We are lured into thinking that the purpose of life equals upward social mobility, establishing a career, accumulating wealth, competing (and winning), and holding power.
Even if we can admit to ourselves that we aren't fulfilled with success' trappings, all too often we cling to our illusions because they're all we know.
Here's what I'd like to propose: Maybe our purpose has nothing to do with what we do for a living. Maybe our purpose is really about living authentically and discovering who we really are.
Most people will never be able comprehend this perspective.
You live from the outside in, not the inside out.
People are taught from a very young age to look to others for guidance. Social norming is an important part of childhood--you figure out how to act in relation to everyone else--but the problem begins when you extend that process to include something as personal as your life purpose.
Some have earned our trust and the ability to help us find our unique purpose. If that's you, consider yourself lucky!
But most people, even the well meaning, opt instead to fit us into a slot that makes more sense for them. To gain their approval, you willingly slide into the slot. To maintain the approval, you learn to chronically deny who you are.
In too many cases, you live the script for someone else's life.
You look for a career before you listen for a calling.
Our society has reduced success to a list of boxes to be checked: graduate from school, partner up, have kids, settle into a well-defined career path, and hang on until retirement checks can be collected.
This well-worn path pushes people in the direction of conformity, not purpose.
We're so busy avoiding self-induced fears of not being [fill in the blank] enough--smart enough, creative enough, pretty enough--that we rarely stop and ask, "Am I happy and fulfilled? And if not, how should I go about changing things?"
Finding your purpose is about listening to an inner calling. In "Let Your Life Speak," Parker Palmer says that we should let our life speak to us, not tell our life what we're going to do with it.
A calling is passionate and compulsive. It starts as an inkling ("I'd like to try that") then swells into a mandate that you just can't shake.
A calling isn't an easy path, which is why most of us never know it. We fear the struggle, the foolishness, the risk, and the unknown.
So we choose a career because it matches the boxes we've been told to check.
You hate silence.
We live in a society that does not value silence. It values action.
But living without silence is dangerous. Without it, you end up believing that your ego--and all that it wants--is your purpose. If you play this scenario out, you know it doesn't end well.
Live a life where Ego is in charge and you're left with burnout--and a burning question--"I have a great life. Why am I not fulfilled?"
Silence muffles the noise and creates a space for authenticity to surface. In silence, you can ask yourself questions about how your life and work are really going and pause to wait for the answer. In silence, you give the data of your life the time to converge into a few lessons.
Typically, though, before the lessons have time to sink in you're off to the next distraction.
It's the underbelly of your personality that you'd rather others not see. It represents your deficiencies, your failures, and your selfish drives. Most of us flee before anyone has the chance to see this side.
But here's the thing: the part of you that's darkest has the most to teach you about your purpose.
If discovering your purpose is really about self-discovery, your darkness shows you where you most need to grow.
More importantly, it shows you from whom you most need to learn. And it's the people you like least who have the most to teach you about yourself.
But most ignore the dark side. Instead, you seek comfortable relationships that reinforce worn, stale images of yourself.
You devalue the unconscious mind.
In "The Social Animal," David Brooks takes aim at the bias in our culture that "the conscious mind writes the autobiography of our species."
Like Brooks, I believe our culture has a relative disdain for the unconscious mind and all that is represents--emotion, intuition, impulses, and sensitivities.
To discover your purpose, you must get comfortable with the non-logical mind. You must become accustomed to not having the answers. You must tolerate ambiguity and get OK with struggling. You must allow yourself to feel--deeply feel. Thinking your way to a purposeful life will never work.
But this is a tall order for most people. One that they deny, scoff at, ridicule, or downright ignore.
Which is why most of us will live our lives having never known our true purpose.
Dr. SHELLEY PREVOST is a co-founder of Lamp Post Group, a venture incubator in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She curates kick-ass cultures by infusing principles of positive psychology in her role as Director of Happiness. @thegladlab