Suzanne Degges-White Ph.D.

Finding Purpose or Chasing Rainbows?

“Following your passion” does not mean you don’t have to earn a living, too.

Young adults may be ridiculed for expressing the desire to “find themselves” and midlifers might be ridiculed for wanting to “follow their passion.” These two pursuits are really variations of the same ancient existential questions that bear down on most of us at some point in time:

  • What is the meaning of life?
  • What is my purpose?

The classic hierarchy of needs that was developed by Abraham Maslow begins with the basic elements for survival — such as food, shelter, and safety. For many generations, the goal of the (typically male) head of a household was a steady job that would allow him to put food on the table and a roof over his head. The next levels include the need for love, belonging, and esteem. Finding a partner, starting a family, and being able to feed and clothe them are ways to reach these next order needs. Often, each member of a family followed in the occupational footsteps of their parents. Choosing to break with the family legacy and step into new occupations was likely to be a matter of discussion and negotiation among the family decision-makers.

The pinnacle of Maslow’s hierarchy model is self-actualization, which is all about living the best life that possibly can. This reflects the drive towards a meaningful existence as well as the intrinsic need to achieve all that you have the potential to achieve.

Self-actualization seldom happens by chance – it is usually the result of a direct investment of energy, time, and self into a pursuit that pulls you along its path almost supernaturally or, more to the point, super naturally. Occupations are the jobs that fill the waking hours – occupying our time so that we can attain the resources that allow us to occupy our lives. Vocations are the callings that lead us into adventures and opportunities to make progress towards personal fulfilment and self-actualization.

7 Truths in Finding Purpose

  1. Deliberately looking for a specific purpose in life may actually short-circuit the path to self-actualization; often, we discover the things that make our hearts pound through happenstance, not intention.
  2. Purpose in life is more than seeking pleasure in life; a job provides the wages that can yield the luxuries and treats that are desired. A purpose-filled pursuit is not about the cash pay-out, it is about the intangible pay-off.
  3. Having a purpose in life implies having a commitment to something beyond the immediate. A goal to be as financially successful as you can be is simply about filling your purse, not about fulfilling your purpose.
  4. Not everyone is going to chase their own personal rainbows or desire lives filled with existential questioning or purpose-filled activity. Sometimes just getting by is the best some people can manage.
  5. Seldom is meaning found through isolated contemplation – we find meaning through action and active engagement in life.
  6. A vocation is often pursued with reckless abandon – we find that the intensive investment of our time is rewarded with renewed energy and commitment. This just draws us further towards the flame of meaning. When engaged in the pursuit, we lose track of time and find ways to make time for the continued involvement in the activity.
  7. An occupation is often the necessary correlate to successful engagement in a vocation. Not every career path will lead to a vocation or life purpose that pays the bills. Sometimes it is the gainful employment that allows you to find your life’s calling.

Chasing rainbows is not necessarily a bad thing, nor is seeking meaning in life a waste of time. However, it is essential that these activities not be attempted as meaning-giving pursuits in and of themselves. Fulfillment comes from engagement and involvement in life; watching from the sidelines is not the way to self-actualization.

Until you immerse yourself in life and engage in action, you are merely a by-stander to others’ pursuits of purpose.


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