When you meet someone new, what one question can you count on being asked?
What do you do for work?
CRINGE. Every time I was asked, I would cringe.
Up until recently, my stock model response had been: “[sigh] I’m an Executive Assistant.. [awkward pause] .. but it’s not my passion!” Phew, dodged that bullet.
So clearly, I had some deep-seated issues with this question. In the last eight years, given the choice, I would have stabbed needles in my eye over providing an answer. But in the last three years, I’ve taken some time to rumble (thanks Brené) with the emotions this question evoked for me.
What makes this question cringe-worthy for me? Why do I feel the need to justify my current occupation?
What the heck is going on here?
And then it dawned on me. When you ask someone what they do for work, you are asking them SO much more than what they do to pay the bills. You’re also asking a multitude of questions like…
- What are your values and what are you skilled at?
- Where do you choose to spend your time?
- What is your purpose and how do you live it daily?
In my case, the profession I chose to pay my mortgage only really covered the part where I need money to survive. But the kicker is, it’s not my undying and limitless passion to just make ends meet. I don’t think I’m unique in my desire to have a huge positive impact in the world, but I think the way this topic has played on my heartstrings is a little different.
Then the answer slapped me in the face: I cringed at this seemingly unremarkable question because I realized I felt ashamed of what I did for work. Not only did I feel ashamed of what I did, I was ashamed of what I DIDN’T do — something that I love, something that leaves the world a little better every day. This is the thought that broke the camel’s back, not to mention my heart.
With this awakening came shame, and with the shame came vulnerability, and with vulnerability came an erosion of confidence, and so the spiral continued. This ‘what do you do for work?’ question was like a fully loaded assault rifle. And I was the one holding the gun.
And that’s how I knew I needed an out
I realized I was ashamed because I felt like an impostor in my own life. A fraud, living a double life to pay the bills while secretly vying for something wildly fulfilling and meaningful.
Ouch. There’s that word again: fulfill[ment]. It comes up a lot. There was a HUGE tether between the question of what I do for work and and what would ultimately fulfill my heart-centered purpose. The reason I cringed was because answering the question forced me to openly acknowledge that I was not yet vocationally fulfilled, and in a twisted sense, my life felt meaningless.
I know I’m not the only one who’s felt this
Bingo. And there lay my two horcruxes, housing two polar parts of my soul. I was split between what I do and what I want to do. What external values I work within vs. what I intrinsically value. And every time I was asked what I did for work, I was forced to look into the cracked mirror.
And the mirror can be merciless. Where I saw unfulfillment, I saw purposelessness. Where I saw purposelessness, I saw shame. Where I saw shame, there lay my inner and deepest sadness.
From shame to certainty
But where there is darkness there is space for light to occupy. Once I identified the source of my sadness I could start to build and piece together a staircase out of it. Again, with a whole lot of soul-searching, question by question, hope started to bloom.
It wasn’t, hasn’t and isn’t easy, and I have asked myself some pretty raw questions:
- Without reservation, what gives me unadulterated joy?
- Who am I and what is my worth outside of a career?
- What would it take for me to experience purpose in my life?
- What is one thing I can do right now to feel that way?
The fourth question might be the hardest to ask, but the simplest to answer.
Every minute is a chance to choose to feel something different. Every second is a chance to inject the feeling of satisfaction into your life, even in the smallest way. Smile at someone, hold the door for the person behind you, offer a random compliment. Every interaction is an opportunity to impart joy to someone. These are the seeds we follow on the trail to integrating personal purpose into professional settings.
My staircase out of shame has been built and rebuilt several times. It’s a neverending tussle, but there is freedom in knowing the nature of the staircase. The stairs appear to flow in one direction but there are multiple ways to use them: you can walk up them, jump down them, run up them, slide down them. There is no set way to achieve, and there’s no single way to experience purpose.
It became a daily practice for me to walk myself out of shame, and even identify where those feelings were born. Self-awareness has been integral for me to walk into the light and publicly acknowledging my defeats. Shame cannot exist in the light of acknowledgement.
The more I practice the walk out of shame, the stronger my legs grow + the easier it becomes to live outside of it.
Discovering my purpose and choosing to live it out daily might be one of the most excruciatingly joyful and terrifying experiences of my life. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Change only took one step