In the early part of our careers, at least in most of the business world, there’s a lot of pressure to find your purpose, to achieve something worthwhile with your life, to somehow get to a satisfying, successful end-point. For baby-boomers the mantra has been ‘financial independence’; for millennials it’s ‘meaning’.
Yet for many of us, mid-career brings a test, and with it a new reckoning around purpose. Some of us experience a real Failure, the kind that breaks something essential in our lives and questions our original purpose. Some, by contrast, succeed in achieving their purpose only to sink into another quandary, to wonder ‘what next?’.
The end of purpose
End points are just that, endings. And the end of a purpose does not bring with it any easy starting point for the next thing. The task is to move forwards but it’s tough. Thinking hard about it can backfire. Believe me, having lived through a few of these end points, I’m finally admitting that ‘thinking’ it through is exhausting, lonely and futile. I’ve found there’s no purpose in trying to think too much about purpose! The stagnant zone is also the fruitful zone.
This keeps turning up with my clients, mostly mid-career, ostensibly successful professionals who have aspired to great things. They come to me bewildered by the loss of direction, the staleness that comes with either a peak success or a deep setback. Their usual mental toolkit for solving problems doesn’t work for this one.
There’s a paradox we need to embrace.
I recently picked up my paintbrushes again. Over the last 20 years I’ve had some modest (vanity) exhibitions, done some courses, had great teachers for drawing, painting and sculpture, and learnt some techniques. Yet in the end my process is simply a way to meditate onto the page, whether it’s canvas or paper, small or large. The meditations are pure improvisation, putting the paint down, seeing where it wants to go and working it. They become a kind of wordless personal conversation, the right brain talking to the left brain, as sometimes happens in dreams. They are also a small rebellion against form and structure, predetermined rules and analytical, logical strictures.
The paradox is that these ‘rule-free’ paintings always form and reveal their own internal ‘rules’, however much I pretend to be free of such things.
This kind of painting brings home how much we take with us into whatever we do. We cannot escape ourselves and some basic desire for our world to have a recognisable shape. When I show these paintings to my friends, they tell me what they mean.
It is like this with purpose in the latter half of life.
Embrace this paradox; when we let go of the rule about what we are supposed to do, the full expression of our nature proves to be a good enough rule. Things happen, life emerges even without a plan and we are able to respond in a balanced way to the life that turns up. And, crucially, without being self-conscious about our pointy, arrow-type Purpose, our new purpose emerges.
Show your life to your friends and they will tell you what it means. It is an art form whose purpose others can see better than you can.
Discomfort is a good sign
This takes some adjusting to! When you ask people about how they see your purpose, you may be surprised by the answer. It’s buried in how others experience you, not how you experience yourself.
Your purpose is what happens when you turn up in a room. You bring a gift that is natural to you (and probably something you take for granted) and that people want. You can destroy the gift by trying too hard to achieve something in the room, rather than be yourself in the room.
Purpose, seen this way, is a long term pattern, not an arrow. With my paintings, it’s often only after making dozens, that all felt very diverse in the making, that I can see the overall pattern.
There was a phase when I was unsure about what I was doing or whether I should draw. Those drawings were tight, enclosed, limited. When I gained more confidence the boundaries opened up; I drew on bigger sheets and didn’t worry about the edges. Then I tried more colour; looking back I noticed that these new colour paintings had rigid, rectangular boundaries, an unconscious tactic to give me a feeling of control. Then those boundaries went as well. They were marks of my growth.
And so it is with developing ourselves and our deeper purpose. Give yourself permission to let go of the old rules.
One of my artist friends is a word-artist and has a gift for finding a phrase that can stop you in your tracks, because it is a deep truth. She developed a little game called the ‘Shit Rules Game’. It uses a pen, a pad of paper and a dustbin. Write down a rule that just does not help you enjoy life. Then scrunch up that sheet of paper and throw it away. Don’t follow that rule ever again. Stupid rules are best to dispose of; rules like ‘I’m only successful if I achieve the purpose I chose while at school.’ Or ‘If it breaks it’s always my fault.’ Or ‘I won’t paint (or play piano, or sing….) because I’m ‘not an artist’’.
Dump those rules and use the space they leave, to invoke new rules that enrich your life.
You see, you are free.
The truth is that once you have achieved your purpose at one level, you are free to discover your new purpose rather than fix it again. You are free to explore what emerges when you are yourself. You are free to trust that the pattern that others see will be good. You are free to wait until it all makes sense and meanwhile leave ‘purpose’ hanging as a question whose answer will come later.
I hope this helps. I was prompted to write because this was the gist of a conversation I had yesterday and it led to someone moving forward who was previously stuck.
When you’ve lost your purpose, make your life an emerging work of art and you’ll rediscover purpose in a rich, intriguing and delightful way.