Finding your purpose

As a business professor, students often ask me where they should take their careers in order to have the most impact. They are expecting a straightforward answer: that they should work in finance in a large resource-extraction company, say, or in the advocacy department of a multinational non-profit organization. Instead, I am quick to tell them, “Wrong question: try again.” The key question is one that only they can answer for themselves: “What were you meant to do with your life?”

This deeper exploration leads to the pursuit of a calling or a vocation, which is nothing more or less than your purpose in the world. We all have a goal or purpose to what we do. Where do you devote your energy? How much time do you spend with your family, or in the woods, or pursuing wealth?

Are your relationships transactional or relational; that is, do you treat people and the natural world as a community that sustains and includes you, or merely as objects for achieving the success of your own pursuits? Are the answers to these questions internally generated, or are you listening to somebody else to decide what you are meant to be? Satisfaction in your life’s work comes from knowing who you are and what you are called to do, and then sticking with your idea of how a life well lived is measured as you see where that spirit takes you.

The pursuit of a calling is about opening up to the unknown. It will not be what we design, but instead the sum of what we experience. It will not be aimed toward a fixed end of stability and certainty, but a continuous pursuit of growth and awareness. A life well lived must be a creative endeavor, whatever form that creativity takes—whether it’s finance, activism, painting, carpentry, teaching, raising a family, or writing a book. Chances are that, if we are genuinely open to the possibilities of a calling, we will find that satisfaction will come from some place far different from where we expected to find it. I don’t think of a vocation or calling as having to be God-centered— but it can be. And with all due respect to Joseph Campbell, it’s not simply about “following your bliss.”[1] It’s about connecting to a purpose that is bigger than you and caring enough to devote your life, energies, passions, and love toward addressing it.

It is a manifestation of your recognition and appreciation for the connectedness that we all have with the world, which includes our society, family, school, and natural world. Satisfaction comes not just from some inner feeling, but also from an assessment that what you are connected to and care about is being addressed. Satisfaction occurs in the world, not only in ourselves. It comes not from pleasure, but from meaning.

None of this is easy, and many do not even try to find their calling. Our commercial society wants us to believe that the pursuit of happiness that Thomas Jefferson wrote about in the Declaration of Independence has boiled down to “Miller Time” and consuming more stuff. Its central message is that your value is measured by what you accumulate and what others see, rather than by what you believe. College degrees, fancy cars, big houses, and happy Facebook posts: these can all become ways of projecting to people around you that you have worth. But they are not worth themselves. We live in a world of tremendous pressures for conformity and self-centeredness.

The lesson that I want people to take from this book, above all others, is what cannot be found in a textbook. There’s pure joy when you take control of your life, defy the “rules” around you and take the risk to pursue your dreams and find work that you deeply connect with.

As organizational development scholar Herbert Shepard wrote in his essay A Path with a Heart: “We have been brought up to live by rules that mostly have nothing to do with making our lives worth living . . . Work is something you have to be compensated for, because it robs you of living. Play is something you usually have to pay for, because your play is often someone else’s work . . . [But] a master in the art of living draws no sharp distinction between his work and his play, his labor and his leisure, his mind and his body, his education and his recreation. He scarcely knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence through whatever he is doing and leaves others to determine whether he is working or playing. To himself he always seems to be doing both.”[2]

This book is written with this spirit in mind: of calling people to follow their own path. These essays are based upon my own work as a professor, teacher, and student, and upon the likeminded work of the people around me. I have watched and coached students in their twenties as they sought their true vocation, and I have done the same with mid-career professionals in their forties and fifties. It is never too late to consider the measure of your life’s work based on internal meaning and purpose instead of external status and money.

The above is an extract from Andy’s new book, Finding Purpose - Environmental Stewardship as a Personal Calling, published by Greenleaf Publishing. Vistage readers can enjoy 10% off the book on Greenleaf’s website, using the discount code FP10.

[1] J.D. Campbell (1988). Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth. New York: Doubleday & Co.

[2] H. Shepard (1984). On realization of human potential: A path with a heart. In M. Arthur, L. Bailyn, D. Levinson, & H. Shepard (Eds.), Working with Careers (pp. 25-46). New York: Center for Research on Careers, Graduate School of Business, Columbia University.

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