If you don’t have a clear sense of your life’s purpose, you’re not alone. Research shows that only 30 to 40 percent of the human population has a clear sense of purpose. Feeling a deep sense of purpose or calling has benefits such as improved engagement and intrinsic motivation at work (Hirschi, 2011) and greater life satisfaction and well-being (Wrzesniewski et al., 1997); however, it’s important to recognize that it can also lead to overworking (Bunderson & Thompson, 2009) and a sense of frustration and disappointment if unable to pursue one’s calling (Berg et al., 2010).
Since pursuing my calling, I have developed a more nuanced view of finding purpose. I now view it not as present or absent in the binary but as more of a continuum. It may be helpful to think of meaningful activities as being bountiful throughout our lives and not restricted to when we’ve achieved something.
Though pursuing a calling or a deeply resonant purpose can feel exhilarating, it is not necessarily restricted to the most exciting times. According to the Hero’s Journey framework proposed by Joseph Campbell (2008), pursuing a deeply meaningful quest occurs in cycles, where the periods of exhilaration and success are preceded by contemplation, learning, and often great loss or challenge.
Furthermore, callings can evolve or change. After a joyous six years of living the calling, I discovered accidentally my life circumstances had changed dramatically. I found myself pursuing a new career path of greater potential impact and personal reward than I had imagined.
Living one’s purpose might be viewed as an evolution and a journey that is a mix of challenge, despair, hope, and triumph. For example, my first career felt like what Joseph Campbell calls psychological crucifixion, which occurs when we ignore our purpose. However, I feel it was a necessary precursor that enabled my current life to be full of great satisfaction and intrinsic reward. Those moments of misdirection, frustration, and loss can provide an incentive to heal and help us become more open to what is possible.
Here is how I stayed connected to my purpose each day.
Being Present and Breathing Deeply
It’s easy to judge the excursions and diversions from the pursuit of our most authentic purpose as mistakes. Instead, in hindsight, I know those mistakes were a necessary part of my journey. After all, evolution is rarely a straight line.
Now I trust that I’m on the right path, even if it feels like I’m lost. Sometimes I feel lost when acting mindlessly and in a reactive way. Other times I feel lost when facing doubt and fear and unable to find my heart’s desire beneath the swirling. It then becomes an invitation for reconsideration and recalibration.
Once I identify what’s blocking me (note: it’s usually my beliefs and habits, not circumstances or someone else’s behavior), the path becomes apparent.
After working through such rock bottom moments multiple times, I’m practiced at identifying dysfunctional beliefs or habits and discovering the wisdom hiding beneath. I can now do this more proactively when encountering smaller obstacles and challenges, and thus accelerate my learning, growth, efficacy, and clarity around my purpose.
Such breadcrumbs can lead to greater engagement and alignment on my path toward self-actualization.
Aim Deeper and Broader
In our instant gratification society, we seem to seek quick fixes of pleasure and comfort, such as shopping, eating, or surfing, to avoid making the changes that are needed in our lives. My drug of choice was work: when taken to unhealthy extremes, it kept me from nourishing my heart and soul.
Obsessed with knowledge and cognitive ability, I spent many years neglecting my inner world. I was distracting myself while failing to notice that I had ignored my feelings in pursuit of what I thought would make me happy.
In contrast, noticing and prioritizing activities that feel deeply rewarding and nourishing to heart and soul taught me to cultivate a more lasting and a satisfying sense of purpose, meaning, and impact. After all, such activities are present in all areas of life and are not solely restricted to world-changing aspirations.
I practice being in my heart by noticing the invitations, ideas, activities, or events that feel most enticing. I permit myself to explore them, even in a small way. It might include doing some research on the internet or saying yes to something that I don’t have time for (accompanied by a no to something that feels draining). I take small steps toward following my heart, energy, and passion each day, and the results have been transformative in my life.
A Gut Check
Since my purpose evolved into something more beautiful or expansive than anything I could’ve ever imagined, I find it helpful to conceptualize and visualize what is possible but in a flexible way. In other words, I know there are many possible pathways and outcomes for my goals; it is exciting to be open to unexpected options as they come my way!
I find it helpful to check in periodically to ensure I seek something deeper and more authentic than a hedonistic pleasure or a sense of duty. If it’s not of service to others, aligned with something greater than myself, and nourishing to my soul, then I consider whether it might be an expression of an old habit. I seek to find the right balance of entertainment, distraction, and obligation versus focusing on aligning with my heart.
Enjoying the Ride
I have had to learn not to feel guilty about enjoying life. Following my heart and passions feeds my soul while motiving impactful service. While sacrifices were needed on this path, suffering while pursuing an authentic purpose probably was not. For me, suffering was a self-inflicted habit of ignoring what felt most fulfilling and resonant.
In conclusion, pursuing a calling might simply be viewed as a path to fulfill the heart and soul's desires to serve in your most authentic way. It’s never too late to adjust course and tap into that every day.
“Follow your bliss” – Joseph Campbell
Berg, J. M., Grant, A. M., & Johnson, V. (2010). When callings are calling: Crafting work and leisure in pursuit of unanswered occupational callings. Organization Science, 21(5), 973-994. doi: 10.1287/orsc.1090.0497
Bunderson, J., & Thompson, J.A. (2009). The call of the wild: Zookeepers, callings, and the double-edged sword of deeply meaningful work. Administrative Science Quarterly, 54(1), 32-57. doi: 10.2189/asqu.2009.54.1.32
Campbell, J. (2008). The hero with a thousand faces (3rd ed.). San Anselmo: Joseph Campbell Foundation.
Hirshi, A. (2011). Callings in career: A typological approach to essential and optional components. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 79, 60-73.
Wrzesniewski, A., McCauley, C., Rozin, P., & Schwartz, B. (1997). Jobs, careers, and callings: People's relations to their work. Journal of Research in Personality, 31(1), 21-33. doi:10.1006/jrpe.1997.2162