Do you get pulled between an inner urge to make a big contribution to the world and the need to do something useful in the moment, so that you go round and round and don’t get anywhere?
Looking back, that’s been part of my experience. This is a simple idea I hit upon for my own personal development, and took along to a recent coaching session. I’m posting it in case it helps you too.
I’ve met a lot of people who went through a corporate career and at some point had that realisation that it was wrong for them and made a big change of direction. My story isn’t like that. I’ve flitted about doing short stints here and there.
A lot of it was navigation with little training or support, but I think also the feeling that I ‘ought’ to be making a big difference and using all my gifts stopped me settling into roles and activities that might have helped me get there. It wasn’t deliberate, and often wasn’t conscious, but of course it’s a recipe for dissatisfaction and insecurity.
This is an attempt to get a better relationship between a clearer big picture and the activities that can bring it to life.
The fields metaphor
So here’s the idea. You can draw it as simple blocks on a piece of paper, and maybe a nicer or fancier version as it gets clearer.
You have a big field that’s your grand overall purpose or theme. (See next section for some health warnings on that, but just go with it for now.) And you have smaller fields fenced off within it that are particular things or areas of your life that are part of working on that purpose.
The point is to separate the two to help the mind relax.
Uncovering the big picture thing can be a long and difficult process in itself, especially if your starting equipment is vague dissatisfaction and a bag of mental blockages. I and a lot of other people have put themselves through a lot of stress about it (there were probably better ways).
Eventually, you get close enough to be able to say, ‘Yes, this is my place to stand.’ (Maybe not for all time, but with some confidence right now.)
And then you can breathe out and let it go a bit, and enjoy that sense of not being completely flapping in the wind. I’m very nearly almost there.
The point of the big field is to act as a frame of reference. It’s part of how you see yourself; it guides how you spend your time and energy; and you make sure to check in with it every so often in case you’re going off track.
You can draw it as a big square taking up about two-thirds of your page. And write what it is inside it near the top.
However, life is mostly lived in smaller fields. The big field may not be a thing that other people will identify with or pay you for. It may not be a thing that any one activity can ever satisfy. So the little fields are aspects of your purpose in motion, and you may have more than one.
‘Little’ fields can be pretty significant in themselves, like running a business that employs a bunch of people, or writing books or speaking at high-profile events. They don’t have to be high-flying, but each gives you worthwhile benefits, like helping people or creating things or making money. It’s just that they’re not the entirety of the role you see for yourself.
It’s likely that the mix of little fields will change over time, as aspects become more or less important, and some serve their purpose and go, and new ones get brought in. You can even plan that: ‘I’m doing X for now, but my goal is to build up Y.’
You’re deploying and managing activities, and allocating your resources to them. The little fields don’t have to carry the whole of the big field’s aspirations. They just have to be part of moving toward that. And changes to the little fields don’t damage the big field, so you don’t need to freak out about it. The big field is still itself while its north-west corner gets ploughed up and replanted.
The big field might itself change or get refined, but much less often – especially if your explorations have got you close to stable ground.
You’ll also have fields outside the big one that have their own importance, like family or leisure interests or creative pursuits. If you have a life purpose, it’s not the same as your life.
Is this a version of the portfolio life idea? (Coined by Charles Handy, I think.) Kind of, but the key thing is the nesting of big and small.
The perils of purpose
Let’s take a moment with this word ‘purpose’, to acknowledge that it can be harmful to get too hung up on finding one single goal and channel for your life.
It’s all about navigation, and priorities can change at different times. If we were all clear and laid-back, maybe we could just go around doing stuff in a natural and authentic way and it would fall into place beautifully. Most of us can’t get to that state without a lot of work. Purpose is one of the ways we make sense of our tangled selves.
You may believe that you came into the world to contribute a certain thing, or you may just be trying to get your inner yearnings in some sort of alignment that brings you meaning and happiness. We’re meaning-making creatures.
We’re also creatures who hide things from ourselves, hold ourselves back and generally thwart our own best impulses. So if you’ve notched up a few decades, looking back on your life story is often a process of rehabilitation and integration. It’s also pretty likely that small wrong turns back down the road have compounded into getting bogged down in territories that were never right for us.
So in that sense ‘purpose’ could be ‘reviewing the shape of my life and bringing it back to something I can inhabit happily with an agency in the world that will satisfy me’.
But if the quest for purpose is filling your life with frustration, maybe it’s time to be natural for a while and see what pops up.
I suspect that this will be helpful for some people – maybe those who identify as ‘multipassionate’ – while others won’t see the point. It’s helpful for me because I have lots of interests and things that I could do, and a tendency to disperse my energy in distraction and indecision. So I need to strengthen the part of me that’s the captain of my ship. Or, indeed, the farm owner.
Was it useful for you? Do you have that impulse to make a significant difference but get lost in the detail? I’d be interested to hear in the comments.
Photo (c) Tim Gray