By Laura Garnett
The past several months have caused a ton of uncertainty, stress, and angst. But there’s one pandemic byproduct that doesn’t get nearly as much attention: the chance to become more introspective than ever before.
Your temporary lack of a social life (and casual talks in the office kitchen) may shine a light on some of the career questions we tend to avoid. You may be thinking, What impact am I making on the world? Does the work I do even matter? How can I access endless energy for my career? These are some of the many questions I asked myself when I had a massive career crisis over ten years ago, when I worked at Google.
Back then, I was solely driven by external rewards—such as receiving positive feedback, landing a promotion, and being recognized by senior leadership. At the time, these signs indicated that I was on the right track, but my intrinsic motivation was non-existent. The free food, game rooms, and cheap massages didn’t hurt. My vision was clouded. I couldn’t possibly see how this job wasn’t right for me. How could it be, with all these awesome perks?
Yet, despite all of these “good” things, I didn’t feel like I was having a meaningful impact in the world or on others. I was missing a purpose, so I set out to find answers. What I found may surprise you.
The Key To Finding Purpose
In our society, we’ve been conditioned to prioritize extrinsic motivation such as money, a fantastic benefits package, and other perks (read: ping-pong tables, unlimited seltzer water, and bringing your dog to work, oh my!). We think these things drive us, but then feel confused when we have it all and still feel indifferent (and maybe even resentful) about our work. If this is you, you’re looking in the wrong place for joy and fulfillment. Instead, you need to look inside yourself.
Intrinsic motivation is energy that needs no coaxing. It’s just there. When I was developing a framework to help people find their intrinsic motivation, I discovered that the most fulfilling moments were directly connected to our psychology, to something I call a core emotional challenge. Who we are and how we show up in the world are directly connected to the experiences we’ve had as a child.
Everyone has a core emotional challenge, but most people don’t recognize it, likely because it’s an unconscious response to something you struggled with while you were growing up. You may not realize it, but you have a desire to help other people avoid the same emotional pain.
For example, my core emotional challenge is not being seen or understood. I often felt different and that those differences weren’t celebrated or valued. Because of this, I will exert an unending amount of energy toward making sure others feel seen and understood. Helping people avoid this type of anguish provides me with purpose.
When you unearth this insight—and create a name for it—you’ll instantly have access to your own Purpose. And, better yet, you’ll be able to figure out how to leverage it in your career. Here’s how:
1. Start Noticing When You Have Really Meaningful Moments
These are times when you impact someone in a way that’s significant to you. Pause and reflect. What, exactly, is the impact you’re having? Get as detailed as possible so you can really unpack it.
In my case, I help people gain confidence and clarity about who they are by providing them with insights that help them better understand themselves. You must closely analyze what exactly you’re doing that leads to your desired impact.
2. Find The Connection To Your Past
Where does your desired impact come from? It didn’t just appear out of nowhere. It’s anchored to something, to some past experience, and you need to figure out what that is. What were some situations you struggled with as a child? Ask yourself: What is it about each situation that bothered me so much? Write them down and try to identify the theme.
Your core emotional challenge was developed from a variety of different experiences, but how you translated those experiences emotionally is the same. See if you can draw a connection between the two. For example, my client Steven’s purpose is helping others feel secure, informed, and reassured of their value. This is connected to his own core emotional challenge of being abandoned by his father at a young age. This emotional challenge was further enhanced by almost every interaction he had with his father once a year—while each interaction was different, there would be some form of abandonment that would occur. As a result, this was a well-honed emotional experience that Steven experienced.
3. Name Your Core Emotional Challenge
Once you’ve identified the precise feeling you struggled with as a child, label it. It could be a phrase like “Not feeling important,” “Not feeling understood,” or “Not believing in myself.”
Then, start paying close attention to when you’re really upset or triggered by someone else’s behavior. The actions or words that cause the strongest, quickest reaction from you are directly linked to your core emotional challenge. You can validate this by tracking your most triggered moments. Whenever I don’t feel understood, like when someone questions why I decided to start the business I built, negative emotions pile up rapidly.
4. Track When You’re Using Your Purpose
Once you understand your purpose, it’s helpful to keep tabs on the moments you leverage it each week, which are the very same moments in which you’re tapping into intrinsic motivation. (The Zone of Genius tracker I developed provides an easy, effective way to start tracking your Purpose today.)
If you find that these instances are few and far between, try to find ways you can increase having that type of impact in your current role. For example, if you find that you thrive when you can give other people advice on their career trajectory or issues they encounter at the office, add more of these types of discussions to meetings with your direct reports. Or, you could consider becoming a mentor. (And if this still isn’t enough, perhaps you need to become a career coach!)
If making adjustments in your current situation isn’t possible, it may be time to find a new job that better aligns with your Purpose (just make sure it allows you to apply your Genius, too!).
When you begin feeling the difference between chasing external rewards and doing truly intrinsically-motivated work, you’ll never go back. This is because, when your career is closely aligned with your Purpose, your excitement about it will be never-ending, and you’ll feel like you’ve found your calling. That is the true definition of success.