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Searching for purpose and doing what you love: four true stories

Let me tell you a story. Or two. Or four.

The author Jonathan Odell recalls his journey to turning his lifelong passion into something that gave him purpose. He talks about his successful career, the work he’s done for multiple corporations, gaining years of expertise that ultimately gave him recognition in his field. He’s ticked all the positions on his checklist and seemed to do it all very well: he’s became successful in his field, the money wasn’t tight. For an outsider, he’s had it all. His own company, a house, a car, a partner, it appeared to be an ideal life scenario that many people aspire to. But all of this felt hollow when there was nothing else left to buy: everything “reeked of obligation, resentment and compromise”. Finally, he came to terms with the fact that his passion was always writing, and having rediscovered this at 45 in his fight with depression, he plunged into his love for words. He drafted a novel and gradually became better at writing. With a couple of books he’s published, he turned to graduates in the industry publication, offering them some life advice. He opens the piece for Publishers Weekly with a thought:

“Never get good at doing what you hate. If you do, you will be asked to do more of it. And for more money. It’s a trap.”

Sometimes, things in your life feel like they’re way past their expiration date. Anything can lead you to this conclusion, but let’s stick to the main theme: a passion. And when you don’t address how you feel, it starts feeling like a life sentence that you seem to be bound to. It’s only amplified within you when you realise that people find you by your skills, value you for them and assume you’re passionate about the discipline. More offers start to come in, looking all shiny, but all of them lie within the same area of expertise. At the beginning, you might be joyfully rejecting them – it’s not your fate, you repeat, you’ll find your way out – or start thinking of accepting them, hoping it’s provisional. Maybe you even tell yourself that you can learn to be enthusiastic about it because you appear to be doing things the right way, and there are aspects of it that resemble what excites you. But then, it turns out it’s not that easy. Weeks, then months pass by and the road you haven’t chosen stretches ahead in front of you. You start to panic. You hit the brakes, you burn the tyres, yet the car is still slowly rolling ahead. It’s more and more difficult to switch, as you involuntarily push yourself deeper and deeper into something that doesn’t give you the satisfaction you expected. And when it turns out to be a big, fat fakery, you can’t look people who backed you up in the eye, and you feel awful about it.

There’s a quote circulating on social media which inspired me to write this post, attributed either to Heath Ledger or to the businessman Farrah Gray: “Everybody always asks if you have a career, if you’re married, if you have children. Like if life was some kind of grocery list. No one ever asks us if we’re happy.” And that often depicts the attitudes that keep you away from pursuing what you truly love. As kids, we’re often encouraged by caring parents and teachers, then by university professors and career advisors, to get into certain fields because they’re developing fast and you’re likely to build your own path on them. They care so they’re not to be blamed, but it’s easy to bend into it when the people who are closest to you advise against that creative thing you’re yearning to do. What’s worse, you can turn your back on their advice, decide to do what you love anyway, only to succumb to other things because you need to pay the bills.

With the millennial generation comes a whole new level of pressure. You’re constantly told that you ruin everything by media. Your perfectionism is unlikely to let you half-arse the things you do – PAPER Magazine refers to studies which prove that “the biggest increase (33 percent) was found in socially-prescribed perfectionism, caused by the high standards we feel put on us by others.” Swathes of YouTube and Instagram influencers make you feel pressured to succeed before your mid-twenties, or otherwise, you’ll be rendered irrelevant. Social media shove comparing yourself to your peers in your face.

On the other hand, you’re told that you should do what you love, but nobody explains that often leads to tough choices when it comes to your security and comfort. You feel that the clock’s ticking, and you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time. Maybe you’d enjoy it in another timeline, but this ain’t the one. Maybe you recognise you’re privileged and it’s atrocious to feel this way, so you never complain. You might ask yourself why you seem to be more demanding than anyone else around you, who appear to be satisfied with what they’ve got. You’re on your own, so there’s no one to take care of you if you decided you wanna switch it all over a week. You sideline things. Then, tiny events, which you’d never pay attention to before, start to make you furious or miserable.

One of my favourite change stories is that of Dan Howell, a YouTube and broadcast personality, who isn’t much older than me. He’s been talking about the existential crisis he faced when he was studying law at the university in a handful of his videos. His platform was a little different back then, and he’s only started an account and befriended a couple of vloggers. He dreamt of acting, but decided to study another subject at the university – that, however, didn’t bring him much happiness. He dropped out and decided to do more vlogging, then got picked up by the BBC. From then on, he was able to do what he enjoys for a living. In his videos, he often encourages his audience, many of them are kids, teenagers and distraught youth on a brink of a quarter-life crisis like me, to do what they want to be doing (he’s also got an awfully amazing sense of humour, so, there). Here’s one:

However, these days transformations come fast, too. Studies show that you’re unlikely to hold one job for life like people used to – the Financial Times reported as many as five careers in a lifetime for an individual. Even in the light of this, you ask yourself a question – but what if in twenty-five years I’ll be questioning myself for not doing something stable? And will I be questioning myself about not pursuing my passion in the other scenario? Do I know what I want to be doing? How to choose?

Jim Carrey fills us in – he gave a speech outlining how the story of his father persuaded him to act. Explaining that his dad could’ve been a comedian but never believed in himself, so he decided to get a stable job as an accountant. However, the profession that was meant to ensure stability for his family didn’t stay safe long-term. When the comedian was twelve, his dad was made redundant, making it tough for them to survive. That inspired the child to pursue his passion.

I learned many great lessons from my father, not the least of which is that you can fail at what you don’t want, so you might as well take a chance on doing what you love,” he said.

But it isn’t exclusive to millennials – the search for a purpose has always been a struggle, relatable beyond the capitalism-bound economy that screws the entire generation over. The stories above proved that, but I’ll tell you one more.

There’s a person I know who gave up his prospective music career when he was a child. A sensitive but troublemaking boy, he taught himself to play songs by ear without knowing any rules, coming from working class in a society tangled by communism, without any mentors. He played harmonica and accordion with ease; it made him happy. Hearing from the others that he had a spark, he enrolled in a music school, though without the full approbate from his parents. The teacher praised his ability to learn by ear, and things seemed to be going well. But one day, he lost his textbooks on the train. The family wasn’t able to afford new ones, so he decided to give up on the music school. When he grew older, he got an accordion and played it impressively well. He loved music, even “the foreign language one”, even if he didn’t understand the lyrics. But soon, he was taught a profession, found a job, gave the instrument away as a gift for his friend’s wedding, and hasn’t picked it up since.

That often made him suffer. The burden made him reach for alcohol in the search for answers. The answers never came, and he grew increasingly bitter and tired, to the point when it became his daily bread. After work, he’d often complain about absolutely everything that happened to him that day. He’d sometimes say that if he could turn back the time, he’d make different choices. When he let the alcohol speak, he’d frighten his kids by saying that one day he’d leave and never come back, sometimes carelessly implying suicide. He had a lot of pressure on his back when it comes to providing for his family, too, and everything seemed to drag him into that vicious cycle. But he’d be proud of his children, and go alongside them to hospitals kilometres away from home, as well as their performances and endless contests. However, though he wanted the children to have the best, he wouldn’t always go along with their choices, and his views were restricted by his circumstances. He’d repeat that the most important thing for a young person is to learn, because they might still make their lives much better – but that still meant very specific things for him.

Do these stories make answering the question about purpose any easier? They don’t. There are many factors to consider when it comes to figuring out the right path for yourself. The valid questions about being stable and paying your bills will pop up, and maybe they’ll make you feel a little better when you’re easing on the transition to something you enjoy, as explained by Susan Biali, who’s a dancer and a GP at the same time. Sometimes, you won’t have to go radical on your problem – it all takes a lot of introspective. And it’s difficult to come to terms with the fact that you can’t have it all when you’re doing too many things at a time. You’ll always have to make choices, and if you’ve got a handful of subjects you’re passionate about, it won’t be easy. And as the Factory of Inspirational Quotes Steve Jobs once said, “people think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully.” 

But seeing how many people responded to the Instagram post with a quote and eyeing the results after googling a handful of existential questions, I’ll sum it up with one more statement – you’re not alone in this pursuit of purpose. And let’s call for the Apple founder again: “the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle.”

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