Monday 20 August 2018

Passion and purpose

The better you know yourself, the more likely you are to discover your purpose

Katie Byrne
Katie Byrne
Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne

There are hundreds of books on the self-development shelf promising to help you find your life purpose, - identify your true calling and discover the work you were born to do.

The subtext, in case you missed it, is that your latent talents are waiting to be unleashed, your gifts are lying dormant and this book will reveal a submerged aspect of your identity, rather than remind you what you already know deep down.

The idea of finding one's true calling is seductive. It suggests that we all have a predestined path that is whispered in the wind, channelled in a dream or somehow communicated on the pages of these books.

It implies that our true calling must have the potential to change the world or, at the very least, change your life. It couldn't possibly be the hobby that makes time fly or the pastime that makes you forget to eat lunch or the thing you loved doing as a child. That would be too easy.

The truth is that your life purpose is probably not eluding you, even if you're working in a career that doesn't feel personally fulfilling. In most cases, people know what it is that brings them joy: They're just putting obstacles in their own way or waiting for permission to pursue it.

In other cases, people linger around the cliff edge of their life purpose, peeking over the side rather than taking the leap. Stephen Pressfield, writing in Turning Pro: Tap Your Inner Power and Create Your Life's Work, calls it the "shadow career". "Sometimes when we're terrified of embracing our true calling, we'll pursue a shadow career instead," he explains.

"That shadow career is a metaphor for our real career. Its shape is similar, its contours feel tantalisingly the same. But a shadow career entails no real risk. If we fail at a shadow career, the consequences are meaningless to us. Are you getting your Ph.D. in Elizabethan Studies because you're afraid to write the tragedies and comedies you know you have inside you? Are you living the drugs-and-booze half of the musician's life, without actually writing the music? Are you working in a support capacity for an innovator because you're afraid to risk being an innovator yourself?"

Of course, some of us end up not in a shadow career, but in the wrong career altogether - especially when we prioritise money and status over passion and purpose. The late Viktor E. Frankl epitomised this fallacy in Man's Search for Meaning. "Don't aim at success," he wrote. "The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one's personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one's surrender to a person other than oneself."

You will notice that profound thinkers, like Frankl, tend to associate life purpose with service to others. The late Wayne Dyer said: "If you want to find your true purpose in life, know this for certain: Your purpose will only be found in service to others, and being connected to something far greater than your body/mind/ego."

Martha Beck, meanwhile, writing in Finding Your Way in a Wild New World, shares an exercise that involves listing the five worst life experiences that you've survived, and then identifying the skills that you have practised for at least 10,000 hours. The idea is to find a meaningful overlap. For instance, if you've survived cancer and worked in communications for the last 10 years, then perhaps you can fulfil your purpose by using your skills to share your story.

This has echoes of the Japanese concept of 'ikigai', which like 'hygge' and 'lagom' before it, has recently become the new lifestyle buzzword. Ikigai is roughly translated as "reason for living" in Japan but you'll notice that Western interpreters often extrapolate the concept on a Venn diagram that identifies a common answer to the questions: What do you love? What are you good at? What does the world need from you? What can you get paid for? Purists may baulk, but it's a helpful exercise nonetheless.

Finding your life purpose is simply vigorous self-enquiry. Sure, you can buy the 200-page book, but the takeaway will invariably be one soul-searching question. Take, for instance, personal development blogger Steve Pavlina's technique. He recommends writing 'What is my true purpose in life?' at the top of a piece of paper. The idea is to write the first thing that comes into your head, and to keep writing until it evokes an answer that makes you cry.

Motivational speaker Bob Proctor shares a slightly less abstract exercise. He recommends getting up an hour earlier each morning, sitting in a place where you will not be disturbed and writing down the answer to the question: 'If I could spend my life doing something, what would I really love doing?' "It may take you many days or a few months to get the answer to this question," he says. "But the time will be well invested."

These exercises don't claim to esoterically access your true calling. They simply introduce you to your true self, free of ego-identifications, limiting beliefs and cognitive distortions.

They say the purpose of life is to live a life of purpose, but there is no purpose without passion. If you want to discover the work you were born to do, simply think towards the work you love doing. The rest will surely follow.

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