What “manual” for purpose are you operating with?
How do the ideas in that manual influence your behavior?
How well are those ideas working?
On this page you’ll discover 7 popular myths about the nature of purpose, broken down into benefits and costs, with an alternative belief for each and exercises for exploring your relationship to the belief and its alternatives.
By familiarizing yourself with the myths you can better understand how each belief serves and/or is a disservice to your purpose journey. Because our beliefs inform our choices and patterns of thought, hopefully this page will empower you to understand and choose beliefs that better enable you to achieve your dreams!
Myths are popularly held beliefs or ideas that are inspired by religious, cultural, or even scientific sources. You may find the same belief supported by both religion and science at the same time (even if for different reasons). For the purpose of this page, the origin of these beliefs and ideas is irrelevant. In this context, what matters is how these beliefs impact the way you think and the behaviors you choose to engage in.
^You can click a myth on the image to skip to it on the page.^
You have ONE purpose
“I was born for one single, very important ‘thing’. Everyone has a ‘thing’ that is uniquely theirs. There is one best version of myself that I ought to optimize.”
Potential benefits of believing the myth:
Some sources indicate that committing to and focusing on a specific thing can help you develop purpose, passion, meaning, joy, and success, but having a single purpose need not be confounded with the achievement of some specific significant thing (Wrzesniewski et. al 1997) (Newport 2012). The book Blackhole Focus by Isaiah Hankel urges its audience to select a single purpose to commit to in order to facilitate motivation and increase your odds of success. Gary Keller of Keller Williams Realestate makes a similar argument in his book called “The ONE Thing,” which focuses on how dedicating ourselves relentlessly to a single endeavor is the secret to extraordinary results. Believing you have a single purpose may therefore aid you in narrowing your focus and efforts.
“If you chase two rabbits you will not catch either one.” -Russian Proverb
In Stephen Cope’s book on the Bhagavad Gita, “The Great Work of Your Life,” he expounds on how in order to live our very personal life’s duty (our “dharma”) we must commit to it fully and eliminate distractions:
“Naturally, there is an obstacle to all this wonderment. Alas, it turns out that the process of unification requires saying ‘no’ to actions that do not support dharma—saying ‘no’ to detours, and to side channels of all kinds, even to some pretty terrific side channels. It requires snipping off all manner of ‘other options.’ The root of the word ‘decide’ means, literally, ‘to cut off.’ To decide for something means at times to decide against something else.” –Stephen Cope
Many (if not most) religions encourage us to believe that we were made intentionally and thus do not need to find a purpose, rather that our purpose is inherent or designed. Christian Pastor Rick Warren published a popular book on the topic called, “What on Earth am I here for?” imploring his readers to do the one thing they were made/born to do, which is the unique combination of an individual’s traits and inclinations translated into a God-given mission. A similar idea shows up in the Hindu conceptualization of Dharma, or “God-given duty.”
Believing in an innate purpose that was bestowed by something outside of us certainly has its benefits. Most notably it could imbue us with trust that life is as it is meant to be which can impart a sense of comfort. Author Elizabeth Gilbert discusses in her TED Talk how externalizing creativity (or purpose) can relieve the pressure to perform, figure things out, or blame ourselves for failures, thus contributing to resilience (just like an optimistic explanatory style!). This could also, however, lead you to the opposite conclusion that you didn’t tune in well enough and have screwed up. Read more about that below.
Potential costs of believing the myth:
The idea that we have a single, best self or purpose in life is a lot of pressure, especially when it doesn’t feel obvious (which it doesn’t to 8/10 people). The pressure to figure out your ‘one thing’ has been shown to cause anxiety, stress, overwhelm, and eventually dissatisfaction with what we end up choosing (Duffy & Sedlacek, 2007). On top of the stress caused by finding out what the ‘one thing’ is, this single purpose can become a catch-all for our needs for meaning, passion, and joy. Trying to get all those things met in a single purpose can be a serious (but not impossible) challenge. Imagine if you relied on your life partner for everything you needed? That would be tremendous pressure on them!
If you don’t know your ‘one thing,’ or have multiple interests this myth can imply there is something ‘wrong’ with you.
In regards to lumping everything (purpose, passion, joy, and meaning) into ‘one thing’, Terri talks about how not knowing your purpose or passion makes it feel like there is something wrong with you. She urges that this is not true, and even that the idea itself is elitist. She suggests looking for something to contribute or a problem to solve instead of a ‘one thing.’
It may also be harmful to believe the implication of this myth that there is a single best version of yourself. Believing in an absolute best version of ourselves can lead to ranking the dimensions of who we are. How does one determine if their best self is who they are as a father versus who they are as an artist versus who they are as a spiritual or truth-seeking being? Equally worthy and complex expressions of ourselves become pitted against one another for ultimate worthiness, potentially fracturing our identities. This isn’t to say that there isn’t merit in striving to be the “best version of yourself,” rather to encourage awareness around attachment to a best self. It’s also worth noting that, largely, the concept of “one true self” has been debunked in research (Sparby et. al 2019) (Strohminger et. al 2017) (Strohminger & Nichols 2015).
In so far as committing to one epic thing to focus all your energy on, this tactic may be a hack for getting epic results. However, it does not necessitate that you must have a single purpose to be “successful” (in fact, pursuing success, depending on your definition of it, can become a hindrance to purpose). Just because dedicating yourself to one thing may produce “success” does not mean that a single talent, passion, or purpose is innate, or even that there is a single best option for us.
And finally, believing we have only one purpose may limit us from considering all our options. Because it leads to thinking there is something innate that we will one day ‘just know,’ it can lower our resilience when something doesn’t initially make sense or takes some time to learn. Thinking this way is known as both “fit” and “fixed” mindsets, which are elaborated on more in Myth 5.
An Alternative Belief:
“I may have one purpose, I may have many.”
The operative distinction here is possibility. Believing you have options is more in service to cultivating purpose than believing you have one ultimate purpose because it empowers you to experiment, fail, learn, and grow.
Aside from opening up the door to multiple options, the belief in having many possible purposes also allows you to have multiple purposes at once. Having multiple purposes at once enables different aspects of ourselves to be equally worthy while diversifying the sources of meaning, duty, joy, etc. in our lives.
Author Emily Wapnick of the site “Puttylike,” coined the term Multipotentialte to capture the idea of being a person “with many interests and creative pursuits.” Her writing works to destigmatize the experience of being drawn towards multiple endeavors, encourages people to enrich their lives by engaging the varied dimensions of themselves, and fosters a mindset of possibility. You can learn more about multipotentialism and purpose here.
“See, the problem wasn’t that I didn’t have any interests — it’s that I had too many. In high school, I liked English and math and art and I built websites and I played guitar in a punk band called Frustrated Telephone Operator. Maybe you’ve heard of us.” –Emilie Wapnick: “Why some of us don’t have one true calling”
Believing that there are many different people you could become and identities you could try on in a full life, and that you are not limited to a single way to live out your ‘destiny’ paves the road for greater experimentation and self-knowledge gathering.
“We are not one self but MANY selves.” -Hermenia Ibarra
Try This: Imagine the Possibilities
Grab a sheet of paper and number it 1-10. Write down 10 possible lives that would be interesting to you that are also purposeful (goal-oriented, self-transcendent, and personally meaningful). It may be tough to come up with ten, but don’t worry about getting it perfect. You can be creative and imagine something that seems improbable for you right now. Not all of them need to be incredible, but there need to be ten. *If you really struggle to come up with 10, check out the Clarify page for oodles of questions to get your juices flowing!*
Got ‘em? Great. Next you’re going to cross out 4 of them.
And finally, create three different lives from the six you have left that combine any or all of them. You can repeat the ones you mix as well. Take some time to imagine the practicality of what a life like this would look like, and make some notes about it. What would it feel like to live this way? Take some time to figure out how it could be possible.
- Be an academic who focuses on youth development and creates programs for social-emotional learning.
- Be a film producer who creates pieces that raise awareness on mental illness or drug dependency.
Be a dog trainer who supports people in understanding modern behavioral modification techniques over dominance techniques.
- Lead improv workshops for teams to develop better cohesion, communication, and collaboration abilities.
Be a traveling painter that does work trade murals for businesses that make an impact on their communities.
- Be a mother and wife, collaborating on meaning and growth with family.
Become a politician who advocates for universal income and living standards.
- Teach/Mentor people how to be creative and face their fears.
- Support the homesteading and intentional community movement by working with new groups of people starting their communities.
Design thoughtful, beautiful, and ecologically sustainable living spaces.
- A mother/wife youth-development scholar and mentor on creativity.
- A film producer and improv teacher/facilitator.
- A mother/wife and supporter of the homesteading movement.
Your purpose must be GRAND
“A purpose is something very special. Therefore it’s gotta be a very important, high-order goal. Something extraordinary.”
“I was put on this earth to achieve great things, and I must fulfill that divine purpose!”
“My family is expecting great things from me; they know what I’m capable of, and they don’t want me to waste it. They want me to be the best me I can, for the world.”
Potential benefits of believing the myth:
Rose’s intentions in the above example are far from bad. The career guidance organization 80,000 Hours advocates for this type of thinking when trying to determine what your career should be: “Choose one of the world’s highest needs and find a fit within that industry,” or in other words, “Do what is most needed.” The research supports this in that contributing to meaningful ends increases our job satisfaction (BetterUp 2017).
Believing your purpose must fall into the category of ‘epic’ may help you attain it once you know what it is. According to entrepreneur and author Tim Ferriss, big goals are energizing and the competition may be lower because fewer people aim that high (Hankel 2014).
Potential costs of believing the myth:
“Special” is a relative and ambiguous term.
Stipulating the condition that your purpose must impact tons of people or that you must execute your purpose in some extraordinary way in order for you to be satisfied with it puts you in a potentially losing situation. What if you find yourself passionate about or skilled in something that only impacts a handful of people directly? What if the circumstances make it especially difficult to pursue something epic?
- My purpose is to cure cancer.
- My purpose is to totally transform the way we approach homelessness in America.
- My purpose is to save the Great Barrier Reef.
- My purpose is to inspire and facilitate countless peoples’ conversion to faith.
The above list includes big, specific goal-oriented purposes. There isn’t anything wrong with having something like these as your purpose. They’re awesome aims. However, it is limiting to assume you must have something like these as your purpose/s.
- My purpose is to be the most loving and supportive mother.
- My purpose is to master the instruments of my choice and become an extraordinary musician who inspires generations.
- My purpose is to be the best engineer in my field.
What about purposes that don’t initially seem ‘special’ or extraordinary? Are you discounting opportunities that could fit you like a glove and lead to the most meaningful impact?
- My purpose is to teach young children how to learn and prepare them to think for themselves.
- My purpose is to support my partner and family..
- My purpose is to create beauty for others to enjoy.
Putting purpose up on some lofty shelf can have the effect of diminishing who you are right now by comparing you to some ostensibly more valuable, more successful version of yourself. If you feel that your purpose must be something epic it may be a reflection of your self-worth narrative. It can imply that you aren’t enough as you are and that you must seek to attain something magnificent in order to be valuable (and who’s defining magnificent anyway?).
In this 8-minute speech, philosopher Alain de Botton laments that the world today is full of snobs, or “anyone who judges you based on one part of you.” He implies that striving to have a special job or title is an artifact of snobbery, in that it fractures our identity into worthy and unworthy parts. This is explained as a condition of a world with unrealistic expectations that make an ordinary life, by definition, a failure. Botton encourages us to let go of the idea of being special in favor of embracing ordinariness. Offering that striving to be extraordinary may set us up for failure and thus disappointment, he praises the features of the simple existence that the majority of people end up living. Botton’s angle may not be a popular one. Today we’re far more inundated with the notion that to renounce striving is akin to giving up. A compelling counter to Botton’s position is to aim high, live as fully as possible, and love yourself along the way despite the outcomes.
An Alternative Belief:
“I am not my purpose.”
Reframing the myth of a grand purpose comes down to disentangling our self-worth and identities from both attaining purpose (and/or success, which may not be the same) and purposefulness itself. It is incredibly common to identify with our jobs (a popular channel for purpose) which can lead to a fragility of self-worth in the cases where we fail to meet our (or our employer’s) standards.
Rather than tie our identities to our purpose, we can see the work of our purpose(s) as channels of self-expression. Doing so not only allows space for the various dimensions of ourselves to be equally valuable, but enables us to disentangle our self-worth from the temperamental nature of success in our work. In other words, Rose can do something meaningful without relying on it to define herself or her life as worthwhile.
In contrast to the imperative to do something fantastic, purpose can be interpreted as a vessel for self-actualization. Instead of “achieve or become something grand,” the drive may be transformed into the more fortifying form of, “contribute in your own unique way.” The latter of which encourages self-worth rather than making it conditional. The latter of which channels you rather than is you.
Die Empty, a book by Todd Henry, argues that rather than doing the most incredible, amazing thing, we ought to strive to “use ourselves up,” or in other words, commit to fully being ourselves and expressing everything we are. Rather than laboring to achieve something, he encourages people to ‘empty’ themselves so they do not die with anything left unexpressed or undone. It’s a philosophy of focusing effort on what matters and therefore enabling a contribution that only you can make (and one must be cautious with this life philosophy to avoid the traps of obsessive passion, or overwhelming oneself with busyness, or using money as a metric).
The idea of developing our full potential is also explored in Scott Barry Kaufman’s updated explanation of Abraham Maslow’s theories in, “Transcend: The New Science of Self Actualization.” Kaufman offers Maslow’s proposal that self-actualization is not an individual pursuit but merging of the self with the world: “We don’t have to choose either self-development or self-sacrifice, but at the highest level of human potential we show a deep integration of both.”
So, purpose doesn’t have to be epic because it is not your total identity or a reflection of your self-worth. Rather, it is a conduit for self-expression. Purpose is about contribution, but it doesn’t have to be a traditionally “exceptional” contribution. Being a teacher or nurse aren’t typically seen as particularly outstanding ambitions, and they have higher satisfaction rates than many more ‘prestigious’ jobs.
Try This: Gratitude for the Mundane
It can be easy to overlook the little things that matter to us. Gratitude practices have been shown to improve your mental health (amongst many other delightful benefits) and enhance our appreciation and enjoyment of various parts of our lives.
Grab a sheet of paper or a journal and take five minutes to jot down 10 “mundane” things that you’re grateful for. The idea of choosing mundane things is to highlight meaningful parts of our lives that are often the easiest to overlook.
- Try to stay away from listing material objects that contribute to temporary states of happiness (things that are pleasurable) and do your best to populate your list with things that feel purposeful or personally meaningful.
- Be very, very specific. Think of a specific moment– like a specific exchange between you and a friend.
For example: something that inspires you, things you’ve learned, small interactions in your relationships, little purposeful moments, or things that provide purpose to you on a daily basis.
Try This: Sourcing Self Worth
- Make a list of 5-10 people who know you well. Reach out to them and ask them to share three things they love about you.
- While you’re waiting for your responses, try to make a list of things you appreciate about yourself that have nothing to do with your sense of purpose or conventional success.
- Holding your list of attributes you and others love, consider the projects or endeavors you engage with that enable you to best express these attributes. List them out.
- Looking over your list of endeavors, do any of them align with current ideas you have around purpose? If not, what would it look like if they were integrated?
You can be anything you want!
“If I work hard enough at something, I can become and achieve anything I desire.”
(“The American Dream”)
Potential benefits of believing the myth:
Believing you are capable of achieving your dreams may increase the possibility of you attaining them by empowering you to see more possibilities and work harder. Research on Hope and Growth Mindset shows evidence of this trend. On the other hand, when we don’t believe we’re able to do something, we may try less or give up more easily (Chen et. al 2015).
Potential costs of believing the myth:
Believing we can achieve anything we desire can lead to high expectations and tying our self-worth to our achievements, both of which increase the likelihood of being disappointed or feeling like a failure when things don’t work out as we’d hoped.
This isn’t to say that having high expectations or aiming big are necessarily bad things (they’re listed as potential benefits, too!), rather that when we don’t check our expectations with the actual probabilities and potentialities of the world, we may be setting ourselves up for fragility.
Fragility is our propensity for giving up when things get hard. People are often more fragile when they expect that they can achieve what they want without understanding the challenges involved. It may seem ironic that believing “hard work is a surefire pipeline to success” could simultaneously make it more likely for you to give up at some point, and there are nuances in the approach to this belief that makes all the difference. The difference in being empowered by believing in the power of hard work and being disempowered by it is total attachment to the outcome versus familiarizing ourselves with (and preparing for) the challenges we may encounter along the way (also known as Hope).
Think about the singer Dagmar from the example above: without understanding how difficult it is to network and get a record deal, or how long it takes other artists to have a breakthrough, she may give up on her dream in the next year or two because she hasn’t gotten the specific results she wants yet. She is measuring the worthiness of her pursuit (and herself) against very specific qualifications.
Tying our self-worth to our achievements may be traced back to meritocracy in many cases. A meritocratic society is one in which success and clout are a direct result of hard work, rather than social class or wealth. This ideology is fundamental to Capitalism and other Western cultural memes; it’s the essence of the “American Dream”. It’s an idea that has been lauded effusively as empowering and enabling of possibility for the broadest spectrum of people; and often it does just that!
Unfortunately, meritocracy also has its shortcomings; particularly in the realm of psychological well-being for those who haven’t attained success. Believing that those who are successful deserve their success implies that those who are unsuccessful are equally deserving of their conditions. Imagine a kid who grew up being told he could be anything he wanted if he tried hard enough (probably like you), but unfortunately met many challenges along the way that derailed him (family illness, not being able to afford the right education, moving often, depression, etc). Even if those challenges weren’t his fault, a meritocratic society insists that he probably just didn’t try hard enough. He failed, and he deserved it.
Those who don’t have desirable results can end up self-blaming when there are very likely systematic issues preventing them from attaining a goal. Paul Froese, psychologist and author of “On Purpose: How We Create the Meaning of Life,” states it bluntly, “A culture that celebrates self-empowerment suggests that your fate is your fault.” You could fall victim to any number of limitations that are relatively beyond your control:
- You could be in a field with fewer opportunities
- You could not have the resources or have had the right educational exposure at a young age
- You could be neurologically unmatched for the skills demanded by the task
- You could have a physical or emotional handicap
- You could be discriminated against as a minority
Curious for stats on how likely it could be to do or have your ideal job? Click here and scroll down a little bit.
An Alternative Belief:
“Understanding my priorities and being hopeful helps increase the odds of achieving what I want.”
You can do a wide variety of things- and being clear on what you expect from any given thing you invest in is important. Prioritizing what you want to get from what you do is essential to finding the right thing to invest your time in.
If you want purpose, you can find that in any number of impactful causes that are meaningful to you. Dagmar could be satisfied with inspiring and soothing the local population she gets to play for.
If you want passion, you must commit regular (but not necessarily tons) of time to something and apply dedicated effort to it, ideally something that already sparks an interest for you. Dagmar could be satisfied because she gets to do something she is passionate about every day.
If you want to make money, you can do anything you are skilled at or willing to become skilled at that pays well. Dagmar could be satisfied because she makes enough to live comfortably playing music.
Should you want joy or pleasure, your field of possibilities is different- these activities may be different from your skill sets, what is meaningful to you, or what the world needs (and, they also could be the same). Dagmar could be satisfied because playing and singing music is fun.
If you want ALL of these things, it narrows the range of options significantly (see the purple area), as they may all have different boxes to check. Dagmar is currently checking many boxes, but the thing that seems to be throwing her off is an attachment to scale, specialness, and tying her self-worth to her ability to achieve this.
You can learn a lot more about refining what’s important to you in Refining what your job is for. While the content is framed around our relationships with our jobs, it can be extrapolated to any work we do (and purpose is inherently work!).
Hope is qualitatively different from expecting that you can have what you want, although it may initially seem similar. A significant body of research has been dedicated to defining and understanding Hope. It is far more than wishing something will happen. Hope is a conscious and action-oriented process that can increase our chances for attaining our goals. It is defined by combining optimism, a belief in your own abilities, and well-planned out avenues for attaining goals that anticipate and accommodate challenges. You can learn more about Hope in the section of this site dedicated entirely to it!
Our purposes are often deeply wrapped into our jobs (but your purpose does not have to be your job!). The following workbook is designed to help you understand what your job is for in your life, thus helping you prioritize what is most important for you, narrowing your scope and hopefully increasing your odds of being satisfied. The workbook is comprehensive and includes exercises for seeing how various parts of your life serve different functions and where your job fits into the big picture, plus oodles of questions for reflection.
“We cannot be anyone we want to be. We can only authentically be who we are.”—Stephen Cope*
*And, who we are has a range of possibilities and can change over time.
Your purpose will make you happy!
“Once I’m living my purpose I will be happy.”
“Going after a dream has a price. It may mean abandoning our habits, it may make us go through hardships, or it may lead us to disappointment, et cetera. But however costly it may be, it is never as high as the price paid by people who didn’t live. Because one day they will look back and hear their own heart say: ‘I wasted my life.” ― Paulo Coelho
Purpose might not make you ‘happy’ in the conventional sense (which is a broken concept) but it definitely contributes to Optimal Well-being (which does include happiness). Confused? It can be a tricky concept. First of all, people could mean all sorts of things when they say that purpose will make them happy- it could be pleasure, meaning, flow, or some combination. So when someone says ‘happy,’ what are they referring to? If it IS meaning, they’re in luck. If they mean they’ll experience positive affect, they’re possibly in for some disappointment.
The reason purpose might not make you happy is because purpose is naturally challenging and can make you uncomfortable. The fact that we must overcome obstacles to attain goals and align with our values is part of what makes purpose so rewarding! But because it involves discomfort, purpose might not always be described as a ‘pleasurable’ experience- which is what most people typically mean when they talk about ‘happiness.’ Instead, purpose contributes to our well-being most deeply through engaging with meaning.
“At this point it may seem that all good things are related to purpose, but it turns out that, at least in some cases, purpose is not related to happiness.” Templeton
This isn’t to say that happiness and purpose are diametrically opposed. Happiness can come through purposeful living, it just isn’t a guarantee. Think about the example story of the parents above– the fact that parenthood is challenging isn’t a secret to anyone. However, it may surprise you to learn that researchers have found that parents have higher meaning but lower measures of positive affect (aka, “happiness”) when compared to nonparents or non-caregivers (Umberson & Gove 1989) (Marks et. al 2002). While there are absolutely happy moments in parenting, it appears that parenting’s greater impact on your life may be a sense of meaning and purpose.
Potential benefits of believing the myth:
Believing that having a purpose will make you happy may motivate you to pursue purpose.
Potential costs of believing the myth:
Believing purpose will make you happy could externalize and postpone happiness. It makes happiness a goal in the distance rather than something you have access to right now. This can potentially render your current experience “less than” or “not enough” compared to your idealized future vision. We often correlate happiness with “success,” and research indicates that higher self-expectations (especially if we lack self-compassion) can lead to less happiness overall (Pollet et. al 2017). This idea is expanded on in hindrances to purpose and meaning:
“We have been trained too long to strive, and not to enjoy.” – John Maynard Keynes
The myth of happiness as a result of purpose may also contribute to fragility (like in myth 3). Say you have chosen a purpose and have been cultivating it for some time but realize that it is not making you happy. If you believe it should make you happy, you may be more likely to give up or quit when things get a bit tougher. One interesting study examining job satisfaction differences between people whose primary goal at work was to enjoy themselves versus people whose primary goal at work was to find meaning showed that the people seeking enjoyment were often less passionate and changed jobs more often (Jachimowicz et. al, 2017). Not persevering through the challenges offered through the pursuit of our purposes could be a sad loss of the other wildly worthy benefits of purpose.
But what if you happen to decide you will only pursue Optimal Purpose? You want a purpose that does it all– something you’re passionate about, sparks happiness, encourages growth, and you’re skilled in it. It’s not a bad idea. However, it does limit your option pool significantly to stipulate that your purpose(s) must do everything.
An Alternative Belief:
“Purpose is not a prerequisite for happiness.”
“To Maslow, those who were self-actualized pursued their callings, not happiness… happiness is an indirect reward for virtue.” Scott Barry Kaufman, Transcend: The New Science of Self Actualization
Even though happiness isn’t a guaranteed part of the purpose package, purpose is still a strong predictor of happiness. The catch is that this measure is related to how one interprets or relates to happiness. Happiness understood as well-being based in meaning (versus pleasure) is the quality of happiness predicted by purpose (Boyle et. al, 2009) (Lyumomirsky et. al, 2006) (Jachimowicz et. al, 2017).
Well-being based in meaning has been shown to be more satisfying than conventional happiness anyway (not that you can’t enjoy both simultaneously). Author Emily Esfehani Smith published an entire book on the topic: The Power of Meaning. In an article published in 2018 she explains an interesting 2010 study that explored the impact of doing things that make you happy versus doing things that are meaningful:
That was the conclusion of a 2010 study by Veronika Huta of the University of Ottawa and Richard Ryan of the University of Rochester. Huta and Ryan instructed a group of college students to pursue either meaning or happiness over a 10-day period by doing at least one activity each day to increase eudaimonia or hedonia, respectively. At the end of each day, the study participants reported to the researchers about the activities they’d chosen to undertake. Some of the most popular ones they reported in the meaning condition included forgiving a friend, studying, thinking about one’s values, and helping or cheering up another person. Those in the happiness condition, by contrast, listed activities like sleeping in, playing games, going shopping, and eating sweets.
After the study’s completion, the researchers checked in with the participants to see how it had affected their well-being. What they found was that students in the happiness condition experienced more positive feelings, and fewer negative ones, immediately after the study. But three months later, the mood boost had faded. The second group of students—those who focused on meaning—did not feel as happy right after the experiment, though they did rate their lives as more meaningful. Yet three months later, the picture was different. The students who had pursued meaning said they felt more “enriched,” “inspired,” and “part of something greater than myself.” They also reported fewer negative moods. Over the long term, it seemed, pursuing meaning actually boosted psychological health.
Happiness does not have to come from purpose anyway! In fact, you don’t need a purpose to be happy at all. Some 20% of Americans even say it’s useless to spend time figuring out your purpose at all (it’s mostly middle-aged, non-religious men (Baylor University 2011)). There are many places in your life to discover and create joy! You could easily live a simple life filled with wonderful pleasures and ease rather than striving for purpose.
Learn more about Happiness and Meaning in these other sections of this site:
Try This: 100% Commitment
Being 100% committed can make all the difference. When we’re not 100% committed to something we end up burdening ourselves with the question Should I do this? constantly. Even if we’re 99% committed to our job or a relationship or aspiration, that other 1% creates doubt and the option to leave or give up. When we have one foot out the door, we are unlikely to invest as much effort as we would be if we were committed to staying. Giving something 100% changes the game because it crushes superfluous doubts and paves the way for us to bring all of ourselves to our challenges. It changes the question from Should I do this? to How will I do this? This perspective shift lightens the cognitive load and empowers us to invest fully, rather than investing partially because we could possibly give up or leave.
This exercise uses your job as an example. You can expand this idea onto other commitments as well. Feel free to sub out ‘job’ for a different type of working endeavor, or a relationship, diet, learning regimen, or a purpose itself.
Reflect on your level of commitment to your current job and/or work of the past with the following questions.
- How often have you thought about quitting since you started this job?
- During the time you’ve considered quitting, how has your level of engagement or investment in the job been affected? How have you addressed issues that bother you? How have you worked on your relationships?
- Think of a job you’ve held in the past that you didn’t consider quitting for a long time. How did it feel to go to work?
- If you had to put a percentage to it, what % are you committed to being satisfied at your current job, and what % are you considering leaving?
- What would change on your next day at work if you were 100% committed to being satisfied? What might you do differently?
“Do not ask your children
to strive for extraordinary lives.
Such striving may seem admirable,
but it is the way of foolishness.
Help them instead to find the wonder
and the marvel of an ordinary life.
Show them the joy of tasting
tomatoes, apples and pears.
Show them how to cry
when pets and people die.
Show them the infinite pleasure
in the touch of a hand.
And make the ordinary come alive for them.
The extraordinary will take care of itself.”
–William Martin, The Parent’s Tao Te Ching: Ancient Advice for Modern Parents
Your purpose/passions are permanent
“People don’t change. What I love now I will always love. I’m unlikely to develop new passions. I am what I am. I will never change.”
This belief, by definition, constitutes a “fixed mindset.” A fixed mindset assumes that our abilities and aptitudes are set and unchangeable. People with fixed mindsets are less likely to try new things and may apply less effort in learning, as they expect things to come naturally or not at all (Blackwell et. al 2007). What would be the value in applying yourself towards something if you believe you’re inherently incapable of ‘‘getting it’?
Imagine if you only decided to stick with one interest your whole life and never developed other skills. Have you picked up new things over the years that you weren’t necessarily ‘good’ at when you were a beginner?
Believing your purpose or passions are permanent also lends itself to another mindset known as a “fit mindset.” A fit mindset assumes something is innate and only needs to be discovered. The discovery of such truth is supposedly revealed to us instantly when we try something. We’re supposed to “just know.” (See Myth #7 Your Purpose is Within You!)
Unfortunately, fit mindsets have been shown to lead to low resilience. Because we assume we’ll ‘just get it’, when we don’t automatically have that insight we may be more inclined to quit something early instead of giving it more time. When it comes to the nature of passion (a possible aspect of purpose), the science shows that people who believe passion can be created are more likely to stick with something and cultivate passion in it, versus those who think they have to find the perfect “fit” for their interests and skills right now (Chen et. al 2015) (O’Keefe et. al 2018).
Imagine someone with a fit mindset who loves dancing and randomly has decided to take a ceramics class because a friend encouraged them to. When they start the class and find that the wheel doesn’t come naturally to them, they’re likely to think, “I’m a dancer not a potter! I’ll never be good at this,” …and quit. Even though throwing on the wheel is unlikely to come easily to anyone, someone with a growth mindset (the opposite of a fixed mindset) may be more likely to stick with it and develop both skill and passion.
Studies also indicate that personality can change as you age. A 50 year study published in 2019 tracked people across their lives to measure shifts in their personality. It showed that while there certainly are some things that are stable, we mature and change as well (Damian et; al 2019).
We tend to have a distorted perception of ourselves when it comes to change. A series of studies discovered that people typically expect they’ve changed the most they’ll ever change in their lives already, when the results indicated that people change far more in the future than anticipated (Quoidbach et. al 3013). The researchers have dubbed this phenomenon “The End of History Illusion.” Writer Lindsay Morgia argues in her article on the studies that the illusion hinders our ability to shape our future selves because it fosters short-sightedness and fixed mindsets.
Potential benefits of believing the myth:
It’s tough to point to benefits for this myth because the costs are so high. It’s possible that this belief could encourage you to deepen your skills in a particular passion or interest.
Potential costs of believing the myth:
To put it simply, believing one’s purpose(s) or passion(s) are permanent and that people don’t really change limits us from discovering things we could love or find meaning in. Like many of the other myths on this page, it contributes to fragility and increases our likelihood of giving up when things get uncomfortable instead of persevering through challenges and cultivating more passion, purpose, and skill.
For those of us well on our way in the land of career or personal endeavors, this belief could manifest as beating a dead horse long after the passion or interest is gone. Many people can end up staying in jobs or projects they’re no longer engaged with because their identity is attached to the work or they feel they’ve invested far too much time to change now. Sticking with something when it no longer aligns with who you’ve become can be painful.
What if Rita (from the above example) discovers in her 3rd year of vet school that she’s feeling a bit disillusioned with treating farm animals and finds herself taking an interest in environmental conservation politics? If she believes her purpose/passions are permanent, this could be a very challenging moment for her. Politics could feel too far outside her self-concept to feel safe to pursue. Or maybe she dismisses it as a passing whim. Perhaps she begins to wonder if she should have done more experimentation before committing to vet school.
Further back in our professional timelines, we’re constantly encouraged to decide what we want to be ‘when we grow up.’ Believing your interests or purpose won’t change could lead young adults to commit to something they like right now without doing their due diligence in exploring their options. They could think, “Well I love soccer right now, it’s part of who I am. I’ll put everything I have into that.” We’re asked to figure our lives out at a very young age in many cultures, far before we understand who we are, what we like or want, or what those commitments really mean. All this when our brains don’t even fully mature until roughly 25 and our work lives are getting longer and longer as life expectancy increases! (Kroger 2015).
In a similar vein, believing you won’t change can lead to an overemphasis on the validity and usefulness of aptitude tests. Aptitude tests reflect current interests and abilities, which certainly can be useful. However, staying conscious of the fact that you can learn and grow and change is important. Assuming that what you’re good at now won’t change could limit your sense of possibility or dreams.
An Alternative Belief:
“Preferences, interests, and abilities can change throughout our lives.”
Believing you can grow, learn, and change not only empowers resilience in the face of challenge and opens us up to more possibilities, it empowers us to shift more gracefully when who we are and what we’re interested in changes as well. With more resilience comes more growth and learning. Specifically for passion, evidence shows that believing you can cultivate it helps you do so (Chen et. al 2015).
Try This: Try something new
One way to break us out of the mold and help us recognize our potential to learn and change is to try something new.
- Make a list of ten things/activities you have never done before you are not naturally interested in. You can get inspiration from hobbies your friends engage in, or even from things that you avoid because they’ve made you a bit squeamish in the past (like doing a 5 minute stand-up set when you don’t like public speaking).
- Choose one or two things from your list to try this month. You could take a class, ask a friend to bring you with them to their pickle ball game, visit a museum you’ve never been to or cared about, or try a dish you’ve never heard of. Schedule it and commit!
- As you do the activity, maintain a sense of curiosity and openness. Try to learn something new while not being attached to enjoying yourself. Consider it an experiment in exposure and try to notice new things about your experience.
- Afterwards, take some time to reflect on how it went. What surprised you? What was interesting or noteworthy? What did you enjoy? What did you not enjoy?
- It can be helpful to make a practice out of trying new things. 🙂 Consider trying one new thing a month; you never know what you might learn!
Click here for a mega-list of hobbies and activities for inspiration!
Finding purpose is a linear process
“Once you find your purpose, things take off and “success” is direct. Dead ends, abandoned ventures, or changing your mind are a sign that you haven’t found your purpose yet. Maybe there will be some hiccups but I got this!”
Images from https://beunsettled.co/blog/what-does-an-unconventional-path-to-success-look-like/
*Career is not necessarily the same as purpose. However, it is useful to use career stories to illustrate the nature of the purpose journey, especially since many of us tie our purpose into our paid work.
Find something you’re passionate about. Dedicate yourself to it wholly. Work hard. Success!
Get good grades. Get into a great college. Get a great job. Work hard. Success!
Find someone you like. Date for a while. Get engaged. Marry. Have kids. Success!
The linear model is fed to us regarding so many aspects of our lives. Do A, then B will happen, which will lead to C, then D, and it ends in success!
We’re inundated with stories of people who were born prodigies; people who were inspired and passionate from a young age. Just think of the 16 year old climate activist Greta Thunberg or 4-year-old Mikaela Ulmer who started a lemonade company to protect the bees. These narratives illustrate the experience of an incredibly small portion of people and don’t reflect the reality most of us experience. In fact, listening to these stories could be making it more stressful for us to cultivate purpose because we believe it should be easier; and since it isn’t, what if there’s something wrong with us?
“For generations, the message “know your destination, work hard, and stay the course” has been impressed upon us as the most dependable stratagem for securing a prosperous life. This advice appears so unassailable that disregarding it seems perilous and foolish.” –Article regarding Todd Rose and Ogi Ogas, Dark Horse
Referring to people who actually do find success with the linear model as “straight arrows,” writer and psychologist Madeline Levine says in an article for The Atlantic that, “Straight arrows make up, at most, 10 percent of the people who consider themselves successful. The remaining 90 percent are folks who have taken risks, failed, changed course, recovered, often failed again, but ultimately found their stride.”(Levine 2020)
(After all, super rigid arrows don’t fly well. They need some give to perform most effectively.)
Not only does this myth imply that things ought to be obvious and “straight,” it neglects to acknowledge that we could have multiple purposes or passions. And all of those purposes could wiggle around, change, end, or start at different times in our lives.
Many of the myths on this page warn of the threat of “fragility”: expecting things to go a certain way –and when they don’t, jumping ship quickly instead of persevering. Warning you of fragility could easily be construed as, “changing your mind or quitting is bad,” but the aim is not to imply that there is anything wrong with quitting and changing your mind. Changing our minds is a natural part of the process of exploration and learning. When you’ve graduated with a law degree, are a year into being an associate, and discover you absolutely abhor the nature of your job, it’s probably healthy to put that new information towards changing something.
Believing that finding purpose is a straight process ignores the intricacy and depth of the cultivation process. A huge part of cultivating purpose is experimentation, reflection, and learning. This naturally leads to what executive coach Michael Melcher calls “a spaghetti-type model”:
“I thought if I could be valedictorian, then everything was assured. I was going to be so successful and happy,” he says. “I had a linear model and a lot of people encouraged me to believe the linear model. My actual experience is more of a spaghetti-type model. You might take two steps forward, two steps back, go sideways, try something else. It’s more the true model. It doesn’t mean you’re doing anything wrong. It means that you are exploring your way toward what is fulfilling for your current period of life.”
Michael Melcher served as a foreign service officer, then earned a JD and an MBA, worked as an attorney, and then was the CEO of an internet startup. Today he is a speaker, a writer, and an executive coach for career transitions.
Changing our minds, at least with our careers, has become increasingly common. While baby boomers changed jobs an average of 11 times throughout their careers, millennials are on track to double this- they change jobs roughly every 2.5 years (Bureau of Labor Statistics 2020) (Adkins).
Potential benefits of believing the myth:
Believing that finding purpose is a linear process could possibly encourage perseverance with a given interest. It may empower you to stick with something longer in the face of challenge.
However, you do not need to believe that purpose is linear in order to channel resilience and steadfastness! See alternative belief below.
Potential costs of believing the myth:
Let’s face it. The linear model is comforting. It gives us a recipe for getting what we want that seems direct and predictable. But what happens when we can’t fit ourselves into the mold? What happens when life doesn’t play out linearly?
When things don’t go according to “the plan,” (and especially when they don’t go according to the traditional, socially endorsed plan) it can be easy to feel like a failure. Assuming there is one set way to achieve the things we desire leaves little room for differentiation or “error.” When we need to fit the mold and the mold isn’t feeling natural, self-blame is a common go-to. When we don’t leave space for struggle and/or expect perfection from ourselves, we can imply that we are not ‘enough’, which has negative consequences for our well-being.
Fragility was mentioned above– believing that purpose is a linear process can ironically lead to both a lack of persistence (fragility) as well as flightiness. When we expect a linear model and find its not working out, we may quickly change route before persevering through the challenges. On the other hand, we may stick with something that isn’t working and blame ourselves for not being ‘perfect.’
Aside from this stuff about being linear, thinking that purpose is something you find sets you up for a fit mindset and also buttresses the odds of fragility. If you think you’re going to “just get it one day” or stumble upon it, you’re probably less likely to put work into things that don’t initially feel natural to you. Ultimately this limits your options!
An Alternative Belief:
“Purpose is a journey, not a destination. Challenge is my ally.”
The purpose journey is filled with twists and turns, course-corrections, detours, and dead-ends. And it doesn’t end at a specific destination- it’s a journey you will be on your entire life!
Think of it like following a guiding star (or several if you have multiple purposes). The purpose journey is consistently orienting yourself towards your distant star. You never actually reach the star (although you will achieve specific landmarks along the way, AKA ‘goals’), but it guides your actions and direction. You spend your life re-aligning your ship to pursue this vision as storms blow you off track, you take detours to explore, or change your mind and choose other stars.
“Very important: There’s no rush. You will reinvent yourself many times in an interesting life. You will fail to reinvent many times. That’s fun also.” James Altucher
The opposite of a fit mindset is known as a develop mindset. A develop mindset is one in which you believe that passion (and purpose) can be developed. Research has shown that you can develop passion. When people stick with something and get more invested, passion grows (Wrzesnewski et. al 1997) (Newport 2012) (Chen et. al 2015). Seeing purpose as a journey, complete with challenges and changes, is more supportive of a develop mindset than a fixed one.
There is a whole area of the purpose section dedicated to the nature of the journey. Check it out below.
Try This: Hindsight is 20/20
It’s hard to see how future events will unfold. We can’t predict that failing a political science class and randomly ending up in geography class we would never have considered could reroute our ambitions. Or maybe you accept what seems to be the perfect job and feel like a failure when you discover it doesn’t bring you joy, only to happen upon a passion for coffee cultivation and farmer-to-importer relations when you take a part-time gig at a coffee shop to hold you over.
- Take a moment to look back on some twists that took place in your life. These might be failures, dead-ends, times when you had to totally scrap what you were doing and start over, or chances you took when you didn’t know what else to do. Write a few of them down.
- Write down one or two positive things that happened BECAUSE of each twist.
- How did each twist impact where you are today?
- What might have occurred if you had not changed what you were doing? Where would you be today?
- If you’re just starting out, take an hour or so to dig up some stories of people who had unconventional, non-linear paths to success.
- Think about something in your life today that you are working towards/committed to. It could be a project, job, or practice. Consider what that thing brings to your life (security/pay, connection, entertainment/pleasure, inspiration/stimulation, passion, etc.) and write these down together.
- Imagine what other options you have for getting the same outcomes if it comes to pass that this particular thing is no longer accessible to you (a “twist”). List them out. Take a moment to even dream big and imagine an even better situation for yourself than the one you’re currently involved in.
- How does it feel to consider handling future “twists”?
Your purpose is within you!
“My purpose is hiding within me to be discovered. I can discover it through introspection and will have an epiphany about what it is. I’ll just ‘get it’ one day!”
It may initially be a surprise that this belief made it on the myth list– it’s one of those beliefs that is so pervasive we often overlook it. There are some little nuances to this way of thinking that can block you from cultivating purpose, coming down to mindset (again) and potential passivity.
Believing your purpose is within you might be related to believing you have a single, predetermined purpose (myth #1). It carries with it the assumption that one day you will “figure it out” and everything will change.
Potential benefits of believing the myth:
If your purpose is hiding within you waiting to be discovered, you may be motivated to do some excavation. Introspection can lead to better self-understanding which can contribute to well-being by empowering conscious behaviors. Understanding our desires, interests, emotions, and behaviors more deeply can lead to something called “self-concordant goal selection,” or, in normal-speak, goals that are tailored to suit you personally. Introspection definitely helps in cultivating purpose!
Potential costs of believing the myth:
Ultimately, the concern is that this belief can be passive and diagnostic. It assumes that the singular most important step in cultivating purpose is introspection and self knowledge. And yes, self-knowledge may be essential to purposeful living, but assuming it’s the sole key to purpose stops short.
Only 20% of people feel they know what their purpose is (Damon 2009) (Kobau et al 2010). It’s possible that they just had epiphanies one day… and, it’s more likely that they engaged in some combination of introspection and creative action.
When we’re anticipating and hoping for an epiphany, we may neglect the legwork that would encourage such an epiphany. Being passive is allowing things to unfold however they may, while being active is to engage and take steps towards something. Hoping that one day we’ll recognize the truth that was hiding in us all along without getting out into the world and testing things is a passive approach to purpose. It’s like wishing every day that prince charming will walk into your life without making an effort to go to places where you might run into him or without entering the dating pool yourself to begin with.
Not to imply that introspection is a passive process, however. Self-exploration can take great dedication and effort. And, approaching purpose as primarily a diagnostic process has its drawbacks. Assuming diagnosis is the heavy hitter in purpose cultivation lives in the land of fit mindsets and can lead to an over-reliance on things like career aptitude tests.
If your purpose is already within you, why waste time building new skills or trying new things? While evidence indicates that a sense of purpose (and passion) develops over time, expecting to ‘get it’ right away can discourage us from persevering and getting to the point where we feel purposeful or passionate about something. We may throw our hands up before we’re even invested. Such a fit mindset brings us to fragility, again. Think about learning a really complicated new board game. If you don’t have the patience to learn the rules, do a few practice rounds, and lose a couple games, you may never get to the point where you not only understand the game, but can enjoy it, develop strategies, and become invested.
An Alternative Belief:
“Purpose is something you cultivate.”
Cultivation is the process of raising crops in agriculture. It involves understanding the soil, preparing the land, tending to the plants, weeding out what isn’t working, and experimentation as necessary. When it comes to running a farm the farmer doesn’t simply go out into the field and dig for seeds that are already there. They consciously choose what to plant. Furthermore, their education doesn’t exist solely of reading books; they gain first-hand knowledge by working in the field.
Just like cultivating a farm or garden, purpose is more aptly a cultivation process with discovery sprinkled in and offering inspiration, rather than sole discovery. Experimentation, effort, and active participation are key to creating purpose in our lives.
In her book, “Working Identity,” author and organizational behavior professor Hermenia Ibarra argues that both purpose and passion are active processes that you have agency in. She offers that there are two approaches to creating purpose in our lives:
- Planning: Get to know yourself and then make a plan for your life.
- Crafting: Create your life and learn by doing and building.
Planning is the conventional approach most of us are familiar with and crafting is the alternative.
Ibarra’s work is based on exploring identity as something we create throughout our lives, rather than something that is inherent. Because identity isn’t something pre-existing that we can simply uncover, we must actively transition to new identities and build them ourselves. Due to this she advocates for crafting over planning, as planning pre-supposes a static, innate self to plan for. She warns that relying on the planning approach can create pressure for us when we fail to “figure out” our “one true self,” leaving us stuck and waiting for an epiphany. Ibarra asserts that thinking the most difficult or valuable work is diagnostic in nature can discourage us from putting in effort to experimentation, which is where she believes the rubber meets the road on the journey to purpose.
The organization 80,000 Hours focuses on guiding people to make a positive impact on the world through their careers. When it comes to deciding what to do with your career, they offer that science shows us we’re bad at predicting what will make us happy (Gilbert 2006). Therefore, making a plan for ourselves based on our current interests may not be the best metric on which to base how we invest our time and energy in our lives. Rather than a fulfilling job needing to be your epic childhood dream, it simply needs to be engaging, something you’re good at, helps people, and lacks major negatives. They suggest that it is easy to cultivate passion, purpose, and joy within such a framework, especially because it doesn’t have to be perfect. It sounds like 80,000 hours would agree with Ibarra that planning out your purpose based on self-diagnosis may not lead to the results you’re after.
Instead, we have the option to adopt develop and growth mindsets (purpose/passion/skill can be developed, change is possible), go out into the world and experiment with our lives and engage with what best serves us at a given time, and cultivate passion, purpose, and joy along the journey.
Our lives are littered with ideas and beliefs that can either empower us on our journey to cultivate purpose, or they can inhibit our development of it. The Seven Myths of Purpose are the most common beliefs that trip people up.
- “I have ONE purpose” limits us by creating a lot of pressure and self-judgment when we don’t perfectly fit the bill. It may cause us to overlook possibilities that could be very fulfilling.
The alternative belief is: “I may have one purpose, I may have many.”
- “Your purpose must be GRAND” limits us by rejecting more conventionally un-glamorous possibilities that could possibly be the best, most-fulfilling fits for us. It can also lead us to want to over-identify with our purpose for our self-worth.
The alternative belief is: “I am not my purpose.”
- “You can be anything you want!” Believing we can achieve anything we desire can lead to high expectations and tying our self-worth to our achievements, both of which increase the likelihood of being disappointed or feeling like a failure when things don’t work out as we’d hoped.
The alternative belief is: “Understanding my priorities and being hopeful helps increase the odds of achieving what I want.”
- “Your purpose will make you happy!” Believing purpose will make you happy could externalize and postpone happiness as well as increasing your chance of quitting an endeavor that doesn’t quickly meet your expectations.
The alternative belief is: “Purpose is not a prerequisite for happiness.”
- “Your purpose/passions are permanent.” Believing one’s purpose(s) or passion(s) are permanent and that people don’t really change limits us from discovering things we could love or find meaning in.
The alternative belief is: “Preferences, interests, and abilities can change throughout our lives.”
- “Finding purpose is a linear process.” When we expect a linear model and find its not working out, we may quickly change route before persevering through the challenges. On the other hand, we may stick with something that isn’t working and blame ourselves for not being ‘perfect.’
The alternative belief is: “Purpose is a journey, not a destination. Challenge is my ally.”
- “Your purpose is within you!” This belief can be passive and diagnostic. It assumes that the singular most important step in cultivating purpose is introspection and self knowledge when active engagement and experimentation in the real world is essential to building purpose for ourselves.
The alternative belief is: “Purpose is something you cultivate.”
Next up, learn about the habits, beliefs, and ideas that make purpose cultivation difficult. See which ones are blocking you from experiencing more purpose in your life.
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