Some of the first words on the pages of a typical self-help book are, “Follow your passion.” Once you start going down that hopeless rabbit hole, you’re likely to find yourself surrounded by lots of lost people who mumble to themselves as they sleepwalk through life.
People are passionate about hobbies, sports or the latest tech trend. When we’re passionate about something, it means we love it. We love to build sandcastles and walk on the beach, and you know why? Because passion asks us to identify something very specific: What can the world give to me?
This hedonistic approach to life is popular right now. What is in it for me? I need to be passionate about my job, and if it doesn’t meet my expectations, then I’ll move on to something else. Come to think of it, isn’t it the same thinking about marriage that many people have these days?
Most of us have no idea what we want to do with our lives, and it’s a struggle almost every adult experiences on their way to maturity. We assume as we age, we’ll get the big picture of life and voila -- all will be revealed. Alas, age and wisdom don’t always travel together. Sometimes age shows up all by itself.
In our relentless pursuit to be happy and love what we do, we follow the advice of coaches and therapists who make big money by asking their clients this question: "What is your passion?" The truth is this: Passion is for amateurs because it’s the easy question. I mean, we can all find stuff to love. It’s where people stop on their way to finding the answer to the bigger question: "What can you do with your life that is important?"
Passion is about you. You are passionate about -- whatever. Purpose is about something besides you. It de-emphasizes “you” because purpose is when you pursue something outside yourself rather than pursue something that gives you pleasure.
Passion asks, "What can the world give to me?" Purpose asks, "What I can contribute to the world?" If I’m going to discover what is important to me, I need to get off my butt and find it. I don’t need to be overwhelmed by emotion to know that it’s the right thing for me.
People are so conditioned to look for happiness that they give up at the first sign something won’t be fun. They feel entitled to love every second of their job, and if they’re slapped in the face with something unpleasant, they pick up their ball and go home. Yeah, that’s why pursuing passion is for amateurs. It also sounds a bit childish.
1. Professionals know their why
According to Simon Sinek, we should all know our “why.” When we know what we can do with our life that is important, we’ve found our purpose. When we make gut decisions because it feels right, it’s easy to rationalize and put into words.
But how do you choose a career if you don’t know what you want to do with your life? For the average 20-year-old in college trying to decide on a major, how can they foresee what life holds for them? A 40-year-old woman in an unfulfilling job may be too afraid to change careers because of house payments.
When people have no direction in their life, it’s usually because they either don’t know what their values are or they have crappy ones. If you don’t know what your values are, you’ll adopt ones held by other people and then try to pretend they’re your own. You end up living a pathetic imitation of someone else because you have no clue of your “why.”
Professionals come in all sizes and makes. A cashier’s purpose might be to make his customer’s day a little better. A teacher’s purpose might be to spark creativity in a child’s imagination. With few exceptions, our life’s important work isn’t something that drops into our lap. It’s something we build and create wherever we are because any kind of work can possess purpose.
How to make it work for you: Align your work with your deepest values. Values are the things you take with you, wherever you go. They’re not things you can buy, rent or trade in for a newer model.
2. There is a little suck in every job
The purpose of my writing is to encourage people to mine the significance of their own experiences because, when they do, they’ll realize they are capable of amazing things in life. Despite this focus, there are days, weeks even, when I don’t feel inspired to write.
It sucks, and I start to second-guess myself, but then I’ll hear from a reader who was provoked to think about a setback or problem a little differently after they read one of my articles. I’m reminded of the purpose of my writing. I’m also reminded that there’s always a little suck in every job, even the best one in the world.
There will be days when you will not be satisfied with work because, guess what? Work is often difficult, boring and frustrating, but since when are you entitled to be entertained all the time? Your purpose is not about some great achievement in life. It’s the ability to find something bigger, better and bolder than yourself. In the process, you might be able to find a way to help your fellow human beings.
How to make it work for you: What would be your perfect job? Why? Pick apart exactly what elements of your perfect job would make it perfect. If the perks of your perfect job consists of a bigger house, expensive cars, better face-lifts or fame, then you’re still an amateur and good luck with finding the next best thing.
However, if the perks of your job consists of helping people or animals, conserving the environment or living an honest life with integrity, congratulations! You’re the professional who can find purpose and contentment wherever you find yourself in life.
3. Look for multiple sources of purpose
Amateurs are the ones who chase passion and expect joy to follow. A hobby or a cute puppy brings us happiness, but researchers agree that happiness is a lousy career guide. Instead, we should focus on the things that we care about.
When we pay attention to the things/values we care about, we often find that purpose can be found in more than one place. Family, career, neighborhood and faith communities are all rich sources of purpose. As we age, the source of our purpose may change, as well. Once we understand that we may have multiple sources of purpose, it takes the pressure off finding the one single purpose to life.
How to make it work for you: Pursue the things that make you happy, because you need to be passionate about things like puppies and sports teams. Don’t stop there, though, and expect the things that elicit passion to have the legs to give you purpose, as well. Go deeper and identify five values in your life that provide meaning.
Remember, good values are the things over which you have total control, like honesty, integrity, kindness, commitment and determination. Bad values are those over which you have no control, like money, material things, chasing the fountain of youth and fame.
4. Purpose may change over time
If you google the term “find your passion,” you’ll find the searches have increased exponentially over the past 20 years. “Find something you love to do and you’ll never have to work another day in your life” is another standby that’s overused and full of fluff.
Psychologist Carol Deck’s research on fixed vs growth mindsets applies to how we answer this question: What can we do with our life that is important? If we have a fixed theory, we believe our core interests are there from birth just waiting to be discovered. If, however, we have a growth theory, we believe that our interests in life are something that can be cultivated over time.
Dweck’s research reinforces the idea that our job is not to look around the world and hope for an epiphany that reveals our passion. It’s not the way we experience life. Instead, we encounter problems and we find ways to solve them, which requires discipline, confidence and mental toughness. It is through the process of critical work that we find things that interest us and when we do, we invest our time and talent in them.
This requires deliberation and consideration, because many people are made unhappy by doing things they thought they should do rather than the things they were truly drawn to do. We need to pay attention to the types of problems in the world that interest us and draw our attention. This is where we’ll find our purpose, because it boils down to finding those few things that are bigger, better and bolder than ourselves.
How to make it work for you: Get curious, explore, and then notice your reaction. The key is to find those things that really interest you. Don’t worry that they won’t lead to some big achievement because, in the end, that’s the not purpose of life.
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LaRae Quy was an FBI undercover and counterintelligence agent for 24 years. She exposed foreign spies and recruited them to work for the US government. As an FBI agent, she developed the mental toughness to survive in environments of risk, uncertainty, and deception. Quy is the author of “Secrets of a Strong Mind” and “Mental Toughness for Women Leaders: 52 Tips To Recognize and Utilize Your Greatest Strengths.” If you’d like to find out if you are mentally tough, get her free 45-question Mental Toughness Assessment. Follow her on Twitter.