“Do your job, make your money, and volunteer on the side,” they advised. “Get your purpose outside of work,” they counseled. Once we’ve gotten out of the passion trap, we muck about in the other long-held college career center trope, where one conflates consonance with purpose, having a higher calling, of doing service, of prioritizing the greater good over our own needs or desires. And, so we learn to accept a mistaken ideal that purpose can only mean service to others, and that our day jobs should be primarily for income generation.
The pursuit of cause and cause alone through nonprofit work can be a panacea. It can be part of your purpose, but doesn’t in and of itself complete purpose. It’s not even the only way to have a calling and to feel purpose. Sure, it can feel good to endeavor to save the whales, or cure cancer, or stem childhood hunger, but those who satisfy their pursuit of purpose at just cause and cause alone — especially when the whales are still dying, cancer still kills, and children still go to bed with empty bellies — often find themselves suffering the same frustrations, the same feelings that something is missing, but just with likely smaller paychecks to boot. They have it all, but they still feel empty.
We also think purpose has to wait. In 2017, I was sitting backstage at a U.S. military base in Japan, waiting to give a talk about how those transitioning out of the armed services can find nonprofit work. I was introduced as the expert on nonprofits, “the thing that people do after they’ve made their money, and a nice thing to keep back burnered for when the time comes.” Obviously, I lost my mind. To tell a group of people who self-selected as service minded to wait for careers of purpose, to wait to continue that mission of service until they did some other job? That needed to be corrected ASAP, PDQ, and on the double. Military or not, waiting is bananas. The time to insert purpose into your work is not when you are done working, but as soon as you figure out how.
Worse, it’s created a false flag that service can only be real if it comes with a heaping helping of martyrdom. This traditional thinking sends people to the nonprofit sector, or the military to don the white hat and save the world. Purpose, after all, should mean something bigger than just us, it has to serve something bigger than just us, right? So the sector demands that those seeking a life of service take a haircut on our salaries, our benefits, our perks, our fancy offices, and prostrate ourselves to the Gods of Poverty in order to feel like any of it matters. And, the deeper we dig ourselves into the hole of that sort of binary thinking — service is good, selfish is bad — the further we find ourselves equating purpose with self-sacrifice.
I’m here to tell you that’s a load of bunk. We can do well and do good, we can have consonance and make a sustainable income; these concepts are not at war with one another and it’s time they join forces in pursuit of your limitless life.