Separating Who We’re “Supposed” to Be from Who We’re “Meant” to Be

If you will, take a moment and think back to the last time you asked yourself, "What am I supposed to be doing?" I found, fairly recently, that I had been asking myself this question altogether too often, and that realization prompted this post. 

A large part of the journey we take in the transformation from child to adult involves being told what to do by those in positions of authority. A natural extension is that, when we're doing something wrong, we're often told what we should be doing differently. Perhaps more importantly, we're guided by the adults we trust and respect the most toward what we should be aiming for. The combination of these expectations, compiled from our socioeconomic background, our parents' upbringing and principles, popular culture and what we learn from our teachers and peers can be a powerful driver of who we are (or at least what we strive to be) from a young age.

Education/performance is an apt example as, at least in my case, the path for "success" was laid out for me well in advance. This is in no way an indictment of whether or not this path was "right" or "wrong" - it's simply a fact that I knew what I was "supposed" to do: "Get good grades in school, so you can get into the right high school. Excel academically and choose the right hobbies and community service activities so you can get into the right college. Make sure your university experience is interesting and impressive enough on paper to attract the eyes of the right employer."

While certainly an important educational technique, and a way to help model for children how they can survive and thrive as adults, striving to meet expectations of what we should be doing and who we should become can present us with problems when we inevitably graduate into a world in which we're essentially on our own. In other words, the power of "should" sticks with us when we become adults, and can manifest itself in the choices we make, in terms of when to get married, who to marry, when to have babies, when we should reach a certain level at work, when to buy a bigger house or a nicer car - the list goes on.

The weight of these expectations can be such that we can fall into a mindset in which we never quite feel like we've done well enough for ourselves. As with my other posts, it's been sobering to find out how many others have experienced or are experiencing these powerful (and often toxic) feelings, yet I've also been encouraged to see that it's possible to step out from under the unrealistic expectations we set for ourselves and begin to live in the present. I wanted to share with you a few of the ways I remind myself on a daily basis to temper what I'm "supposed" to be doing with where I am.

Goals are Important, But So is a Focus on the Present

The New York Times recently released an excellent piece, How to be a CEO, From a Decade's Worth of Them, highlighting the common threads running through those who reached the top of the ladder. The one quality that united CEOs across the globe (the author, Adam Bryant, interviewed more than 500) that resonated most with me is that "they focused on doing their current job well, and that earned them promotions."

No doy, right? Although it sounds like common sense, our expectations of ourselves or where we're "supposed" to be at any given age and life benchmark can make this theory much more difficult to put into practice. Personally, I've struggled with the concept for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that, while we're trained throughout our early lives to aim high, we inevitably and correctly start low. As an intern, you can certainly aim to someday be in the CEO's chair, but the road to get there is rarely, if ever, a straight line. And, given the massively diverse nature of the findings in the New York Times article linked above, there is certainly not a single "right" way to get there.

One of the hardest things about moving from college into full-time work, at least for me, was the lack of a horizon line. The feeling that, because there's no structure around my career (as there has been around most of my life up to this point), I could reasonably be in the same place for 10, 20, 30 years or, dun dun dun, indefinitely.  Without final exams or Fall Break, we are forced to create our own benchmarks to identify steps forward or "success" as we define it. That's one of the reasons why the "corporate ladder" exists, and that so many of us are willing to compete with each other in an attempt to climb it. The ladder gives us structure by telling us what we should be doing and where we should be going.

Yet, the ladder is only one way to get there, and that path tends to be the exception, not the rule. If we focus too much on the rungs of the ladder, we may forget about what it takes to exceed expectations in our current role, regardless of how far from our end goal we perceive it to be. As Yoda said, when his new recruit was being a pain in the butt, "All his life has he looked away... to the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was. Hmm? What he was doing. Hmph! Adventure. Heh! Excitement. Heh! A Jedi craves not these things." Hey, if it happens to Luke Skywalker, it can happen to anyone.

I realize that "Focus on the Present" is a bit of a cat poster, in that it's a great message, but can lack substance in terms of how to actually go about doing it. One way to bring ourselves back into the moment is by training our brains to be satisfied, and even happy, with our current situation. Shawn Achor has done some incredible work on this topic, and is changing the paradigm on happiness from a concept that follows success, to the other way around. I won't spend too much time on it here, but could not recommend more highly "The Happiness Advantage," Shawn's book on how to create discipline around positivity, and to make happiness a choice on a daily basis.

Being satisfied with our current situation is a starting point, and the next step is expanding our vision to encompass many different versions of the journey it can take to reach our destination. The endpoint may be the same, but the path we take to get there may include unexpected diversions or opportunities disguised as challenges. It's up to us to make each role count so that, when we move on to the next stop, the folks we leave behind generally agree that we were the best to ever put on the uniform (literally or figuratively).

I like to think of the concept as a commitment to "Being Your Best You," regardless of where you are in your career or life. The things we want don't always come as quickly as we might think they should, but if we remind ourselves every day to focus first on being our personal best, we have the ability to build a reputation and brand, even if we're starting at the bottom. This personal brand is what transcends our role, our career position and the organization in which we are working at any given time.

Purpose is Not a Job, A Role or a Goal

Performing exceptionally well at our jobs is only one piece of the puzzle, as that alone does not often fulfill us emotionally or psychologically. A sense of purpose is at least as critical to our job satisfaction and the way we perceive ourselves.

One of my misconceptions coming out of college, reinforced after my first few entry-level jobs, was that I had two black-and-white options when it came to my career. I could either choose a career that paid well, or a career that was emotionally rewarding - the two were mutually exclusive. It's easy to fall into this trap, as the shock of being placed in a sterile, dull office environment after the vibrant scene of a college campus is often compounded by jaded older employees "telling it like it is." 

Thus, until I met the great Richard Leider, I thought having purpose and a paying job were south and south magnets. I can't say enough about how meeting and getting to know Richard has changed my worldview and perspective, on the power of purpose and a great many other topics. One of his seminal and pervasive presentations is on the myths around purpose, the first being that purpose means you have to dedicate yourself to a specific cause (and resign yourself to the fact that you will be working for free). Richard says that, while having a cause can be a thing, purpose simply requires "a mind set... a reason to get up in the morning with an aim outside of yourself.”

Therein lies the most powerful lesson I have learned from Richard - purpose is within us and, like happiness, it is a choice. It doesn't matter where we are in our lives or where we think we should be, only that we bring "who we are - our gifts and energies - to whatever we are doing." As Richard puts it, “Purpose is the belief that our lives, our part in the whole of things, truly matters. It is a cradle-to-grave, 24/7, moment-to-moment choice in our daily lives.” I found I didn't need to wait to find a job that had purpose tied to it, or spend my life searching elsewhere to "discover" purpose - I could create it myself. 

My wonderful friend Danielle Robinson is my favorite example of this ability to generate purpose in any environment. Danielle is the Director of Corporate Responsibility at the large insurance company where I previously worked, and she is the personification of what it means (to quote Richard again) “to have moved the focus of their attention and concern away from themselves to others.”

A large corporate for-profit entity is not the first place one might look for an example of genuine, heartfelt community responsibility, but Danielle decided that she wanted to work for a company that did well for itself by focusing on doing the right thing. It wasn't always easy, but she built the program within the organization over a decade, infusing a sense of purpose that so many of her colleagues, myself absolutely included, could rally around.

Regardless of where Danielle's career moves from here, she will always be able to take her sense of purpose with her, and inspire others with her ability to live and work with a focus on something greater than herself.

Retiring “Supposed to Be” in Favor of “Meant to Be”

It may seem like semantics, but there's a big difference between what we're "supposed" to do, and what we're "meant" to do. The first is a combination of our expectations that we've constructed based on the views of others, while the second is something deeply personal, that we truly believe about ourselves.

Spending our lives striving to understand and be who we're supposed to be and do what we're supposed to be doing is a recipe for disappointment. The pursuit of who we are meant to be and what we're meant to do, however, is one worthy of our time and effort. In the meantime, if we commit to being the best versions of ourselves every day, we’ll always be moving forward.

The Delicate Arch in Moab is one of my favorite places in the world. I thought this photo of the arch against the night sky was fitting for a post about purpose.

The Delicate Arch in Moab is one of my favorite places in the world. I thought this photo of the arch against the night sky was fitting for a post about purpose.