December 10, 2013

5 Reasons Why Most People Never Discover Their Purpose


“The deepest form of despair is to choose to be another than himself.” Soren Kierkegaard

We are often lured into thinking that the purpose of life equals upward social mobility, establishing a career, accumulating wealth, competing (and winning), and holding power.

Even if we can admit to ourselves that we aren’t fulfilled with success’ trappings, all too often we cling to our illusions because they’re all we know.

Here’s what I’d like to propose: Maybe our purpose has nothing to do with what we do for a living. Maybe our purpose is really about living authentically and discovering who we really are.

Most of us will never be able comprehend this perspective.

Here’s why. 

We live from the outside in, not the inside out.

People are taught from a very young age to look to others for guidance. Social norming is an important part of childhood–you figure out how to act in relation to everyone else–but the problem begins when you extend that process to include something as personal as your life purpose.

Some have earned our trust and the ability to help us find our unique purpose. If that’s you, consider yourself lucky!

But most people, even the well meaning, opt instead to fit us into a slot that makes more sense for them. To gain their approval, we willingly slide into the slot. To maintain the approval, we learn to chronically deny who we are.

In too many cases, we live the script for someone else’s life.

We look for a career before we listen for a calling.

Our society has reduced success to a list of boxes to be checked: graduate from school, partner up, have kids, settle into a well-defined career path, and hang on until retirement checks can be collected.

This well-worn path pushes people in the direction of conformity, not purpose.

We’re so busy avoiding self-induced fears of not being [fill in the blank] enough–smart enough, creative enough, pretty enough–that we rarely stop and ask, “Am I happy and fulfilled? And if not, how should I go about changing things?”

Finding your purpose is about listening to an inner calling. In “Let Your Life Speak,” Parker Palmer says that we should let our life speak to us, not tell our life what we’re going to do with it.

A calling is passionate and compulsive. It starts as an inkling (“I’d like to try that”) then swells into a mandate that you just can’t shake.

A calling isn’t an easy path, which is why most of us never know it. We fear the struggle, the foolishness, the risk, and the unknown.

So we choose a career because it matches the boxes we’ve been told to check. 

We hate silence.

We live in a society that does not value silence. It values action.

But living without silence is dangerous. Without it, you end up believing that your ego–and all that it wants–is your purpose. If you play this scenario out, you know it doesn’t end well.

Live a life where Ego is in charge and you’re left with burnout–and a burning question–”I have a great life. Why am I not fulfilled?”

Silence muffles the noise and creates a space for authenticity to surface. In silence, we can ask ourselves questions about how our life and work are really going and pause to wait for the answer. In silence, we give the data of our life the time to converge into a few lessons.

Typically, though, before the lessons have time to sink in we’re off to the next distraction. 

We don’t like the dark side of ourselves.

Carl Jung called it the shadow.

It’s the underbelly of our personality that we’d rather others not see. It represents our deficiencies, our failures, and our selfish drives. Most of us flee before anyone has the chance to see this side.

But here’s the thing: the part of us that’s darkest has the most to teach us about our purpose.

If discovering our purpose is really about self-discovery, our darkness shows us where we most need to grow.

More importantly, it shows us from whom we most need to learn. And it’s the people we like least who have the most to teach us about ourselves.

But most ignore the dark side. Instead, they seek comfortable relationships that reinforce worn, stale images of themselves.

We devalue the unconscious mind.

In “The Social Animal,” David Brooks takes aim at the bias in our culture that “the conscious mind writes the autobiography of our species.”

Like Brooks, I believe our culture has a relative disdain for the unconscious mind and all that is represents–emotion, intuition, impulses, and sensitivities.

To discover your purpose, you must get comfortable with the non-logical mind. You must become accustomed to not having the answers. You must tolerate ambiguity and get OK with struggling. You must allow yourself to feel–deeply feel. Thinking your way to a purposeful life will never work.

But this is a tall order for most people. One that they deny, scoff at, ridicule, or downright ignore.

Which is why most of us will live our lives having never known our true purpose.


  1. Drew:
    December 10, 2013


    Love everything going on here. You had me at “Søren.” It also brought to mind some words from another favorite writer, Thomas Merton:

    “Silence…can be a regression and an escape, a loss of self, or it can be presence, awareness, unification, self-discovery. When we come face to face with ourselves in the lonely ground of our own being, we confront many questions about the value of our existence, the reality of our commitments, the authenticity of our everyday lives.”

    Mmm. Love those last three phrases. Thanks for the reminder.

    Nice blog btw.

    Reply to comment
    • Shelley:
      December 11, 2013

      Love me some Merton. Thanks for your enthusiasm and support, Drewster. More good things to come…

      Reply to comment
    • John:
      December 11, 2013

      Nice response, Drew. Thank you for the Merton reminder….I have left him on the shelf for far too long. ~jb

      Reply to comment
  2. John:
    December 11, 2013

    Very nice post, Shelley. Your thoughts serve as a mirror…one into which I mostly avoid peering. ~jb

    Reply to comment
  3. December 13, 2013

    Hello Shelley! We are kindred spirits indeed. Blessed to have discovered my true calling. Guiding ALL people to soul service.
    Many Blessings to You! Ox

    Reply to comment
  4. Rachael:
    December 14, 2013

    Hello Shelley, thank you very much for your article!!! It’s insightful and reflective, something that I need as I am learning to deeply feel life and discover my calling in life. :)

    Reply to comment

Leave a Reply to John Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *