Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Finding Purpose in Work and Life Through Fertile Confusion

Periods of transition can be difficult to navigate—but transformative.

Photo by Fred Kearney on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Fred Kearney on Unsplash

If you’re changing your job, career path, or business model, you’re likely squirming to get a resolution as soon as possible. Yet recent studies show that your haste to get an answer too quickly could forfeit your good fortune down the road.

The human brain is ill-equipped to handle uncertainty. In fact, one study shows that we fear uncertainty so much, we would prefer to be certain of a negative outcome than not know the outcome at all. Why? Uncertainty raises contradictory emotions about the future. When it comes to changing your work, you might feel a chemical mix of loss, excitement, fear, and even a happy nostalgia for all that you’ve accomplished. Part of your brain protests this emotional dissonance and seeks a clear emotional resolution.

But here’s the challenge and the opportunity: Rushing to the next chapter is rarely the path to fulfillment.

Periods of transition can be difficult to navigate, but they can be profoundly transformative as well. They are ripe times to reflect, plan, and invest in your own personal and professional development. It might be difficult to sit and find stillness in this “not-knowing,” but in doing so you can cultivate a state of fertile confusion that prompts you out of your habitual biases, fosters divergent and cross-disciplinary problem-solving, and paves the way for professional growth.

The Search for Meaning In Work

We live in a New World of Work. In an era in which job security is fading and linear career paths are a thing of the past, professional transitions are becoming increasingly common. The Bureau of Labor Statistics determined that the average worker will hold twelve to fifteen jobs in their lifetime, and the number of freelancers is on the rise. (It’s estimated that by 2020, they will constitute 50% of the US workforce.) Longer life expectancy also is prompting people to take on new careers later in life, while younger generations are taking advantage of the shifting jobscape to reassess professional values before moving to jobs with more meaning.

The way we think of (and do) work has shifted greatly in the past few decades, but one thing remains the same: We believe that work is the centerpiece of one’s identity. We develop our sense of self and define our life’s trajectory based on the work we do or the title we hold.

Yet in recent years we’ve added a new dimension to this tenet. Work is not only who you are but what you are here for; it is your life’s purpose. We all want to advance in our careers because we want to fulfill that purpose, yet we find ourselves in the grip of self-doubt because there is no clear path as well as no coach or judge to tell you when you’ve crossed the finish line.

More than any previous generation, Millennials seek a career of feeling: they expect to find meaning and personal fulfillment in their work. They are encouraged to “follow their passion,” but research has found that this very mantra may work against them. As psychologists revealed in a recent study, this mentality of pursuing a singular vocation can narrow focus and imply an easy path to success that only discourages students when they inevitably encounter failure.

If everyone is finding a calling or a hidden talent, it implies that pursuing a passion is easy work. You come to believe that if you haven’t found yours, you must be doing something wrong. Yet, in fact you are stuck in this one-track mindset and so you work harder with the same frustration, leading to anxiety, disappointment, and inevitable burnout.

This study’s findings resonate with studies that show how generalists are better at predictions and problem-solving than their specialist counterparts. Drawing from their diverse knowledge base, they are better able to create abstract models and apply their knowledge to situations that have never before been encountered. Specialists, on the other hand, tend to fall into the same thought patterns and resort to the same problem-solving tools. If the “problem” is finding purpose in our work, we can learn much from the generalist by getting out of our cognitive rut, tearing down the cubicle walls, and sowing seeds of self-reflection.

Maybe you aren’t sure what you want to achieve in your work, or just need time to recharge. Maybe you don’t know how to bring your project to life, or which of your ideas to pursue. In any case, when you find yourself feeling stuck, taking time to transition creates fertile ground to do the deep work of defining your intrinsic values and trajectory.

Such a period is grounds for a phase I have come to call Fertile Confusion.

How to Cultivate Fertile Confusion

Fertile Confusion is a state in which you refrain from seeking easy solutions or reverting to old patterns long enough to advance a new, complex endeavor. It occurs when we’re in profound transition by necessity, circumstance, or calling. The confusion arises with the desire to keep things safe and the soulful push to shake things up out of integrity.

Meaningful, creative work and existential transitions call upon this fertile confusion often. It demands that you step outside of your comfort zone to experiment with new ideas and possibilities, but more importantly, to simply pause and think. T

he problem is we don’t like sitting still. We get caught up in the day-to-day stress of reaching our short-term goals instead of focusing on the long-term ones. We would rather jump into the next project and be “productive” than take the time to reflect on whether or not it aligns with our values and takes us closer to our goals.

In this hyper-connected and hyper-working culture, to fashion a fulfilling creative life requires clear boundary-setting and a new set of mindsets about your identity, your life’s meaning, and your work. When you next find yourself in between projects, campaigns, books, jobs or whatever it may be, try these practices to cultivate a sense of purpose and plot out your next step:

1. Reframe your crisis into a quest

View the fertile confusion you face as a quest, an opportunity to grow, rather than a difficult decision to make. It is your chance to redefine yourself and your work. Check in with your values and question if the path you're on aligns with them. Be sure to set a timeline for your quest, even if you don’t have a specific deadline, so you can stay on track, hold yourself accountable, and celebrate your small achievements along the way. You can get easily discouraged in these times of transition because there is no one else to guide, applaud, or redirect you, so establishing checkpoints beforehand can help give you encouragement to continue on your journey.

2. Experiment

Convert your uncertainty into an experiment. Rather than worry about the possible results, test your hypotheses. Are you unsure if your new product idea will sell? Create a prototype and find out. Are you unsure if you want to stick with a topic of influence? Develop a talk and start testing it in front of low-stakes audiences.

Allow yourself the time to really explore, create, design, invent without judgment. If your hypothesis fails, then adjust the variables and try again. We learn by doing, and our uncertainty leads our mind down treacherous paths. Approach your work like a scientist and the way will become clearer with each step.

3. Find your creative pack

While only you can determine the course to take, you cannot create and grow in isolation. We are social beings and we need our creative pack as support and sounding board when embarking on a new project or enterprise. Find the right collaborators, confidantes, or mentors to help you do three things: Get perspective on your vision. Help you build the skill set or craft set necessary. Cheer you on or warn you that you’re about to fly off a cliff.

To find meaning in our work and purpose in our direction, we need to break out of our habits — be it through sabbatical or a deep dive retreat — to look inward. If we can learn to accept Fertile Confusion that arises during such transition periods, we can emerge with renewed confidence, clearer vision, and a reinvigorated mission.

More from Jeffrey Davis M.A.
More from Psychology Today