“Find your purpose” is terrible advice and I’m guilty of imparting it to thousands of people. And for that, I am sorry.
I’m sorry on behalf of the countless bloggers who write tidy step-by-step instructions to “find” your purpose. The ones with the pretty stock photos of young, attractive people running through a field to entice that precious click or share.
I’m sorry that by telling you to “find” your purpose I’ve neglected who you are, right now. Leading you to overlook the compelling value and worth you have in your current life situation.
I’m sorry that by telling you to “find” your purpose I’ve painted a mirage. Sending you on a fool’s errand to find happiness or fulfillment somewhere “out there.”
And I’m deeply sorry that by telling you to “find” your purpose I’ve downplayed the power of everything you didn’t choose. Real human circumstances like the situation you were born into and society’s overpowering norms. Or media’s oppressive displays of who you should look like, what you should do, and how you should act.
The Problem with Purpose
Through my research on what purpose actually is, I’ve found that the popular idea of purpose has become reserved for a select few. The ones who have the money, fame, or flexibility to pursue it.
Just one look at the participants and settings in the vast majority of studies on meaning and purpose and you are sure to find social privilege.
This mainstream conceptualization of purpose leaves out one important variable: Where we all are, right now.
Purpose Is Ordinary
Many of the most inspiring and purpose-driven people I’ve met do ordinary things with an extraordinary perspective.
These people have a deep belief and conscious awareness of why what they do exists in the world that guides everyday behaviors and attitudes.
This hit home for me in a recent interview I conducted with a university custodian working in a dormitory. Throughout our entire conversation, she never once talked about “what” she did.
Instead, she emotionally spoke about her role as a caretaker and “mother-figure” for the students whose bathrooms she cleaned.
That is authentic purpose. A deep, awakened belief in the reason why what you are doing right now exists in the world.
Purpose is Not a Job
Some will tell you that your purpose is your dream job. I think that’s completely wrong. A job is one of many mediums for delivering purpose to the world. While some find the perfect match, most of us never do.
You aren’t lacking purpose because you’re not fulfilling your childhood dream of becoming a professional scuba diver.
And let’s think about this: Can you imagine if everyone stopped what they were doing to pursue some childhood passion?
Over half of U.S. workers are employed in low-wage, front-line service professions. If everyone just left, everything would be filthy. We’d have little to no infrastructure and we probably wouldn’t even have cars to drive to our dream jobs.
Living and working with purpose does not have to mean quitting your job just because you don’t like it.*
*Author’s Note: If you have the means, though, I still think it’s completely idiotic to spend your time doing something you don’t love.
Whatever you spend your time doing, it exists on the planet for a reason. And research has found that if you can bring that reason for existence into your everyday awareness, it can transform your work and life.
Now, let me be clear: Of course you should relentlessly pursue your dreams to improve your current situation. As long as it’s not at the expense of the present moment.
Purpose is Not Easy, Care-Free Bliss
Purpose is not achievable.
It’s not travelling around the world (I personally know many people who travel and don’t have the slightest clue about why), writing books, being a motivational speaker, or doing what you want, when you want.
The danger is that when we tell people to “go find” their purpose they end up mentally neglecting the present. Often fantasizing about some future epiphany that will magically reveal their purpose to them.
The constant state of “future-envy” leads to the opposite of mindfulness: Mindlessness.
And the absolute last thing we need are more people in this world who want to be somewhere other than where they are.
People around you right now, need you. Your little corner of the world needs you. You have talents, gifts, and a reason that is more than a job or a degree.
“The grass is always greener on the other side,” they say. I think the grass is greenest where you water it.
Awaken Your Purpose
No, I don’t think you can “find” your purpose precisely because you’ve never lost it.
The dictionary defines purpose as the “…reason for which something is done or created.”
You already have a reason by default.
By reflecting on this reason and bringing it into your every day awareness, you awaken purpose.
I’m reminded of the campus facilities worker on one frigid, snowy morning. He saw me walking to an early meeting from across the street. Upon seeing me, he immediately ran over and started shoveling directly in front of me to make sure I had a clear path.
“How are you?” I remember asking him.
“As long as I can get you to where you’re going, I’m a happy man,” he replied with a smile.
Did he read a book about purpose? Did he quit his day job to pursue his dream of shoveling snow? Was he in it for the money?
But he could answer the question that most of us struggle to on a daily basis: Why you, here, now?
The answer to that question is your authentic purpose.