Since this article was published, we’ve discussed its finer points on The Jordan Harbinger Show. (There’s even a video and worksheet!) Check it out here: TJHS 205: Deep Dive | What to Do When Your Purpose Starts to Suck.
We’re all here to find our purpose. Whether it’s a job that fulfills us, a calling that compels us, or a craft that inspires us, we’re all looking for those goals and experiences that give our lives true meaning.
If we’re willing to dedicate our lives to those meaningful experiences, we might turn them into our careers. And while I don’t subscribe to the idea that every passion should become a job — or that our careers have to be our only source of our meaning — finding purpose in your professional life is a powerful experience. When we do what we truly love, we set ourselves up for commitment, fulfillment, and wealth, in all senses of the term.
Unfortunately, we also set ourselves up for frustration, disillusionment, and heartache. Because as soul-crushing as a meaningless job can be, a purposeful job can be even more painful.
When your passion gets tough, your entire life — your choices, your values, your very sense of self — can suddenly take a hit. And unlike a typical job, a passion is much harder to compartmentalize, and even harder to give up.
So how do you keep going when your purpose starts to suck? What do you do when the one thing that gives you meaning also makes you miserable?
That’s what we’ll be exploring in this article. But first, we need to understand that…
Purpose is not the same as happiness.
One of the most common hopes I hear from listeners of the show is that pursuing their passion will finally make them happy.
After slaving away in an unfulfilling job, they take the plunge to do what they love, believing that if they just work on something they truly care about, they’ll finally find joy. Inevitably, they end up discovering that purpose doesn’t quite work that way.
Meaning does not automatically create happiness, and happiness isn’t required to create meaning.
Meaning and happiness are two different concepts. They’re closely related, and they do line up from time to time, but there’s no causal connection between the two.
In fact, it’s quite the opposite.
Pursuing something meaningful usually means pursuing something difficult, because meaning is hard to come by, and it’s correlated with the amount of energy required to really crack something. Solving a difficult problem or pursuing a gnarly goal sounds romantic, but on a day-to-day level, it’s daunting and demanding.
The glamour of writing a novel comes down to writing and rewriting sentence after sentence for hours on end. The joy of building a cottage comes down to treating materials and taking micro-measurements for weeks. The glory of winning an MMA tournament depends on months, often years, of brutal physical and mental training.
These goals are quite meaningful. But they’re unlikely to create much happiness. And if we measured our progress in those goals by our degree of happiness, we’d either slog through them, depressed as hell, or we’d quickly give up, disillusioned by the whole process.
If you pursue your purpose, you will be miserable from time to time. And if you’re doing it right, you probably should be.
Because if you pursue your purpose fully, you’ll expose yourself to experiences that will produce unhappiness a lot of the time.
Ask any writer how they feel on a day to day level, and they’ll probably tell you all about the crushing self-doubt, frustration, and anger they have about the limits of their talent.
Talk to any athlete about their mood, and they’ll tell you how painstaking it is to train and how demoralizing it is to lose.
Ask a politician how happy they are to have won an election, and they’ll tell you all about their humiliating defeats, their brutal fights and their heavy sense of responsibility.
The more these people commit to their objectives, the more they expose themselves to sources of stress, antagonism and humiliation. The more they want to win, the more it hurts to lose. The better they want to become, the worse it feels to fall short of expectations.
It’s almost like passion and happiness and negatively correlated. The more passionate you are about your purpose, the more likely it is that that purpose will make you miserable at one point or another.
I know that’s a bleak thought. But it’s important to acknowledge.
If we don’t, then we perpetuate the myth that purpose automatically equals happiness. We also miss an important upside, which is that a purpose doesn’t have to make you happy, and you don’t need to be happy every moment to be connected to your purpose.
Meaning is not about happiness, but about significance.
We must remember that. Significance will add to your happiness sometimes, but it won’t reliably produce it. And it’s totally possible to live of a life of great significance that is full of pain, frustration and self-doubt. In fact, that’s a common theme in the biographies of successful people. If they didn’t feel a sense of profound meaning, would they continue to put up with all the misery that their purpose creates?
Once we separate these two concepts, it get a lot easier to deal with the inevitable suck.
We realize that being unhappy from time to time doesn’t mean that we’ve chosen the wrong passion, or that our purpose has led us astray.
We stop pinning our hopes for happiness on our purpose alone, and learn to cultivate happiness in other areas of our life that do create true joy — like close relationships, physical fitness, acts of service, and a mindset of gratitude.
And once we let go of that expectation, we discover a new kind of happiness in our purpose — the happiness that results when you stop expecting your purpose to make you happy.
It’s a weird paradox, but it’s true: We need to release the need for happiness at all times to be happy no matter what.
Does that mean that we shouldn’t try to be happy and purposeful?
Absolutely not. We can definitely live lives of meaning and joy, and we should.
But we have to understand that joy — true, lasting, grounded happiness — won’t always come from our purpose. In large part because…
Purpose is not easy.
Just as purpose alone doesn’t create happiness, doing what you love won’t make your life easy. As Stacy Schiff, the famous biographer, once said: “There are always delicious days. There are not delicious weeks.”
It took me a long time to accept this reality. It can be a tough pill to swallow, especially if you left a career you didn’t love to pursue one you really do (as I did, when I left Wall Street to begin coaching and podcasting). Discovering that your passion doesn’t feel any easier than the career you left behind — that it often feels much harder! — can be pretty scary. It then creates a bunch of disturbing thoughts that chip away at your desire to keep going.
But I’m doing what I love! If I can’t enjoy this, can I enjoy anything? If this isn’t easy, then what am I doing wrong? If my passion is this hard, is it really my purpose?
These are all normal thoughts. But they are built on a misconception — the misconception that purpose should be easy.
It’s not. In almost every case, purpose is brutally hard.
Any craft done well requires hard work, determination and sacrifice. Because it means more to you than a traditional job, your purpose will hook into your hope, your happiness and your self-worth. It will dictate the quality of your day, and it will reveal the depths of your ignorance. It will fill you with awe and then cut you down with humility. And if your purpose seems easy at first — as it often does — it will eventually show you just how difficult it can be.
We have to accept that purpose isn’t easy most days. Which is another way of saying that most days suck.
Veterans of purposeful work understand this better than anyone. But because they embrace it, they have a deeper connection to the reality of their passion.
“I believe there are like three days every year that pay for the whole year,” said the screenwriter Tony Gilroy, who’s worked on movies like Michael Clayton and The Bourne Identity.
In a refreshingly honest interview some years back, he described how most days “there’s just nothing happens and everything just sucks and nothing’s right and all of a sudden there’s a day where like, ‘Oh my God, that’s it, that’s the whole movie’, where the movie drops, where something epic really happens.”
He then explained that he’ll go on to spend six months building an entire movie “around that idea, around that moment. But you have to be there, right?”
But you have to be there.
That is the upside to sticking with a calling even when it’s difficult. So you can be there for that day — maybe an hour, maybe just a few minutes — when it’s not difficult. Or rather, when the difficulty gives way to a solution, and you realize that the difficulty was an essential part of the process. That if your purpose weren’t hard, you wouldn’t arrive at your best work.
But that mindset means surrendering to the difficulty, sometimes for months on end, in order to get to the moment that suddenly becomes “easy.”
There are a few other key upsides to embracing the difficulty of your purpose.
Gratitude for the good days.
There’s nothing like living with the suck to make you appreciate the days that are fun, inspiring and productive. If a purpose weren’t hard, we just wouldn’t understand how precious the good days really are. That’s a brutal tradeoff, but it’s a reality of purposeful work.
Appreciation for the craft.
People who find their purpose easy most of the time usually don’t have a true grasp of what the craft entails. People who find their purpose painful tend to appreciate the depth of what they’re trying to do. The pain created by your purpose is a function of the complexity of the craft. In some ways, pain is the price you pay for that appreciation, which separates the dilettantes from the professionals.
Resilience in the face of struggle.
The fact is, we don’t develop grit when life is easy. We develop grit when life is hard. And every passion will, at some point, require resilience — in the face of failure, rejection, and criticism. When those moments come, you won’t be equipped for them if you’ve found your journey easy. You will, however, take them on with more confidence and determination if you’ve embraced the difficulty of your purpose.
But that difficulty shows up in different ways. Knowing how and when to embrace these forms of difficulty brings us to our next principle.
Go micro, not macro.
When a purpose becomes hard, it becomes hard on two levels.
On a day-to-day level, it gets difficult to execute, to focus, and to produce good work. This is the difficulty of the craft.
This level of difficulty comes from the practical and technical aspects of pursuing your passion. Overcoming it depends on consistency, learning, improvement and good old fashioned putting in hours. It’s the set of concerns that creates thoughts like “I don’t know what I’m doing right now,” “I don’t like my work,” and “I’m lost/confused/demoralized today.”
On a broader level, it also gets difficult to commit, to keep going, and to stay connected to your mission over time. This is the difficulty of the journey.
In my experience, this challenge is much harder to deal with, because it involves deeper issues of talent and self-worth. Overcoming it depends on resilience, hope and conviction. It’s the set of concerns that creates thoughts like “There’s no point,” “My work is meaningless” and “I don’t have what it takes to make it in this field.” Unsurprisingly, this macro difficulty is the one that leads most people to quit.
On the worst days, pursuing your passion gets difficult on both levels. It’s hard to execute and it’s hard to remember why you’re trying in the first place.
Those are the days you throw your laptop out the window, then head to the bar so you can chug a beer and scroll Monster.com for regular jobs that don’t drive you batsh*t crazy. I used to call these my “post office days,” when I’d fantasize about delivering mail instead of working away at something so difficult and all-consuming.
In those moments, a powerful technique to stay connected to your purpose is to focus on the micro over the macro.
When you focus on today — on what is in front of you right now — you force yourself to simply do the next thing, and ignore the more disorienting questions about the bigger picture.
Instead of worrying if you have enough to make it as an author, you finish that paragraph. Instead of questioning whether the cottage will look okay, you finish sanding that piece of wood. Instead of wondering if being an athlete is worthwhile, you finish that set of sprints.
Deliberately focusing on small, concrete tasks has a few major benefits for your purpose.
Going micro forces you to execute even when you don’t feel like it.
This, of course, would be your goal if you weren’t experiencing all that doubt and misery. By forcing yourself to just do what’s in front of you, you short-circuit those voices asking if it’s all worthwhile, and jump straight to the end game.
Going micro is a simple but powerful hack for the mind’s ability to ruminate on abstract questions while preventing you from doing your work. If resolving those macro questions would help you get back to the micro ones, why not skip the middleman? Going micro allows you to sidestep the paralysis of the larger questions and forge ahead when you feel paralyzed in your purpose.
Going micro forces you to compartmentalize.
The brain has a hard time doing two significant things at once. Either it can despair over the bigger picture, or it can focus on doing a specific task as best as it can. The deeper you go into the task in front of you, the harder it is for your brain to ruminate on those larger, unproductive questions.
You’ll always be free to return to those questions later if you’d like — but you’ll probably think much differently about them having finished the work you promised yourself you’d do today. Compartmentalization — which is just a fancy word for disciplined thinking — will allow you to continue your work even when it gets hard.
Going micro reconnects you to your purpose.
When you commit to doing the work in front of you — even when you’re not sure it’s “worth” it — you usually rekindle your relationship to your goal. It’s much harder to despair about writing when you’re producing words. It’s much harder to hate construction when you’re taking measurements. It’s almost impossible to doubt the value of fitness when you’re actually, you know, getting fit.
Our brains want us to believe that our sense of purpose lies in big, abstract ideas about our goals. Do we love what we do? Are we good enough to do it? Is it worthwhile to continue?
But in reality, purpose lies in small, specific actions. Are we writing this sentence as well as we can? Are we sanding this piece of wood with care and precision? Are we finishing these sprints a little faster than we did yesterday?
“Purpose” is a grand idea, and there is some value in reflecting on it. But at the end of the day, purpose only becomes truly meaningful in action. If we go macro, we only work on the level of ideas. If we go micro, then we work on the level of action. This is another simple but powerful hack. Sometimes all we need to do is the work in front of us to remember why we’re doing it in the first place.
The Line Between Discipline and Denial
Is there ever a time when we do need to question the bigger picture? Can burying ourselves in the micro ever become a way of sticking our heads in the sand?
The answer is yes. There’s a very thin line between discipline and denial, and it’s important we know where it is.
Discipline is knowing when to think about certain issues. Denial is refusing to think about them at all.
When you choose to finish your day’s work by focusing on the tasks in front of you, you’re being disciplined. You’re recognizing that there might be bigger questions about your purpose, but that obsessing over them will not move you closer to your goal in that moment.
When you only focus on your work, and refuse to reflect on the bigger questions you have about your purpose, then you might be slipping into denial. If the tasks become a way to avoid those bigger questions, as opposed to a way to find the answers to them, then it’s probably time to check in with yourself.
Of course, the line between discipline and denial is slightly different for everyone. That’s why self-awareness is so important to this process. The boundary between compartmentalization and delusion can shift from person to person, life to life, project to project.
Still, it’s important to remember that every single person who has ever pursued their passion has wrestled with this question.
Are they being disciplined by forging ahead when things get hard, or are they in denial about their chances of succeeding? Does discipline include some degree of denial? And is this question just another way of avoiding the work?
The answers to these questions require careful reflection. In my experience, you have to move between these two views — the micro and macro — so that you can continue to execute even as you reflect on why you should.
The best technique I’ve learned here is to make execution a commitment, and then carve out a practice — say, one hour a week — to reflect on the bigger picture.
This could be a conversation with a friend, a journaling session, or time spent alone in reflection. That way, you quarantine your macro reflection to a specific time, and prevent it from holding up your work day-to-day, where progress really gets made.
When you do reflect on your bigger purpose, though, you’ll want to come back to something that often gets lost along the way. Which brings us to the next principle.
Remember why you’re pursuing your purpose in the first place.
In the early days of pursuing your purpose, your exuberance will sustain you through the difficulty. That fuel protects you against frustration and boredom, and creates a floor for any dips you experience at the start.
Over time, though, that excitement naturally wanes. You lose that buffer, that floor. You don’t have as much raw hope and pure enthusiasm. At the same time, the day-to-day grind of your goal eclipses the deeper reason you committed to it in the first place. All of which makes it much more difficult to stick with your purpose when it gets hard.
Once that happens, it’s crucial to remember why you’re pursuing your purpose in the first place.
That simple, childlike obsession with your deeper mission — to articulate something that hasn’t been said before, to help ease suffering in the world, to create a tool that makes people’s lives easier — needs to be kept alive. We have to remind ourselves why we’re doing something in order to continue doing it well.
When you lose sight of that deeper motivation, you can always return to a few different activities that will help reconnect you.
Talk to someone.
When I used to feel disillusioned or stuck, I would sit with those feelings and internalize them. Of course, that just made them worse. I began to doubt whether I was really cut out to pursue my passion, all because I assumed that I had to stay connected to my purpose on my own.
Over time, though, I noticed how helpful it was to discuss my work with other people. When I articulated my motivation to them, I was able to revive that motivation for myself. Saying it out loud — and having an audience for that explanation — suddenly made it real again.
Now, when I get lost or frustrated, I book a little time with a good friend or colleague, and ask for some space to explore my reasons for getting into broadcasting in the first place. Soon, I’m emotionally reconnecting to the deeper purpose I temporarily lost.
There’s something powerful about discussing your purpose with another person. Talking to yourself can be helpful, but it’s not quite the same. Self-talk usually becomes motivational flummery — a supportive inner monologue, maybe a temporary boost — that quickly fades away.
But when you discuss your purpose with someone else — especially someone who truly understands you — you invite them to mirror back to you what you can no longer see yourself. That mirror reminds you of what you’ve forgotten, and externalizes your purpose when it seems to have disappeared. This is one of the most important experiences we can have when our purpose gets hard. It’s also one of the most meaningful experiences we can offer other people.
Write about it.
Another powerful technique is to write about your journey. This is another form of talking to someone, and it’s especially helpful when someone else isn’t available.
When you commit your reasons for pursuing your purpose to paper, you create an objective record of your motivations, your process and your goal. Like talking to someone else, writing creates a hard surface that mirrors your experience back to you.
On the page, you can enter a dialogue with yourself, work out your challenges, and force yourself to rearticulate why you chose your purpose in the first place. In some ways, this can be even more powerful than a conversation, because you can return to that piece of writing again and again, the way entrepreneurs return to their mission statements, to remind yourself why you chose this journey.
Whether it’s out loud or on the page, though, what you’re really doing is remembering the narrative of your journey — which brings us to the last technique.
Track your story.
When you lose your connection to your purpose, it’s often because you’ve lost sight of the larger narrative — the story — of your purpose. It’s important to see how that story is unfolding in moments of frustration or despair.
Whether it’s in conversation, on the page or in your head, put your tasks aside for a moment and ask yourself a few key questions. Where are you coming from? Where are you going? Are you improving? Are you learning? Are you growing as a technician and as a person? Are you moving closer to your goal? Do you understand the substance of your craft and industry more than you did before? How is your life changing as a result of your goal?
The answers to these questions will reveal a larger story — a story that is very easy to lose sight of when you’re hard at work. As the old saying goes, remembering you set out to drain the swamp is hard when you’re up to your ass in alligators. You have to take a huge step back to remember why you chose this swamp — your swamp — in the first place.
Recalibrate your purpose.
Up till now, we’ve been talking about how to move forward when your passion gets hard. But sometimes the difficulty of your purpose isn’t just a normal struggle. It’s a sign that you need to revisit and recalibrate your purpose.
Leah, a listener of the show, recently wrote me to discuss this question. After nine years of fighting tooth and nail to keep alive her non-profit — an organization that offered low-income clients free legal advice — she finally hit a wall that seemed insurmountable.
In a period of a few months, her last source of funding dried up. Two of her directors took better-paying jobs at other organizations. And while she believed deeply in the mission, she had to admit that the impact she had was quite small relative to the sacrifice, money and time she had invested in it. Her mission still meant a great deal to her, but it had reached a point of difficulty that forced her to reevaluate her purpose.
Leah knew that being of service gave her a great deal of meaning, but she wasn’t sure that this non-profit was the right form for that purpose to take. After a lot of discussion and reflection, she decided that she needed to make a significant change.
When you hit a moment in your journey like Leah’s, you have a few options.
Deciding to pivot in your purpose means that you are connected to the right source of meaning, but that you’re going about it the wrong way.
For example, you love writing and want to say something original, but you’re not meant to write a novel — you’re meant to edit a platform for a number of different writers. You want to create a tool that makes life easier, but you’re not meant to be a software engineer — you’re meant to be a technology consultant. Whatever the specifics, a pivot allows you to continue pursuing your purpose, but in a more effective, practical or meaningful way.
Almost all pursuits of passion involve some kind of pivot. These pivots are usually across industries, functions, problems or media. And oftentimes, these pivots occur multiple times. You start off working on one problem in one industry, and realize that you actually want to work on that problem from another industry — and with a new set of tools and roles that treat the problem in a new way.
Pivoting can be a confusing process, as any entrepreneur or artist will tell you. But a strong pivot is one of the most important and exciting stages in your purpose. It’s what allows you to continue to chase the goals that give your life meaning, without being wed to a specific form of that meaning that isn’t working.
Set it down.
Setting down a passion means deciding not to pursue it any longer. “Quitting” — which has taken on a pejorative meaning over time — can actually be the smartest decision in the face of challenge. Especially if the challenge has forced you to realize that you don’t truly love your passion, that you aren’t willing to make the sacrifice required, or that your passion is at odds with your other commitments or values.
This option is a bit of a buzzkill, which is why so few people talk about it. But it would be irresponsible not to. It would also be unhelpful. All of the greatest entrepreneurs talk openly about the passionate ventures they gave up on, the promising projects they ditched, the lucrative opportunities they walked away from. If they didn’t know when to give up on one passion, would they have pursued the more meaningful one? Is their quitting a sign of weakness? Or is it a sign of discipline?
Not all purposes last forever, and not all passions will sustain you. This is a fact of the journey. So when your purpose gets hard, don’t shy away from the question of whether it’s still worth pursuing. Sometimes your doubt will lead you to rediscover why you’re doing it in the first place, and you’ll double down. Other times, you’ll realize that your reasons for pursuing something have run their course, and it’s time to move on — which is perfectly acceptable, and oftentimes the most meaningful option.
Finally, recalibrating your purpose could mean figuring out what role that purpose should play in your journey. This means that you still feel connected to the passion in question, but that it’s taking up the wrong space in your life.
Imagine, for example, a guy who loves craft beer. After years of geeking out about it, he decides to start his own microbrewery. The business limps along for a while, draining more and more of the founder’s time, money and energy. Eventually, he finds himself falling out of love with brewing, and wonders why he ever tried to make his hobby his passion.
He could quit and never drink beer again. Or he could reconsider what role craft beer plays in his life. He could decide that beer is meant to be a hobby, a passion, and an activity to share with his friends — which is how it derived so much of its meaning to begin with.
I’ve heard hundreds of versions of this story over the years. It’s one of the reasons I firmly believe that not every hobby should become a job, and not every passion should become a career.
In many cases, difficulties in your purpose are a sign that the purpose is still meaningful, but playing the wrong role in your life. What you thought was a job is actually meant to be a hobby. What you thought was a calling is actually better suited to a volunteer experience. What you hoped would be a side hustle is actually just a way to blow off steam. It’s a case of meaningful purpose, wrong priority.
Again, most people don’t like to talk about this decision, because it sounds a lot like “quitting.” But it’s actually the opposite.
Shifting the priority of your passion often means hanging on to it — protecting it — by giving it the right place in your life. You preserve the joy that the project gave you by not forcing it to become something it shouldn’t.
I love getting letters from listeners who tell me how much they love working out now that they’re not trying to win the CrossFit Games, or how much joy they get from food banking now that they’re not trying to found a non-profit. Because of what I do, I also hear about this from new podcasters intent on turning their fun show into a full-blown business. “How do I get sponsors?” is the question I usually get six months before they quit because they turned what they loved into their rent payment. Sometimes the form and expectation we place on our purpose ends up getting in the way of it.
We can experience a ton of meaning in life when we know how to access that meaning. But that often requires us to recalibrate the priority and position of that purpose in our lives.
We don’t talk enough about how hard a purposeful life can be. We consume videos and stories and inspirational quotes that make it sound like passion is the cure for boredom, that purpose is the cure for struggle. As if pursuing something meaningful will exempt us from something hard.
In reality, struggle exists whether we pursue meaningful work or not, and meaningful work is often the hardest of all. The question isn’t just how to keep going when our purpose gets hard, but what to make of the fact that a meaningful life is actually so difficult.
After 15 years of pursuing my purpose, I’ve learned that the best strategy is not to deny or minimize the pain, but to make meaning out of it. When we find significance in the struggle, we actually create an opportunity to create even more significance. We appreciate our craft, we respect our goals, we deepen our understanding, and — even when it seems bleak — we have a chance to reconnect with our deeper reasons for pursuing our purpose in the first place.
All of the techniques and principles in this piece are a handbook to dealing with the struggle. But the ultimate answer to this question — what do I do when my purpose starts to suck? — is is to allow it. Embrace it. Study it. Let it teach you. Know that you’re not exempt from that struggle — because no one is — and trust that if no one’s exempt from it, then it must be fulfilling its own purpose: to teach you more about yours.
[Featured image by Brendan Church]