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Are these Myths about Purpose Holding you Back?

Have you fallen for some of the "Hollywood myths" about purpose?

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Have you fallen for some of the “Hollywood myths” about purpose?

It seems that everyone wants to find their purpose these days, but many are confused about where to start, how to keep motivation going, or whether or not they have really found the ‘right’ thing.

We like to believe that our Purpose is like The One; the moment we lock eyes with it across the room, we’ll feel a deep knowing in our soul. But what if that isn’t really how things work?

What if you’ve let your true soul’s calling pass you by because it didn’t fit your pre-conceived ideas of what it would look like?

In a recent Six Seconds (the Emotional Intelligence Network) article called Why Telling Your Coaching Clients to “Find Their Purpose” is Bad Advice, three “Hollywood myths” surrounding purpose are identified:

#1 Your purpose is something out there, waiting to be discovered

#2 Your purpose is fully formed and neatly packaged

#3 Discovering purpose makes everything easy

They cite a series of experiments by Carol Dweck, where those who carried a “fixed” mindset surrounding passion  (the idea that your passions and purpose are pre-programmed, unchangeable, and that once they found that purpose they would never run out of motivation)   were likely to have less creativity, less motivation, and to show little interest in things that fell outside their existing interests.

On the other hand, people who believed that their passions could be developed and shaped (the “growth” mindset) were more likely to be enthusiastic about things outside their current range of interests.

By harnessing Emotional Intelligence, instead, Six Seconds suggest that our interests and passions can be nurtured and grown with time; we can plant and nurture our own garden, rather than waiting to stumble upon one that’s already complete. 

You may have seen Venn diagrams floating around the web promoting “Ikigai” – explained as the intersection between what we love, what we’re good at, what the world needs, and what we can be paid for. Combine all four, the message goes, and we’ll be happy.

But what if your purpose doesn’t overlap with that which will bring you money? When we enjoy something, there seems to be a pressure on us to monetize it. What if your purpose is to be there for your friends, to fight climate injustice, or something else that doesn’t happen to align with the current market’s demands?

When the existing labour market does not reward us financially for the things that bring us to life, we may start to think that we must have chosen the wrong path. And that’s the result of the capitalist system that we live in- we start to believe that our internal worth as human beings is equal to the financial ‘worth’ we possess.

The problem is, we can never tangibly see the results of these actions and we can never truly know what the world would have been like had we not performed that action. But because money is quantifiable, it gives us an easy metric by which to measure our progress or compare ourselves to others.

Myth #4  — Your purpose is your job, and it must align with the current demands of the labour market. In other words, if you don’t feel a deep soul yearning to be a programmer, sales manager or pharmacist (or anything else that happens to bring in the big bucks), then you’re out of luck. 

Then there’s myth #5 –  Your Purpose is just one thing, and there will be one perfect job that neatly encapsulates all your strengths, interests and desires. This is very restrictive and constraining if you happen to be a multipotentialite: someone with many interests, creative pursuits, and potential paths.

What if you have several different Purposes? Or perhaps everything you do can still be part of a grander purpose, even if it isn’t obvious to everyone else.

For example, I have defined my purpose (or my Noble Goal, as they say over at Six Seconds) as helping to reawaken the connection and love between humans and nature (and to remind us that we are all one). As long as what I am doing falls under that, somehow, then it doesn’t matter how many different hats and roles I take on. From the outside, this may look as if I’m flakey and “can’t make my mind up”, but as long as my actions are aligned with my larger vision, then I am happy.

Plenty of studies have also shown that, contrary to what you might think, having too many choices can result in anxiety. Psychologists refer to this as the tyranny or paradox of choice; when we are so worried about not making the best possible choice that we become paralysed by indecision.

While there are definitely career paths that can be harder to join the older you are, there are plenty of inspiring examples of people who started new careers well into their 50’s and 60’s. 

Living a Meaningful Life

If you’re stressed about Purpose, it may be a good idea to check in with yourself.

In the world of Psychology, there is a difference between Purpose and Meaning. To be more specific, Purpose is just one strand of Meaning. 

Things that people find give their lives meaning include a strong sense of morality (right/wrong), cultivating gratitude, altruism and wonder, helping others, a strong sense of community, and a sense of coherence — that is, being able to see a clear and coherent story about who we are. 

If you are lacking a sense of meaning from these other areas in your life, you may be leaning heavily on your career/job to give you a sense of purpose. In other words, you could be looking to “purpose” as some kind of superhero that will swoop in and save the day for you.

I will devote a longer article to building up a general sense of meaning in your life, but for now, here are a few small steps you can take to start:

  1. Look for a community of people who believe in the same things that you do; people who are moved by the same issues as you, or even who just share a common interest. Right now, of course, this will need to be an online community!
  2. Connect with nature. Spend time in natural environments, even if it’s just with a plant on your window ledge. Practice mindfulness and stillness, experiencing what it is like to be in the moment rather than constantly reaching out for an imaginary future in which you might be happy.
  3. Help someone, somehow. This could be donating some money or time to a cause that you feel strongly towards, or helping a friend to achieve their own goals. 
  4. Cultivate your emotional intelligence. This will help you tune in with how you really feel about different options and paths in your life, and deepen your sense of connection with yourself. 

I don’t mean to suggest that you do not have a deep, spiritual calling, or that there isn’t a purpose lying ahead for you to somehow discover, craft and refine. It would be wonderful and exciting if you did, but it’s also OK if you don’t. 

Hopefully you will now have a greater idea of how our ideas surrounding purpose, dreams and desires are shaped by other forces in our lives — and not always for our benefit. 

So, what would it look like if you were to let go of these myths around purpose, even just for a while? What might your life begin to look like? 

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