Finding Purpose in Life: The Long Guide to Finding Your Life’s Work

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It was an earnest request: “I’d like to know how to find your vocation.”

We were sitting in one of Seattle’s finest coffee establishments. It was a sunny May morning— the best kind of day that you could hope for.

And I suddenly found myself unsure of where to start.

This is what I do! This is how I love to help people, but to answer the question so directly is challenging!

This is because the answer is usually pretty nuanced. It has to address who you, where you are, what you’re looking for in that question, and how you think of yourself, work, and life.

Here’s the trick about it: finding purpose in life is both beautifully simple and as complex as every person.

Finding your calling, vocation, and life’s work are about finding your identity. It’s about living into a deeper expression of who you are as a human.

As I expressed in the Meaning Manifesto, you were made to make something. If there’s one message for you to take away from that, it’s that you have something to say. So the question of finding your life’s work in essence is the question: “What do you want to say?”

And by say, I don’t mean actually say with words (though it could mean that), I mean create. Basically, what’s the impact you want to have on the world around you?

In this post, I’m going to lay out how you answer the question.

Expectations and a Promise

Before we really get into it, let me offer some expectations and a promise. This isn’t one of those click-bait posts on “How to Find You Calling in Three Easy Steps”. As I’ve written about before, those don’t work. If there was an easy way to find your life’s work, you would have found it by now. Give yourself some credit! You’re smarter than that!

Easy answers are too easy. So I want to peel back a few more layers of the process. Teach you more about how to think about where you are and where you are going in a helpful and productive way, and then (spoiler alert!) hear from you what else you need to know.

It’s also important to note that I think of the words calling, vocation, passion, and life’s work as all referring to the same things: what makes work meaningful.  I find that most of treatments that separate out those words are splitting hairs, and are not very helpful in a practical sense.  You are welcome to feel otherwise, I just want to make sure we all have the same expectations for this article.

Here’s my promise: I will not offer you cliches. I will not give you some thin advice that makes you feel good and get excited and then an hour later you’re right back where you started.

If you want cliches, try BuzzFeed or Hallmark.

Finally, this article is long.  It is divided into two major sections to make it easier to navigate: How to Think About Your Life’s Work and How to Find Your Life’s Work.

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How To Think About Your Life’s Work

Your Work is About Desire for Impact

What you find meaningful is about desire. Meaning is a very subjective experience. What one person finds meaningful is very different from what someone else finds meaningful.

So in order to find your life’s work, you have to begin to put language to how you want to impact others and the world.

You could say that this is just the question: what do you want to do? But that question is impossible to answer. Why? Because it’s too big and there’s too much pressure involved.

We have to enter the conversation in other ways. So, how do you do that?

Meaning is Thematic

We often think about the question of finding your work as being about trying things until you find the right thing. This works for some people. They stumble into something that’s a good fit early on and it remains a good fit.

But there are others of us for whom this doesn’t work. Either we try things and nothing feels like a good fit. Or we find something that feels like a good fit, until a major event changes us or the situation and makes it no longer fit.

No matter how you have arrived at the question of what’s next for you with your work, the answer is the same: the most meaningful thing for you to do with yourself has something to do with meaningful places you have already been.

This is important, so I want to make sure I’m saying this clearly. Meaning doesn’t come out of the blue. We’re wired for it. And that wiring comes from the life you’ve lived.

Your self-identity is a collection of stories. Those stories make you who you are, shape what you want, and dictate what is meaningful for you. So when it comes to a person’s search for meaning, the meaning we’re looking for is experiential. It is defined by the individual and highly nuanced.

In other words, you’ve already lived meaningful moments. What were they?

Your Past Shapes Your Future

We like to think about time as being a continuum flowing from the past, through the present, and into the future.

Technically speaking, this may be true. This moment happens after the moment you started reading this piece and comes before the moment you end the piece.

But our interior world doesn’t interact with time in this way.

What we have known of the past, shapes what we expect from the future.

So if your life up until this point tells a story of being walked on and taken advantage of, then that’s what you expect from the future.

If your past tells the story of things falling into place for you, that’s what you expect of the future.

And so on.

Your Future Shapes Your Present

What you expect and anticipate in the future effects how you live right now, today.

Now let’s bring this back to your work. If you feel stuck and you don’t know what you want to do in the future, the solution doesn’t lie in finding the right thing to do in the future. Experimenting has its role, but you have to start by exploring the past.

Seek to understand how you’ve arrived at the place you are currently in. Seek to understand and articulate what keeps you from knowing what you want from the future.

If your life’s work is about making a meaningful impact (as I believe it is) and you don’t know what kind of impact you want to make, then you have to unpack what keeps you from knowing this. What voices, forces, cultures, systems, etc. keep you in a place of feeling unsure?

Here’s an Example:

I worked with a woman who felt very lost. She had spent a few years working a job that she found to be really meaningful, but things took a turn for the worst. One of her manager’s peers decided that she wasn’t doing a good job. It’s likely that he felt threatened by her success, but we can’t be sure. Things got very complicated for her. Her work environment became toxic, as she fought to stay but this man fought to have her fired.

Eventually, she left the job.

Two years later, she and I start working together. As we explored where she’d been and what contributed to her sense of stuckness, this story kept coming to the surface. We spent some time exploring it and as we did, she began to find more and more freedom.

Fast forward a few years and she’s going back to school for more education in that field. To use her words, “something I would have never in my wildest dreams thought I would do”. And she’s LOVING it.

Her past experience had a direct impact on how she thought about the future and what was and was not possible for her.

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How to Find Your Life’s Work

Look for the Themes

If meaning is thematic and your past shapes your future, the key to finding the most meaningful places of work and passion is for you to find the themes in your experience.

This brings us back to the idea that you’ve already experienced meaning. So how do you find those places and understand those themes?

Finding Themes and Patterns in your past experience

Begin by exploring your stories. Your mind can quickly sort through your experiences and pick out significant moments that have shaped you. Tell these stories— both the good and the painful ones (both are important).

Don’t try to extract themes from them just yet— just tell them in story form. Narrate them as you would read in a good book.

Some facets to explore as you write and tell them are:

  • What are the events that happened?
  • What did it feel like?
  • What else was going on around that time?
  • What part of the experience sticks with you the most? (Specific words, actions, characters, etc.)

After you’ve done this with a number of stories, you can then look at them as a set and see what they say about you.

  • Are there themes that stand out?
  • Are there patterns that repeat?

It can be helpful to have others in on this process with you. Sometimes we’re too close to our stories to really be able to understand them all the way. This is also work that a good therapist can help you with.

Finding Themes and Patterns in Your Work

Some other places to explore are the things that you’ve done to which you’ve felt connected. These are moments when you’ve been a part of something that’s felt most fulfilling.

It’s when you’ve accomplished something that you’re proud of.

This is when you’ve worked for something and felt connected to it.

What are those moments for you? Don’t limit yourself to what you’ve done in your job. Think bigger than that. What are the best:

  • Projects you’ve completed.
  • Achievements you’ve earned.
  • Conversations you’ve been a part of.
  • Ways you’ve been able to help people.
  • Things you’ve made/built/fixed/written/created.

Are you thinking of things? Even if they’re small, or hard to remember, take note of them.

Everything matters. All your experiences inform who you are and what you do.

What to Do When You Can’t Remember Stories

Exploring your past in this way is hard work. It will be easier for some people than others, and that’s ok.

If you find yourself struggling to find stories, be patient with yourself. Just like any new activity, it takes practice to be able to access and tell your stories.

If you’re not remembering stories, there can be a few contributing factors.

1) It may be that you’re putting too much pressure on yourself to find something big and paradigm shifting. This is common. It’s easy to minimize the things we’ve been through and to tell ourselves that they don’t count. The truth is that they do. They matter.

Even if you don’t feel like your stories are big and impressive enough, tell them anyway.

2) There’s also the possibility that you’ve been through some really hard things that make it hard to go back and revisit. It’s easier for our minds to forget stories than it is to revisit painful places. If this feels like a possibility for you, finding a good therapist will be helpful.

Distill the Themes & Look for the Impact

After you’ve explored your stories as well as the things you’ve done that you feel connected to, you will begin to have a sense of what kind of impact is meaningful for you.

What I mean by impact is effecting change on people, systems, and/or cultures.  As you hone in on themes in your story and your work, think about them through the lens of impact.  Ask questions like:

  • What change am I bringing about in each of these moments?
    – What is it specifically that makes this meaningful for me?
  • What similarities are there between the moments and the different themes?

Work on putting words to all of this and then condense it to a phrase or a question.

Here’s an Example:

I worked with a man who works at an architecture firm.  He loved a lot of the things he was doing, but wanted help understanding how to best use his time and energy.  He was open to making some big career decisions, but felt unsure which option would be best for him.

He is also an artist.  He sculpts and writes music, primarily, but plays in many different mediums.  He wanted to give more of his time to creative pursuits, but felt limited by all of his work responsibilities.

His job served his art by paying the bills, but it also took a lot of his time.

As we started exploring, we found that there were parts of his work that he really loved.  He told stories about some of the projects he had helped create and his hope for how they would be beneficial to the people who lived and worked in those buildings.   In other words, his work was it’s own medium where he got to create.

We then explored his stories about his art.  We talked about what each medium was at it’s best.  We asked:

  • How did he hope to move people with his work?
  •  What did he want people to take away with them?

Thematically, his art and his work all began to align through the lens of his life’s work.  He began to see that the things he was doing were not as disparate and disconnected as he had feared.  It was quite the opposite.

All of his work was to help people see new possibilities in life.  He did this in his art, his music, his job— even with his coworkers.

He had a number of great avenues through which he was doing what we named as his life’s work.  He just hadn’t seen them that way.

Having found a sense of what his life’s work is, he was able to make his next choices based on how they helped him do more of it.

What Happens Next

What happens next depends on where you are, what your constraints are, and what options you are presently considering.  As you gain a sense of what you’re life’s work may be, it becomes a lens through which to view opportunities and options.

It guides how you consider what to do next and allows you to ask the question: do these jobs allow me to do more of what is meaningful? If so, how much?

Experimentation

Having identified what is meaningful and found some options that may allow you to do it, the next phase is experimentation.  You can’t know for sure how it feels proactively pursue your work until you’ve tried it, and it doesn’t always go well the first time.

You have to experiment and study the outcomes.  Approach it like a scientist: control the variables, accept failure as part of the process, analyze your results, and let what you learn influence how you think about your work.

Based on this experiment:

  • Is there a way I should nuance my work?
  • Is there another path that would be a better fit?
  • Are there specific situations and opportunities that I should avoid?
  • Are there specific situations and opportunities that I should seek out?
  • Etc.

And then repeat with a new experiment.  Gradually you’ll find yourself moving deeper into your work and feeling more connected and fulfilled by what you do.

Final Thoughts

Finding your life’s work, passion, vocation, and/or calling is a journey.  It takes time, but good guidance will allow you to move much more quickly.

Finding the intersection of work and meaning is complex. It’s as different as one person is different than another.

There isn’t an easy answer, but an easy answer wouldn’t satisfy.

By the end of our conversation on that May morning in that coffee shop, we’d covered a lot of ground.  We hadn’t answered all of this student’s questions, but she had some tools to forge her next steps.

I hope the same is true for you at this point.

You will find your way.  I believe that, and I intend to see to it.  Never give up.

UPDATE: I’ve built the Calling Course to walk you step by step through this process. Check it out here.

Dan Cumberland is on a mission to push you into the places meaning, life, & work intersect. He is the author of The Meaning Manifesto. Read more about him here, and connect with him on facebook and twitter.

There Are 8 Comments On This Post.

  1. michelle

    thanks! I loved this…and shared it with my eldest son 🙂

  2. Elizabeth Caldwell

    AWESOME post! It’s been helpful for me to read this, even if it’s just to scratch the surface of what activities I find meaning in. There are a lot of little gold nuggets throughout this post that I’ll probably be ruminating on for a while, but the most impactful has been the idea of looking at your past to help you shape the future. Thank you so much for this!

    • Dan

      Thanks SO much Elizabeth! Let e know if you have any questions on the process. I’d love to hear where it takes you!

  3. Amy Whitt

    As I read this I hear my story unfolding. I have enjoyed the experience the military has given me and I am ready to move on. Thank-you for an eye opening article.

    • dan

      Thanks for reading and saying so, Amy!

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