At the corner of Passion and Purpose

From the Archives

Originally published April 1, 2015

How do you know when you’ve found the job or entrepreneurial experience that fits you like no other? I’ve left two solid jobs in the last four years, both times for reasons I couldn’t quite articulate until recent weeks. I’m also a part-time entrepreneur, for all the paradox that statement is worth, and these last six months at the helm of my small business consulting firm has afforded me much opportunity to think about what drew me away from those jobs and why I’m still passionate about my devotion to service. I figured it out: sometimes I feel a sense of purpose in a place that doesn’t fuel my passion for helping others, and other times I’m so passionate about my work that I lose sight of my purpose for doing it. My challenge is finding that sweet intersection of passion and purpose. There may be hope yet.

When I founded my marketing communications consultancy almost 20 years ago, I had a clear mission: to equip people in impoverished communities with tools that inspire them to self-actualize. That’s been my passion since I was a teenager. I looked for opportunities to help young people reach their potential everywhere I went. I volunteered at a local school for two summers before I was offered a job in IT there. My next job was for a nonprofit that fostered youth development through leadership programs. Still in IT, I reveled in being able to inspire youth to succeed beyond the stereotypes that might otherwise have held them back. When I shifted to accounting for that same employer, I was for a time able to maintain that sense of purpose… for a while.

Then the company changed course, and I lost my bearings. At the time, I didn’t know what was happening within me. Suddenly, I wasn’t bounding out of bed to get to work; I was always on time, even early, though that’s not what I mean. While my attendance record remained impeccable, I had lost my sense of why I was going to work each day. I didn’t agree with new directions of the company even though I didn’t scoff at raises when they came my way. In short order, I had become more interested in how expansion could better line my pockets than in how these new directions affected young people and their self-perceptions. By the time I left that employer, it was clear to me that I had to leave, though I couldn’t yet articulate exactly what motivated me to go. I spent a year and a half consulting from my business before taking another job.

When I started work for my next employer, at first, it felt great to invest renewed energy in a place that seemed to believe what I believed about giving young people every chance to succeed in the real world beyond college. That was before a few deeply philosophical talks with some of the management there. I was only a few months on the job before I realized that all my passion was for the idea of following my purpose there. Management clearly had a different agenda, a partly self-centered one, that conflicted with my devotion to the service of others. I didn’t walk away immediately, though. I stayed, and each day I prayed that there would be a happy meeting between my desire to help others discover and explore their dreams and my enthusiasm to do whatever it takes to help people get there. As the tides of change swept over that young organization, I felt as if I lost a little more of myself every time I walked through the doors to start my day there. Ironically, as my self-serving needs loomed larger, my true sense of self became more stifled. Finally, I left without so much as a rational consideration for where I’d go or what I’d do next.

I returned to my business, helping small business owners reach their strategic and financial goals. In my ear every day are the well-meaning voices of “wisdom” and “hope” and “reason.” With hundreds of rĂ©sumes and cover letters out in the application-sphere, I was amazed at how little response I received, given a lifetime of solid experience. A few weeks ago, I was journaling when it struck me: I knew what I could accomplish and even how to accomplish it time and again. That wasn’t the problem. The issue was that I didn’t know why I still wanted to do any of it. My consulting earns me very little revenue, and yet I was twice willing to drop everything else to pursue it. Why was I doing that? Simply put, it is in my entrepreneurial pursuit, the one I founded all those years ago, that I find that provocatively attractive intersection of purpose, the reason I do what I do, and passion, the fuel that drives me to do it. Never before has it been clearer to me what I must do to get back on track, to return to my reasons for the kinds of work I do, and to ensure that every day I’m living my fullest life in the service of others.

What are your passion and purpose? If you’re not living up to your standard for self-realization, what’s holding you back? If you’re completely self-actualized, what do you do – every minute of every day – to stay your course? Share your story in comments. You may just inspire others to reach their full potential. Take that risk.