“It was fun to have the majority of my life completely up in the air,” said no one ever.
Change can do a lot things. Change can make life better. Change can fix big problems. Change can get you more money, more time, more meaning, more impact. And change can leave you with less of those things.
But no matter what, change is painful.
Why? Because even the most adventurous of us like to feel comfortable sometimes. We like stability and consistency in many parts of life.
The hard truth is that finding purpose, passion, and calling requires a great deal of change.
As a result, few enter fully into the quest for meaning without some outside force initiating it. That’s not a bad thing, it’s just how it is.
All Great Stories Start Somewhere
In story form, all great stories have an inciting incident. It’s that thing that jumpstarts the story and interrupts the main character’s life as usual. A good inciting incident moves a story forward and points directly to the climax and resolution.
The reason we love when stories that have these kinds of moments is that we relate to them. We’ve all had some version of normal and everyday life, and then had it interrupted and ripped away by something outside of our control. We’ve all been pushed from places of comfort and simplicity into struggle and complexity. We know what it’s like, so inciting incidents speak truth to us about ourselves and about our lives.
As I’ve worked with clients, there’s always a reason that they’ve sought me out. Something has happened (or hasn’t happened) that has disrupted their vision for themselves and their work.
No one signs up to do deep soul searching work without a reason. It’s too challenging.
If the choice is between Netflix and hard work, there has to be a reason to choose the work.
Though the specifics vary greatly from one person to the next, I wanted to explore the common events in life that propel us into conversations about calling, life direction, passion and purpose.
My guess is that something on this list will resonate with you. Likely you’ve been through a number of these experiences, but one or two in particular has challenged you to ask questions about your identity and life’s work. I’d like to know which ones.
Inciting Incidents in Your Search for Purpose
End of High School
This is the first for many of us. We see it coming for years as people ask us what we want to do when we grow up. We prepare for it by trying to decide what college or university we’d like to go to or what job we’d like to pursue.
For the first time in many of our lives, we’re asked to make big decisions about what’s next. By this time many have been on a very linear educational path since 5 or 6 years of age. This is the first time that single track splits into many separate directions.
End of College and/or Grad School
This is the end of your institutional education. It feels like you’re getting dumped on the side of the road for some. Suddenly there is no structure, no plan, no direction, no GPA to be measured by, and no diploma or awards to achieve. It’s just you and the rest of life. What will you do with it?
You face so many questions: what job can I get? What job do I want? Will anyone hire me? Where will I live? Who will I live with? Etc.
Suddenly you’re forced to make choices about your work and life that you may not feel prepared to make.
Early Career Itch (or Quarter Life Crisis)
At any point in the first 15 years into a career, many people experience a disillusionment. “It didn’t work out the way I anticipated.” Is often how we articulate it.
Maybe you got a job doing that thing that you always wanted to do, and now you realize that it’s not a good fit for you. Or maybe you’ve tried a few things and just feel stuck and unsure what to try next.
This is one of the most common inciting incidents that initiate our quest for calling.
Mid Career Itch (or Mid Life Crisis)
For some this may look like a mid life crisis, while for others it’s more subtle. It happens when you’ve been doing your work for close to 20 years. You’ve reached a level of professionalism where you feel comfortable, and you have a growing sense that you have more to give. Your job might be great, but you’re not starting or ending your day feeling very engaged. You think back to your younger self and wonder what she or he would think if they knew where you’d end up.
You look forward to your remaining years in the work force and realize that you don’t want to keep doing this for another 10+ years.
You long for more meaning and significance.
When the kids are out of the house, there’s a new space that opens in our lives. You’ve given a lot of time, attention, and effort to your kids over the past 18+ years, and now they don’t need as much as they once did.
This is a particularly poignant phase of life if you are the primary caretaker. Maybe you haven’t worked full time in years. Maybe not at all. Suddenly your primary source of meaning and purpose is shifting away from you. You’re forced to wrestle with the loss of your role in the lives of your kids, and also an increase in time and freedom.
What will you do with your time now? Where will you find purpose?
When we reach a point where retirement is an option, we find ourselves asking how will we use our time? Many people find more purpose from their jobs than they realize and really struggle with feeling purposeless and not needed after retiring.
What will you do with yourself now that you have time to do whatever you want? What do you want? What will bring meaning?
Some people choose to give their time to causes that they care about, volunteering more and doing development. Others seek to learn new skills and grow personally.
Major Health Change
Injury, cancer, paralysis, or other health changes can suddenly change our perspective on ourselves and our lives. Confronted both with the fragility of life and our own limitations, we are propelled into asking deep questions about what is worth our time and what legacy do we want to leave.
Personal Life Crisis
Similarly, personal life crisis force us to confront ourselves in a new way. These come in many shapes and sizes:
Death of a loved one. Divorce. Natural disaster. Car accident. Robbery. Near death experience. Etc.
Forced Job Change
Last but not least, a forced job change is another common inciting incident. Whether you get fired, your company collapses, you take a forced early retirement, or some other iteration, your previously clear vision of what your next 3+ years were going to be is suddenly stripped from you. You’re left bare and wondering what you will do, and what you want to do.
Which Describe You?
Calling is a journey of identity formation. It’s a process that we typically revisit multiple times throughout our lives. If you’ve made it this far in this article, I’m curious what you’re finding resonates with you. Which of these pushed you to ask questions about who you are and what your work in the world is?
I’d love to hear from you. Share your experience in the comments.
PS- I currently have openings for one-on-one sessions. Click here and fill out the form to get started!