sense of life purpose feels like. It’s also a great example of the wrong way to go about finding a purpose—sitting around and waiting for it to come to you.

Dr. William Damon is a purpose researcher. In his work studying American youth since 2003, he found that those without a clear sense of purpose tend to fall into one of three categories: the disengaged, the dreamers, and the dabblers. The disengaged are not passionate about anything beyond themselves and their own enjoyment and give no signs that they are interested in finding a purposeful pursuit. The dreamers have ideas about how they might find a life of meaning, but they haven’t developed any practical, realistic plan to make those ideas a reality. The dabblers are engaged in activities that might be purposeful, but they jump from thing to thing without sustained commitment—an essential aspect of finding purpose.

In Damon’s research, about 25 percent of youth were disengaged, 25 percent were dreamers, and 31 percent were dabblers. Only 20 percent were those who had found something meaningful to focus on, maintained that focus for a period of time, and were able to express what they were trying to accomplish and why—his definition of “purposeful.” (Yes, that adds up to 101 percent, thanks to rounding.)

Too often that lost 80 percent won’t pursue their dreams, find their passions, or make a needed change until the pain of not doing so becomes intolerable. To paraphrase Joseph Campbell, this is the dull ache of the call unanswered. Campbell describes that when the call is unanswered, you feel yourself drying up. The more pain you feel in this regard, the more likely it is that you are getting closer to answering the call.

The problem with the notion of a “purpose” is that it has been glamorized and romanticized over time to an unhelpful extent. Typically, when we try to summon examples of living with purpose, we think of people like Mother Teresa, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., or Gandhi. The problem with these examples is that they are extreme and cause people to paint unrealistic pictures for themselves.

Let’s debunk a few of the most common misconceptions about what a purpose is or should be.

A Purpose Is “Noble”

When I chat with people about purpose, I often find that they expect to be called to areas that are immensely important and noble—grand, world-changing endeavors—and they carry some degree of shame and guilt for not having realized their aspirations. This is probably what stymies people the most. The word purpose has a lot of baggage that comes with it.

The truth is that purpose can be found anywhere: in your volunteer work, caring for your children, being the best partner you can be, lovingly serving patrons a cup of coffee at the diner where you work. It depends on what’s meaningful to you, not others.

Pursuing impressive careers or “important” causes that aren’t personally meaningful to you will not give you the peaceful satisfaction that comes with following your true purpose. To paraphrase Jiddu Krishnamurti, through a wrong means, you can’t achieve a right result. Ego will never lead you to your purpose. You have to be careful to follow your heart—connecting to your true, honest self—no matter how humble your personal purpose may be.

I have a writer friend who was passionate about food and wine yet pursued a career as a lawyer because she wanted the societal legitimacy and paycheck of a professional occupation and figured she could do the job well enough. But she knew she would hate the work—the constant conflict and posturing, the lack of work-life balance, and the gut-clenching fear of making a mistake and causing irreparable harm to her clients’ interests. She was right. It was misery for her.

Downsizing to a smaller, more relaxed firm that worked with wine and food clients helped but didn’t solve the problem. So she transitioned to a part-time lawyer position and took on food and wine writing projects on the side—work that she loved wholeheartedly because of its creative, collaborative energy and subject matter. Interestingly, the disconnect between her legal career and her true passions became even more stark once she explored an area that suited her. Accolades for her legal work felt hollow and meaningless. It wasn’t until she had quit practicing law entirely and was charting her own path as a full-time culinary and wine writer that she felt a true sense of accomplishment and success.

To her surprise, my writer friend makes a livable income as well as gained the priceless benefit of doing something she loves, controlling her own schedule and workload, and actually working less. She now spends around thirteen weeks a year doing things other than billable work—like traveling to the great wine regions of the world, eating her way through Southeast Asia, visiting relatives and friends, hosting dinner parties, and generally embracing life the way she wants to. Had she stuck with big-firm lawyering, my friend would be making probably six or seven times as much money—but she has no regrets. “You can’t put a price tag on freedom, quality of life, or the satisfaction of working at something you love,” she says. “Money is a renewable resource. You’ll never get back the time you spend being miserable.”

A Purpose Is Singular

The second problem with the conventional view of purpose is the myth that each of us has just one distinct, overarching purpose in life. This notion puts needless pressure on us and can often make people give up on the idea of purpose altogether. In reality, nearly all of us have multiple purposes. We could and should have distinct purposes related to every large domain in our lives: a purpose related to the kind of parent we want to be, another related to the kind of work we want to dedicate ourselves to, yet another purpose to address the kind of life we want to lead, and so on. Consider a purpose to be similar to a brief mission statement for each of the important categories in your life, guiding your behaviors and beliefs.

A Purpose Is Forever

The third problematic aspect of conventional thinking on purpose is that identifying one is your final destination. Human beings are in a constant cycle of budding, blooming, and withering away. Likewise, so are our many purposes. At any given moment, you can be living your current purpose, experiencing one fading away, or awakening a new purpose that is trying to emerge. Your job is to notice what’s happening, taking inspired action to help it along.

As you seek your purpose, you may experience impatience and an unwillingness to yield to the natural unfolding process. But you cannot force the discovery of your purpose. It doesn’t work that way. Impatience prevents us from exploring, following the clues, and taking the necessary baby steps that will lead to the next inspired action. We need to focus on the journey, not the end result.

Adapted excerpt from Connection: How to Find the Life You’re Looking for
in the Life You Have
by Kristine Klussman, PhD © 2021 Kristine Klussman, reprinted with permission from the author and the publisher, Sounds True, Inc.