When You Lack Focus and Direction: Stop Looking for Your “Thing”
“More important than the quest for certainty is the quest for clarity.” ~Francois Gautier
Isn’t it funny—and annoying, and brilliant—how often things turn out to be nothing like we thought they would?
Six years ago I was recovering from a breakdown and reacquainting myself with my long dormant artistic side, and I remember spending a lot of time wondering what my “thing” was.
You know, that one specific thing in this life that I was destined to do to be fulfilled, and ideally from which I would earn a comfortable living.
I had always loved creativity, and particularly art, and had always wanted that to be my thing; I would be an artist, sell my work, and live comfortably on the proceeds.
There were a couple of problems with my plan, however. One was my upbringing, which told me that art was unrealistic as a way to make a living. As a result, I had done all sorts of things that were nothing to do with my original dream, many of which I hated (hence that final breakdown).
That mindset is not at all unusual in Western culture and is something many of us have to move beyond, but there was something else too.
I could not seem to pin down my love of art and creativity to one single focus. I experimented endlessly, on my own and in classes, with everything from acrylics to oils, from printing to sculpture.
And still I kept thinking, how will I ever know which is my thing? What’s the one thing I’ll be really good at and so endlessly enthused by that I won’t continue this constant dabbling?
How will I ever be a credible artist if I paint in a different style every time I put brush to canvas? How will I ever fulfill my dream of making a living doing what I love when I seem so scattered and unfocused?
Since no clear answer was forthcoming at that point, I just kept going.
Sometimes I envied those who seemed to be born already knowing what their thing was, like my friend who always knew she’d be a vet. I thought they must have or know something I didn’t. That perhaps there was something wrong with me for being so fickle and apparently unable to settle on just one thing.
But as it turns out, that seemingly flighty, unfocused, shallow dabbling was an essential part of the story, and not at all the waste of time I feared.
I learned two key things about what I’ve come to see as the “myth of the thing.”
- There is what you are passionate and curious about and would do for free (and often do), and
- There are all the ways in which that comes through you.
You are like a prism, full of your own unique mix of colors that join together to radiate a single beam—you.
In my experience, it’s unhelpful and limiting to assume that you’ll whittle it down to a single thing or work it out with your mind. After all, your mind has no real knowledge of your heart.
Your “thing that is not a thing” is already there inside you, but without taking action over and over from a place of curiosity and passion, you won’t give your personal and utterly unique filter a chance to make itself known.
I’ll always be insatiably curious and I think that’s a fantastic trait to have, not a handicap. Today, I love to paint, draw, write, bake, tend my plants, make things, research, gather and share information, read books and blogs, spend time at the beach, explore spirituality, travel, and learn whatever I can about whatever catches my magpie eye.
You might think I’m still dabbling. But all those things feed and become my thing that is not a thing.
So what is my “thing”? It’s being what I can’t help being. It’s being curious and creative; it’s exploring, playing, demonstrating and sharing what I learn through the filter of art and creativity; it’s helping, supporting, and encouraging people to find their own unique ways to express themselves creatively.
It’s doing what I’d do anyway and letting it evolve into something that feeds both me and others, and yes, it’s even starting to bring in an income. I am an artist, only in many more ways than the single one I envisaged.
My magpie eye isn’t hindering me from finding my thing; it’s part of how my thing manifests. That realization has changed everything, and my life is infinitely richer for it.
Without it, I would not have tried or learned so many things. I would not now have both a wealth of techniques and experiences and ideas to share, nor the understanding and empathy that comes with having trodden the messy meandering path myself. Both of those important factors unexpectedly became part of my work now.
While there are many things we all know to do to help us find out who we really are and what we’re here to do, like journaling or meditation, I have found the following also helpful in my quest.
It takes time, so give it time.
I know that’s hard, especially if you feel stuck in an unfulfilling job or other restricting life situation. Patience and perseverance will stand you in good stead, so do what it takes to cultivate them. (I suggest a spiritual or energy practice.)
Widen your view.
Your “thing” won’t only show up in the obvious places. My creativity doesn’t just appear in the studio; it’s in how I put a meal together, how I arrange my desk, how I use my day, right down to the tiny moments.
Listen to intuitive nudges.
Have you developed an unexpected interest in historical fiction? Head to the library. Do you have a sudden urge to grow something? Visit the garden center.
Not only might you find what you think you’re looking for, you also increase the chances of discovering something new that contributes to your clarity or brings a new opportunity.
Think of a task you do regularly that you find mundane.
Ask yourself, what could I change about how I approach this to make it fun or interesting? How can I apply my unique way of seeing the world here? It could be a mindset change, an intention or affirmation, or it could be the actual physical way you perform the task.
I have a system for folding my laundry that allows my mind to roam freely for a few minutes; that inner roaming brings in new ideas and insights. Thus laundry becomes not something that wastes my precious time but something that enhances it and brings me more into who I am.
Stop looking for that elusive “thing.” Start living your life in all the ways that are exciting and interesting to you, right down to the tiny daily details. Explore, create, discover, absorb.
With some thought and imagination you can do this within your current job, with your children, when you’re doing daily tasks. It doesn’t have to be grand and time-consuming.
And then you will find that your thing is simply who you can’t help being. The more of your unique inner rainbow you reveal, the more it will become clear who you are and what you are here to do. Just be prepared for it to look a little different—and a lot more beautiful—than you thought.
Lost traveler image via Shutterstock
One of the first questions we face when we meet new acquaintances is “What do you do?” And according to how we answer, they will either be delighted to see us or look with embarrassment at their watches and shuffle away. The fact is, we live in a world where we are defined almost entirely by our work.
This can be hugely liberating for people who are happily employed. But the problem for many of us is that we don’t know what job we’re supposed to do and, as a result, are still waiting to learn who we should be. The idea that we have missed out on our true calling—that somehow we ought to have intuited what we should be doing with our lives long before we finished our degrees, started families, and advanced through the ranks—torments us. This notion, however, can be an illusion. The term calling came into circulation in a Christian context during the medieval period to describe the abrupt imperative people might encounter to devote themselves to Jesus’ teachings. Now a secularized version has survived, which is prone to give us an expectation that the meaning of our lives might at some point be revealed in a ready-made and decisive form, rendering us permanently immune to confusion, envy, and regret.
I prefer to borrow from psychologist Abraham Maslow, who said: It isn’t normal to know what we want. It is a rare and difficult psychological achievement.
To begin to find a more fulfilling vocation, it is not enough to simply ask yourself what you might like to do. Concerns about money and status long ago extinguished most people’s ability to think authentically about their options. Instead, I would suggest free-associating around clusters of concerns that delight and excite you, without attempting to settle upon anything as rigid as the frame of a career.
In searching for their aptitudes, people should act like treasure hunters passing over the ground with metal detectors, listening out for beeps of joy. A woman might get her first intimation that her real interest lies in poetry not by hearing a holy voice as she pages through a book of verse but from the thrill she feels as she stands in a parking lot on the edge of town overlooking a misty valley. Or a politician, long before she belongs to any party or has any profound understanding of statecraft, might register a telling signal when successfully healing a rift between two members of her family.
We should also remember that the first ingredient usually missing when people can’t choose a life direction is confidence. Whatever cerebral understanding we apply to our lives, we retain a few humblingly simple needs, among them a steady hunger for support and love. It’s therefore helpful to identify—and engage with—the internal voices that emphasize our chances of failure. Many such voices can be traced back to a critical instructor or unhelpful parent: a math teacher who berated us for poor algebra skills or a father who insisted that our sister was good at art and we should stick to the schoolbooks. The forming of an individual in the early years is as sensitive and important a task as the correct casting of a skyscraper’s foundation, and the slightest abuse introduced at this primary stage can unbalance us until our dying days.
A useful thought to bear in mind for anyone still struggling with a less than meaningful job: Work may not be where your calling resides. Indeed, for thousands of years, work was viewed as an unavoidable drudge; anything more aspiring had to happen in one’s spare time, once the money had been hauled in. Aristotle was only the first of many philosophers to state that no one could both be obliged to earn a living and remain free. The idea that a job could be pleasurable had to wait until the 18th century, the age of the great bourgeois philosophers, men like Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Benjamin Franklin, who for the first time argued that one’scould be at the center of happiness. Curiously, at the same time, similar ideas about romance took shape. In the pre-modern age, it had widely been assumed that marriage was something one did for purely commercial reasons, to hand down the family farm and raise children; love was what you did with your mistress, on the side. The new philosophers now argued that one might actually aim to marry the person one was in love with.
We are the heirs of these two very ambitious beliefs: that you can be in love and married—and in a job and having a good time. As a result, we harbor high expectations for two areas of life that may provide support but not the deep purpose we ultimately long for. To remember such history while contemplating “Who am I?” can be enormously freeing.
And although that question is one of life’s toughest, we should allow ourselves to relish it as we think about our aptitudes, and to open ourselves to all the many sources we can derive meaning and mission from—whether it’s writing poetry, leading a neighborhood cleanup, raising children, or daring gravity while flying down an icy slope on a pair of skis. We should also consider that, in the end, the answer to “Who are you meant to be?” is perhaps this: the person who keeps.