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I spent many years trying to find my “dream job.” Some might call what I was looking for a calling or a vocation. 

My quest was inspired by quotes like, “Your vocation is where your greatest passion meets the world’s greatest need.” (Frederick Buechner)

As someone who grew up in a religious context, a meaningful vocation (defined in this way) was the most important thing I could aspire to. 

It also seemed formulaic. All I needed to do was find something that I was passionate about that met one of the world’s greatest needs. If I put those things together, then, I’d have a joyful and fulfilling life.

Simple…

Not surprisingly, my efforts to find my vocation didn’t exactly turn out as planned. 

I graduated in 2009 right after the recession. It was extremely challenging to find any job, let alone a “vocation.”

I finally found a job as a street canvasser raising money for a child poverty alleviation organization. At least I had the “world’s greatest need” (or a world’s great need) part of the equation. But, street canvassing is possibly the worst job you could imagine.

After a year I transitioned into a “real” nonprofit organization. I worked in fundraising and partnership building in a nonprofit that focused on education reform. This role used my skills, but it still didn’t feel like a vocation.

Part of my job involved supporting my colleagues and sharing things that I learned.  When I had the opportunity to join the national headquarters team, I went for it.

I had the opportunity to support my colleagues in certain ways. It was closer, but it still wasn’t quite right.

I decided that I wanted a role that was fully focused on training, development, and organizational culture. This is what I was most passionate about. If I could do this in the context of an organization working toward a mission I was passionate about, then it would be my vocation. 

A couple of years later, I started a new role working in talent and organizational development for another nonprofit.

I thought this role would be exactly right. It matched my passion for training and development with the mission to improve education. I had finally found the vocation that would bring me joy, happiness, and fulfillment.

Or, so I thought…

Interestingly enough, this is the same toxic job that I completely burned out of in 2018. It was stressful and anxiety-producing. I took too much ownership over trying to improve a toxic organization, even though I had very little authority.

I pushed myself too hard. I started having severe anxiety and panic attacks and, ultimately, quit.  At first, I felt like I had failed. This was my vocation, and I couldn’t handle it.

Vocation (or “Dream Job”) is a Flawed and Incomplete Idea

Since then, I’ve realized that the idea of finding a “vocation” is both flawed and woefully incomplete for building a fulfilling life.

First, there are so many things that any of us could be happy doing. There is not one possibility for each person’s lives that we need to find.

Second, there were so many important things missing from the vocation equation, including:

  • The environment in which we thrive: If the environment is toxic, it doesn’t matter what I’m doing and why. I’m going to be miserable. 
  • Our personality, tendencies, and limitations: We each have a different capacity for stress, interpersonal interaction, long-hours, conflict, etc. based on certain personality characteristics and our mental and physical health. 
  • Our core motivations: Yes, many of us are motivated to help alleviate some of the world’s greatest needs. If this isn’t balanced with other core motivations, we’ll burn ourselves out quickly. Other core motivations could include strong relationships, flexibility, creativity, freedom, enjoyment, and more.
  • Money: We need to put money in its rightful place depending on where we are in our journey. When I was just starting out, money didn’t factor much into my decisions. Then, I realized just how important money was, and it became too central. I began to constantly seek the next promotion or raise. It’s hard to strike the right balance with money. One great thing about FI is that once we build a certain level of financial stability, we can start optimizing our lives for things other than money. The importance of this variable becomes less important over time. 

Core Elements of Your Ideal Life

Over the last few years, I’ve sought out the resources to help me build a holistically fulfilling life. Each book, framework, experience, and resource taught me something that I’ve incorporated into my life.

I’ve learned that I need to identify the core elements of my ideal life and ensure these are in balance. Only then can I use them as a compass to guide my decisions. 

If you want to build a life you love, you must consider and balance three different ideas – what, why, and how. 

Venn Diagram what why how

What – Activities and Projects that You are Passionate about that Bring You Joy

Your “what” is the particular types of activities and projects that you find energizing and that you enjoy. This could be particular aspects of your work, fun hobbies, activities that you enjoy on a daily or weekly basis. 

Over the last few years, I’ve identified a few important things about my “what.”

  • I love learning new things. When I learn something new, I like to figure out how to incorporate it into my life through reflection and journaling. This introspection also helps me to communicate what I’ve learned with others (which leads to my next point…).
  • I get significant satisfaction from being able to share things that I’ve learned with others. I’ve also learned that the ways I enjoy doing this are through writing, workshops, small group coaching, and individual conversations. 
  • I love being outdoors, especially when the weather is nice. I enjoy hiking, camping, and simply taking my dog for a walk in the park. I enjoy being outside and noticing the beauty around me. One of my favorite things every fall is to notice the changes in the color of the leaves on a daily basis.
  • I love getting to know people in a deep way. Because of this, I choose to spend more time with fewer people. It is completely normal for me to spend an entire day with friends. 
  • Everything about travel energizes me. I love to explore new places, learn about new languages and cultures, and figuring things out in a new place.

Why – Your Core Motivations

Your “why” are your core motivations. This could include causes you care about, but there is so much more to it. This also includes your core beliefs and values. For me, ensuring that my core beliefs and values stay balanced are incredibly important to me. 

Here’s what I’ve learned about my “why.”

  • I’ve learned that the thing that makes me feel most energized about my work is when I can help people grow, learn, and become more of who they truly are. Helping someone become the best version of themselves is incredibly rewarding to me.
  • Caring for my mental and physical health is foundational. To do the work I want to do in the world and feel good doing it, I can’t neglect my own self-care. Without this, things that otherwise would feel energizing feel like a chore.
  • Building deep connections with friends and family help me to build a community of support. I feel energized when I am able to support others and grateful when I receive the support that I need.
  • Building financial freedom is essential. It provides a foundation that allows me to grow and to discover who I am, what I want and the impact that I can have on the world around me. 

How – Taking into Account Your Uniqueness to Make Life Work for You

Each of us is unique. We have unique strengths, personality characteristics, and limitations. If we don’t live our lives in a way that taps into our strengths and fits with our personality characteristics, things might feel unfulfilling or unnecessarily hard. 

To be honest, I used to struggle with recognizing and accepting my limitations (and sometimes still do). I had heard too many motivational speeches about overcoming our limitations. What I needed to learn was how to accept and manage my life in the midst of my limitations. If I push myself too hard through them (instead of adjusting something), I just make myself unnecessarily miserable.

Here are a few things I’ve learned about my “how.”

  • I love to be creative. For me, this means I’m creating things. Some ways that creativity shows up for me include brainstorming wild ideas (and sometimes making them happen) and writing down my thoughts in a coherent manner that people will understand. I’m always looking for ways to improve things which I also see as a creative act. I’m still looking for additional ways to express this creativity. 
  • My strong connection to my emotions is both a strength and a limitation. I know that I’m highly empathetic, which makes me a great listener, coach, and friend. At the same time, it can be extremely overwhelming. For example, mediating conflicts or conversations about poor performance are extremely emotionally draining. By this, I mean I’m literally exhausted for days afterward. In early 2019, I thought about quitting my (really awesome) part-time job because I felt like I couldn’t handle this component of my job. Luckily, I didn’t and decided to talk to my boss about it instead. She encouraged me to see my connection with my emotions as a strength (she saw it that way). She said, “This is why we work on teams. We can cover for each other.” From then on, she took responsibility for conflict management and performance conversations. Simply by removing this one aspect of my role, my job became so much more manageable and fun. I didn’t need to push myself to get better at managing those conversations. 
  • I love to work with small groups of people. Instead of teaching, my favorite thing to do is facilitate a learning process. We all have so much we can teach and learn from each other, and I love to be able to draw that out in a group process. If groups of people are too big, I do a lot more direct teaching. I don’t mind direct teaching, but I always want to translate it into a learning process. 
  • Given my challenges with anxiety and mental health, it’s important for me to keep a good balance. For me, working part-time and having a variety of different types of projects and activities outside of work is vital for me to stay healthy. Now that I’ve experienced what part-time work has to offer, I know that a full-time job wouldn’t allow for the balance needed to care for my mental health. 

Balancing the Elements of Your Ideal Life

Once you’ve identified some of the elements of your ideal life, it’s important to keep them in balance. It’s like a 3-legged stool.  If one of the legs is off-balance, the whole stool will fall over. 

For example, I could be doing the most exciting training and coaching work that’s helping people discover their dreams and goals. Yet, if I don’t take care of my own mental health, it will feel draining. Even if my “what” and “why” are there, if I neglect my “how,” there will be consequences. 

I could have an extremely balanced life and have the opportunity to provide training as part of my job. If I’m training people to do something I don’t believe in and will not help people become a better version of themselves, it’s going to feel unfulfilling to me. I can’t neglect my “why.”

I encourage you to think about your own life.  Are there things that feel out of balance? If so, it could be related to what you are doing, why you are doing it, how you are carrying it out, or a combination of these elements. 

How to Identify The Elements of Your Ideal Life

Some people think that you can simply take a retreat to reflect on your life and come out with exactly what you are passionate about and want to focus on. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work this way.

Beyond reflection, identifying the core elements of our ideal life also requires us to experiment and try things out to see if we enjoy them. We also must cultivate an awareness of our own feelings and emotions, so that we can use them as a guide. 

Let’s talk about all three: Cultivating Mindfulness, Reflection, and Experimentation.

Cultivating Mindfulness

Cultivating mindfulness is foundational in identifying the elements of your ideal life. Mindfulness is simply a conscious awareness and acceptance of our thoughts, feelings, and emotions.

This definition includes a few important points that I want to call out:

  • It takes time to get to a place where you have a conscious awareness of your thoughts, feelings, and emotions. Cultivating mindfulness helps us to recognize them closer to the time that they arise, so we don’t bottle up our emotions. 
  • When we accept our feelings and emotions, we are saying that all emotions are useful. They can send us important messages about what’s going on in our lives and the direction that we are heading. 
  • Being aware of and accepting our thoughts (particularly negative thoughts) means we don’t necessarily believe they are true. When we are aware of them, we can observe them as they arise with curiosity. Then, we can evaluate whether the message and decide what we want to do with it. 

To cultivate mindfulness in our lives, there are a few practices that can help. 

  • Meditation is proven to help people build their capacity for mindfulness.  I’ve been meditating for over 2 years using the Headspace app, and it’s incredible how much progress I’ve seen. 
  • Journaling can help you get your thoughts out of your head and on paper. Instead of swirling chaotically around in your brain, you can organize them. Writing is such a powerful tool. If you write about a challenge enough times, you either address it or let it go. If you write about an idea enough time, you figure out how to take action.
  • Get in the habit of asking yourself, “How do I feel right now?” This is particularly helpful when you feel dysregulated but is valuable anytime. An easy and fun way to do this is by doing what I call en “emoji check-in.” This fun little practice involves looking at the list of emojis on your phone and determine the one that best matches your current state. 

The goal is to get to a place where you are able to recognize your feelings and emotions as they arise and to let those help to guide your decisions.

One concrete practice that can help you get to this point is to track your energy and engagement over the course of a number of weeks. Tracking your daily activities allows you to look at trends to generate insights across different areas of your life.

In general, becoming more mindful will help reflection and experimentation be much more effective. 

Reflection

Our past experiences can tell us a lot about our lives. This is why I recommend mining our past experiences to see what things have worked for us that we want to ensure we incorporate into our lives. It also allows us to assess what things we want to eliminate from our lives.

A few specific reflections exercises that I recommend include:

  • Evaluating different areas of your life: Periodically, it’s important to step back and ask yourself what is and isn’t working in different areas of your life. This also shouldn’t just be focused on finances and work. We can also evaluate our level of satisfaction in our relationships, fun/play, health, and growth and curiosity. This allows us to determine if there are things we want to double down on and others we want to eliminate. 
  • Peak Experiences: There are so many things we can learn from reflecting on our life’s peak experiences. Start by identifying 4-5 of your life’s peak experiences. Then, reflect on what you were doing, why you were doing it, who you were with, the environment, and how you showed up. Reflecting on this wan can help us to determine trends of what feels fulfilling across different areas of our lives.
  • Ideal Day/Week: Sometimes, we focus too much on big goals and neglect our day-to-day lives. For me, it’s important that I do great things in the world. It’s equally important to me that I feel good doing it. Reflecting on what makes an ideal day or week for me helps me to ensure that I stay balanced as I’m working toward my longer goals. This includes sleeping enough, self-care, spending time with friends and family, and doing smaller things that bring my joy on a daily basis. This makes it so much easier to do big things and feel good at the same time. 

Experimentation

The final practice that I want to share is experimentation. We can’t just meditate and reflect and expect that we will discover our passions and our ideal life.

Not only are there so many things we haven’t tried yet, but people are also notoriously terrible at predicting what will make them happy. We must experiment with our ideas and pay attention to how they make us feel, which brings in the mindfulness. If it makes is feel good, it’s usually a good sign that we’re headed in the right direction. If not, we might need to adjust something. 

Here are a few types of experiences that will help you to identify the core elements of your ideal life:

  • Elimination: Sometimes we try to add things to our lives to make ourselves happier. Yet, sometimes what we really need to do is subtract things. I love the alligator and kitten analogy. If you have a lot of negative things in your life (alligators) and some positive things in your life (kittens), adding more kittens is not going to fix the situation. What you really need to do is get rid of the alligators. 
  • Switch up your daily and weekly routine: Sometimes very basic things can make huge shifts in our lives. Things like getting enough sleep, getting outside, spending intentional time with friends or family, etc. can help us recover our energy.
  • Test out ideas and interests with small steps: If you want to explore a new interest, idea, or career, you don’t need to dive in headfirst. You can test it out by taking small steps. You can find people who have been down the same path and have a conversation with them about their experience. You can shrink the idea into a small step. For example, if you want to start a blog, you could try guest posting for another blog. If you want to be a full-time freelancer, start with doing some freelancing on the side of your day-job. Experimentation allows you to see if it’s something that you enjoy and want to pursue further. A great byproduct is that it also builds confidence to successfully make the shift.

Building Your Ideal Life is a Lifelong Process of Discovery

You might be reading this and feeling like you are so far away from living your ideal life. You might have ideas of what you want, but they could feel unattainable. You might just know you are unhappy with your current situation and have no idea what could make it better. 

That’s ok. This is where it starts. Deciding that you want to embark on a process to identify and work toward your ideal life. 

It won’t happen overnight. What I shared in this post about myself is based on years of reflection, building up my mindfulness skills, and experimenting with new things. 

If you feel like you’d like to learn more about and invest in building your ideal life, I’m running a FREE training in Mid-September on exactly this topic. If you’d like to attend, here are two options:

I hope you can take and use some of these practices to start identifying the elements of your ideal life today. 

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