In 2004 I was enjoying the highest-paying, most respectable job I had ever worked. Everything from the title on my business card to the location of the building fed my notion of success.
Then a Cadillac Escalade sideswiped me on my way home one evening. After an ambulance ride and an MRI, I was told there was a problem with my spine. Over the course of the next few months, I waited to find out if I needed surgery. And everything changed.
“If you had asked me a week before that accident if I was happy, I would’ve said yes,” I told life coach Martha Beck over the phone. “I had this dream job, a nice car and everybody thought I was hot stuff. But a week after the accident, I found myself saying, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m scared to death. I don’t belong at that job. I don’t think I like myself anymore. I’m not following my purpose, and I feel like I’m suffocating something inside of me.’”
Beck laughed. Not a malicious laugh, but a knowing one. She told me the car accident tore my blinders off so I could see the unhappiness I had been denying in favor of a shiny, socially acceptable image of a successful life.
But I asked her, “What about people like me who are still living in a state of denial, who are doing everything right on the outside, but somewhere, deep down, aren’t really happy? People can’t just wait to have a car wreck.”
“Oh, sure they can,” Beck said, laughing again. “That’s the thing about planet Earth. It’s just full of car wrecks.”
On a mission to help you find your purpose
Beck was once called “the best-known life coach in the country,” by USA Today. She didn’t start with that moniker in mind, but there was a part of her that always knew she was supposed to help others find their purpose. In her book Steering by Starlight: The Science and Magic of Finding Your Destiny, she recalls writing a mission statement for a scholarship application when she was 16 years old.
It read: “My mission in life is to help people bridge the gaps that separate them from their true selves, from one another and from their destiny.” She took a few detours after earning her doctorate in sociology from Harvard, but over the last two decades, as a columnist for O, The Oprah Magazine, host of African STAR and author of books including Finding Your Own North Star: Claiming the Life You Were Meant to Live, Finding Your Way in a Wild New World: Reclaim Your True Nature to Create the Life You Want and, most recently, The Way of Integrity: Finding the Path to Your True Self, she has followed that mission.
What motivates people to find their purpose?
She says that people come to her all the time after experiencing their own version of a car wreck.
“There are three ways to be jolted or moved out of the life that’s not working for you,” Beck says. “One is shock, which would be your car accident or losing your job or whatever it is. The next one is opportunity. Say, you fall in love and you get a chance to marry your soul mate, but it means changing everything.
“And the third is growth; you simply wake up one morning and what satisfied you yesterday is starting to feel empty. And as you grow more and more as a being, you fit less and less into a life that isn’t right for you. You’ll outgrow it like your baby clothes, and then you have a choice to either try to contort yourself back into it or to leave.”
Beck says this kind of growth spurt happens to a lot of people at midlife. Prior to the growth—or the car accident, life-changing relationship, etc.—we become fixated on what she calls “mental models” of what we’re supposed to be. We get these mental models from our families, friends, institutions such as universities and society in general.
“The nice thing about this point in history,” she says, “is that it really has boiled down to compass versus culture. Your inner compass is now more important than ever because the culture that tells us what we’re supposed to be is fragmenting.”
Beck believes the jobs that once gave us prestige and opportunities to rise through a hierarchy are much rarer, thanks to a culture that is placing increasing value on flexibility. “It gives you an opportunity to stop following the culture and start following your inner compass,” she says. “The car crash did that to you, but for a lot of people it’s just a dissolution of other things in the social universe. Industry, jobs, even families are less cohesive than they used to be. And all those are sort of little car wrecks for the mind.”
Following your feelings to find your purpose
Whether the life around us begins to fit too snugly or we have a sudden moment of clarity, the question becomes: How do we listen to our inner compass?
“The mechanism by which you find your purpose is born into you, and it expresses itself through emotion,” Beck says. “So what brings you positive, joyful and liberating sensations emotionally—and physically, actually—that’s going to be closer to your purpose. And anything that makes you feel shut down, constricted, weighed down, physically weak—that’s going to be a step away from your purpose. And life is just a game of, you’re getting warmer, you’re getting colder. If you take a step with every decision toward what makes you feel most free, you’ll end up at your purpose very quickly.”
Unfortunately, while finding your purpose sounds simple, it isn’t always easy.
To start, Beck suggests we spend more time in silence, which allows us “to find a sense of peace and equilibrium within” and results in a keener awareness of our inner compass.
Fifteen minutes in the morning and at night—whether meditating or walking quietly—is sufficient. The goal is to get in touch with whatever is making our current situation feel too constricting or just plain wrong. Because, she says, the incentive to move and make real change has to come from within. The more attention we pay to our inner compass, the more dramatic the directives will become. Or as Beck says, “The truth of your purpose will start to spin itself out inside you.”
Overcoming the fear of following your purpose
Sometimes, even taking the time to look within can be uncomfortable. And ultimately, doing something, as she says, “that feels really delicious,” and making a decision to change our life in a way that fulfills our purpose can arouse a good deal of fear.
“Fear actually is not an emotion to which you should pay a lot of attention,” Beck says. “Fear is an automatic response of a very basic part of the brain, and in most people it’s highly active, even when we’re sitting in a completely peaceful spot. We scare ourselves with stories like, ‘I’ll never be able to make it in this rarefied field.’ ‘I can’t quit a steady job; it’s irresponsible for me to give up this paycheck and health benefits.’”
Then Beck quotes Buddha: “Just as we can know the ocean because it always tastes of salt, we can recognize enlightenment because it always tastes of freedom.”
She relates this idea to the effort we make at discovering our purpose and then finding the courage to see it through.
“The question is not, ‘Am I afraid to do this?’” she says. “The question is, ‘Does the thought of doing this bring me more freedom?’ Freedom is often frightening. But it’s not suffocating and soul-killing.”
Find the happiness of flow
The good news, she says, is that neuroscientists now know that it’s the edge between what is possible and what is almost too difficult to master where we actually create the most dopamine, a brain chemical responsible for a feeling of pleasure, bliss and what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called flow.
Csikszentmihalyi spent decades researching the positive aspects of human experience and summarized what he found in his book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. He says people are happiest when they are in a state of flow, which entails concentration to the point of complete absorption in an activity. This only happens when we’re doing something that is almost too hard for us, like rock climbing or mastering a run on the piano. The accompanying feelings, such as fulfillment, engagement and motivation, supersede our usual concerns such as worry and regret.
“We call it joy when we come out of it,” Beck says of the flow phenomenon. She uses the example of playing golf: “As strange as it seems, the brain has to be so quiet to do a perfect golf swing, to get everything connected the right way. It’s right at the edge of too hard.” And ask any golfer—it’s addictive.
If we’re happiest and most satisfied when we’re pushing ourselves, then we have to ignore the fear that tells us if we go beyond our comfort zone, disaster will strike. If we’re to succeed in taking a risk and pursuing our purpose, we have to realize that fear is not a red light, but rather a consistent companion we must learn to manage.
“If there is a bear in the room, fear is useful,” Beck says. “If all that’s in the room scaring you is the thought, There’s no way I could make money by becoming a musician, that’s not a useful fear. It creates a sense of entrapment rather than freedom. So you measure things not by whether they’re scary or not, but by whether they’re liberating or not.”
Create new models to follow your purpose
Some of us may have known for a long time—perhaps years—what our purpose truly is. But we haven’t been able to fit it into those traditional mental models we inherited. Think of those voices that say, “Being an actor isn’t a real job,” or “Running a nonprofit won’t pay the bills.”
Besides, some of us may discover that our dissatisfaction lies with our relationships or our creative expression outside of a career path.
Again, here’s the good news.
Consider alternative ways to follow your purpose
First of all, remember that you may not need to quit your job to follow your purpose. For example, starting a nonprofit may not be the best choice for someone with no business experience. Instead, maybe you’ll find fulfillment in volunteering and becoming an integral part of someone else’s organization.
And if your dissatisfaction lies in unsupportive relationships—family or friends who discourage you from spending the time you need on a particular pursuit—you have some choice in that as well. After all, you set your own boundaries and expectations for how others treat you. Work at compromise with others but don’t compromise your soul’s desire.
Make a career shift
To those of us who need to make a profound career shift, Beck says, “This is the best time ever to strike out on your own and create income in new ways. There are ways that creativity is wanted now that couldn’t possibly have generated income in the past.” She points to Daniel Pink’s book A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future. In it, Pink writes:
“The last few decades have belonged to a certain kind of person with a certain kind of mind—computer programmers who could crank code, lawyers who could craft contracts, MBAs who could crunch numbers. But the keys to the kingdom are changing hands. The future belongs to a very different kind of person with a very different kind of mind—creators and empathizers, pattern recognizers and meaning makers. These people—artists, inventors, designers, storytellers, caregivers, consolers, big-picture thinkers—will now reap society’s richest rewards and share its greatest joys.”
Beck says the whole concept of a job in the 20th century was based on factory labor, where you and other workers show up and put in a certain number of hours in the same place. Today she believes technology is making that largely unnecessary, so those types of jobs are disappearing. “And these weird opportunities to make money doing creative things are starting to open up,” she says, and then corrects herself. “They’re not starting to open up—they’re avalanching.”
Draw your own life map
For example, when Beck’s daughter graduated from college and was going to move on to graduate school, she asked her daughter how she felt about the decision. Her daughter replied, “Well, the only frustrating thing is that it’s so hard to find time to draw, and actually that’s how I’ve been making money recently.” Turns out, Beck’s daughter had been illustrating a very successful webcomic. From that project she got referrals and commissions, to the extent that she was making so much money at it, she wondered why she was going to graduate school at all.
Selling illustrations from a webcomic may not sound like a career when we compare it with our current mental models, but it is, in fact, a viable way to make a living doing what you love. “Who cares if it doesn’t exist as an official career?” Beck asks. “Let’s make new models.”
While that may seem well and good for a young woman fresh out of college, it can be tougher for people who are more established in life to follow that deep calling and make drastic changes that alter our career paths. Beck says Seth Godin “does a brilliant job of figuring out how to monetize creative endeavors and how to use the new technologies to set you free to do what you love and still make a good living.”
In Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?, Godin writes, “The problem is that our culture has engaged in a Faustian bargain, in which we trade our genius and artistry for apparent stability.” And while he agrees you don’t necessarily have to quit your job to do it, he suggests that, “It’s time to stop complying with the system and draw your own map.”
Go for the joy in finding your purpose
Beck was 25 years old when she had her own version of a car wreck and was forced to draw a new map. Over the phone, she relives her moment of clarity with me, recalling the incident that inspired her 1999 book, Expecting Adam.
“I was almost six months pregnant,” she says. “All my adult life I had been at Harvard and really thought that the purpose of my life was to climb this hierarchy created by my culture, which in my case was education. But, you know, I hoped it would lead to moneymaking and power, wealth and status.
“My child was already very real to me, very bonded. I’d been feeling him kick for months. It was not early in the pregnancy. Then he was diagnosed with Down syndrome.”
The people who had been her mentors, her teachers and leaders, told her she shouldn’t have the baby. “I was told that his life was worthless and meaningless and really shouldn’t happen. And the people who told me that meant well, but suddenly I began to wonder, What is the purpose of a human life? What makes it OK to bring a human life into the world? And I realized that a lot of the people who were telling me that this baby could never be happy, were not happy.
“I didn’t know anyone with Down syndrome, but I had heard they could be happy people. And well, in that case, what is the justification for being? I decided the experience of joy is its own excuse for being. And that if I could have none of that in my life, it wouldn’t be worth living. And that if my son could have a tremendous amount of joy in his life, then it was worth living even if he never went to Harvard. So I did not terminate the pregnancy, and I have had this little zen master ever since.
Follow your joy
“Go straight for the joy,” she says.
Beck says what we really want isn’t stuff. It’s the emotion we associate with the stuff. This was revolutionary to me—the idea that when we want a nice car, what we are really after is the exhilaration we feel when driving a powerful engine at high speeds, the pleasure we get from fine craftsmanship or the improved self-image from being seen in a nice car. Unfortunately, the possessions, jobs and relationships we go after don’t always give us the emotions we think they will yield.
“So go straight for the joy,” she says. “Eliminate the middleman.”
Beck changed her path once Adam was born. She started studying how other people were creating fulfillment in their lives. Today, as a mother of three, she suggests that finding joy involves mindfulness, which is similar to Csikszentmihalyi’s notion of flow.
In a Harvard Business Review interview, Harvard psychology professor Ellen Langer defines mindfulness as “the process of actively noticing new things. When you do that, it puts you in the present. It makes you more sensitive to context and perspective. It’s the essence of engagement. And it’s energy-begetting, not energy-consuming.”
Mindlessly pursuing the safe things in life—the routine, the expected career path—may seem like a sure way to security and happiness. But when we live mindfully, noticing and following our good feelings, we have the ability to discover what makes us truly happy. We find our purpose.
While that may temporarily translate into difficulty and fear, we have the choice to approach these not as obstacles, but as the paths that lead to joy. We have the choice to either try to contort ourselves back into a life that no longer fits us or to get quiet, listen and act on what we hear.
Finding our purpose is about finding the willingness to listen to our truest selves and then ignoring the fear that comes along with it. Unless, of course, there’s a bear in the room.
Minding your purpose
Beck recommends employing mindfulness to discover what you truly feel about various aspects of your life and, hopefully, to point you in the direction finding of your purpose.
Remember a time you had to do something that was not joyful for you. It could be related to work, school, relationships, whatever, just something you didn’t like. Now recall the memory of it and notice how your body feels. Then go to a memory of something that made you deeply content. Remember that vividly. Notice how your body feels.
One sensation in your body points toward your purpose—the good feeling. And the other points toward what you’re meant to avoid.
Now write a list of things you have to do this week. Go down the list and imagine doing each thing. Notice how your body responds. Score each item on your list. The most negative physical response gets a -10. The most positive gets a +10. Score it as zero if it’s neutral. For example, something slightly negative, like doing the laundry, might be -2. Survey your scores. Are you feeding the good feelings or focusing on the negative?
If you really want to up the ante, Beck suggests cutting out one thing you were going to do that gives you a negative response and adding one that gives you a positive response. She says if you keep making that replacement over time, you will create the optimal life.
This article was published in June 2013 and has been updated. Photo by Ground Picture/Shutterstock