How many times have you heard that the secret to true happiness is finding your purpose in life? Unless you know your purpose, unless you find your true calling and passion, you’re doomed for a lifetime of unfulfillment.
But is that really so?
I had coffee with Alexis Vaughn the other day.
Alexis is the new director of Peace Corps in Ecuador. Ignorant as it might be, I’d never heard of Peace Corps prior to meeting Alexis. She had to explain to me that Peace Corps was a US government organization serving communities all over the developing world. Volunteers take on a minimum two-year assignment and they become an integral part of their community. They help the members of the community with various aspects of their lives including education, health, environment, economic development, youth development and agriculture.
As a leader of a large organization, it’s very easy to get entangled in the world of important decisions, overseeing the budget and getting the big picture. And it’s very easy to grow apart from the people who do the actual work (just think of Undercover Boss). I asked Alexis how she avoids that. Although new on the job, she had already made a field trip and visited several volunteers working in their communities.
“It was an overwhelmingly positive experience. Seeing all the love and gratitude for the work we do makes everything worthwhile. Also, the feedback and insights I gained give me the grounding I need to make better decisions at an organizational level.”.
One way to strengthen employee commitment to the organization is to have them introduced by a friend. Another is to involve them in shaping the big picture. Alexis agreed that the more a member of any organization understands how his or her tasks affect the whole organization, the more committed that person will be.
”If you’re working on an assembly line of a car factory, you should understand the structure of the whole car and the impact your particular touch makes on the whole. That’s the only way you’ll care”.
I worked at the conveyor belt of an ice cream factory in my teens. They told me it was so important to fill the box with ice cream exactly the way they showed me to, but didn’t say why. If they had walked me through the entire process and told me why, I might have cared more. But they didn’t. All I knew was I had to do it that way. I lasted two weeks. All the free ice cream in the world couldn’t have kept me in that job.
Alexis has had an amazingly colorful career. She started out as a volunteer, worked in the high tech industry at IBM and at several financial institutions including Citibank Honduras of which she was the president for two years. The list goes on with several nonprofit organizations and art museums. I asked her whether she ever wanted to be an entrepreneur.
“Two kinds of people make good entrepreneurs. One is incredibly driven and cares about nothing else, but building a business. He will not give up until he’s created a successful business. And if he did, he’ll probably go on and build several other ones. The other kind has a great idea and does whatever it takes to make it happen. I’m neither of these two.”
I also wondered how moving back and forth between the for profit and not for profit sectors was possible. I thought that leading a bank required a completely different set of skills than running a nonprofit. And it does. But Alexis seems to have mastered both.
“There is so much these two worlds can learn from one another… When I get hired by a not for profit, the first thing I almost always have to do is put the right people in the right places, which involves saying goodbye to some of them. These can be difficult decisions sometimes, but getting this right is a vital condition for any further organizational development.”
And it works the other way around too. I’d heard of a startup that aims to teach would-be bankers ethics before they hit wall street. Alexis agreed that there is a lot of room for improvement in that department.
I asked Alexis how she finds fulfillment in jobs that seem to be on the two extremes of the scale.
“I’m a generalist. I’ve always been and always will be. My strengths are understanding complex organizations and managing people. I think people get stuck trying to figure out their purpose in life instead of just paying attention to what they are doing and making the most of it. I’ve loved most of my jobs and if I didn’t, I quit. I love what I do now. If you are obsessed with finding the one thing you’re supposed to do, I doubt that you ever will.”
That reminded me of my own not quite conventional career path. I worked as a cleaner and a babysitter when I was 20. I studied economics and human resources at college. I worked as an English teacher, started a few online ventures and am working in online marketing at the moment. Some might think that makes me a quitter, others would say I’m a multipotentialite or a generalist as Alexis put it.
Multipotentialites are characterized by the need for doing several, often very different things at the same time or switching careers or projects every few years. The biggest difference between specialists and multipotentialites is that when a specialist gets really good at his field, he or she feels motivated to invest more and get even better. When we multipotentialites get good at something, we get bored. There is no challenge anymore, so we start something new.
The world today still favours specialists. The more experience you have in any one field, the more money you make. Switching professions or even starting a business in a new field is financially discouraged, which is one of the reasons why 70% of employees stick with a job they hate.
But there is a shift taking place.
As we go deeper into the information age and leave the industrial era behind, new opportunities open up for those who understand many different fields. The way Alexis moves between worlds and utilizes her multidisciplinary experience is a great real life example.
So to circle back to our original question of how to find your purpose, it looks like the answer is you don’t have to. Just let it emerge. Try many different things and stick with the ones that make you come alive.
But don’t feel lost or unhappy because you haven’t found your purpose yet. Avoid analysis paralysis by doing things you like.
This would be a good place to end this post, but there is still something important to be said.
We tend to mistake the concept of our purpose in life for a project, a job or profession.
Our purpose is not something we do, but it’s why we do everything. It’s the highest level view over all the things we do in life. It’s the one theme that all of one’s jobs, hobbies and businesses have in common. So if you’re looking for your purpose, try to find this one thing that is behind everything you do.
Some people say their purpose is to serve, others say it is to love or to be compassionate and mindful. These are all legitimate and noble ideas to aspire for.
But if we take a step back and look at life in general and ask what the ultimate purpose of life is, the only intelligent answer is that it has no purpose. Life just happens if certain conditions are met.
Another way of saying the same thing is that the purpose of life is life itself. And the purpose of your life as an individual is to live life and experience it.
I derive my own purpose from that. I’m here on this planet to explore and experience life. I have an inherent desire to know the unknown, to see the unseen and to keep pushing my limits. These are the driving forces behind everything I do.
You may come to a very different conclusion about your purpose in life, but the point is:
If you’re struggling with finding the one thing you’re supposed to do, it’s probably because there isn’t one. There are more.
Don’t let social expectations turn you into an unfulfilled specialist if you’re a multipotentialite at heart.
I thank Alexis Vaughn for the inspiration and wish you all an adventurous New Year.