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The Pitfalls of Pursuing Your Purpose

Living with purpose is a noble ambition, but it’s not something that can be sought. A purposeful life is created within.

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The trajectory of my 20s reads like a dilettante’s handbook, or a drunk pirate’s treasure map; winding, dabbling, non-linear. Like most children of the 80s, I was raised in the height of the self-esteem movement, with its encouraging maxim that I could do anything I wanted to do, and be anything I wanted to be. Thankfully I’ve also had the privilege of parents who supported this view. When I proudly announced in 4th grade that I would be the first woman president, no one batted an eye. When I decided to move to Manhattan after high school, I was given a hug, two cans of mace, and a membership to Bally’s Sport’s Club; just in case I wound up homeless and needed a place to shower.

I had faith in my own resourcefulness and in the benevolence of mankind. I didn’t have a plan, per se, but I was on a mission to find my purpose. Oh, sweet purpose. The final frontier.

The importance of purpose is not a new concept, but one that seems to be on our minds quite a bit these days. According to the 2015 Deloitte Millennial Survey, 60% of the millennial generation listed a “sense of purpose” within the organization when asked why they chose their current employers. Purpose-driven books topped the New York Times bestsellers list in 2014, with titles like Your Life Calling by Jane Pauley, and The Promise of a Pencil: How an Ordinary Person Can Create Extraordinary Change by Adam Braun. And ranking third in the Top 10 most watched TED Talks of all time, Simon Sinek asks us what “our purpose, our cause, our belief” is; urging 21 million viewers worldwide to connect with our “WHY.” I’m responsible for at least 30 of those views, I’ve shared this gem so often.

On one hand, I find this turn toward purpose incredibly heartening. In a culture that traditionally values metrics of success, it suggests that we’re asking ourselves how to live by our own standards, collectively elevating meaning over measurement. When I was a Girl Scout our motto was: “Always leave things better than you found them,” which is an idea reflected in the popularity of purpose. We’re consciously contemplating what we’re built for, and how best to contribute to the world.

On the other hand, I can’t seem to shake the feeling that all of this “find your purpose” business is somehow missing the mark. There’s something lacking from the conversation; and it’s the small but mighty distinction between having a purpose and living a purposeful life.

It may seem like a matter of syntax, but syntax is important. The way that we talk about things reveals our relationship to them, and ultimately, how we approach them. In the case of purpose, it’s the difference between seeking the keys to redemption and revealing what’s already there.

During my decade as a dilettante, I would lay awake, fixed on the water stain above my bed wishing for some sort of map. I had tried my hand at acting and spent a year in film school. I wrote sketch comedy on the side, worked in food advocacy, studied design in undergrad, and worked enough crappy waitressing jobs to redefine my notion of humility. I had a passion for travel and yoga, but could that truly be my purpose? I’d always had a knack for organizing, but was this my soul’s North Star?

When given too much gravitas, finding “our purpose” can be frustrating, and at worst, a trap of paralysis. If we truly have a calling, a single purpose in this world, what if we never find it? Are we destined to go through the motions, a half-lived vessel of unrealized potential?

Related: How Making Time for Reflection Can Help Unlock Your Potential

Defining our purpose as a destination or a single pointed direction bears resemblance to searching for “The One”. Even if we do find our forever person, or the mission statement we can live by that fills our days with meaning, there might always the lingering question of whether we’ve made the right decision, if we’re missing out. Even if we feel a sense of certainty, it’s easy to attach the expectation that it will always remain the same; which pits our hopes against the laws of ever-changing nature.

Purpose was just another way of chasing that magical “someday” that precluded my self-acceptance.

If you had asked me about my purpose when I was 7, I would have given you a cock-eyed stare, most likely because I was busy discovering the world through first-time experiences. Everything had purpose; from crickets to kickball to Paula Abdul.

It all clicked into place during one of those crappy waitressing shifts. This wasn’t, by any stretch, my forever career. I smelled like fried calamari and had ketchup in my hair. However I decided to try an experiment. What if I tried treating all of this like it mattered? What might happen if rather than approaching this like a sidebar to my life’s purpose, I brought purpose into my approach? What if I am purposeful instead of waiting for one to redeem me? The answer is that I stopped looking for my purpose—the one I claimed ownership to—and allowed purpose to flavor my moments.

I can’t help but think that rather than having a purpose, we simply have purpose. It’s something akin to dignity or meaning, an inheritance of being alive. We can direct our purposefulness through clearly chosen intentions, but ultimately, it’s a quality we possess, not a statement, a job title, or a place that we find.

My friend Marisa once told me a story of an MTA employee who worked in a Brooklyn subway booth. Each morning she would emerge from the train, and he would lock eyes with her, and greet her warmly. They became familiar through their daily exchange; a wave, a smile, a connection. She talks about how this always made her mornings, they joy he brought to his booth, his generosity of spirit. After some weeks she noticed that she wasn’t alone. This tollbooth employee had a relationship with every regular commuter, exiting the train and waving. Some mornings there would be dozens of people who would wave, and stop to say hello on their way to the subway stairs.

This man’s purpose wasn’t raised on a banner for the rest of the world to see, but rather he connected to the world through the act of purposeful living.

If you’ve decided that this is the year to find your purpose, the good news is you can relax. It’s already there and best lived through you. The way to find purpose is to apply it generously; to the crappy jobs, and the sleepless nights, and the hours stuck in traffic. If our lives are purposeful, then nothing gets excluded.

Our moments, after all, only have the meaning we give them.

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