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If you’re anything like me, you’ve spent the past few years asking yourself, When life gets back to “normal,” is the normal I’m going back to really the life I want?
For many of us, the answer to that question is a resounding “No.”
Some may desire a more well-rounded existence, one that prioritizes family, friends, and (dare we dream?) fun. While others are longing to seek a different, more personalized purpose.
Yet, here we are, having just celebrated a national holiday that intertwines labor and work with our national identity: an industrious energy channeled toward the creation of something big, real, valuable. It is as American as the end-of-summer barbecue and apple pie many of us ate over the weekend.
It’s all enough to paralyze you with doubt. Is the work that interests me important enough? Is the work that I love to do filled with enough purpose?
I have a unique perspective on this. Over the course of 20 years, I was hired as a headhunter to go out and recruit some of the most successful people in the world for various companies. These people were incredibly accomplished, but most were also pretty unhappy—which was why they were calling me back. Oh, and you should know: I wasn’t recruiting people for soulless jobs at faceless corporations. I was actually retained to find talent from and for mission-forward nonprofits looking for purpose-driven employees.
If these people weren’t happy, even with all their purpose-driven success, is there any hope for the rest of us? Actually, there is, and it starts by tossing our traditionally, and wrongly, held notions of purpose.
Unburden yourself from societal expectations.
If you look up the definition of purpose in the dictionary, you might be surprised by what’s there. There’s no picture of Mother Teresa feeding the lepers in India, or Saint Peter with his abacus at the Pearly Gate. There’s no picture of your metrics-driven boss breathing down your neck. And there’s no picture of your volunteer-loving (and super-judgmental) neighbor tsk-tsking about how you spend your time.
The definition of purpose is “the reason for which something is done.” That’s it. Purpose doesn’t have to be cause-driven, productivity-driven, or guilt-driven.
For some reason, somewhere along the line, we decided to relinquish the straightforward definition of purpose and complicate it with socially acceptable qualifiers of devotion and cause-driven mindsets, leaving all too many of us feeling completely and utterly purposeless. What if, instead of adhering to this made-up definition, you lived by the actual definition?
Find your why.
The only opinion that counts is yours. Your purpose for working at a particular job does not have to be tied to your purpose—though for some people, that may be what makes them happiest. What makes you happiest could be that your 9-to-5 makes it easier for you to fulfill your life purpose when you’re off the clock.
Maybe you want to be home to have family dinner every night. Or perhaps you’d like to maximize your income so you can get out of debt or donate to causes close to your heart. Perhaps you want a job that doesn’t follow you home or you want to work around the clock so you can buy a Maserati and a beach house. (By the way, if you are buying that Maserati and beach house, call me. I am a great houseguest.)
Your purpose is your overarching motivation. It is that gravitational force that gets you up in the morning. It can be a goal to reach, a problem to solve, a societal ill to remedy, a family to nurture, or a worthwhile cause to serve. It can be a bottom line to meet, a business to build, a brand to love. It’s the direction of a larger goal and the particular pride you attach to the value of achieving that goal.
Allow yourself grace to change.
A common misconception about purpose is that we can only have one, as if we are all born with a singular reason for living. If you’re anything like me, you’ve been about a dozen different people as you’ve gone to school, gotten your first job (and learned that you were capable of even more), started a family (and maybe in the throes of early parenthood realized that for a while you might be capable of less). As you’ve grown and changed, and your family and friends, and even the world around you, has grown and changed, what turns you on, what excites you, what brings out your best also changes.
And that means your purpose changes, too.
The exhaustion we feel isn’t from all this work devotion and cause-driven sacrifice. It’s from being devoted to the wrong work, and sacrificing for the wrong cause.
So let’s also celebrate another thing that I believe is uniquely American: giving ourselves the grace to change and grow and evolve, and dream different dreams about purposes that fit who we are today.
Laura Gassner Otting is the author of the Washington Post bestseller Limitless: How to Ignore Everybody, Carve Your Own Path, and Live Your Best Life. You can find her everywhere @heyLGO.
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