I was walking through the winter
woods in Colorado
last year when I realized that every creature in the forest plays an important
Plants take up nutrients from sunlight and soil and
transform them into flowers, seeds, and leaves that nourish insects and birds.
Insects and birds, in turn, feed larger animals who make their own
contributions, helping to maintain balance, creating carbon dioxide for the
flora, and eventually returning their bodies to the earth so that plants can
make the nutrients available once again. Even rocks play a part, providing
shelter and eventually wearing down into mineral-rich dirt that gives plants a
place to grow.
Each creature fulfills its purpose naturally, without
trying, just by being who it is and doing what it’s designed to do. They don’t
have to strive, self-improve, or set New Year’s resolutions to play their role.
The squirrel may not be intending to safeguard the future of
the forest when he buries an acorn and forgets to dig it up, but he
nevertheless does. Similarly, the bee may not know that all life depends on
her, but she still ensures the reproduction of plants when she gathers her
It occurred to me that humans are designed to do the same
We come into this world with bodies wired to serve a purpose just by being
who we are.
But we learn at a young age to analyze and doubt, to ignore
and deny, to strive and override. And then we forget.
Humans, after all, in our ongoing quest for control and
predictability, have largely removed ourselves from natural cycles.
We’ve created our own ecosystems that either exclude other
species or attempt to bend them to our will. Though we’ve gained a lot from our
efforts, we’ve lost far more, including the intrinsic, effortless purpose that
comes from playing our native role in the natural world.
As a result, most of us wander through our lives unable to
see what function we serve, but like everything else on this planet, we’re
wired to serve one.
This missing sense of purpose is like a phantom limb that causes us
excruciating, if unacknowledged pain.
After talking with hundreds of diverse people who long to
find more meaning in their lives, I’ve come to believe that this collective
estrangement and thirst for belonging affect just about everyone, though not
everyone has the luxury to feel it, and some are more sensitive to it than
I find it reassuring to understand why I’ve always felt a longing, a lack of belonging, and a deep grief at not knowing how to take my place in the family of things (to quote Mary Oliver).
And I’ve found that alongside the
ever-present grief, there’s always something else: A knowing. A quickening. A
Because though we can and do lose touch with our wild purpose, it’s always
there, under the surface, trying to get our attention.
Sometimes it speaks to us through a
vague longing and loneliness. Other times it calls to us with a lack of energy
and motivation, a growing dissatisfaction or unease, or an inability to
continue pushing on as before. It can even appear as physical ailments, anxiety
and depression, or other “disorders.”
We rediscover our wild purpose by
learning to inhabit and listen to our bodies once again; by following our
instincts; and by reconnecting to ourselves, other people, and the natural
There’s a pull in all of us, quiet
but persistent, and when we put our fears and egoic concerns aside long enough
to follow it, we rediscover our role in the ecosystem of life.
We don’t have to do anything to
fulfill our natural purpose; we simply need to relax enough for it to emerge on
its own, becoming more of who we already are over time.
The wilds are calling all of us home. The question is: will we listen?
Questions to work with:
What’s wild that wants to move in me?
What makes me feel more connected to myself, to other people, and to the wider living world? How can I deepen these connections?
What am I already contributing to other beings that comes so naturally that it doesn’t even seem like a gift to me?
What are my heart, body, and instincts moving me towards or away from?
What ideas am I rejecting because they seem scary, uncertain, impractical, or illogical?
Take Your Place in the Family of Things
I love helping other people learn how to fulfill their wild purpose. If you’d like help, please reach out. I’ve just opened another cohort of Pathfinders Group Coaching, which is one of the most powerful programs I offer to clarify the purpose that’s calling you and take practical steps towards it. Pathfinders offers a unique combination of community, support, and individualized feedback. To find out more, fill out an application so we can set up a time to talk.
If you liked this post, please consider sharing it using the social media links at the bottom of the page.
As you may have picked up in a previous post, my husband and I are thinking of moving and have been looking at houses nearby.
Recently we saw a sweet one on a beautiful piece of land that was priced well under our budget, but it needed a lot of work if it was going to give us what we wanted. As we met with architects, contractors, engineers, and other experts to explore the possibilities, I paid close attention to my internal response. I meditated on what we found, journaled about it, discussed it with people I trust, all the while paying attention to my thoughts, feelings, and body sensations, and listening for the subtle stirrings of desire.
In other words, I was doing my best to hear my Inner Wisdom.
What I heard, over and over, was: Yes. This is the right house, the right step to take. It’s going to be a lot of work. It may be stressful and overwhelming at times. You’ll probably run into many challenges. But you can handle it, it’ll help you grow, and you can create something wonderful on land that you’re already beginning to love. (Fortunately, my husband agreed.)
Due diligence expired, and I began to get excited. Having made the decision to buy the house, I felt energized, enthusiastic, and capable, not to mention incredibly blessed to have this opportunity in front of us.
And then, a few days before closing, my confidence evaporated. What I can only describe as a tsunami of fear crashed over me, washing away excitement and leaving only panic in its wake. I couldn’t stop thinking about how much money it was going to cost, how much work it would be, and how many things could possibly go wrong.
Doubt overtook me. We were already running into some unexpected expenses. Had we made the wrong decision? Was my Inner Wisdom wrong? Should we back out of the contract before it was too late?
A Confusing Pattern
The same thing happens to my clients all the time. They do a lot of work to come up with promising career ideas, explore them, and use their Inner Wisdom to find a possibility they’re excited about. There’s usually a window of time that lasts somewhere between an hour and a month in which they too feel enthusiastic, confident, and optimistic.
The window promptly closes somewhere around the time when change starts to get real. Then suddenly, without warning, the tidal wave comes, sometimes drowning them in fear, panic, and doubt, sometimes merely soaking them to the bone.
So what’s the deal? Why does this happen? And how can we possibly know how to navigate important life decisions when something that feels so good one minute feels so bad the next?
The key to answering all three questions is to understand exactly what Inner Wisdom is.
So, What is Inner Wisdom?
I first discovered the presence of a wise voice inside me when I was struggling with depression in my mid-twenties. I began to find that even in my worst moments, when I felt utterly alone, confused, and hopeless, I could still sometimes hear the whisper of something far wiser than me if I just got quiet enough. It spoke softly, calmly, and compassionately; gave voice to truths that seemed to come out of nowhere; and slowly but surely guided me out of my misery when everything I’d tried before had only made it worse.
One step at a time, I followed my Inner Wisdom out of depression and back to myself.
Since then, that quiet, inner voice has led me to do things that I wouldn’t have thought possible. It steered me towards building a thriving coaching practice, marrying a wonderful man, writing a novel, developing meaningful relationships, returning to my roots in Atlanta, and expanding myself mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. It helps me make difficult decisions that turn out well when there’s no way to rationally anticipate what might be the better option. It’s no exaggeration to say that every time I follow my Inner Wisdom, I discover greater levels of joy, freedom, and fulfillment.***
So what is this voice exactly?
If you’re not the woo-woo type, here’s a scientific explanation: Inner Wisdom (or intuition) is another name for the things we know but don’t know that we know. Recent research suggests that it’s measurable and can indeed help people make faster, more accurate, and more confident decisions. What’s more, scientists have found that there’s an intrinsic nervous system in the heart and a secondary “brain” in the gut, both of which function independently and send more information to the brain in our head than vice versa. In other words, our bodies provide us with information and intelligence that goes far beyond our rational, conscious thought.
I personally see Inner Wisdom as the voice of my true self. It comes from the part of me that extends beyond ego, and that’s free from fear, constrictions, or limiting beliefs.
I also believe that it comes from a collective wisdom that we can tap into if we’re willing to get quiet and listen. Joanna Macy talks about how when we act on behalf of something greater than ourselves, we have access to the wisdom, beauty, and strength of our fellow humans and our fellow species. This absolutely feels true to me as well, and perhaps explains why my Inner Wisdom seems to know so many things that I don’t, and benefits others as much as it does myself.
How to Hear Your Inner Wisdom 101
When I coach clients in how to know what their intuition is saying, we usually start with the body. Wisdom can show up in any of our three centers of intelligence, but it’s generally easiest to hear in the body. Paying attention to physical sensations and noticing what helps your body feel more open, spacious, relaxed, or energized can give you great clues about where your Inner Wisdom is pointing.
In addition, observing the flavor of your thoughts can help you identify what’s coming from Inner Wisdom and what’s coming from your Inner Critic. I recently wrote a whole post about how to identify your Critic, and you can learn a lot about your intuition just by noticing which thoughts are the opposite of what I describe there.
To put it simply, your Inner Wisdom is usually quiet, calm, patient, loving, and compassionate. When you listen to it, you understand that you have plenty of time, you’re going to be okay, and no matter how you feel, you’re still a whole, lovable, and worthy human being. Fear and your Inner Critic, on the other hand, are generally urgent, dire, judgmental, and belittling. They make it seem likely that everything good is about to implode, most probably because you’re fundamentally flawed.
A great way to learn more about how your Inner Wisdom speaks to you is to keep a record of all the times you think you hear its voice. Write down how you recognized it, what it told you, what you decided as a result of hearing it, and how that decision turned out. If you’re like me, over time you’ll start to gather evidence that your Inner Wisdom is quite trustworthy, as well as some powerful clues for how to identify it.
How to Hear Your Inner Wisdom 201
Now here’s where things start to get interesting.
Often I have clients who tell me that their Inner Wisdom is telling them—surprise!— to stay in their current job after all because they realized that it isn’t as bad as they originally thought.
Sometimes this is actually true; more often, however, it’s a sign that they’ve run face-first into the wall of fear that usually sits just on the other side of wisdom.
Because sooner or later, our Inner Wisdom always leads us towards what we fear most. This isn’t a punishment or sign that we’re doomed to misery; I rather see it as evidence that (as David Whyte puts it) this world was made to be free in. The universe conspires to open us up and remove our constrictions by pointing us towards our fears again and again and again; that way, we have plenty of opportunities to come to terms with and move past them.
This principle explains the tidal wave of fear and doubt that I encountered with the new house, the same one that clients feel when they get into exploring an exciting career idea. Almost every time we attempt to follow our Wisdom into a new realm or on a deeper level, there’s a backlash when we come face-to-face with some of our greatest fears.
It becomes important, then, at this point in our Inner Wisdom studies, to be able to distinguish between the sensations of true guidance and the temporary relief that comes from avoiding something scary or falling back into the familiarity of an old (but unhelpful) pattern.
It takes time and observation to learn the difference. This is like the PhD of Inner Wisdom education, and those usually take what—approximately 102 years based on what my friends who have them say? The point is, try to be patient with yourself. I’ve also adopted the general rule of thumb that I have to talk to at least three people who are wiser than me before abandoning a course of action that previously felt like wisdom.
Feeling the Fear, Trusting the Wisdom
The three wise people I spoke to about the house didn’t seem to share my newfound fear that everything good in my life would turn to dust if I moved forward with the purchase. I also noticed that in those rare moments when I had some relief from the terror and felt slightly more grounded, I still felt excited and energized by the idea of moving forward with it.
So we closed on the house last week. Though I know by now that I can trust my Inner Wisdom, I still obsessed over the budget a few more times, tried to solve every problem we might encounter in advance, and made backup plans for my backup plans. Hey, that’s just what I do.
Which leads me to a final PhD-level concept: Trusting your Inner Wisdom doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing affair. I’ve come a long way in terms of following my intuition, but as you can see in the house example, part of me trusts, and part of me still doesn’t. The part that doesn’t is going to want me to fall back into old habits that make me feel safe (though I know by now they don’t actually accomplish much in that regard). If it helps calm me down, there’s nothing wrong with doing it, as long as I realize that’s what’s going on and participate with eyes wide open.
Because the part of me that trusts is growing. And the world is already a much freer place because of it.
***The Fine Print:
This isn’t to say that if you listen to your Inner Wisdom you’ll always get everything you crave, things will always go the way you want, or you won’t face any unexpected challenges. This isn’t Manifestation, which can so easily become about listening to ego once again. When tuning in to Inner Wisdom, I find that it’s best to let go of my ideas about particular outcomes and trust that while things may not turn out as I imagine, they’ll result in the best possible scenario for everyone involved. That may not sound very reassuring, but I can also add that in my experience, if you follow your Inner Wisdom, you’ll find plenty of options for taking care of your needs, far more opportunities for creating joy, the ability to share your most powerful gifts with the world, and the promise of serving a greater purpose even when you have no idea what that may be.
Want Help Hearing Your Inner Wisdom?
I offer individual and group coaching programs at various levels of investment that can help you get your PhD in Inner Wisdom and work through the fear that likes to lurk on the other side of it.
Over to You
When have you followed your Inner Wisdom, and what came of it?
Please share in the comments below. You might just inspire someone else to trust their intuition.
Some people know their life’s purpose from an early age. I am not one of them.
For me, purpose was more like a spleen: I knew I had one, and I recognized that it was probably helpful, but I had no clear idea of what it was or how it worked. As a result, it seemed somewhat irrelevant to the larger decisions of my life.
It took me a long time to get clear on my purpose. It showed itself to me one small piece at a time, and only when I got serious about investigating its nature. I had to stay curious for years and gather clues one at a time until a bigger picture began to emerge.
The good thing about having to work so hard to uncover my purpose is that I now know how to do it.
Because purpose changes as we do. We don’t stay the same throughout our lives, and our circumstances certainly shift as well, so our purpose necessarily evolves with us. If you want to live a meaningful life true to what’s most important to you, you won’t define your purpose just once; you’ll do it over and over again.
Having spent significant time wrestling with my own purpose, and then helping others define theirs, I’ve found a few things you can do to make the process easier. The first is to recognize what’s getting in your way.
The debilitating myth that keeps your purpose hidden
Your purpose is a part of who you are, and you already have everything you need to recognize (or remember) it. The trouble is, we’re not taught anything in school about finding our purpose, and when we do finally decide to pay more attention to it, at best we don’t really know what to look for, and at worst we look for the wrong thing.
Movies, media, and popular culture have encouraged us to think that purpose is going to be like a lion or a hurricane. We expect that something as profound as purpose must be impressive, imposing, and intense. We think it has to operate on a grand scale and be big enough to inspire mass admiration from others.
In my experience, this expectation can lead you astray. From what I can tell, purpose in the real world is more often like an amoeba: richly layered, dynamic, adaptable, absolutely needed, and beautiful in its own way, but unassuming, without defined edges, and not usually grandiose.
Nobody wants to claim an amoeba as their heart and soul, so when it reveals a part of itself to us, we tend to scowl and turn our attention elsewhere, looking for something more extraordinary.
But if we can see those often underwhelming and perplexing clues for what they are and pay attention to them for long enough, a larger pattern begins to reveal itself.
How to read the signs
If purpose is like a wild beast that you’re stalking (or, to keep my metaphors consistent, perhaps a wild amoeba), then the good news is that you can find its tracks all over your daily life if you know where to look.
For the next four weeks, pause 2-3 times a day (ideally once in the late morning, once in the late afternoon, and once in the evening) and take a few minutes to ask yourself the following questions. Take brief notes so you can begin to notice patterns:
What sensations do I notice in my body when I feel a sense of meaning or fulfillment? When, in the time period since my last reflection, did I feel any of those sensations?
In the same time period, when did something touch my heart? (In other words, when did I feel a sense of compassion, grief, outrage, etc.)?
When was I moved to take action on behalf of someone or something other than myself?
Once a week, take some time to read through what you’ve recorded and ask yourself:
What do these things have in common?
What feels most important in what I’ve identified so far?
What am I learning about what’s meaningful to me?
Putting it all together in a Personal Mission Statement
Once you’ve uncovered enough clues, you can use them to guide you in lots of different ways. There’s really no wrong way to do this.
You may already have some clarity about what your purpose is or, if not, at least in what direction it lies. If you don’t, it might be helpful to break your purpose down into parts and use them to write your own Personal Mission Statement.
There are 4 main components to consider:
1.Whom or what do you want to help?
For example: elderly women, young men, people struggling with depression, immigrants, lawyers, endangered turtles, homeless dogs, squirrels, cockroaches, old-growth trees, New Yorkers, etc. Whom or what are you concerned about and would like to benefit?
2.What do you want to help them accomplish or change?
This is your impact. What exactly do you want to be different for those you want to help?
3. How do you want to do this?
There are a few different ways of getting at this, for example:
Do you feel called to work with individuals; groups and organizations; or society, policy, and systems at large?
Do you enjoy working directly on causes (for example, going to disaster zones and offering direct aid) or indirectly (supporting those who do the on-the-ground work)?
What types of action are most natural, enjoyable, or easy for you? (For example, creating, researching, teaching, counseling, planning, organizing, healing, inspiring, listening, designing, entertaining, etc.)
4. For what reason or larger goal?
This is the purpose behind your purpose. We almost always have underlying values or visions that inform our goals, and bringing them to the surface can be very helpful. Why do you want to make these contributions or create these benefits? What about them is important to you? (Keep in mind you might have more than one answer.)
When you have some clarity about each of these components, you can put them together in a Personal Mission Statement. Here’s the structure:
I help ____(1)____ to ____(2)____ by ____(3)____ so that ____(4)____.
One last (very important) thing
Now that you have your Personal Mission Statement, please don’t make the mistake of holding on to it too tightly.
To use one final metaphor (the last one, I promise), purpose is like water. It’s dynamic and free-flowing. The more you try to hold onto it, the more it slips through your fingers.
Purpose is bigger than us. We do not create or control it. I don’t believe we can even fully understand it. All we can do is recognize it when it makes itself known, follow its flow, and create a container for it to run through our lives.
Want to know something about me that most people don’t?
I’ve been to jail…3 times in all. Spending a total of 4 nights and 5 days behind bars.
That makes it sound kind of like a luxury vacation which, I can assure you, it most certainly was not. In fact, I think everyone should go to jail at some point to learn what it’s like and why it’s highly likely that if people weren’t criminals before they went in, they probably will be before they get out.
But that’s a topic for another day.
Right now my point is that I was arrested multiple times for a purpose: once for lying down on campus in the middle of the night to protect the Ethnic Studies program at my university; once for “maliciously blocking a public walkway” to get the attention of Neiman Marcus and persuade them to stop selling fur; and once for sitting down on the sidewalk in front of the White House to stop a pipeline from being built that would make it lucrative to extract oil from the tarsands in Canada.
I protested, I volunteered, and I worked for a variety of nonprofits and social enterprises during my first 12 years of employment because I thought you fulfilled your purpose by solving some major problem in the world. And yet after years of doing so much towards that end, I still felt totally unfulfilled and frustrated by how little impact my efforts were having.
In retrospect, my ego was probably more than a little involved in my desire to fix things. My heart was in the right place, but what I eventually learned through a full-on spiritual breakdown and subsequent years of introspection, study, and experimentation, is that purpose isn’t really about saving the world.
Purpose is certainly related to making positive changes in the world. But it’s also about contributing our talents in unique ways that only we can. And perhaps most surprisingly to me, it’s also about finding our joy, taking care of ourselves, and having fun.
The good news is, for the same reason that purpose can be hard to define, there are infinite ways to fulfill it. Which means you don’t have to find a new job or work for the Mother Teresa Foundation to start feeling a greater sense of purpose and fulfillment.
Here are a few ideas for how to bring more purpose into your work without changing jobs:
1. Start to see the impact you’re already having.
Most people have a far greater impact than they realize. We rarely get feedback about the results of all our actions, so we never know that the kind word we said to somebody turned their day around or the seemingly meaningless data we programmed led to the successful launch of a new venture.
To be able to see the contributions you’re already making more clearly, you need to become a detective. Look for clues—did someone smile when talking to you today, did their mood shift during your conversation, did they thank you for something? Imagine what might have resulted from your actions—did something you worked on go on to create more clarity on an issue, improve a customer’s life, or make someone else’s job easier?
You can also ask questions of folks around you to find out how your work is impacting them and how it fits into the larger picture of the organization you work for. Your efforts may seem minor to you, but they probably have a bigger impact than you realize. Being aware of that impact can be key to feeling a greater sense of purpose.
2. Prioritize what matters.
Often we lack a sense of purpose in our work because we’re always focusing on what’s urgent while neglecting what’s important. If you take the time to get clear on what really matters most (to you, and to the impact you want to have through your work), you can prioritize that. You can give yourself permission to do less of what isn’t important and perhaps even do it less than perfectly.
When you prioritize what matters, you’re more effective in serving your purpose and get more done that feels meaningful and fulfilling
3. Share what you know.
We’ve all gained knowledge and expertise in certain areas just by living our lives, and whether it’s related to your current field or not, it’s useful. Offer to share what you know freely with others. Teach a class, mentor someone, or offer to let someone pick your brain over lunch. Recognizing that your wisdom if valuable and sharing it for the benefit of somebody else is a great (and easy) way to find more purpose.
4. Pay attention to what the people around you need.
Sometimes we get so busy trying to get $#!& done that we forget why we’re doing it in the first place. If part of the reason you work is to make a positive contribution to the world, you might do better to put aside your To Do list for a moment and take a look at the people around you. What do they long for? What do they need? What would help them with whatever is currently causing them pain?
I had a client who found a much greater sense of purpose in her work simply by bringing more empathy into her daily interactions. By paying attention to what would help those around her, she found easy ways to contribute—with a smile, a word of encouragement, a favor, or simply an open ear. Purpose doesn’t have to be grandiose, and the smallest actions can have big consequences when we’re present and attuned to what’s happening around us.
5. Ask for assignments and initiate projects.
When you know what impact you want to have, you can get creative and find ways to bring that into your current work environment. Maybe you could request to join a department or team that’s already working on that issue. Or perhaps you could initiate a project in that area. Do you want to start a recycling program at your office? What about spearheading a volunteer day, or working on the diversity task force?
I had a client who found a lot more satisfaction in her job by (1) initiating an important departmental change and managing its implementation and (2) spearheading a fundraiser for a coworker who was undergoing treatment for cancer. Both required an investment of time and effort, but because they were so meaningful to her, they gave her far more energy than they took.
6. Share more of your gifts in any way you can.
What are you good at? No, I’m not interested in what skills you put on your resume. I mean, what are you really good at, naturally? What do you do without even trying? What gifts do you give just by being who you are, and approaching the world in the way that you do?
Once you have a sense of what these are, find more ways to give them in any way you can. Not only will you increase your impact, but you’ll feel more satisfied too.
7. Pay attention to what you love.
This was the missing piece for me for a long time. I was doing operations and management work that I was good at but didn’t particularly enjoy. Once I started paying attention to my gifts and, in particular, my joy, I realized that my purpose wasn’t dependent on solving some major world problem.
Though I still think addressing those problems is absolutely worthwhile, I learned how to find my purpose more effectively in daily actions based on writing, creating, exploring, being outdoors, spending time with the people I love (and lots of animals too), helping others realize that they already have everything they need within them, and otherwise having fun.
I’ve felt much more fulfilled and purposeful ever since.
If you’re not sure what your purpose is, you’re not alone.
Being married to a Brazilian man, I have a lot of opportunities to see just how differently two people can understand the same word.
One time, for example, the term “boob job” came up. My husband gave me a confused look and asked, “Is that when a woman works giving her milk to orphans?” Bless his literal heart, that’s the first thing he thought of when trying to figure out how a woman could make money using her breasts.
Somewhat similarly, I’ve come to realize that people often misconstrue what it means to find your calling. While I don’t claim to have a perfect or uniquely true understanding of the concept (and I have to admit that I prefer my husband’s definition of “boob job” to my own), I do find that some of the more common misconceptions about discovering what you’re meant to do in the world get in the way of successfully doing it.
So here are the 10 biggest myths about finding your calling:
You only have one.
When we imagine that there’s only one thing out there that we’re born to do, the process of finding it becomes like searching for a needle in a haystack. In my experience, we all have multiple callings, and countless ways we can fulfill them. Nobody is good at only one thing, and almost everyone has multiple interests. We can use all of these in our calling, either in combination or sequentially. Don’t be afraid to acknowledge this abundance and stop trying to find the one, right answer. Instead, listen in to which of the many valid expressions of your calling feels most energizing and needed at this point in your life.
Your calling never changes.
Would that we could stop looking once we find work we love. Fortunately and unfortunately, our calling changes as we do—what satisfied us once won’t do so forever. This can be frustrating to the part of us that hates change and wants to rest effortlessly on our laurels. On the other hand, it’s an incredible opportunity to continue to grow more powerful, learn, deepen, and create new contributions that are freshly responsive to our dynamic desires and the world’s changing needs. So don’t pressure yourself to find something you’ll be happy with the rest of your life; instead, embrace the fact that it’s going to change and find something that feels right for you right now.
Finding your calling solves all your problems.
Before, I thought that like a knight in shining armor, a career I loved would slay all my dragons with one swipe of its sword: I’d be happy all the time. I’d have no more doubts and worries. My life would be filled with birdsong, sunshine, beaches, and sunsets.
Yea, not so much. Don’t get me wrong—I love what I do, it’s fulfilling and energizing, and I feel like I’m working on something that truly matters. That makes a big difference in my life. But I still have worries and fears, I still get frustrated by things taking longer than I’d like, and according to my husband, I still snore at night. Our challenges are here to help us grow and expand, to relax into what is, and to embrace life. They don’t disappear because there’s always more worth learning and welcoming. I recommend making peace with your problems as best you can and recognizing the fantasy of the knight in shining armor for what it is—popular fiction.
It has to be big.
A lot of my clients struggle to define their calling because what feels meaningful to them seems too small. I had one client, for example, who found great satisfaction in making people laugh, but he didn’t think it was grand or beneficial enough to truly be called a purpose. After doing some research, however, he discovered that laughter improves moods, decreases stress, boosts our immune systems, strengthens social connections, enhances learning, and has many other benefits for body, mind, and spirit. It turns out laughter is quite powerful medicine.
The world has many needs—how are we to judge with our limited perspectives which are more important or valuable than others? Acknowledging the impact you want to have, not just the one you think you should, is a great way to get started defining your purpose.
You have to make money doing it.
While many people do make money from their passion, and it’s often more possible than you think, you get to choose whether you want to or not. Making money is a means to an end, not a worthwhile goal in itself. If you’re giving life to the things you feel called to create, you’ll feel equally satisfied whether you’re paid for them or not. Many people find great contentment creating and contributing their unique vision to the world without getting paid a dime. How you want to live your passion—not just how you want to live off of it—is one of the most powerful questions you can ask.
You can’t make money doing it.
Here’s the clever reasoning so many of us use not to pursue our calling: “I have to make money doing what I love, but I won’t be able to, so why bother?” This belief is usually the work of our fear, which makes up stories to keep us from taking risks. “Nope, don’t bother making that leap, Chief,” it yells into its bullhorn. “You won’t be able to make a good living from it. Better to stick with what we’re doing now—at least we know it’ll pay the bills.” But unless you’ve actually tried and given it everything you’ve got, you can’t know for sure that you won’t be able to make enough money. And one thing I invariably find with myself and my clients is that there are far more possibilities in the world than we think there are when we’re sitting alone with our fear. So stop telling yourself this story; it just isn’t true. Instead, look for ways to find out for yourself what’s actually possible for you.
You have to find a new job to do it.
Sometimes following your calling will take you into a bold new adventure. But other times it’ll point out ways that you can tweak your current circumstances to allow you to fulfill your purpose. I had a client who was desperately unhappy in her current job. As she got clearer about what she wanted, she realized that by speaking up more with her boss, finding ways to work on certain types of projects, and focusing more on the contributions she was making to her coworkers that went beyond her official job description, she could fulfill her calling without changing positions, at least for the time being. Don’t assume you can’t fulfill your calling until you find a new job; instead, start asking how you can bring more passion and purpose into your life as it is right now.
You have to sacrifice yourself in order to do it right.
I knew someone who was scared to ask the question of what he really felt called to do because he was worried he would find that he needed to sell all his belongings, move halfway across the world, and live in dire poverty helping the poorest of the poor. When he actually did investigate his purpose, however, he found that he could do what was truly important to him while still living a comfortable life close to the people he loved.
You can answer your calling in a way that doesn’t require you to give up what you hold most dear. And if you are asked to give up some things along the way, it can be only what feels right to you, once you’re ready, and in a way that feels like freedom, not sacrifice. The key thing to remember is that answering your calling is about lovingly taking care of what’s most important to you, not sacrificing it on the altar of grand gestures that aren’t authentic to you.
It’s all about what you do, not how you do it.
You could be doing wonderful work in the world, but if you’re killing yourself doing it or compromising your ethics in the process, it isn’t truly your calling. What you do is important, but so is how you do it. That means being able to work with ease, go at your own pace, and act in integrity with your values. So as you continue to move closer to your calling, pay as much attention to how you’re working as what you’re doing.
You’re not already doing it.
Chances are that no matter what you do for work, you’re already fulfilling your calling in some way, shape, or form. The greatest gifts you have to offer come naturally to you and are inherent in how you approach the world, so you’re going to express them whether you intend to or not. I was listening deeply to and supporting others long before I officially became a coach, and I’ve enjoyed putting complex ideas into words and images in various ways my whole life. It’s absolutely a worthwhile endeavor to find ways to express your calling more powerfully, but it’s also great to realize that you don’t have to do anything differently to share your gifts with the world.
Big News Coming Soon
If you could use some help to find your calling (and let’s be honest here, who couldn’t?), then I’ve got good news. I have some exciting offerings in the works and will be making announcements about them soon. If you want to be sure you hear them, then sign up to receive updates in the box below.
If you’ve had a hard time figuring out what your purpose in life is, don’t worry. You’re not alone. And what’s more, you don’t really need to figure it out to find what you’re looking for.
When we talk about finding our life purpose, we’re usually looking for an organizing principle to give direction and meaning to all the chaos. We want to find a noble aspiration to dedicate ourselves to, something that will tell us who we are and what we were born to do. We’re searching for something that can make us feel we belong on this planet and that our lives are complete.
Finding your purpose can’t do this for you. Living your purpose can.
Where fulfillment comes from
When I was in my early twenties, I worked for a series of nonprofits that were doing work I truly believed in. I dedicated myself to furthering important missions like ending homelessness or empowering Mexican factory workers or creating a more just and humane economy.
I loved working on causes I believed in, but I still didn’t feel fulfilled. I didn’t feel my life was complete, and what I did at work gave me no sense of meaning or purpose in any other area of my life.
What I’ve found is key to fulfillment and meaning is making choices that align with what’s most important to me. Purpose hasn’t turned out to be some external goal or aspiration. Rather, it’s a living breathing part of who I am that can be expressed in any moment. It’s less grandiose, quieter, and harder to pin down than I used to imagine, but if I listen to it, it leads to far more joy and satisfaction.
The secret to finding your purpose
The wonderful thing about purpose is that the process for finding it is the same as for living it, and you don’t have to know what it is to get started.
You live your purpose by expressing who you already are in each action and in each moment. To do this, first listen to what your inner guidance is telling you do to. What action feels right when you’re connected to your wisest self and your innate goodness? What do you feel pulled towards? What fills you up? What brings you joy? What makes you come alive?
How can you nurture what you care about deeply?
After you listen, you do. You act on the guidance you’re getting, or find ways to do more of what makes you feel your best in each decision and in each moment. It doesn’t matter if you see a pattern, can name what you’re doing, or know what’s next. What matters is that each action resonates with you on a deep level and expresses who you really are.
The Listen-Do process works on a day-to-day level as well as on a larger “life” level. You can use the questions to determine what to eat for lunch or you can use them to see which activities, commitments, ideas, professions, organizations, job opportunities, or career paths you feel called to pursue.
No matter what you decide or where you end up, if you follow this process over and over again, you’ll be living your purpose. And you don’t have to do it perfectly (I know I certainly don’t). In my experience, just making a sincere effort leads to loads of joy, meaning, fulfillment, and a sense of doing what you’re meant to even if you have no idea what that actually is.
And if you still really want to know what your purpose is…
I can’t blame you. Sometimes you need to communicate it to others. Sometimes you just really want to know. Here are three things you can try:
Write the eulogy you’d like to receive after you die (after a good, long life), keeping in mind that the word comes from the Greek word for praise. How did you impact the people around you? What contributions did you make? How was the world different as a result of you having been in it?
Keep a daily journal listing the things you did that you feel good about or that benefited others in any way, no matter how small. Which were most fulfilling? Which brought you the most joy? Which had the biggest impact? What do these contributions have in common?
Live Your Purpose
If you’re still not sure what your purpose is, more help is available.
I offer individual and group coaching programs at various levels of investment designed to help you identify your purpose, discover what you’re meant to do in the world, and get started actually doing it.
In my last post, I talked about why it’s not so useful to ask the question, “How do I turn my passion into profit?”
I offered another question instead to help you get better answers, answers that can open up new options for you.
This week I want to give you some ideas to help expand your options.
When considering changes to your work life, there are four main categories to consider. I’ll elaborate a bit about each of them to help you get started.
1. Get more of what you want in your current job.
What would allow you to enjoy your current job more? How could you bring more of what you love into what you already do?
Maybe you could identify projects you would enjoy working on and find ways to incorporate them into your work. For example, I had a friend who was a researcher at a university who got permission to teach a class on a subject she was passionate about. Naturally creative, she also incorporated poetry into her conference presentations (and believe it or not, this was a big hit).
Sometimes clients find that having direct conversations with their bosses and making requests regarding their needs is all they really need to feel satisfied. Sometimes all they needed to do was ask for more feedback, less interference, more flexibility, more training, the ability to work from home, etc.
For some, resolving conflict with coworkers and supervisors is key to making their job enjoyable again. For others, it might be finding ways to take breaks, focus on one thing at a time more, or stop striving for perfection.
If someone wants a greater sense of purpose in their work, they might find ways to connect with the impact of their work. I had a client who was managing a legal staff at a financial firm who brought lots more meaning to his work simply by taking his employees out to lunch regularly and getting to know them more deeply.
Some people can find meaning in their work simply by finding ways to delight others. Not sure what I mean? Meet the banana man.
If you find that you want something more than greater enjoyment of your current job, then you could…
2. Get more of what you want outside of your current job.
To do more of what you love, you could cut back on your hours at work and get more involved in your passions outside of work. If you want to do this, it can help to develop your skills around dealing with requests and setting boundaries.
I had a client who discovered she was passionate about gardening and sharing this passion with her community. She considered various ways of making money from gardening and decided that none of them would give her the lifestyle she wanted. So she found a job she liked that gave her the time and resources to start a community garden outside of work. And that turned out to be great for her.
You could also work for a couple of years, save up money, and then take time off to pursue your passions.
If you just can’t find ways to save or can’t find the time or energy to do what you want while working in your current job, then move on to item #3.
3. Find a new job.
This is a pretty obvious option, and one most people have considered, if not spent numerous hours daydreaming about. I don’t have much to add here, except to say how vitally important it is that you know what you want (what you really, really want) if you do make a change.
If you haven’t taken the time to get clear about what this is, then I highly recommend doing so before you find something new. Because (1) you may discover that you can find what you want in your current setup, and (2) if you don’t, you’re likely to find yourself in the same situation again in the not-too-distant future. Groundhog Day, here we come.
And if none of these strategies feels like it can give you what you want, then you always have the option to…
4. Start something yourself.
This is a great option, especially if a structure for what you want to offer the world isn’t already out there.
Again, your particular desires, needs, and intentions will inform whether you can be perfectly happy doing this part-time after a day job or whether you want to go all in and do it full-time.
If you decide that this is the way you want to go, and you decide you want to earn money doing it, then you need to consider not only what you want to do, but also what pain you can help solve.
Frederick Buechner defines vocation as “the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.”
Ultimately, our calling is about how we can be of service in the world. That’s really what’s most important when you get down to it, mostly because that’s what gives meaning to what we do. But it also gives us a sense of purpose and fulfillment, and it’s also key to making money, incidentally. Funny how that works out.
So ask yourself: What problem are you uniquely positioned to help people solve? How can you make others’ lives better? What do you have that other people need?
What you give to the world is what matters. Whether you make money off of it is just a matter of preference.
It is possible to find work you love, no matter how uncertain, stuck, or unhappy you currently feel, and no matter how long you’ve felt that way.
We all have unique passions, intentions, and abilities that allow us to impact the world in a way that nobody else can. If we find the sweet spot where all these come together, work becomes joyful, we experience greater ease, and we get to revel in the satisfaction that comes from knowing we’re having the impact we want to have in the world.
Following are the key principles for uncovering your sweet spot that I’ve discovered through finding my calling and helping dozens of clients do the same:
Get out of your head
We tend to try to solve all our problems in our heads, through reason and analysis and lists of pros and cons. The problem is, our minds can’t tell us everything we know about what we’re called to do.
Leading neuroscientist Antonio Demasio describes a famous case in which a man can no longer make decisions because a brain injury has rendered him unable to feel his emotions. Like those of us who try to figure everything out in our heads, after his injury he ping-ponged back and forth between possibilities, rationalizing first one option and then the next.
To get clear about what we really want, we need to start receiving the wisdom offered by our hearts and bodies. Our feelings and our guts have a lot to tell us about what we want, what is meaningful, and what will make us happy. (It’s not for nothing that we have neural net processors similar to those in our brains around our hearts and intestines as well.) Most of us don’t know how to decode this information, but we can learn.
Pull, don’t push
Frequently we’re taught to reach our goals by making a plan and then pushing ourselves hard to follow it. When faced with a desire for more meaningful work, however, this approach is like trying to repair a broken plate with a giant hammer. Forcing yourself to do what you think you should rather than what you feel you want is what likely got you into an unfulfilling line of work in the first place.
To find more energy, joy, and fulfillment in your work, you need to stop forcing effort and start letting yourself be pulled towards what calls you. You need to listen to what you want and need, give yourself permission to follow what feels good, and let yourself do more of what you love. You need to explore what energizes you, investigate what brings you joy, and experiment to find fulfillment. And as in any experiment, you need to risk being wrong and learn through trial and error.
If you can do this, your path suddenly becomes filled with energy, joy, and satisfaction. Even before you land your next gig.
Turn Fear From Enemy to Ally
Fear is nothing more than a sign that you’re bumping up against the edges of your comfort zone—a good sign, if you think about it, because it means you’re doing things differently, which is what’s required if you’re going to get different results. So instead of avoiding fear, you can learn to move towards it and investigate it, letting it show you what’s important to you and what you need to pay attention to. Then you can conduct mini-experiments to see how accurate its predictions are, and how you can move forward while taking care of what you care about.
Embrace Your PSP
Yea, I’m not referring to your ability to sense the paranormal, or your portable Playstation device. It’s your Passion, Strengths, and Purpose. Your calling is the center of a venn diagram of the things you love to do, the things you’re naturally good at, and the impact you want to have on the world. Getting clear on each of those, and embracing them, helps your calling crystallize.
We have this myth in our culture that we should do everything ourselves—as if that were even possible. The truth is, we all need support in lots of different ways, whether it’s the farmers who grow our food, the teachers who invest in our education, or the people who love us who give us energy and inspiration. I can’t think of one significant human accomplishment that occurred without the help of a motley crew.
When we’re having trouble reaching our goals, instead of getting mad at ourselves or lamenting our results, it’s more productive (not to mention kind) to ask what kind of support will help us get to where we’re wanting to go. Support can turn the overwhelming into the doable, the paralyzing into the invigorating, and the confusing into the clear. We all have weaknesses, and it can be quite liberating to embrace this fact and call in for reinforcements.
These principles are simple, but they’re by no means easy.
They requireus to see into our blind spots, move out of our comfort zone, and adopt a new approach. They ask us to develop new habits and new skills. In short, they depend upon a new way of being.
I became a coach because it’s the best vehicle I’ve found for helping people develop new ways of being. I’ve seen dozens of people do things they never thought possible when they tap into the support, structure, accountability, and new awareness that coaching offers.
If you’d like to find out more about how coaching could help you overcome the challenges standing in your way, check out the 1:1 Coaching pageor sign up for a free, exploratory session by clicking the button that says “free 60 minute session” at the top of this page.