Why Searching for Your Purpose is Paralyzing
I’m a searcher. I’ve always been that way. As a little kid I repeatedly asked my parents “Is a Chihuahua really a dog?” until they became infuriated. When I joined my Unitarian Universalist Church Sunday school class on a trip to a Mosque I asked a lot of questions. I joined my Grandmother in Catholic Mass. I mixed potions in my basement and brought offers to the powers of the earth. To say I searched for meaning would be minimizing my drive. I was obsessed with the meaning of life.
After becoming an observant Jew through conversion in my early twenties, I thought I had finally found the answer to all of my questions. The Torah is real and contains answers. Yet. Yet, I still couldn’t find my place in all this.
I began my decade long journey to figure out where I land in the grand scheme of things. At this point I had a bunch of small children, a busy husband, community obligations, and an insatiable thirst for answers. This is right around the time that “Find Your Purpose” became a hashtag. Soon everything I read was about finding your true purpose in life. Making your career aligned with your life goals. Figuring out why G-d put you here in the first place.
So I did what every book said to do. I thought about what I was good at, what I liked, and what the world needed. Happens to be, I’m good at a lot of things, which actually complicates matters. I tried writing, editing, teaching, yoga instruction, and finally coaching. Maybe if I helped other people find their purpose, it would help me too?
Recently I was explaining to a mentor this insane feeling I get when I’m trying to find the answer to a question. It consumes my every waking thought and most of my dreams. It races around in my brain again, and again, and again. There MUST be an answer, I would say to myself, rather harshly. It’s probably because you’re doing something wrong that you haven’t figured it all out yet. You’re already in your thirties, shouldn’t this grand quest be behind you and you’re well on your way to making a difference? I have a kind inner voice as well. She wasn’t there at the moment.
See here’s the kicker. I didn’t just want to live my life. I wanted to make a difference. I want to make a difference. Not in an egotistical way, like I need my name to be well known or my ideas to matter. It’s like a deep need. I am destined to do something meaningful and make a difference. If you would have asked me at age 5 if that was my fate I’d tell you the same thing (I was a pretty precocious 5 year old). So far I’d discovered my strengths, that I needed to make a difference, and somehow it was up to destiny. Yet. I was paralyzed. With what?
Fear. Desperate, unnerving fear. What if I chose a path and it was the wrong one? What if I spent hard earned money on a certification for a career that flopped? What if I gave someone terrible advice and I looked like a fool? And the worst one of all: what if I never figured it out?
Ah ha. I am 30+ years into this journey and I have finally discovered the problem.
The desperate search was almost a cover up. I was afraid of trying and failing. Of looking and not finding anything worthwhile.
My dad gave me a book a few years ago. The War of Art by Stephen Pressfield talks about the artist’s curse and also their gift. If you’re a person with a beating heart I would suggest you read this book. Stephen writes, “Are you paralyzed with fear? That’s a good sign. Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do. Remember one rule of thumb: the more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.”
Well, shoot. I’d stumbled on the answer to my question and also my worst nightmare. I would have to do the very thing that terrified me the most. Sorry, honey. TRY ANYWAY.
The search isn’t futile. It’s essential. But if you find yourself endlessly searching in circles, know that you’ve got to take a step into fear. And when you do that, magic happens.