Why I Let Go Of My Life’s Purpose
by Adam Lavitt
In the commencement speech she gave at Sarah Lawrence in 2006, Ann Patchett observes:
Every choice lays down a trail of bread crumbs, so that when you look behind you there appears to be a very clear path that points straight to the place where you now stand.
But when you look ahead there isn’t a bread crumb in sight — there are just a few shrubs, a bunch of trees, a handful of skittish woodland creatures. You glance from left to right and find no indication of which way you’re supposed to go.
And so you stand there, sniffing at the wind, looking for directional clues in the growth patterns of moss, and you think, What now?
This quote brings me back, most recently, to my years of graduate training. Over the course of my studies, I interned in different setting to try out many different roles, while simultaneously struggling (during my first few years of my program) to allay some fundamental doubts about whether or not the path I had chosen was the right one for me. During my final year of study, I sat in a coffee shop near campus with my mentor when she asked me what kind of work I wanted to do. I fumbled for a response. I heard the question as one of life purpose, and felt paralyzed by its weight.
The experience of uncertainty did not end when I finished school, but has permeated the various professional capacities I’ve inhabited since then. A friend of mine recently called my pretty regular struggle for clarity “holy confusion.” I love this way of framing my unknowing. When I think of this uncertainty as “holy confusion” I can give myself permission to see how mysterious and seemingly contingent my vocational journey has been. These moments of not knowing, when I allow myself to be present with them, connect me with my life purpose: as I release my sense of how things “should be” I begin to see the ways the contours of my experience do and do not fit with my visions and hopes for this life.
I now understand why, early on in my studies, I vowed to tell the story of why I chose this career path differently each time I was asked that question. Every narrative I formulated captured the sense that, like Patchett – not so long ago, I did not have a trail of bread crumbs lined up in front of me, leading me directly to where I stood. There were so many chance encounters and moments of decision (and indecision!) that brought me to this place and time. Not so long ago, I was in the woods, “sniffing at the wind, looking for directional clues in the growth patterns of moss, and [thinking], What now?”
As I sat across from my mentor and tried to respond to her kind and supportive inquiry, I let the question go, and explained how uncertain her question made me. She then gave me another way of looking at my sense of vocation by asking me when I found myself in a state of flow in the work I did. Released from the pressure to formulate some abstract sense of my ideal professional role, I was able to articulate a few moments here and there that – from the midst of the “holy confusion” of my day to day experience, shimmered with pleasure, gave me a sense of meaning, and drew on my strengths.
Inspired by her, I now listen for my “now purpose” instead of trying to articulate my “life purpose.” Within my holy confusion, I have found space to rest in the messy intersections of my life as they unfold, without superimposing any authoritative meaning on them. My purpose is no longer some terrifyingly grand abstraction, but simply grows out of my capacity to reflect on experiences of mine: a moment I knew I was doing something I was good at, an encounter that filled me with a sense of meaning, a role that felt great. Each of these moments contains a specific and concrete self-knowledge: these are the activities I simply want, and continually choose, to do more often.
As Patchett concludes, “Sometimes not having any idea where we’re going works out better than we could possibly have imagined.”
April 28, 2020