Career Design Lab

One life, many purposes

Although science may never discover the purpose of life, it has discovered the importance of purpose for humans.

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Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? 

One of my favorite wise thinkers, the late Mary Oliver, poses the above question in one of her poems. While Oliver's plan was to be idle and pay attention, what you do for a living is one response to her question.  

Three approaches to work 

The way we respond to this important question is influenced by our identities, life circumstances, and culture. They shape our choices and beliefs about the role work should play in life.  

There are three main roles or approaches to work: a job (pays the bills), a career (offers progression & recognition), a calling (fulfills one’s purpose). 

While one approach is often dominant, over time we may use all three as our priorities and life circumstances shift. 

Each of these three approaches offer equally good answers to Oliver’s question. When it comes to work satisfaction, however, research shows that people who report having a calling orientation also report higher levels of satisfaction.  

Purpose is calling 

The idea of having a calling originally derives from religious beliefs, as in being called by a higher power to do certain work. Its contemporary interpretation is about working towards a personally meaningful purpose. Having a purpose means doing something that resonates with you, applying your signature strengths, and serving a need outside yourself. To use Maslow’s terms, a purpose is both self-actualizing and self-transcending. 

While having work with a purpose sounds very appealing it is good to remember that it is a cultural ideal. As such, it is a matter of interpretation and often fraught with misconceptions. Let’s consider a few common ones. 

Five misconceptions about purpose 

1. Purpose is touchy-feely fluff

Let’s debunk this one off the bat (although I am sure those who might think this way already stopped reading). This type of thinking is often based on the interpretation that work is only about employment, salary, and skills that pay the bills and purpose talk is for the touchy-feely HR types and naïve millennials and zoomers.

A possible opinion but not a fact, says science. Although science may never discover the purpose of life, it has discovered the importance of purpose for humans. Ancient philosophers considered it a necessary aspect of human flourishing, Maslow theorized it as a basic need, and more current psychological science has established its connection to high levels of satisfaction and wellbeing.

2. One life, one purpose

A common misconception is to assume there is one purpose out there for us to fulfill. First of all, we serve multiple purposes in life, many of them outside the arena of paid work.

Second, a purpose does not equal a career or vice versa. Most people will have many different jobs and occupations over their lifetime, and at least as many purposes.

Third, even if you were able to stay in one purposeful field your entire life (an increasingly rare state of affairs), your roles, positions and purposes will shift and change. Finally, even a single job can contain several purposes. So: one life, many purposes.

3. A purpose is grand & linkedinnable

This belief is one with the biggest risk of turning the search for a purpose from a wondrous possibility to an anxiety-provoking pressure.

In the age of social media, there is no shortage of impressive stories of people with grand careers and linkedinnable achievements. If you begin to live by these narratives you may find that you are dragging yourself up a beautiful ladder that is leaning towards a wrong wall.

Whatever is considered grand and admirable at a given time does not necessarily match your unique strengths or coincide with what gives you meaning. In any case, the vast majority of meaningful purposes are lived, not with fanfare, but with care, humility and joy in everyday work. 

4. Purpose equals loving what you do

Purpose is not a magic potion that will make you love every minute of your job. While it can give you an overall sense of meaning, your day-to-day experience will vary.

According to one study, professionals who work with a purpose find it meaningful only 20% of the time. All work entails some aspects that we don’t love. Your purpose may be to teach but you can still hate grading papers. 

5. Purposes are found

The media serves us ample heroic stories of people who found their purpose at the age of five or discovered their true calling as a result of a life-threatening illness. The idea seems to be that there is that one purpose (see number 2) that is just waiting for us to find it. Even Steve Jobs used to advise that “if you haven't found it yet, keep looking”.

Yet, no amount of looking, personality testing or internet browsing will magically give you the right answer. Because there isn’t one. You need to engage with the world and learn which purposes resonate and then – make them your own.

Your options are not limitless

On a final note, when it comes to meaningful purposes, your options are not limitless. Although you can use your willpower to work towards any purpose you choose, only some of them will allow you to flourish and match your given signature strengths and desires. Further, not all purposes were created equal. It is not up to you to decide if a purpose actually matters in the world.  

What is up to you, however, is making the moral choice as to what purposes are worth your one precious life. 

Kirsi La Pointe

Blog writer

Kirsi LaPointe, D.Sc., develops and facilitates new career programs for Aalto University students and alumni based on the principles of career design and life-wide learning. Her research and expertise focus on career transitions, meaningful work practices and inclusion, and she is particularly interested in practice-based, narrative approaches to studying identity, work, and careers.

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