This is probably the question that I hear most often when I’m talking with women. Our culture is in love with the idea that we should have one primal goal or longing with enough force to be a beacon pulling us forward through life as we pursue it.
We’ve all seen it in the movies, it’s the hero’s journey, and we know how the story goes. First, we get our hero’s backstory – this is the part we’ve been living up until now. Then, the challenge emerges, the part many of us are still waiting for, where the hero finds the problem to solve – the purpose or passion. Next, a bunch of hard stuff happens: the hero tries to do things and they don’t work (in real life this is usually the part we’d rather skip over but it’s actually where the magic happens). Finally, our hero achieves the goal and lives happily ever after, fulfilled and validated.
The myth is that we should all have one passion that we’re supposed to be following – our life’s purpose. We’ve been raised on the idea that this is either something we’re born with or something that comes to us like a lightning strike, but for most of us, it’s not that clear or easy. In real life many people are multi-passionate and interested in a whole host of things. Then there is the truth that some purposes aren’t meant to last us a lifetime, they come and then go. I guess what I’m saying is that Steven Spielberg isn’t directing your life so it’s likely to be messy and unpredictable – and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Women tend to struggle with this even more because we’re culturally conditioned to ignore our own wants and needs from a young age. We teach women to become chameleons, adapting to the expectations of whatever role we’re filling at the moment (daughter, student, sister, caregiver, lover, mother, etc.) and developing a hypersensitivity to the wants and needs of others. This doesn’t leave much room for our own desires.
In fact, for many of us, it doesn’t leave any room at all. Being constantly attuned to the needs of others and having no space in your life to care for yourself can make even thinking about what you need – much less what you truly desire – painful. As a coach, the question that I ask that’s most likely to elicit tears is “What do you really want?”
Hopes, dreams, desires and yes, passions can feel like knives coming from within when we feel helpless to do anything about them. It can be easier to stuff them way deep down and pretend they don’t exist. But that doesn’t mean they’re not there anymore; you might just need a little more time and effort to discover them.
You can start by looking just a bit down the road. Think about just a few years from now, three is a nice place to start. What do you want to be different three years from today? Think about all areas of life: career, relationships, hobbies, family and friends. Paint a picture of your ideal life in three years without worrying about the limitations you have right now. You might find that you come up with things that you realize you don’t want anymore and that’s fine, too. What this gives you is something to start moving toward, a place to walk back from and see what tiny steps might start moving you in that direction.
If you find this exercise difficult or you’re having trouble coming up with the next steps, put it aside for now and come back to it. Sometimes we need to make space within ourselves to open up our creativity. Try something that keeps your hands or body busy but gives your mind time to wander. Walking, dancing, painting, knitting or gardening are just a few ideas that might help you expand. If you really want to jump start your creative mind, try something completely new like taking a class in art, dance or improv. The point is to push yourself out of your comfort zone and shift your perspective.
You may never get the kind of unquestionable inspiration that will drive you to run for president or build an empire or carry a ring to Mordor (The Lord of the Rings). But if you start gradually tapping into your curiosity and creativity you can find something even better: a sense of purpose that aligns with your true self.