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In Praise of the Slow Burn

In the work I do – helping people build a better experience of work– the idea of callings, of purpose, of ‘what I’m meant to do with my life’ is front and center. There’s a common story we tell ourselves if I can just figure out what I’m supposed to be doing, then I’ll be able to do it happily and be awesome at it.

If it were that simple.

It’s possible to do great work without a clear sense of purpose, but knowing your purpose and being able to devote time to it is proven to be connected to our overall workplace engagement, productivity in business, and health outcomes, so it’s worth paying attention to.

Knowing how powerful a sense of purpose is can make the pressure to figure it out even greater, but the good news is that we can let ourselves off the hook of any expectation of just knowing if we’re willing to do a little work.

As far as I can tell so far, there are three ways we sort out what we’re meant to do with our lives.

We know all along: Some people just know how to spend their lives. These are the stories of Bill Gates devoting his spare time to computer programming in high school, Bethany Hamilton unable to stay away from the surf, of the artists and inventors who as children just knew that their life would be devoted to a pursuit of something specific.

I asked the question in a classroom of graduate students recently: “Who here feels called to do something particular with their lives?” and before I finished the sentence, a hand in the front row shot up. This student stood up and declared that he is called to dive headfirst into the public health crisis of drug addiction. He just knows. Since he became aware of what addiction is and had an idea of the havoc it wreaks on lives, he’s been devoted finding solutions as his life work.

Over my lifetime, I’ve met only a handful of people who have ‘always known’ what they would devote their lives to. If this isn’t your story, that’s a-okay. Trust me.

Something happens to change our trajectory: Another storyline comes from those who have had as singular, momentous event in their lives that turned their trajectory around. A significant loss, a chance meeting with someone who shaped their thinking, a trip to somewhere that opened their eyes, an experience that changed everything.

In that same classroom, a second hand shot up when I asked “Who here feels called to do something particular with their lives?”, this time from a student who manages a chronic illness, and since his diagnosis several years ago, now knows his purpose is to advocate for find new ways of treatment and compliance with protocols that can save their lives.

Again, many of us will not have such a moment. Also fine.

The slow burn: For me the discovery of what offers a sense of meaning, connection and growth - how I define purpose - was uncovered slowly. I think of it as a gradual rise in temperature, barely noticeable over years, until suddenly it cried for attention and had to be addressed. There are fewer fireworks and epiphanies, for sure. I praise the slow burn because it’s how most people I know figure their purpose, because of the effort and patience requires, and because the reward is so sweet.

As an educator, coach and consultant, I’m passionate about how people evolve in their relationship with work. But if you’d asked me as a child, I would have said I planned to be a novelist.

All I wanted to do was be around books and read everything in sight. I loved stories of families and culture, of adventures and friendship and falling in love. I wanted to know more about the characters, the shy girl who finds her voice, the country family who moves to the city, the teenager who quits school and pursues a self-directed education abroad. I studied literature in college, worked in publishing and then, restless and dissatisfied, found myself in a 15+ year career on a university campus, immersed in teaching and learning and community building. I became deeply transfixed by students changing their lives through education, and eventually, took a cue from them taking a leap into a corporate job. I knew it wasn’t for me almost right away, but I had started to pay attention to the sensation that I was close to figuring something out. I needed a little more time.

It took me 30-something years to have things come together, and to see connection between books and stories, and my study of how humans learn and develop. It took me decades to see that my purpose is to be a catalyst and thought partner as people learn and change as leaders and humans. I NEEDED those years to slowly bake my skills, my awareness, my capacity, my training, my own development, and my love for this work. I needed the time.

Over time, the patterns and purpose of our work starts to make sense. Ebbs and flows, decisions we sometimes questioned, become part of the full story. We discover insight in what we’ve been drawn to in terms of organization and function, notice ourselves gravitating towards solving the same kinds of problems, or creating similar types of opportunities, playing particular roles in teams.

This is most of us. Come on in, the water’s great.

If I’m a slow burn, what do I do?

  • Start with your own work history. Excavate it for the best and worst moments, peaks and valleys. What do you notice? What were the times when the work was the most invigorating? When did you feel flow in your work? Write this down.

  • Pay attention to now. What are the ideas you can’t stop thinking about, reading about, talking about? When you talk to your friends and contacts about what they do, what draws you in? It’s equally important to know what’s not for you. What do you feel ready to leave behind? Write this down, too.

  • Envision your future self. One year from now, five years from now, ten years from now. What do you want your life to be like? How do you want to account for your time? How you are participating in the world, who you’re with, where?

What is the thing you want to be proud of doing ten years from now?

Some people ask this as the ‘if you had one year to live’, question, or the ‘what do you want your tombstone to say’ question, but my personal preference is to think about what you want to expand with, not close with. What’s the big, driving storyline of how you spend the best part of the 90,000 hours of a lifetime you spend working? What do you want to build? What do you want more of?

Dream big and specific. And, write it down.

  • Be kind to yourself. The good stuff takes time.

  • Talk it out. You don’t have to go it alone.

I’d love to be a voice on the phone, hearing your stories and helping you dig around for patterns. If I can help, please let me know.


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