“If we don’t know what we want to be when we grow up, is there something fundamentally wrong with us?”
Following our joy, chasing our bliss, finding our dharma: these are good things, right? We want to be like the heroic people who gave up the security of some well-paying 9-to-5 in order to move to Greece and start a goat farm that can power a small village. Amazing, right? Let’s all follow our passions!
But what if we don’t have one? What if there’s nothing in particular we’d want to give up our steady paycheck for? What if we care about living a meaningful life but don’t know what, exactly, that would look like?
If you feel this way, you’re not alone. The people that turned their passions into lucrative careers are happy to toot their own horns about it, and loudly. But most of us aren’t doing that. We haven’t found our calling, so we keep waiting for the phone to ring. We join the circus or buy a mobile home to sell our jewelry out of, and for a while, it feels like a life calling. It feels meaningful and important. Then, after a while, exhausted from working too hard and making too little, we realize that we’re bored and frustrated and maybe we’re not in love with what we thought was our calling anymore. Turns out the call was just spam.
Then we start to wonder: If we don’t know what we want to be when we grow up, is there something fundamentally wrong with us?
There isn’t. It’s a myth that we all have some single grand life passion that we must be following or we’re living some pale, flaccid version of life. It’s as mythological as the idea of The One for romantic love.
Doing meaningful work is wonderful, but insisting that we all follow our bliss to work every single day is a fancy bit of capitalist sleight-of-hand. If the only way to do valid meaningful work is if we’re paid to do it, that means our identity is wrapped up in our paycheck. It’s not enough to have meaningful relationships or hobbies; we have to take our meaning to the bank.
Meaning doesn’t have to be connected to money. When we know what our values are, it’s pretty easy to follow a meaningful path. We can have a regular old rent-paying job that can support us to connect with our people, create art, or travel the world. (Read more in our story “Embrace Your Daily Grind.”)
Our rent-paying jobs shouldn’t be soul-sucking, of course—we generally spend 40 hours a week or more doing it, so we should at least enjoy the people we work with or get to listen to a podcast while we crunch numbers. But if we are spending our days in terror that we are wasting our precious life at work instead of with some ghostly calling, that might be the thing that is sucking our soul, not the job itself. Our mistake is not that we aren’t listening hard enough for the call, it’s that we think our passions aren’t enough unless we devote all our working hours to them. Unfortunately, when we insist on putting our passions to work, we often end up killing our love for them.
Maybe your calling is in spending time in your garden or on long bike rides on the weekend. Maybe it’s in learning how to cook, trying out for community theater, or doodling in a wide, clean notebook. Doing things we enjoy that help us learn more about ourselves and feel more connected to our values is meaningful enough. Of course we should follow our passions when they come up in our lives, but all they need to do is bring us joy, they don’t need to define us. We should stop asking them to make us money, too.
Want more on life meaning? Read “Is a Happy Life Different from a Meaningful One?”