Like much of my generation in America, I don’t have to worry about where my next meal will come from. I don’t have to worry about how I’ll get to work. I don’t have to worry about a safe, dry place to sleep.
So I worry about something else, with which much less of the world has the luxury of preoccupation: purpose. Some spend their days searching for food; I spend my life hunting meaning—full, but unsatisfied.
Most millennials’ basic needs have been met—a prerequisite for fulfilling our greatest potential. If we don’t make our lives meaningful, we will have dishonored and squandered our opportunity. Perhaps this responsibility explains our fixation with purpose.
We know what we want. The question is: how do we find it?
Hoping that international travel and novel experiences would infuse my life with meaning, I moved to Canada when I graduated college. There I learned, as I conclude in my essay The Myth of Wanderlust, “you can’t drive to purpose.”
So I returned home and pursued my lifelong passion of writing. For the last two years, I’ve followed a self-authored, step-by-step plan to successfully discovering, integrating and making money from my passions. A marketing position, an editing role and six months of self-employment later, I realized you can’t write to purpose, either.
Passion, I’ve learned, does not equal purpose.
Here’s a quick synopsis:
Passion, the way many millennials have come to define it, is self-oriented. Passion is “a strong inclination toward a self-defining activity that one loves, values, and in which one invests a substantial amount of time and energy,” explains one study published in Self and Identity.
Purpose, on the other hand, is other-oriented. One Stanford study found that individuals with meaning mindsets “seek connections, give to others, and orient themselves to a larger purpose.”
Modern passion is pleasure-oriented. One influential study on passion defines it as “an autonomous internalization that leads individuals to choose to engage in the activity that they like.” In other words, passion’s answer to “Why are you doing this?” is “Because I like it.”
But meaningfulness, sums the Stanford study, sometimes involves “feeling bad”.
Passion is short-term. Though we tend to assume it’s lifelong, passion changes more than we anticipate because we change more than we anticipate. As Terri Trespicio observes in her TEDx Talk, “Passion is not a plan. Passion is a feeling, and feelings change.”
Purpose is hardy. Gritty individuals, explains one study, prioritize long-term goals. This long-term perspective, another study notes, helps give “more weight to meaning than pleasure” and solidifies self-control.
I don’t regret following my passion. In fact, I still endorse my strategy. Passions help us understand who we are and what we want. They bring vitality and joy to our days. But following your passion is a deceptively slow, uncertain way to purpose.
If I could tell myself anything three years ago when I graduated college, it would probably be this:
“Follow your passion, sure. But don’t expect it to produce your purpose.”