This column is dedicated to all seekers of meaningful, inspiring work
You’ve recognized, sagely if a bit belatedly, that the job you’re in fits you about as well as your favorite jeans from college (in other words – not at all). You’ve carved a little time and space into your busy schedule to figure out what you want to do with the rest of your life. You’ve read inspiring books about creating work you love and have devoured every article you can find on people who are living passionate, exuberant lives of meaning and purpose. You are inspired and hopeful. You are ready.
But ready for what, exactly? You really aren’t sure what it is you’re supposed to do. Maybe you feel you’re good at a few things, but not great at anything in particular. Perhaps you have a history of getting excited about a new idea, only to let it fizzle and evaporate into thin air as your life tumbles on without it. You wish you were a Mozart or Martha Graham, with a talent so big and compelling that it inevitably and inexorably carries you to your destiny. Instead, you see yourself as this average person who became disgruntled with her job. Which is sobering, because that pretty much describes everyone you know. Your hard-won inspiration begins to brown and curl at the edges. “What have I been thinking?” you chide yourself. “This is how life is. Most people are not doing work they love. Why should I be any different?”
Because you are different. But your dreams are fuzzy and shapeless. There doesn’t seem to be this one great thing you’ve always longed to do. You’re afraid to dive into something that might not be your true passion, because you’ll probably end up walking away from it and back to where you started. So you keep digging for that one perfect thing, excavating old performance review documents and researching “hot jobs” on the intranet and asking your friends for their opinions about your talents and experience, trying to figure out which of your skills might now be in demand. “What is my purpose? What is it I’m supposed to do? The answer must be in there somewhere!”
And it is…yet not, perhaps, as you might expect to find it. For there is an insidious flaw in the line of thinking that says your purpose lies in some particular thing you do. The truth is, you and your purpose are one seamless whole. Your purpose is who you are, and who you are is the unique being who expresses your purpose. You are alive, breathing, evolving, deepening, expanding – and so is your purpose. If you try to constrain it with some fixed notion of “the one thing I was meant to do,” you are putting artificial limits on your self expression. Which really isn’t much better than trying to squeeze into those old jeans, come to think of it.
What’s “in there” for you to find is you. What’s “out there” for you to discover are delightful possibilities for expressing that “you.” And given how you are constantly evolving and expanding, there may not be only one particular thing you are meant to do. This may seem alarming at first, viewed from the mindset of wanting to figure out what job or career you’re supposed to be in. But if you can step outside of that mindset and simply let the truth sink in – there may not be one particular thing you are meant to do - you may find sweet freedom in it. You don’t have to figure it all out right now! You can’t get it wrong! Why, if there isn’t one particular thing you’re meant to do, perhaps there are several – and you have the whole of your life to explore them. You don’t have to contemplate and analyze and determine through rigorous psychological testing the “perfect” kind of work for you; you need only commit to uncovering your essential self and exploring how to express it. Now, in this moment. And as you evolve from moment to moment, so, too, will your self-expression.
I’m guessing you may be thinking something along the lines of, “Well, that sounds positively flaky! I don’t want to be one of those people who wanders and dabbles, never committing to anything and never amounting to much! I want to be a person of substance, someone who makes a real contribution.” Of course you do! But consider this: what if dabbling and contributing are not mutually exclusive? What if making a real contribution requires the boldness of exploration, the willingness to play with different ways of giving, the daring to dabble and create? What if our substance needs fresh air to breathe and lots of room to move, and is stifled by rigid notions of what “substance” looks like? What if you could trust that you already are a person of substance, and your solemn – and joyful – responsibility is to let that substance be seen and known?
Make no mistake about it, I am not advocating a careless, thoughtless approach to finding work you love, or an “It doesn’t matter what happens” attitude in the search. Of course it matters, because you matter. This is serious business, and it requires commitment and faith. But it is also joyful business, and it requires equally a sense of curiosity and playfulness. In fact, because it is so important, we must hold it lightly. We don’t want to crush it with the weight of our fears and misguided expectations. We want to invite our inner brilliance to come out of hiding and reveal itself to us. And what better invitation is there than the invitation to have some fun?
The Pleasure Principle
I say it to my clients and myself over and over: pleasure is its own reason for being. I say it over and over because I keep forgetting it over and over and need the reminder. It is an essential truth regardless of where we are on this journey of creating work we love, but it’s particularly helpful when we’re trying to “figure out” what kind of work we want to do.
I like to think of things in terms of energy, and a really delightful thing about the energy of pleasure is that it relaxes and expands us, helping us open to ever-greater gifts. In an expanded state we can receive inspiration and the startling wisdom of our inner voice, and these are the very gifts we’re seeking as we step onto this path. It’s fairly common to experience just a teensy bit of frustration when we’ve become clear about the work we don’t want to do, but haven’t yet crystallized even a starter idea about the work we do want to do. We get more and more impatient, demanding of ourselves that we figure it out, already, so we can get on with it! But like a cat, our inner knowing doesn’t respond well to demands; it prefers to be coaxed and rewarded generously with treats.
And that’s where pleasure comes in. When we take a time-out from all the figuring and just allow ourselves to be led by the tingle of enjoyment, we step away from the energy of frustration and into the energy of allowing. We shift out of all the mental machinations and into an expanded field of wisdom and grace. We give our usual way of thinking a rest so that we can hear the thoughts inspired by our heart of hearts.
Now, the pleasure I’m talking about here isn’t the same thing as distraction. Distraction separates us from ourselves, while pleasure connects us. True pleasure invites feelings of engagement and contentment; distraction blankets us with numbness. Pleasure affirms and celebrates our inherent goodness, helping us remember who we really are. And that’s exactly what creating work we love is all about: expressing the truth of who we really are.
Which is the other great thing about pleasure: not only does the expansive energy of it open us to contentment and inspiration, the pleasure itself – whatever it is we are drawn to – reveals juicy nuggets of information about who we are and what we’re here to contribute. If we give it enough room, pleasure will inevitably lead us to our deeper longings, and those longings will lead us to paths of self-expression that become our work.
My list of pleasures includes reading, writing in my journal, dancing, having stimulating conversations with friends about the meaning of life, curling up in front of my fireplace on a gray wintry day, and napping with my cats in any season. And I love being at the beach, feeling the warm sand beneath my feet and surrendering my small thoughts to the almost incomprehensible endlessness of the horizon. On the surface these simple pleasures may seem to be just that – simple, even common. And yet, together, they form a picture of someone who is introspective, contemplative and expressive. The reading and journal-writing reveal a longing to write, the dancing opens me to creative expression, and the meaning-of-life conversations with friends point to a seeker of truth. As I allow myself to experience the depth and nuances of my pleasure, I come to know myself as an explorer, a teacher and a writer. That is where I begin.
And that is where you can begin. What is it that enlivens and engages your heart, mind and soul? What do your deepest pleasures tell you about you? Who is this fabulous person who loves what you love? It is the person the world is waiting for, the one with the passion and joy and generous gifts. You, living the life you came here to live. And having more than a little fun.
So don’t get all tangled up trying to figure out the one big thing you’re supposed to do. Instead, spend some quality time getting to know who you are, calling on true pleasure as your trusted guide in the exploration. Give yourself permission to dive into your pleasure – not to escape your responsibilities, but to claim them. Because your greatest responsibility is to be who you truly are, without excuse or judgment or compromise. And you are, by the way, magnificent.