A host of terms have been used to describe the pandemic—black swan, shock—but I prefer the term “life quake”, coined by author Bruce Feiler. Life quake is a life event that pulls the rug from under our feet and disorients us. Typically, a life quake is a personal event, like an accident, a terrible illness or getting divorced. Covid has been a life quake that has concurrently affected almost every person on the planet. It has raised the bar on what people have begun to expect from themselves, jobs and lives.
Tenzin Priyadarshi, the chief executive of the MIT’s Dalai Lama Center of Ethics, has called covid-19 a massive time-out that nature has given us to sort out our priorities. A time-out is basically an opportunity to be with yourself, hit the pause button on the way we’ve been leading our lives and reflect on some of the choices we have made. While each individual’s journey and context are unique, the following steps may help you get started on the path to discovering your purpose.
Widen your aperture
When we take stock of where we are in our journeys, often we reduce it to a bivariate discussion, work and family. We need to widen our lens. As organizational psychologist Stewart D. Friedman suggests, people need to look at four domains: self, home, work and community. Unless we focus on ourselves (mental, physical and spiritual health), we’ll find it difficult to play the long game of life. We could leverage various forms of capital we have (talent, reputation, expertise, networks, wealth, time) to make a difference within the community. We think a lot about the difference we can make to the organization but sometimes underestimate how involving ourselves with these causes can transform us and our approach to life.
In the 1990s, when it came to career choices, the discussion was largely restricted to being an engineer, doctor or a chartered accountant. Today, you can choose to be a content creator, a meme maker, social media manager, data scientist, podcast editor, sustainability manager or a blockchain developer. Given the expanding nature of disciplines, it is critical for individuals to develop deep specialization in one or two areas. This combination of a requirement for specialization of understanding in one discipline, coupled with generalization of application across disciplines, is leading to careers of today looking more like a lattice than a ladder. It is not a straight path to the top. Given this construct, it can be disorienting after a couple of decades where one could feel lost in the high seas of our careers. That’s why it has become critical to have a healthy level of self-awareness of our signature strengths, areas of passion, ambition and levers of motivation.
There are two dimensions of self-awareness: one is internal self-awareness or our own understanding of our beliefs, values, priorities, purpose and ambition. The other is having a clear understanding of how the world sees us: external self-awareness. This includes getting a perspective on questions like “What is my super power?”; “What missions am I passionate about?”; and “When do I come alive at work and in life?”
Slow down and experiment
In the early part of career, jobs are usually spelt out and the question people have is how do I adapt to do a particular role? Once we work for a decade or two, this changes and the pertinent question becomes, given who I am and my unique skills and aspirations, what could I do that could be fulfilling?
Discovering this requires slowing down and creating some time and mind-space for new possibilities. This could take the form of a sabbatical, a part-time role or in an extreme scenario, quitting the job to discover what is next. The experiments could largely be around leaning into your curiosity and passion. If you are trying to embark on a journey in philanthropy, for instance, volunteer for a non-profit or become an advisor to one. None of these need to be sharp turns off the road. Persist with an experiment for long enough to determine two things: do you enjoy it as much as you thought you would, and is it making a difference to others?
Let it go
We are often shaped by our experiences and we change in ways we don’t fathom as we move through life. We end up using stale, generic, identities to describe ourselves. We use terms like banker, lawyer, investor. There are two problems with this. Firstly, these terms don’t quite capture who you are as an individual and what is unique to you. Secondly, these often are only the professional identities that don’t quite touch upon the other three domains we looked at earlier (self, home and community). We are much more than the hats we wear at work. As we try different pathways, it is critical we do not hold on to these labels tightly. Don’t let your current identities come in the way of your future possibilities.
Remember, transformations never take place overnight. Transformations are hard. Covid has given us a rare opportunity to pause and develop some perspective on what matters in life. Being intentional about our journeys and taking charge of our steering wheel is a good place to start.
Deepak Jayaraman is a Mumbai-based leadership coach.