People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. … I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.”
– Joseph Campbell
If only there was a straight-shot, “up and to the right” trajectory for finding a life of meaning and purpose through work. I’ve found it’s more of a spaghetti line with a set of guidelines akin to a choose your own adventure story. College doesn’t really prep you for that one, and our parents don’t always either. While we long for meaningful work that also pays the bills, that path is tread by those with the resilience to play with what life offers, follow convictions, and to go our own way towards the unknowns. Somewhere along the way, we find ourselves coming more alive in the resonant space between our inner and outer expression.
Folks often send us notes yearning to find their purpose. You can feel the tension between needing an income and doing something they love. I’ve had a few college interns grace my couch at graduation time, about to be launched into the world without the shelter of college and student loans, unsteady about the future, and eventually in tears because they don’t want to work at a soul-sucking job. They want to make a difference in the world, and the way there seems so unnervingly perilous and devoid of any good options. There’s a deep fear embodied on those couch cushions–a fear of not knowing what’s next, and anticipation of an awful journey to get where they would like to be, or worse–maybe it all gets lost in a long chain of crappy jobs.
Few, if any, roles are that prepackaged for quick off the shelf retrieval for a salaried position for your dream. For the kind of work in the world that makes a difference and feels enlivening, there’s a process underway pulling you toward finding, or creating, your niche in the grand scheme of things that will make the most impact that only you can make. It requires resilience and relies on paying attention to your interests and aliveness, harnessing your grit and resourcefulness to create the opportunities and raw materials in your path.
Back in my days of worrying about what I was going to do when I grew up, I never would have, nor could have, planned or predicted that I was going to end up where I am now. Yet, I always had a sense of what I wanted to be doing. I set out with conflicting parental advice about work, confounding advice from career counselors, and an un-useful Meyers-Briggs score to forge my own way towards what I wanted to do. I had no idea what I was doing, but I knew what I liked to do, what big questions interested me, and what I could do.
Along the way, I tried to marry the practical voice in my head with the “if money wasn’t an issue” counter voice. One sounded a lot like my internalized dad saying I needed to get a real money-making job to pay for the things I loved to do. The other sounded like my mom who told me I could do whatever I dreamed. The practical side was groan-inducing, but growing up in small-town Wisconsin, I didn’t have many models of work in which you didn’t have to scrap your dreams to make a living.
I knew there had to be a better way to do good work that resonated with who I am and made a difference in the world–and I knew what bills I had to pay. I played in that tension for well over a decade. Each job led to new connections. New relationships led to new projects, which led to new opportunities using all of what I could offer, setting me up for new learning, and inched me closer to aligning who I was and what I wanted to create in the world.
In trying to check off the boxes provided by the internalized practical voice (college, graduate school, house, dog, marriage, job, money, etc.), I ended up slightly depressed. It’s not that I wasn’t learning all the skills that I use in my work today, but I also wasn’t always doing enough of the thing I wanted most: a life of working with horses and humans. “Become a doctor,” Dad would say. “Then you can afford your horses.” I’m not sure what made me take that advice so seriously. Leaving the thing that matched my heart’s rhythm on the sideline while I did other things drained the life out of me.
“I must change my life, so that I can live it, not wait for it.”–Susan Sontag
I never gave up on the stirring in my heart that didn’t match any pre-formed degree plan in the course catalogs in college, nor a perfectly matched-to-me job description post-college. I let it guide me–and it did, like a fire that wouldn’t go out. The horses found me along the way and wouldn’t let me forget. Now, while I’m working on bringing Reboot’s Equine Facilitated Coaching work to life, I want to send that internalized dad a memo that says I can make a good living doing good work that I am made for. I’ve found my niche–my purpose.
Activist and author Julia Butterfly Hill notes:
“We call it ‘finding your own true north’– like on a compass. In production-driven societies, we’re tricked into believing that true north is outside of us. So we’re constantly looking outside ourselves to figure out if this is the right job, the right house, the right relationship, the right subject to be studying. But our true north is invariably inside us …if we do what we love to do, what we’re inspired to do, what we believe in, it creates an entirely different response.”
You come alive in that response.
In this podcast with Emmy award-winning filmmaker, Jeff Orlowski whose films include Chasing Ice and Chasing Coral poses a similar question for us and our teams: “What gets us, individually or as a team, back to something that is in pursuit of something we really believe in, and that we’re proud of, and that we think is making a difference and meaningful, and it’s contributing to society and resonates with your inner heart?”
How can you create a container for your life so that the content of your life can be lived in a way that is consistent with your values and your soul? How can we make our inner and outer expressions sync up, so we feel less divided and more alive? As Jerry notes in this conversation, “When we open ourselves up to the danger and risk of actually living in a way that is congruent, we naturally live into purpose.”