Should We Use Passion & Purpose as a Career Compass?

Find your passion - motivation phrase handwriting on label with compass

The importance of discovering one’s passion and purpose have become popular topics in the past few decades. Many coaches, gurus and authors advocate the idea of finding one’s passion and pursuing it to become successful. If some of us successfully find this elusive treasure, that is terrific! Such people are fortunate and we should celebrate their success.

However, this message causes a lot of confusion and heartache, especially among young adults who are beginning their journeys. It forces people to set extremely high expectations from their careers and work.

It's not my work it's my passion typed words on a Vintage Typewriter

Through our ongoing research at Lokyatha, we interact with hundreds of young adults. Almost all the young people we speak to are under tremendous pressure and stress about not finding their ‘ikigai’. Ikigai is a Japanese concept that means ‘a reason for being’ and refers to a clear sense of direction or purpose of one’s life. We talk more about this in a future article.

However, it’s sad to see 20-year-olds getting stressed thinking that they are already lost in life because they haven’t identified their true passion.

Pressure from society and media

'Passion led us here' painted on the ground in front of two people's feet

We are made to believe that a lot of people around us are living passionate lives while building a big company or changing the world in an obvious, grand way. This message implies that if we are not following our passion, we are living an unsuccessful life. But this couldn't be further from the truth.

The simple truth is that very few individuals are going to change the world in a huge way.

The problem with external expectations is that there is huge disappointment involved when we don't meet them. We also need to recognize that the value of who we are or that of our journey does not reduce in any way.

Everyone expects to be 'creating a dent in the world' at the levels of Elon Musk or Steve Jobs which is unreasonable and unfair.

We are not saying that we should remain in our comfort zones and avoid setting any goals or strive to do better. Of course, we should all be encouraged to stretch ourselves beyond our comfort zones. Personal growth and setting goals are some of the best ways to feel fulfilled and appreciate life. But if we choose to stay comfortable, that’s perfectly fine too; it’s a completely personal and individual choice.

Almost every job that exists has some meaning or significance. So, what we need to do is to step back, look at the big picture and find meaning in it.

Look for meaning, over passion and purpose

The truth is that we are all changing the world in our own individual ways. It’s important to stop associating pride with job titles. It doesn't matter if someone is a chaiwala/chaiwali (tea seller) with a tea stall on the corner of the street, or if they are HR or operations personnel, a techie or a delivery person. It is essential we look at the grand picture and visualize the end result of whatever we are doing and take pride and comfort in that picture.

We need to ask ourselves: Does this job allow me to impact someone’s life? Am I changing someone's mood? Am I making things go faster?

We are all small pieces of a bigger puzzle; we’re tiny units in a very large system and every little unit plays its role in making a difference. Even if one piece is out of place, it upsets the whole balance.

Different people joining the pieces of a puzzle

Every cog plays a role and has meaning

There is a joke analogy circulating online that fits appropriately here. We apologize in advance for the joke, but brace yourself!

The human brain and heart were arguing about who was more important and played a greater role in the human body. The heart claimed that it was responsible for pumping blood and was the true life force, while the brain argued that if it wasn’t active, a person would be brain-dead.

cartoon of Conflict between Brain and Heart

So while they were both competing, the rectum decided to participate in the debate. It clamped up and decided to go on vacation for three weeks!

We hope you understand the implication of that ‘tight situation’ (pun intended!). But it is very important to realize that every little part of the system is important. We need to look at this idea from the point of view of our everyday work. That is when we realise how it doesn't matter what role, what level, what decision-making power one has. The things that we do add value that enable scale. Ultimately our work touches lives at some point or the other.

illustration of business people on cog wheel showing team work
Each of us is crucial to the system

There is an urban legend about when American President John F. Kennedy was visiting the NASA headquarters for the first time in 1961. While touring the facility, he introduced himself to a janitor who was mopping the floor and asked him what he did at NASA. The janitor replied, “I'm helping put a man on the moon!”

Visualize the big picture to find meaning

Man standing at the edge of a mountain looking at the mountain ranges and peaks around - trying to look at the big picture

Being able to find meaning in what we do requires us to step back and see the grand output. And if you are unable to see how your small unit makes a difference, look higher, and visualize what problems your company really solves. What human enablement does the company provide through its products or services?

It does not matter whether the company is optimizing something or creating something new or delivering certain services. It exists because people want what it offers, and are willing to pay for it. This means everyone involved is part of that journey and impacts the customers.

So in that sense, we all have a purpose no matter what we do in life.

Is your current job/work your passion?

Now, this is a different and a very fair question. It could require some soul-searching and even taking risks to leave our comfort zone to explore what excites us. Things could need a little reframing so that you can see things from a different perspective.

If you find that the purpose you fulfil at the moment is not exciting, then you also need to be willing to take steps to find what parts of your daily life do not work for you. Is it certain aspects of your job? Is it the end goal? Could it be some of the people around? Or do you simply hate everything about it?

Finding meaningful work requires us to experiment and look for what gives us energy. Experimentation takes time, effort, risk, and at times even failure.

That’s not a bad thing. We need to be ready and willing to do it.

Be mindful of using passion and purpose as a compass for success

We may need a job to keep paying the bills, feeding our families, or taking care of dependents. And these are extremely critical reasons for us to continue in our current situation at times. So we really need to define our own measures for ourselves, given our unique life situations.

At the same time, we should try to identify what financial, emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual objectives we want to fulfil with our jobs and careers. We should then chase those objectives with the understanding that they may change and evolve over time.

Having that clarity is essential, but you can’t be harsh on yourself if you are in your twenties and believe that you haven’t found your passion and purpose. That really is the core message here.

If we ask ourselves the right questions, are constantly in touch with who we are and who we want to become, what really excites us and makes us feel valuable to the world, the answers to these questions will come to us more easily. So give yourself the time and permission to be whoever you are right now and evolve into a different person over time with your experience and unique perspective.

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