A few years ago I met a very sweet woman called Jane from Ireland who spoke with me about her recent career transition. Jane was pale, ginger had freckles and spoke with a soft, very calming Irish accent. She was in her late 20s and had worked at one of the big 4 accountancy firms in Dublin for over 6 years. She told me how was earning good money, had a lovely spacious apartment with lots of light with a balcony and a little cat, had a somewhat active social life. All her friends and family spoke so highly of how she was doing in life, they were all so proud of her. It really didn’t sound too bad at all.
And yet what she told me next was surprising…
She uttered the words ‘and yet I felt completely empty’. She looked straight into my eyes as she told me that every day she thought to herself with the upmost sadness ‘is this all there is to life?’
She felt deeply unsatisfied. She was unmotivated, had no energy to do any of the things that she loved. She no longer stayed out late with her friends, she didn’t take long walks at the weekend. She didn’t dance around her house to loud music and she didn’t sing at the top of her lungs in the shower with unbelievable enthusiasm. She went to work, and then came back and did just this, everyday.
After one Sunday evening in the middle of the harsh Irish winter, she recalled that feeling a lot of us know so well. That sheer dread of getting up and going to work the next day. That feeling in the gut that this should not be something everyone goes through every single weekend. She wanted something different. She wanted her life back.
Jane recognised at this point that she had to change something and make a real attempt to feel different. She took some time to seriously reflect on why she felt the way she did, and what she could do to truly feel alive again. After what was quite an emotional process, openly speaking with her friends and family she reached a conclusion that the reason she felt this way was down to just two things, and so she took action on these. It’s a story I absolutely love and has been an amazing source of inspiration to me. This is what she realised…
So after lots of self reflection and many painful discussions she reached the point where she was no longer happy with these particular parts of her life. For anyone who has felt this way, our role at this point is to then seek the solution to these problems. Jane did exactly that. She reached the conclusion that she truly loved being involved with nature and animals and their well-being, and she loved being surrounded by others who felt the same.
What she did next was very brave indeed. She took action to create a life she cared about. She very simply, did something. So at the time I met her, she had recently transformed her life in quite dramatic fashion. She relocated to the jungle nearby fishing village Montezuma in Costa Rica, where she helped set up a butterfly sanctuary and run a local beer brewery, whilst living in a wooden shack on stilts earning $2 an hour. This is the action that she took and this is what she said about the decision:
‘I found myself overcome with a feeling of purpose, I felt useful again. I now wake up everyday and feel like I’m impacting people’s lives and I’m sharing this alongside others who feel the same. For me, that is exactly what I was looking for’.
This really stuck with me, I reflect on this all the time. It’s an extreme but wonderful example of someone who created for herself a sense of purpose in her life and career. It wasn’t something she stumbled across, it was deliberate. Now not all stories need to take such a drastic turn, but the idea is that we can recognise what we want to change and then do it. Make the change. To answer our original question, tying in with the words of the British comedian Russel Brand who sums up very well here, we can actually pinpoint what it is that gives Jane and others a sense of meaning and purpose, and it comes down to two simple things:
Being part of something bigger than yourself by having a group of people around you who share a common goal and share the same values. This is an innately human characteristic that so many of us ignore. Once we recognise and define our own personal values and even passions, we can know who to look for to spend our time with. Who we surround ourselves with is an active decision which we have control over. We can decide to share this life whoever we want. Through truly and deeply exploring this, and sharing experiences with new people we can find new inspirations and new ideas. Only then can we slowly discover what we actually care about. This is when we realise who are the people we should live and work alongside every day. When we realise this, it is invaluable.
There’s something interesting about seeing the positive impact we make on someone else’s life. It inherently makes us feel good ourselves. It’s a really remarkable feeling when we make that shift towards doing something where you can directly see how you make someone or a group of people’s lives better. This is probably why people who volunteer for 2 hours a week are actually happier than lottery winners. A purposeful life is one where we actually dedicate it to helping people. Too many of our jobs don’t allow us to see the impacts that our work makes. Whether that’s in your current role or in another, make your work visible. Solve a problem for someone that enriches their lives. Whether that is small or large, focus on making a helpful impact for people. When you do that, you are useful, you have a purpose. You will recognise this because whilst it’s not so tangible, it’s simply a feeling.
Now getting to the point where we understand exactly what impact we’d like to make in the world, how we can make that impact and who with, is quite a journey. I myself am still on that journey but have found that through continually seeking new life experiences alongside a network of inspiring, international people, I have become more aware of the impact I want to make and the problems I’d like to solve.
What I would then say to those who are feeling unsatisfied with their careers, is to think about the impact you are making and the people you are surrounded by. If either of those things are not what you want, then take action. Go experience something different, get outside of your comfort zone. Either chase the impact you know you want to make, or gain life experiences that could help you realise the impact you want to make. This is the only way I believe to find purpose and subsequently happiness in our lives and careers.
Find the impact, find your people. It’s certainly not easy, and it takes quite the journey of self-discovery. However, I know for Jane and many other professionals who chose to fight against their uninspiring careers and seek something more, the decision to seek purpose over comfort was a life changing one.