3 Powerful Strategies for Discovering Your Life's Work
There is a cultural myth popular among millennials that says you have to “find yourself” in order to do the work you were meant to do.
It’s partly why you see so many of this generation (of which I consider myself one) take a "gap" year early in their careers -- usually to backpack through Europe, hike the Appalachian Trail, meditate for a month in India or embark on some other equally epic adventure. The point (presumably) is to find personal meaning in these experiences that will help you discover your life’s work and purpose.
You see, these aren’t vacations. These are spiritual quests. But before you “go all Kerouac” on everyone, consider this:
While there is certainly tremendous value in travel and adventure, this formula is a bit backwards. Because it’s often the work itself that provides the most transformative value.
Or put another way, it’s not about finding yourself and then doing the work, it’s about finding yourself in the work.
If you’re not familiar, Ryan is the former marketing director of American Apparel and the author of several books, including the bestselling The Obstacle is the Way and his newest, Ego is the Enemy.
In our conversation, Ryan talked about a passage from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness that illustrates the idea perfectly. Marlow, the book’s narrator, says:
“I don't like work - no man does - but I like what is in the work - the chance to find yourself. Your own reality - for yourself not for others - what no other man can ever know.” (Conrad, Heart of Darkness)
Ryan explains: “[People assume] that spiritual- and meaning-quests are different than their work quests. I’m not entirely sure that’s the case.”
But what exactly does this mean? And where do you start? Here are the three simple yet effective strategies to help you find yourself in your work.
1. Just get started.
Many entrepreneurs suffer from paralysis when it comes to starting their enterprises. They wait for the perfect idea, or the perfect team, or for just the right moment to launch. Of course, when you wait for things to be perfect, you end up waiting forever.
The important thing isn’t to wait for the ideal conditions; it’s to start so that you can benefit from the lessons the work will give you.
What’s worse, some millennial entrepreneurs get distracted from all the things that go along with entrepreneurship (or things they think go along with it but are separate and detract from the work). They buy into the popular entrepreneurial myths, and get distracted by hype, prestige or some end goal that they associate with success.
Ultimately they forget that entrepreneurship at its heart is a risk that requires steadfast commitment and massive action. Entrepreneurship is the work, and nothing more. The path to success is never well marked but the work will show you the way.
2. Understand that life is continuous training.
One of the biggest misconceptions ingrained in us from early childhood is that work is a means to an end, a pathway to an outcome. In school, it’s for a letter grade. In our careers, it’s for a payday. We confuse that outcome with having a purpose.
Often, we tie our happiness to that outcome.
If only my company had funding, we think. Then we could relax.
If only we get acquired. Then we’ll have made it.
If only I had a bigger house. Then I’ll be happy.
The problem with this is twofold. First, it puts happiness on the horizon, contingent on an outcome we can’t control (more on that later). Second, because this outcome is in the future, our happiness is perpetually beyond our reach. We’re always chasing it. Every time we achieve something, we discover that the happiness it provides is fleeting, so we set our sights on the next achievement.
But perhaps more importantly, by subordinating work as a means to end, we deny the inherent, didactic value of work.
“Challenging yourself in everything that you do is how you find meaning,” adds Holiday, “and that’s [also] how you find what’s in the work.”
In Ego is the Enemy, Holiday contends that life should be thought of as “continuous training.” He likens it to sweeping the floor - just because you do a phenomenal job sweeping the floor today, doesn’t mean that there’s never going to dust on that floor again. You have to keep showing up.
At SnackNation, we call this “checking the box.” Every single morning, regardless of what you did the day or week prior, you need to get-up and proactively “check the box” to dedicating that day to the best work you can do.
And while this might seem daunting, it’s also empowering to know that we are constantly provided with new opportunities to outdo our previous accomplishments, to surprise ourselves, and to learn from our work.
When you view life as continuous practice, you’ll open yourself to the lessons that work can teach us about ourselves.
3. Shift focus from external things you can’t control to the internal things you do control.
Back to the point about outcomes.
Sustainable happiness requires us to rethink how we define success. The popular idea of success is one of outcomes - we often equate success with material wealth, privilege, or social status.
But as we’ve already explored, success defined in this way is ephemeral. The joy that it brings quickly wears off. Once we achieve the external goal we set our sights on, it’s on to the next. Happiness becomes the proverbial carrot on a stick, always out of our grasp.
The alternative is to redefine success in terms of internals, the things that are within our control.
This idea comes from Stoicism, a Hellenistic philosophy championed by thinkers like Seneca the Younger and Marcus Aurelius, and that informs much of Holiday’s work.
“Stoic philosophy, at its core,” he explains, “is the distinction between what is in our control and what is outside our control - what are called internals and externals. If you are putting your happiness on an external, something you don’t control, you will be disappointed.”
The ideal, according to this line of thought, is to detach your emotion from outcomes completely, and derive happiness from the things that are within your control - things like the effort you put forth, your mindset, how you treat people.
In other words, you derive happiness from the work itself.
So, contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to take a six month trek through the Andes in order to find yourself. In fact, that’s exactly what you shouldn’t do. You don’t find your purpose by thinking about your purpose! That’s a circular thought process that will usually yield lackluster and depressing results. Rather, the best thing you can do is to get started on something right now, in this very moment, that will challenge you, and in so doing, help you discover what you were meant to do. Because it’s through an intense commitment to the work that lies before you today that your purpose will ultimately be discovered and your calling will become clear.