One summer at Oxford I shared with a group of international graduate students one of the myths about purpose that gets in people's way of actually experiencing purpose.
Purpose is not a revelation; it is a journey. It comes from living life awake and seeking new experiences. We don't find ourselves just walking along, minding our own business when--bam--our life's purpose is transmitted to us like a bolt of lightning from above.
When the students heard this they suddenly became visibly disturbed. Noticing the change in mood in the room I asked them what had happened. After an awkward 15 second pause one woman raised her hand and volunteered to answer.
She shared that she came to graduate school looking for a revelation. She didn't know what she wanted to do in her career and figured that she would have a revelation and leave with clarity about her purpose.
Slowly everyone started nodding their heads. They had had the same realization, that one of their main reasons to attend graduate school (and go into debt) was to have a revelation.
The idea of having a destiny and revelation is part of contemporary mythology, and it applies to a lot more than work. It is our core mythology on just about every topic, from love to career: Who is my one true love? What am I going to be when I grow up?
If graduate school applications had to have a disclaimer on them stating that graduate school (and associated debt) does not include a revelation about your purpose, my guess is that far fewer people would complete them.
Removing Magical Thinking
Each semester, when Amy Wrzesniewski at Yale's School of Management begins her course on careers, she shares a simple fact that is profoundly upsetting to her students: The average graduate of their program will work for three different organizations within their first five years out of the MBA program. Many of them came to business school to find direction, and to hear that the journey continues so unsteadily after school is disappointing. They hoped they would leave school with it all figured out, but alas--no such luck.
In my experience, this is one of the top reasons people attend graduate school. It is a false benefit of graduate school. If there was transparency about this fact, we might see a major drop in applications for MBAs and the like.
You will not be struck by lightning. If you want to find your path and increase meaning in your work, focus on being present where you are right now. Learn to nurture the relationship in your life, find ways to help other people and push yourself to grow. If that means going to graduate school, by all means go.
Want to Save $100,000?
Don't expect that you'll one day stumble upon the exact thing that gives you meaning in your life. Instead, take steps to learn what kind of impact you want to make with your career and how you can get there. Imperative offers a free assessment that enables you to discover what generates purpose for you. It defines the contribution you can make to the world that will be meaningful to you and that is best aligned with your approach to work.
It is like uncovering your superhero talent. Then all you have to do is use your current job (which pays rather than charges) to practice and hone your powers to impact the lives and the world. It turns out the best way to learn is to practice, not sit in a classroom. But then again, I am biased. I never went to graduate school.