When was the last time you actually felt like jumping for joy? Or didn’t hit snooze repeatedly on your morning alarm? For me, it had been years. Over twelve years to be exact…until recently. I decided now is the time to share this story, because I think it is important to find your purpose in life and at work, but I also want you to know that it rarely comes as quickly as the experts pushing purpose say it will.
Ten years ago, I realized that I lost sight of my purpose, my passion, my dreams, and didn’t know how to find them again. I barely had time to go to the bathroom by myself (just ask any stay-at-parent with a baby and a toddler). By default, I went back to what I knew. I knew how to fix things. I knew business. First, I took over managing the finances and guiding the growth strategies of a medical practice. I assumed several executive nonprofit board positions. And finally, I was asked to come into a small printing and marketing corporation as its CEO to turn it around and facilitate its sale. I was a capable leader in all of these roles, but I still hit snooze every morning multiple times. I wasn’t excited about what I was doing. But I was willing to try them all to find more meaning and purpose in my work life. I was buying into the old adage that if you throw enough stuff up against a wall, something is bound to stick. Nevertheless, these experiences made me realize that just because I am capable of doing something, doesn’t mean I should. As a result, I learned the very important art of saying no to opportunities that didn’t excite me. Don’t get me wrong; this wasn’t a swift learning curve. It took me seven years to come to this realization and to start saying no. I was searching for something, but I didn’t know what it was. After I started saying no, I had more time to think and contemplate about what motivated me to get going every day. I had time to pay attention to the things that actually meant something to me. I started trying to rediscover my dream, my goals, my vision for my future. Over the course of a year and a half, I started to piece some things together, but I was still stuck. Looking back, I struggled to find my purpose because I was trying to find the right job, one that had already been defined by someone else. I now realize that that was never going to work for me.
In the fall of 2015, I decided to make a concerted effort to try to identify the right path forward. I enrolled in a multi-week executive program with a career coach. I bought books about creating a new life direction. I journaled a lot. Anytime something sparked an interest or evoked a passionate response, I wrote about it. Personality traits started to emerge. Patterns became more apparent. But let me be completely honest, nothing was sticking. In fact, I couldn’t even get past chapter two when I first started to work through Now What? 90 Days to a New Life Direction by Laura Berman Fortgang (April 2005). I kept noticing that same pit in my stomach every time I thought of a pre-defined job. I felt like I was trying to squeeze myself into a standard box, and I just couldn’t fit. I had to walk away from the process for a while to gain clarity.
So rather than focusing on finding the perfect career to move forward, I started to focus on everything that I have done, and I started to break down what I loved and what I hated about each opportunity. This provided a real breakthrough for me. I was able to move beyond my mindset from failing to find purpose and passion in an ideal career—or in a specific new life direction—to focusing on specific characteristics about jobs that I had loved. Critical qualities like autonomy, impact, inspiration, influence, enlightenment, and growth. Failing to find purpose in a specific job taught me a very important lesson: I couldn’t wait for an opportunity that someone else was creating to give me purpose. I had to identify my own purpose and create the opportunity that would motivate me to jump out of bed everyday by incorporating the components of work that I loved.
Most people, today, want meaning in work. They want more than a paycheck. Sociological research consistently demonstrates that job satisfaction is correlated with intrinsic motivators like meaning, purpose, camaraderie, and feeling like they are part of a team and part of a process that is making the company successful. In a recent article (titled “9 Out of 10 People Are Willing to Earn Less Money to Do More Meaningful Work”) in the Harvard Business Review (November 6, 2018), authors found that employees who find meaning in work:
…spend one additional hour per week working, and take two fewer days of paid leave per year…. More importantly, though, employees who find work meaningful experience significantly greater job satisfaction, which is known to correlate with increased productivity.
I believe finding meaning for yourself and your employees at work will be the next great productivity wave of the twenty-first century.
But I have to be honest, simply saying that you want to incorporate meaning in work just doesn’t cut it. The thoughts and ideas on how to do it don’t come out of thin air. Finding the right words to convey your passion and purpose so that you can lead others to meaningful work can be complex. If you are anything like I was, you might not even know what is meaningful to you right now if you are experiencing burnout or stress or lack of joy at work. I had to stop thinking about work and jobs (in the traditional sense) and start thinking about components of my life that gave me joy, meaning, and purpose. I discovered that deep down, I have a tremendous desire to have an impact, to leave my mark on the world. I had to start becoming aware of the things that I did that brought those positive feelings to the forefront. It took me time to find my purpose. In fact, I had a mini-epiphany on a professional development retreat in Belize (@Preparetoroar) when a fellow attendee kept telling me to embrace my purpose and think of jobs that align with it. Every time he said the word “job,” I immediately felt like someone had punched me in the gut, and I wanted to vomit. I could not have had a stronger visceral response! I listened to my gut. (I know that some thought leaders warn about listening to your gut, but as a business professional, I couldn’t imagine not doing a gut check. I think the visceral responses that we have to information and events based on knowledge and experiences can be very telling and should not be ignored.)
My journey to take my turn took a lot longer than I anticipated, but I believe that sometimes things happen for a reason. The additional time gave me the opportunity to gain more business insight and bring my experiences back to students taking sociology courses as an adjunct professor. It gave me the time to become more aware of my passions. It also gave me more time to formulate the right plan to move forward. Just in the past three months, I have branded and named a new company that I will be launching in 2019. The floodgates have opened. Timing is key; my timeline was just longer than most. I wake up excited every day thinking about the possibilities. Brainstorming with fellow writers, business professionals, sociology colleagues, my husband, and friends. I am taking my dreams and turning them into concrete actions.
We all have different dreams, different goals, and different definitions of success, and we all need to take our turn.
How do you plan to take your turn so that you have no regrets? No two paths are the same. We each have our own histories and biographies that shape our lens and the opportunities that we see for ourselves. Nevertheless, we all can start by minding the gap. The gap is the space between where you are and where you want to be. I recommend taking time to really think about where you are and where you think you want to be in order to determine the best route to get there. If you focus on lifting the veil to bring awareness and understanding to your lens, you may be surprised what you find. Sometimes what you think you want actually brings that same gut-wrenching feeling I experienced. I have met a lot of people and students that think they know their goals, but when they actually start to peel back the layers, they find out that they are trying to live up to someone else’s idea of success. Following a structured “90-day” program didn’t work for me in 2015, but when I revisited some of the ideas in the same book in the summer of 2018 at the request of a friend, I started to gain some traction. Timing is key. When you write—especially writing that no one else will see—you are able to uncover opportunities. Writing / journaling gives you insight that you may not have known that you had. It is an active activity that I recommend for everyone. It allows your brain to slow down long enough to process your thoughts. By taking the time to slow down and reflect, ideas become more clear.
Take the time to reflect on what excites you. What motivates you to not hit snooze and to jump out of bed in the morning. Don’t limit yourself. Be truly attuned to those gut responses to opportunities. If you have a negative gut response, don’t ignore it. Start saying no to opportunities that don’t excite you or feel like a good fit.
I finally feel like I am on the right path, creating my own company to live my purpose every day professionally. I am taking my turn. When will you take yours?
—No Regrets, Kristin Heck Sajadi, Sociologist, Entrepreneur, Consultant
If your dreams do not scare you, they are not big enough.