Wondering What Your Purpose Is?


Dreaming, after all, is a form of planning. – Gloria Steinem

It’s the season of graduations – and graduation speeches. I’ve recently been listening online to many of the commencement addresses given by various well-known leaders in their fields – entertainment, politics, and academia. Many speeches are heartfelt, wise and funny. All of them acknowledge that graduates are probably wondering what they are going to do with their lives and what their next steps will be.

Since my last graduation more than fifteen years ago, I have realized that figuring out what we really want to do with our lives can be a lifelong pursuit. We may have to try a lot of avenues in order to find out where our passion lies. Fortunately, there is no such thing as wasted time or wasted experience. It takes time to get to know ourselves and until we do that, finding our purpose can feel out of reach.

Your passion is your purpose. But, how do you take your passion and use it to further your purpose? If you are one of those people who have always known what you wanted to do with your life and have found a way to do so while earning a great living – complete with health insurance and retirement benefits – that is wonderful. However, the rest of us have been tripped up by either not knowing what we want to do with our lives in the first place, or if we do know, not knowing how to pursue our passion while tending to the rest of our real world responsibilities, such as those pesky financial obligations.

There are some useful ways to get in touch with what you are really passionate about.

  • Ask yourself what you would do with a month off, assuming you had all the money in the world, all the time in the world, no judgment or criticism from anyone else and freedom from all responsibility.
  • Another helpful question to ask yourself is what sections do you automatically walk to when you walk into a bookstore? Perhaps you are drawn immediately to the travel, cooking or finance shelves.
  • Take a look at those activities or interests that you have always had. Perhaps you write in a journal, play in a weekly basketball game, volunteer for a particular cause or serve a role in your community.
  • What has someone else accomplished that you are most envious of? Envy can be a very valuable emotion, since it shows you what you want. Rather than react to envy by trying to tear down or discount the person toward whom you feel envy, use it instead to identify what goal you want to attain – and then set about to achieve it.
  • If you had ten minutes to get up on a soapbox and speak to the world, what would you want to talk about? Maybe you would like to recite poetry to bring the beauty of words to others, or talk about a political issue to increase others’ awareness or share with other parents how you handled a difficult phase with one of your children.
  • What pursuit makes you lose all sense of time? What were you doing the last time you said, “Wow, the time just flew by!”?

Once you have a list of answers, dig below the surface to interpret them because they can not always be translated literally. For instance, I used to think that I wanted to own a little French café. I love to cook food, eat food, take photos of food, read about food and talk to other people about food. After I looked into what it really takes to run a café – and that most of it has to do with running a business and very little to do about food – I realized that I did not want to own a little French café, I just wanted to spend a lot more time sitting in one.

Take a broader view of the answers you have compiled to the questions above. For instance, what if you would love to spend a month off traveling and you regularly head to the travel section of your bookstore? Does this mean that you are meant to make a living as a travel writer? Well, what is it about travel that you love? Perhaps you love meeting new people, experiencing different cultures, seeing new places and trying new things. So, it could be that seeking – the opportunity to constantly experience new things – is part of your purpose. If you love to share your experiences with others, teaching others may be part of your purpose. Perhaps the part you love most about travel is connecting with people who are very different from yourself or bringing people of different backgrounds together. These elements are part of your purpose, as well. List these broader concepts in order to get more of a universal view of your purpose.

A major stumbling block to living your purpose is the belief that your purpose must become your career in order to legitimize it. If you want to be a writer, then write and you are a writer. If your passion is to make music, then make music. If your purpose is to teach children, then volunteer to teach children. You do not have to quit your day job in order to pursue your passion right now.

That being said, if you would eventually like to pursue your passion as your career, often the most difficult logistical hurdle is how to make the switch from ‘day job’ to ‘dream job’. Fortunately, it is not necessary to figure out exactly how to make it all work in order to get started. Instead, identify one small step you can take – right now – to expand the amount of space you give to your passion to each day. The passionate traveler may put together an itinerary focused on cultural exchanges and form a small group to take a trip. If your passion is politics, volunteering for an advocacy group is a quick way to be involved without quitting your day job. If you are interested in starting a business, joining a trade association can put you in touch with others who can lend support, networking and brainstorming opportunities. What will not work is sitting around making up excuses as to why you do not have the education, experience, money, time or the right contacts to pursue your passion.

I have written in a journal almost every day of my life and I have been published often in journals related to my profession, yet only recently did it dawn on me that I might really be a writer at heart. Any prospect of making a living by being a writer seems almost impossible in the “real world”, however. I am not independently wealthy, know very little about the publishing world and oh, by the way, recently learned that authors do not make any money by writing books – only publishing companies do. I let go of my inability to figure out the financial end of being a writer and focused on simply writing because I love to write. I set aside time regularly to write about the subjects I am really passionate about and I enjoy how that makes me feel since I am engaging in my passion.

What happened next is typical of how the universe works. An organization with which I am involved, focusing on personal growth and spirituality, needed a writer for a few hours a month. Unfortunately the ad required candidates to be experienced writers and Bay area residents. I had neither of the requirements but I responded to the ad anyway because I would have loved to have had that job. I received a call, had an interview and was hired. The whole experience felt like a great big sign from the universe, as if to tell me to move in the direction of my passion. When you take the first step toward a goal, the universe opens up and helps you along with the next step.

A colleague of mine has always wanted to write novels. She knows her main character well and describes her as a much more interesting version of herself. For the past eight years she has been telling herself that she needs to write down on paper the story that she has reworked over and over in her mind. As a single mother of a toddler and a full-time attorney, finding the time to write is difficult. However, she realized that her assumption that she could never make a living at writing was what was really holding her back. ‘What is the point of putting all that time and effort into something that would never result in anything?’ she would think to herself as she put off writing, again and again. Redefining the definition of “writer” as someone who writes, rather than as someone who is published enabled her to embrace her passion and to enjoy it. It seems so simple when framed that way – why not spend more time engaged in what makes you happy and excited? She has now taken the step of writing every day with the goal of finishing a first draft of her book in three months. “Whether or not I finish the draft in three months doesn’t really matter”, she confided in me, “Either way, I’ll be that much closer to finishing my book instead of another eight years going by without writing a single word”. I’m so excited to see how the universe will open up to her now that she has taken her first step.

Take the time to regroup this summer to identify what you are most passionate about. Then, take one small step in the direction of that passion and see how the universe opens up to you over the next few months. You will be so glad you did!

It is a mistake to try to look too far ahead. The chain of destiny can only be grasped one link at a time. — Winston Churchill


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