I, and a few thousand others went to see author Elizabeth Gilbert speak at the Convention Centre here in downtown Toronto last week.
She was great. The crowd was great.
I thought I could easily have tea with all of them. In fact, I ran into some wonderful people I have had tea with in the past. I had a great time.
Except for one little thing.
Elizabeth Gilbert wants us to stop trying to find our purpose.
My feathers got a little ruffled by her somewhat aggressive take on the problems with trying to find our purpose.
She sees too many people, women in particular suffering from Purpose Anxiety.
You know, trying so hard to figure out what that one thing is that is supposed to propel you to glory, your raison d’être.
Elizabeth is funny, and so very clever and she surely could have been a lawyer.
She was convincing.
Except for one thing. She only offered the negatives that go with finding purpose. She didn’t offer the other side.
It reminded me of people I’ve talked to who view all positive focus as “toxic positivity.” I do understand that everything can be pushed to extremes. And I guess, that’s what disturbed me the other night.
She really pushed the idea of purpose anxiety to the extreme.
The Middle Ground When It Comes To Purpose
Here’s a way to avoid any anxiety around finding your purpose. It’s a way to keep to the middle ground, where I think it can live peacefully.
- Take time to reflect on what you actually mean by purpose.
It is a fascinating topic. For example, here is what Joseph Campbell, the great writer and mythologist wrote about purpose: “We’re so engaged in doing things to achieve purposes of outer value that we forget the inner value, the rapture that is associated with being alive.” ― Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth
- Follow the activities, people and places that make you come alive.
It is “that which makes you come alive” that is your purpose. Here’s my most favourite quote in the whole world:
“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” ― Dr. Howard Thurman
- Your purpose can evolve over time.
Our purpose is not necessarily something that we are born with, but rather something that we can discover and develop over time. It’s okay if your purpose changes as you grow and learn more about yourself and the world around you.
My brother appeared to have been born to act. I mean, he was acting before he could talk. Okay. I’m exaggerating…maybe. The truth is, he was a performer, all the time, about everything, all day long. But…was that his purpose? To be an actor? Yes. Quite likely. It certainly made him come alive! But there is more. He also seems driven to connect with people, support them and grow personally himself. That is something that developed over time.
- Embrace your unique strengths and interests.
Like with my brother, your purpose is deeply connected to your unique strengths and interests. Take time to reflect on what you are naturally good at and what activities bring you joy and fulfillment.
I make a living having conversations that help people. I have been doing that my whole life. I think it’s because that’s what my family did. They took us all to family therapy as children. They talked about their problems in front of us. So, is that my purpose? To talk to people? To communicate with you like I am doing now. Yes. I think it’s part of my purpose for sure.
- Your purpose can be found in the present moment.
Your purpose is not necessarily something that you need to achieve or accomplish in the future. It can be found in the present moment by doing the things that bring you joy and fulfillment.
The other day, someone at the gym asked to talk to me about something. They knew I was a life coach and my background as a therapist. And they’ve heard me chatting at the gym.
We sat near the door for about 20 mins as they relayed their distress. And low and behold, I had an insight, a way to view their distress that lifted a huge burden off them. How about that? So, is my purpose to alleviate suffering. I think so. And I do it in conversation in person or here on paper.
You see, I felt lifted up too. That’s often a clue we’re onto our purpose, that feeling of upliftment.
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- Your purpose can be as simple as making a positive impact on others.
Your purpose doesn’t have to be grand or lofty. It can be as simple as making a positive impact on the people around you. Sometimes the most meaningful purpose can be found in small acts of kindness and compassion.
Yes indeed. I think this is super helpful and true. I think that purpose anxiety shows up when we imagine our purpose needs to be as big and tall as Tony Robbins. I think purpose shows up in the smallest ways. It’s a small recognition that you are in the right place at the right time doing the right thing.
The Deeper Meaning of Purpose
I rarely think of purpose as something worldly or material.
Even my drive to alleviate suffering through connection and conversation is likely caused by my childhood experiences. You know, two sad parents trying to find their way. Of course I’d be driven to alleviate suffering. I’m trying to heal my parents.
And so, I tend to look for purpose in a deeper place.
You see, I have had one overarching desire my whole life: To know God.
I have spent decades not even knowing what that meant. But I have learned, and grown and have a very different relationship to that purpose than I did when I was young.
I see that as my purpose here on earth.
Let me leave you with an amazing quote from Joseph Campbell who I think said it the best:
“As you proceed through life, following your own path, birds will shit on you. Don’t bother to brush it off. Getting a comedic view of your situation gives you spiritual distance. Having a sense of humor saves you. ― Joseph Campbell
No…wait…that’s not what I meant to write:
Follow your bliss.
If you do follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while waiting for you, and the life you ought to be living is the one you are living.
When you can see that, you begin to meet people who are in the field of your bliss, and they open the doors to you.
I say, follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be.
If you follow your bliss, doors will open for you that wouldn’t have opened for anyone else.
― Joseph Campbell
That to me takes all the anxiety out of purpose seeking.
Follow Your Bliss Man
Your job is to recognize it when you feel it, and protect it, put boundaries around it, and not listen to what anyone else tells you about it. It is yours and yours alone.
There you go. My treatise on seeking your purpose. I wonder if Elizabeth Gilbert would have tea and discuss this with me?
Talk again soon, Lisa
PS. Exciting news. I have a whole new article on Tiny Buddha and it is now live. Check it out HERE