We’ve all heard it before – “follow your passion” and “your values will guide you towards your purpose.” This guidance works really well when life’s circumstances are optimal, or at minimum, functional. You know, the times in life when our outlook is constructive, our actions feel effortless, and most things are humming along pretty easily. These are the ideal times in life when we feel the strongest, most capable and creative – when finding areas of passion and connecting with values not only makes sense – it can be fun!
There are also the other times; you know them – the inevitable tougher ones. These periods stimulate a more critical outlook, when our actions feel restrained or forced, and we generally feel less capable of connecting with ideals and possibilities. In fact, we may not even believe they exist. Most of us would rather pledge immunity to these times – we certainly aren’t broadcasting them on our social media channels. Yet, all of us are familiar with the ups and downs of joy and pain, and we often ride these currents the most during periods of career or life transition.
Ironically, the very circumstances where we find ourselves feeling the most disconnected from our purpose, are often when we seek meaning and purpose the most. So, what are we to do during these periods of transition? How in the heck are we supposed to find our purpose, when life feels confusing, unclear, chaotic and challenging? As the familiarity of day-to-day work and activity evaporates into thin air, and our sense of identity seems to vanish along with it, it’s no wonder comments like “follow your passion,” or “connect with your values” become anything but helpful. During these foggy times, our passions and values are changing at a rapid, real-time pace, and it’s hard to be clear and take aim when our target is constantly moving.
It can also feel downright impossible to visualize our best future during a transition because we are often still deliberating about our past – what we lost, what we did, and what we do or don’t have because of it. And yet, so often during these challenging times, we can stand to learn the most about our highest and best use; that is, if we are open to viewing our challenges opportunistically.
Think about how many people in this world have successfully converted their most challenging experiences into their most meaningful pursuits – recovering addicts counseling others, foundations and non-profits set-up in the name of loved ones who suffered from a terminal illnesses, people with physical, mental or learning disabilities inventing ways to assist others with similar challenges – the list goes on and on. It seems like human nature to want to relay our lessons learned, in order to spare others from having to learn the hard way.
Yet, so many of us miss these remarkable opportunities to service a purpose because we are too busy burdening ourselves with the idea that our purpose is something to be found, instead of something to be gained. How might we show-up differently, if we trusted that our purpose is capable of meeting us exactly where we are, no matter where we are?
For starters, it seems like we’d be more open and honest with our pain. We might also assume more personal responsibility for our own actions and conduct, within present time, to make the most of our present circumstances. This seems like a more reasonable strategy for meeting our purpose, rather than trying to visualize an ideal future, during the times we feel most challenged.
One only need to look to the great psychologist, Viktor Frankl, for inspiration of what it looks like to convert one’s most challenging experiences into an impactful purpose. Not only did he survive several of the most dangerous concentration camps in Nazi Germany—a feat in and of itself—he also wrote one of the most enduring pieces of psychological literature with Man’s Search For Meaning, selling millions of copies worldwide. In his book, Frankl points to a fundamental change in one’s attitude toward life, as the guidepost for finding purpose and meaning –
We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life—daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.
A great technique to aid us in assuming responsibility for our current actions and fundamentally change our outlook of our past and present circumstances is a journaling technique called “Benefit Finding.” Created by Professor Julienne Bower of UCLA, Benefit Finding impacts the way we remember the past, to improve the quality of life we experience in the present, and to empower ourselves to assume responsibility for our futures.
Here’s how it works:
1. Begin by making a list of difficult episodes in your life
2. For each episode, write a journal entry using the prompt of, “what are the benefits in this episode / event / experience?”
3. Then, simply reflect on the benefits
As Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar, Founder of the Happiness Studies Academy elaborates, “this exercise is not about writing about things ‘as the best,’ but rather, acknowledging after it happens, what you can do about it now. Things do not necessarily happen for the best, but it is possible to make the best of things that happen.” In other words, Benefit Finding has less to do with “making lemonade out of lemons,” and more to do with drawing focus to things that are going well, or to the learning opportunities and lessons from the things that are not.
If you feel overwhelmed by the idea that one must know their passions and values in order to regain a sense of purpose, you’re not alone. This is not only the case for many of my clients, it’s perfectly natural for anyone who is experiencing a major life or career transition. Instead of expecting yourself to have a clear sense of purpose or visual about the future, when your current reality actually feels foggy; simply start by doing the most responsible thing in present time.
Meet yourself, and your purpose, exactly where it is now. Change your fundamental attitude about the challenges you face, and make the most of what you have in this moment, as well as all the experiences you’ve had up until this point. Stay open to finding a sense of purpose with whatever you are confronting. And remember, it is often our greatest challenges that inform our highest sense of purpose, and ultimately, fuel our passions.