I’m trying to get my head around how I got here. Staring out of the office windows onto a concrete wall, wishing I could be anywhere but here, doing anything other than this. It’s 2012 and I’m 25, working as an investment research analyst, interviewing fund managers about stocks and shares and bonds, so that I can advise rich people on how to get richer. It has nothing to do with the Psychology degree I dedicated three years of my life to, and I’m the most junior on a team of economics boffs, steadily going nowhere (probably because I keep nodding off at my desk through boredom).
Back in 2018 and I can see now that aside for my disinterest in the subject matter, I found no meaning from my job, no value, no passion, no pride. Even my free time was taken up by a feeling of emptiness. It was as if my 9-5 was sucking the energy from my 5-9. On the outside, I looked successful. But inside I felt like a failure; it wasn’t what I had dreamed of doing with my life. I knew then that something had to change. But I didn’t know how.
I wasn’t alone. Many of us crave purpose in our careers; reports have found that millennials in particular move around from job to job, sometimes career to career to find it. And with millennials set to be the ruling majority of the workforce by 2020, the pressure for employers to understand what makes them tick is growing. Interestingly, it’s not necessarily a big paycheque that wins us over; research from Fortune’s ‘Best Workplaces for Millennials’ found that those who had discovered “special meaning” in their work were six times more likely to plan to stay at their job long term. Not a millennial but still resonating? Another study found that the older we get, the more purpose and meaning at work outweighs salary*.
Annoyingly though, like many of us, I didn’t know what this ‘special meaning’ looked like for me back in 2012. I didn’t know what I wanted to do – all I knew was that it wasn’t this, to the point that my mental wellbeing was suffering. A few friends of mine had turned to anti-depressants. But I knew my issue couldn’t be fixed by pills – what I was lacking, was purpose.
‘Purpose is our truth, our reason for being’ says Jessica Huie, author of Purpose: Find Your Truth and Embrace Your Calling (HayHouse, £12.99). ‘It’s about loving a life of meaning, but meaning in every sense. Purpose is stepping into the space where our lives become aligned, not just professionally, but personally.’ Huie’s also experienced discontent at work to the point of strain on her mental wellbeing. Working in Celebrity PR, she realised she no longer found meaning in her everyday work. ‘I felt a disconnect - my values were misaligned with that of this often-superficial industry. I was depressed, a workaholic, insecure. I think so many of us don't live from a space of purpose, and as a result we exist with feelings of conflict that create illness, depression and discontent, until we reconnect with ourselves and get to know who we really are, and what's meaningful to us’, says Huie.
But, what if we don’t know what our purpose is? What if we don’t know what we want to do with our lives? I remember that awful feeling of yearning for purpose yet not knowing where to find it. Psychologies ambassador Dav Piper resonates; ‘For a long time ‘looking for my purpose’ was actually sort of destructive’ she told me. ‘We hear all these amazing stories of people doing amazing things, but it can leave you feeling lost if you haven't found ‘the thing’ yourself. It’s so much pressure!’.
So where do we start when we feel discontented, pressured and perhaps disheartened? Huie urges us to move our priorities away from finding our purpose and towards simple exploration of ourselves; ‘vow to go on a journey to discover. For me, finding purpose is a process of stripping back layers to really meet ourselves again and rebuilding from that space. The decision here isn't when to make a leap - it's to explore who you are.’ And how do we explore who we are? How can we meet ourselves again? ‘Meditation, yoga, being in nature - anywhere where we can just be with ourselves and we aren't at the mercy of ‘doing’. Busyness is a plaster for being with ourselves. When we finally connect with ourselves and the present moment there is so much to be discovered in that space.’
Chelsea Dinsmore runs Live Your Legend, an international community that helps people find and do what they love. She echoes Pipers words; ‘Purpose is a heavy word - it can be paralysing’. Building on the idea of internal exploration, she suggests removing some of this pressure by replacing our focus on purpose with deeper curiosity. ‘What are the things that make you feel alive? ‘Feel’ is the key word here - the moments that make you feel overwhelmed with joy or gratitude. Start here.’ For some practical tips on exactly how to get curious, I talk to Fiona Murden, author of Defining You: How to profile yourself and unlock your full potential (Nicholas Brealey Publishing, £16.99). ‘Expand your horizons; read about different topics, expand your fixed social media feeds - these close down our curiosity to an extent because they lead us down very specific paths of what we're already interested in - click on posts you wouldn't usually click on and ask what your reaction makes you feel and can tell you about who you are. Investigate; think of yourself as a detective in every situation –the more we explore the more we realise what we really are passionate about, and also what doesn't really interest us that much.’
Once we’ve spent some time looking within and listening, Huie tells us the best way to begin to go out and find our purpose is to disrupt our lives – ‘Start to do things that force you out of your status quo - do a new activity every weekend, read a new book every week, put yourself in new environments which encourage new conversations that inspire new mind-sets. We need this in order to explore and discover what makes us tick and what lights us up.’
Dreaming the impossible dream?
And what if we have found our purpose but can’t quit our job, take a pay cut, or travel the world in order to find more meaning? What if that’s impossible for us? ‘Sometimes we discover what we feel is our calling and we can't make that leap because of certain practicalities - and that's ok too’ says Huie. ‘It's not what we do but how we do it’. She explains that in these cases, we must look to our value system to find purpose. ‘When we know what we stand for, when we know who we want to be for the world - what kind of energy we want to give out - how we want to make people feel, we can bring that into our workplace, where we are now, and that can be an incredible transformation. In this way, you can start right here, right now.’
Murden explains that we can often discover as much about our values from what we don’t feel passionate about, as what we do; ‘what really upsets you, gets to you, or really excites you? And what are the things that don't bother you or excite you that others get really passionate about, because that tells us where our values or passions don’t lie so strongly, which also helps us identify what's true and what's not true to who we are.’
And life is more than just the hours we’re at work; talking to Dinsmore reminded me of how true that is. I had originally seen a TED Talk on ‘How to find work you love’ by her husband Scott Dinsmore who founded Live Your Legend - they’d graduated university only to feel that their corporate jobs had no meaning – so they quit and started following new paths. I had planned to interview him, until I discovered that he had sadly passed away in a climbing accident on Mount Kilimanjaro whilst travelling the world with Chelsea in 2015.
Now Chelsea runs the thriving Live Your Legend community and has a very unique view on living a life of purpose that isn’t connected solely to our careers. ‘After the accident I was grieving, yet presented with a very similar feeling to the one I felt post-graduation. Scott had applied his work at Live Your Legend around the one life transition that he knew of; our career paths – but in grieving, I realised that again, I needed to follow a different path. Every day is a gift and it can disappear in a matter of seconds. When Scott died I had to find a reason, a meaning to live each day’.
So, has her relationship with death changed the way she looks at purpose now? ‘I think when you find a sense of peace around death you begin to live your life differently - it takes away the sense of time and space and you're just here to appreciate it.’
And for those who can’t quit our jobs, move cities or change other life circumstances, such as losing someone, she asks us: ‘Can you create a reason you believe you are on this planet, at a scale of something that you can do every single day? I decided to believe that my purpose is share the things that matter to me - kindness, compassion and gratitude. That's something that I can do every single day. Whereas if our purpose is something grandiose, we sometimes stop ourselves before we can start. It's beautiful to be able to dream big but it's the small steps that create a life of meaning.’
And what if we finally figure out our purpose but it looks different to the norm? There’s a fair chance people might tell you you’re mad. ‘Our self-motivation of willpower only gets us so far,’ says Dinsmore ‘so it’s unbelievably important to have a community of likeminded people behind you, especially if you are walking your path and everyone around you is trying to pull you off. If you want something to be different, you have to do things differently. If you want more support you've got to seek it out. The world today provides so many mentors to follow – work to find the people that are supporting your dreams and your goals like it's your full-time job’ she encourages. For Psychologies readers, we’ve got that bit figured out at least – subscribers get free access to the amazingly supportive Life Leap online coaching forum. It’s where I catch back up with Piper who, like me, was previously struggling with the profoundness of figuring out her purpose. ‘I've decided that for now my purpose is to live life to the fullest and experience as much as possible, to be true to my values and myself’, she says. And even as I sit here writing this, having found a meaningful career six years later, I can’t help but feel this is the most authentic, raw version of living a purposeful life that there could be.
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