“The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.”
More than 150 years later, that statement from Mark Twain has never been more relevant. In fact, one of the most common reasons individuals enter my psychotherapy practice is because of career dissatisfaction. They come in with questions like:
"What am I doing here?”
"What is my life’s purpose?"
"What's the point of it all?"
These people want to stop going through the motions. Desiring to feel more engaged with their life—and perhaps the people around them, they long to find a deeper purpose, but they don’t know how. Can you relate?
I sure can.
Finding your purpose isn't just a luxury. In fact, according to decades of research, there are few things more important to mental stamina than having this sense of purpose. A 2009 study found that the importance of purpose starts early in childhood, and that teaching kids to find a sense of meaning leads to greater academic success—and also a decreased risk of depression later in life.
I don’t know about you, but my primary education curriculum certainly didn’t emphasize learning to connect with myself to find a deeper meaning, a "calling," if you will. Rather, the prevailing narrative promoted productivity and efficiency over emotional intelligence and connectedness. As a result, I learned to cope with my internal voids with things, achievements, or approval from others.
But as most of us know, those are only temporary fixes. It wasn't until my mid-twenties that the question hit me: "What the heck am I doing with my life?"
Sometimes finding a ‘why’ requires a bit of suffering.
Before I became a therapist, I was a teacher. I had always loved kids, and coming from a family of educators, I thought I was on the right path. But two years into my job I was already burnt out. I knew I couldn't stay where I was, but I had no idea where to start.
I wanted a different career, but I was petrified to start over. Every job I was interested in required that I go back to school for a higher degree. This meant student loan debt, giving up a consistent paycheck, and trusting that, in the end, it would pay off financially and emotionally. The risk-averse part of myself was like, “Are you insane? You have a secure job. Why on Earth would you walk away?”
But my heart was begging me to take a chance—but turns out, I was long disconnected from what actually brought me joy, and I didn't exactly want to face why. Looking back I am aware of my sense of entitlement. I didn’t want to have to work hard on myself to figure out what I needed. I wanted it handed to me on a silver platter. I acted like the world owed me something. I thought I wasn’t supposed to suffer to find it. Suffering meant that I was doing it all wrong. Or so I thought.
At the time I had just started therapy so I naturally brought all of my questions, fears, and doubts to my therapist hoping that she would have all of the answers. She didn’t. But she did ask me a lot of questions. She would ask things like, “What is important to you? What do you care about?”
To my surprise, those questions were hard to answer. In fact, I don’t think I had ever been asked those questions before. Up until that time, I had spent my time going through the motions, without giving myself the chance to figure out who I really was and what I actually wanted.
Ready to face the truth, I was determined to figure myself out.
I was tired of feeling disconnected and knew (OK, was told over and over by my therapist) that the only way out is through. And the more time I spent asking myself questions and allowing myself to reflect on the answers, the more clarity I had about my 'why'.
I started to notice themes in my life. For example, I always ended up talking to people about how they feel. I wanted to know how their relationships were going and about their emotional states. When I connected with people on a deeper level, I thrived. Then one day in session I declared, "People are always coming to me with their problems and I love supporting them in their confusion and pain. I’m also really good at it!"
And there it was…my 'why'. I figured out that I needed to have a career that allowed me to talk about people's feelings, in a real, raw, and authentic way. Through the discovery of this 'why' I began to realize that I wanted more than anything to become a therapist. So I did.
I’m not going to lie; it was an arduous process. But the fact that I could come back to my deeper purpose propelled me forward and acted as my guiding light.
You won’t know your exact path—but connecting with your ‘why’ will help you unearth it.
If you’re feeling stuck or scared because you don’t know your life’s purpose, please hear me when I say nobody knows his or her exact path. Life is more about about discovery. And this discovery process starts with asking questions. Explore those times in your life when you felt particularly fulfilled, excited, or inspired. They don’t have to be big events, but they do need to be specific. Identifying these specific moments in time will trigger emotions—and it's those emotions that will guide us to find our talents, values, and ultimately our 'why'.
Don’t know where to start? Here are some questions I would typically ask a client who needs support in uncovering their passion and purpose. You can answer them in journal format, by talking with a friend, or in any way that pushes you to reflect.
01. What did you love to do as a child?
02. Where does your mind drift when you daydream?
03. Where and when do you feel the happiest?
04. When do you feel like your best self?
05. What do you value most in other people and yourself?
06. What inspiration, idea, or vision keeps coming to you?
07. Who inspires you with their passion and purpose?
08. If you could do anything in the world without worrying about time, money, or energy restrictions, what would you do?
09. What’s not working in your life?
10. What do you do most naturally, with effortless ease?
11. What would your future self say to the present you?
Once you start examining your life through the lens of these questions you will be better able to see what’s important to you, what drives you, and what makes you come alive. Place your focus on these talents, and see where in reality you can utilize them—and go for it. It will be hard, but when you feel truly drawn to something (as oppose to being distracted by something), follow through. Remember it starts small. First know your talents, then know your why, say yes, and see where it leads you.