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A sense of purpose is neither a thought nor a feeling. It’s an imperceptible, spontaneous, recognizable drive that fuels our ambition. It can be an elusive thing, though—especially if we’re authentically searching for it.
But why is purpose so slippery?
As a psychiatrist and coach, I have had the privilege of working with people who struggle to find a sense of purpose, as well as those who are able to connect with it more easily. I’ve seen that oftentimes, people confuse “purpose” with “goals.” They’ll set out to end poverty or invent a piece of technology that revolutionizes the healthcare industry—but they don’t realize that accomplishing these admirable endeavors will not single-handedly instill a greater sense of purpose in their hearts.
Missions and goals are helpful, but they will not yield a sense of purpose. Instead, they often have the opposite effect and make it even more difficult to find the drive that underlies a true sense of purpose.
In my experience and studies, I’ve discovered six counterintuitive traps that frequently stand in the way of most people when they seek to connect with their sense of purpose:
1. Virtue signaling
In 2015, James Bartholomew coined the term “virtue signaling” to refer to people who cite social goals (e.g., “I want to help the disenfranchised”) as their sense of purpose in order to gain approval from others. Although we are wired to seek social validation, making this the bedrock of our self-esteem can be socially and professionally damaging.To avoid this trap, instead of citing a social goal as your sense of purpose, ask yourself, “What truly excites me?” What types of people would you like to be around? What would make you enthusiastically jump out of bed in the morning? What are you willing to work extra hard for? These types of questions will help you get back on track when virtue signaling derails you from a sense of purpose.
2. Obsessive passion
A sense of purpose often goes hand in hand with a feeling of passion—but not all passion is the same. Harmonious passion is a spontaneous drive that leads people to engage in activities they enjoy. Obsessive passion, on the other hand, is a controlled, non-automatic internal pressure to engage in specific activities we may or may not enjoy. Harmonious passion promotes healthy adaptation, while obsessive passion creates negative feelings of rigid persistence.To avoid this trap, watch out for feelings of force, deliberateness, or insistence on your part. Of course, not all perseverance is negative. But if this creates ongoing negative feelings that you nevertheless plow through, keep an eye on it. Also, keep in mind that harmonious passion is not driven by external factors; it is an internal drive.
3. A desire to be “normal”
The paradox of being “normal” is that it does not guarantee high achievement; in fact, it may prevent it. By definition, exceptional acts are outside the norm, so straining to be normal will keep you from being exceptional.In 2007, psychologist Dustin Wood and his colleagues found that people who consider themselves to be “normal” are agreeable, conscientious, and emotionally stable—all great and admirable traits. However, they did not possess a vital trait necessary for creativity called “openness to experience” (OTE).
Finally—and quite interestingly—a 2012 study found that for men, a 1 percent standard deviation increase in creativity confers a 12 percent decrease in mortality risk. In other words, boosting your creativity could also boost your longevity.
4. Minding your business
Curiosity and a sense of purpose are both internal drives that hatch from a sense of cognitive deprivation—a feeling that something is missing and that we need to fill the gap.Although it may feel polite to mind your own business, you’re also fostering the absence of curiosity—and that can be problematic. People who are more curious have more positive emotional expressiveness. They also initiate humor and playfulness more often, engage in more unconventional thinking, and possess non-defensive, non-critical attitudes.
To avoid falling into the trap of decency, ask yourself whether your mission will fill a gap. If so, what is this gap, and how can you fill it? Once you understand this, you will activate your sense of purpose.
A sense of purpose and wonder often comes from thinking outside the box. I urge you to inquire about other ways of thinking so you can make your own connections.
5. Too much focus
In my book Tinker Dabble Doodle Try, I explain that when you lack motivation, it may be because your brain’s unfocus circuit is not sufficiently activated. In order to gather your creative motivation for a sense of purpose, you need to allow your mind to wander so your unconscious brain can connect ideas and help you derive meaning. Build periods of non-focus into your day. Break up intense moments of concentration with activities of passive relaxation, such as a leisurely stroll through the park. This will re-energize your brain and allow your creative motivation to surface.
6. Sacrificial thinking
People often think they will gain a strong sense of purpose by sacrificing themselves. However, many studies show that aligning your own vision and values to the greater whole may be more valuable.
Self-awareness—not self-sacrifice—is much more likely to drive you to your purpose. You can enhance your self-awareness by activating your unfocus networks, which, like a high beam, metaphorically shine a light on a greater area in your brain.
Paradoxically, when you activate the unfocus circuit with self-awareness, you can better connect with others. Those two functions—self-awareness and social understanding—overlap in the brain, and you can activate them by learning to unfocus.
I suggest that you avoid sacrificial thinking and instead authentically align your own desires and self-awareness with social causes. Rather than look for approval, look for where you truly feel at home and interested.
These common errors are what keep people from finding a sense of purpose. By eliminating each systematically, you will free up your brain and learn many key insights about yourself, and eventually, your path to purpose will emerge.
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