“What do you want to be when you grow up?” That’s a question we often ask young children, perhaps hoping for insight on their hopes and dreams. The answer to this question can help direct the choice of school, major, internship or career path a person chooses to follow, all in an attempt to make a person’s hopes and dreams come true.
“What do you do?” That’s the question we most commonly ask a new acquaintance, maybe looking for insight on a person’s identity in the world. Many times we ask this as if knowing that they are a doctor or an administrative assistant can help us understand and connect with them. Yet, to the contrary, many times this question can come off as abrasive or demeaning. Maybe it’s unfair to define a person solely by their chosen career path.
I’ve grappled with both questions – “what do you want to be when you grow up?” and “what do you do?” – throughout my life. Somewhere along the line, perhaps because of the schools I attended and the media I consumed, I picked up on the idea that finding or having the perfect job would make me complete as a person. I’d not only be grown up, but I’d be happy and fulfilled. To that end, I’ve worked to find the job that would best match my dreams and desires.
I’ve had a lot of different jobs in my life. I’ve been a Marketing Director (also a Marketing Manager, Coordinator and Assistant), Public Relations Director, Freelance Writer, Blogger, Special Event Planner, Intern, Receptionist, Graphic Design Artist, Server, Hostess, Library Assistant, Choreographer, Dance Instructor and Apprentice. I’ve folded clothes at American Eagle and prepared sundaes at TCBY. I’ve answered phones and raised tens of thousands of dollars for charity. I’ve networked with local celebrities and knocked on doors at the local laundromat.
In which of these jobs was I fulfilling my purpose? In which was I performing the greatest service to the world? In which was I most honoring the unique gifts and talents I uniquely hold in the essence of my being?
I’ve spent a lot of time in my life trying to figure that out. Since I was a young girl scribbling out stories in tattered three-ring notebooks, I’ve longed to match my dreams and desires with a “real-world” profession in hopes that I would someday find my purpose and feel fulfilled in my work. I thought that climbing a steady ladder of career success and ultimately finding the perfect job would lead me to self-actualization and an inner sense of peace and harmony. I took the question of “what I wanted to be when I grew up” very seriously, imagining that as a grown up I would find and become a certain Thing that would define me and fill me with satisfaction and joy.
My search for the perfect career or job title has left me feeling emotions quite different than fulfillment, however. It has made me feel confused, scared, empty, stressed, anxious, overwhelmed and not good enough. I’ve never quite felt that completeness and satisfaction I imagined I would feel, even when my business card had the “perfect” job title printed under my name.
Many people believe that aligning their inner passion with their outer profession – or getting paid to do the thing that they love the most – will bring them inner peace and ultimately happiness in life. If someone loves to knit, for example, they may think that knitting for a living would be the ideal job. However, there have been many cases in which someone turns their passion into their profit and then finds their life lacking in some way. Many people report that when they do the thing they love the most and get paid to do it, that thing becomes a chore in some respect and the spark that they felt doing the thing is diluted. The knitter with the thriving knitting business may no longer pick up his or her needles at night, and instead come to resent the very thing that used to bring them so much joy.
As I’ve progressed in my career and in life, I’ve come to realize that the particular job we do in the world does not translate to fulfillment.
What is the answer, then? How can we find fulfillment in life, if not by aligning our greatest passions and gifts with our lives?
The answer may have less to do with what we do for a living (i.e., what our job title is) vs. how we do whatever we happen to do as we are living.
In his powerful book “A New Earth: Awakening Your Life’s Purpose,” Eckhart Tolle explains that we humans have two purposes in our lifetimes – an inner purpose, and an outer purpose. Our inner purpose is inner awakening, and it is a purpose that every human shares. Our outer purpose is to align our inner purpose with our innate gifts. As Eckhart puts it: ““Inner purpose is aligning your life fully with the present moment … You cannot go beyond the state of dissatisfaction through some future goal that says ‘one day I’d like to be in a state of satisfaction.’ Your purpose then is alignment with where you are right now – to be totally where you are in whatever you are doing … To be true to life by being true to this moment.”
I take Eckhart’s words to mean that it doesn’t really matter what we do as long as we bring the essence of who we are to any particular thing we happen to be doing. If we are truly mindful and present, we can be as fulfilled washing our breakfast dishes as we are speaking in front of a crowded auditorium. The point is not the what, but the how.
I’ve spent too long in my life trying to finagle my passions and gifts into a marketable profession. I mistakenly bought into the idea that making money doing what I enjoyed doing would be the key to a fulfilling life. This has caused me a lot of stress, anxiety and doubt. It’s caused me to constantly look “out there” for fulfillment, as if a particular corner office or job title could complete me. I now believe that Eckhart is right, and that my “job” is not to perform any particular task but rather to be present in each moment of my life, aligning my inner light with whatever I may be doing. That may be playing in the park with my children, working with a client, scrubbing the shower or driving to a restaurant with Lancelot. At any moment I can consciously chose to bring the essence of my being forward and align myself with the current moment. That, more than any job title, will bring me true fulfillment in the only place it’s possible to find peace, joy or happiness – the present moment.
This is not to say that we should not look for jobs that light us up and make us feel alive. We should absolutely look for fulfilling careers and try to match our innate talents with jobs that allow us to contribute meaningfully to the world around us. However, perhaps we should focus a little less on the “perfect job” and pay a little more attention to how we can consciously align our inner purpose with whatever our particular job or function at the moment may be. In doing so, we may find an incredible amount of purpose in the jobs or lives we already have.
I will likely have many more job titles and perform many more roles in my lifetime, but I am not defined by any particular title. The essence of my being cannot be whittled down or molded into any particular shape. My essence remains the same. Today, I find purpose and fulfillment by being me – quite simply, a child of the Universe.
What do I want to be when I grow up? I want to be me.
What do I do? I create, I connect, I grow, I learn, I love and I live.
I invite you to do the same.