After years of feeling stuck in my toxic relationship with my employer, it was just one email that pushed me over the edge and gave me the courage to quit a job which had literally put me in the hospital from a mental breakdown years earlier. I sent my resignation email right then and there and fled the golden cage which had consumed me for the past 4 years. It was then that I followed the five steps I describe below to finding your life purpose, and ended up finding fulfilment in my life.
Before I continue, I must express my gratitude for the experience and financial security this job afforded me. As you’ll see in a minute, it did pretty directly lead me to where I am now, in a position where I feel fulfilled, happy, and supported. It also allowed me the freedom to take a self-styled sabbatical after quitting, which I’ll get to in a moment.
Little did I know at the time that short email would be the start of me finally finding something that fulfilled me and recognising the journey I’d been on to get there. I’d spent endless angsty hours over the years googling things like “how to figure out what you want to do with your life” and getting nowhere. However, while I was working insanely long hours and struggling to even take care of myself (hello, depression and anxiety), I didn’t have the mental space to actually do the work to find something I was passionate about, let alone to figure out how to make it my job.
I was well and truly burnt out. I spent the first two weeks after I quit sleeping and watching old episodes of the Simpsons. And then, after giving myself time and space to recover, something magical happened.
There were a million things I wanted to do and try all of a sudden—all those things that piqued over the years but I lacked the energy to execute.
I made a list of 10 categories of things I wanted to pursue over the next several months. This included both professional interests like finally properly learning how to code, applying for my PhD, and starting a business to creative pursuits like painting and writing a novel.
I set to work making a plan for how I was going to achieve all of these—i.e., what online courses I would take to learn to code and learn about entrepreneurship, what I’d need to start painting, signing up for NatNoWriMo to help me stay on track writing my novel, etc. I also started a (now defunct) blog where I tracked my progress and got encouragement from strangers on the internet.
All in all, I spent about 6 months trying out these various avenues to see what stuck for me. I did learn to code, I did write a novel, and I did apply for my PhD. Now, the novel didn’t really go anywhere. But, for the past year and a half I’ve been doing my PhD in computer science and finally feel like I’m doing something that I’m passionate about and which makes me excited (most mornings!) to get out of bed.
If I hadn’t done my master’s in environmental policy, I wouldn’t have gotten the job in intergovernmental technology policy which sparked my interest in learning to code and helped me understand I needed a more fast-paced working environment to really thrive. I also wouldn’t have locked myself in the golden cage that was my subsequent job for the sake of paying my student loans. And, without that job, I wouldn’t have found my interest in law and criminal justice which I’ve now managed to combine with my passion for computer science.
(I also wouldn’t have had the opportunity to take the sabbatical I described above to figure all of this out for myself).
So much of my life was mired in depression and anxiety and struggling to get through that I never really thought I’d feel truly passionate about anything again. I’m proof that it a) does get better (particularly with the help of medication, therapy, and proper self-care), b) that there is something out there for everyone, and c) that your path will lead you there if you let it.
That being said, there are some specific steps you can take to move along the process more intentionally.
Do a complete brain dump of everything that sounds appealing to you. Try not to think about these things in terms of what you could actually do for a living—focus on what brings you joy, be that walking through a field or writing. If you feel stuck, reflect on recent moments where you felt even a spark of happiness, as well as things that you enjoyed doing as a child.
This one was particularly important for me. I spent years knowing recognising my interest in writing a novel and learning to code, but never properly followed through. Having a set plan of what I’d do each week (along with my newfound motivation from actually being rested and taking care of myself) really helped.
By no means do you need to take a sabbatical like me (I realize I’m extremely privileged to have been in the position to do this). Just try to fit some of these activities in where you can. If you have a particularly demanding job, it may take longer but, I promise, it’s worth it.
I envision this part of the process as a sort of “try before you buy”. Give yourself some time to dig into each of the things you’ve decided to pursue. But, if they’re not for you, give yourself permission to move on.
Reflection is a key part of this process and can take the form of journaling or just talking to friends and family. What activities are lighting a fire inside you and which seem like a chore? Adjust your plan and goals accordingly as you go.
Now, once you find something you’re passionate about, intentionally plan how you’ll make it a mainstay in your life. If it’s something you can pursue as a career, figure out what steps you need to take to get there. If it’s something better suited to being a hobby, consider how to make the time to actively pursue it in your free time.
No matter what golden (or not so golden) cage you may be stuck in, there is a way out. I hope this post helps you figure out what you want to do with your own life and that you enjoy your personal path to passion and fulfilment. Let me know if you followed any of the five steps to finding your life purpose in the comments below!