How The Search for Purpose Might be Holding You Back

I’ve been having quite a few conversations about purpose recently, with clients, with fellow coaches and mentors, and with friends. 

And what I see is that the notion of purpose is as much a hindrance to people discovering what they’d like to do, as it is a help. We put a huge amount of pressure on ourselves to feel ‘passionate’ about something, to discover our purpose and then dedicate ourselves to the sole pursuit of this. 

I’m not saying that some people don’t discover early on that there’s one thing they’d like to commit themselves to. Some dear friends of mine have known from a young age what they wanted to do with their lives. Oh, how I once envied them!

But for many people – me included – this idea of a single passion or purpose just doesn’t ring true. Sure, there are things I love to do and sometimes, yes, I feel fired up and passionate about them. But then, a little later, I think , ‘Oooh, look at this other wonderful thing I could do as well!’

But when we’re bombarded by the idea of a single life purpose to be pursued, this experience – of having multiple interests and possibly many different careers in your life time – just doesn’t fit.  You’re left feeling like, ‘Hmm, maybe I’m not ‘there’ yet, maybe there’s something else I am supposed to understand.’

I was talking with a friend recently. She’s unhappy in her current job and is keen to leave and she told me that someone asked her what she is passionate about. The question threw her, as she couldn’t immediately answer it. In fact, by the time we met, she had been trying to answer it for some time. The fact that no answer was forthcoming seemed, to her, to give her another problem – she had no passion. She was a woman who wanted to leave her job –  but until she could uncover this elusive passion, she would be stuck. 

We have elevated ideas of purpose and passion until they cease to be helpful to us. The conversation has almost become vexatious – we are expected to be able to summarise, in a sentence, the one driving force for our precious time on this earth. 

These prevailing conversations about passion or purpose are limiting in a couple of key ways. 

Firstly, they can actually hold us in place – we end up feeling like we can’t move forward until we discover the One Thing we are supposed to be doing with our lives. 

Even when we find a job, or a self-employment idea that we think we’d like, we torment ourselves by analysing how we feel and consider, ‘Yes, it seems good…. but is it My Passion?’ And if we can’t give ourselves an answer that satisfies us, we stay put. 

Secondly, they suggest that we are one-faceted – that we each are only supposed to focus on one thing during our lifetime. 

I think our interests change. I worked in the arts for 15 years and I loved it – the creativity, the collaboration, the commitment to making things happen for people.  Then, one day, I didn’t want to do that every day anymore.  

If I believed in a single life purpose, that change could have sent me into a tailspin. But even within the arts sector, I had always been a Jacqueline of all trades (performer, stage manager, producer, CEO) so I was comfortable with the idea that ‘hey, now I am doing this thing, instead!’

We need to be having a different conversation.  A conversation that gently asks of us, ‘How would you like to spend your day? What would get you out of bed in the morning, looking forward to your work? How would you like spend your time?’

We need to see that it’s ok not to have one sole driver, or purpose. 

We can look to the truth that only by experimenting might we find out how we’d like to spend our time. 

Me? I’m not putting my name to one thing for the rest of my years. Life offers us tremendous variety of opportunity and endless possibility – staying open to that, that’s what excites me. 

So, let’s have a more curious, enquiring conversation that simply starts, ‘How would I like to spend my days?’

And when you ask yourself more open, flexible questions, you might be surprised what insights start to come through.

Laura Cockett  A Bigger Conversation
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