Warning: rant ahead.
It looks so innocuous, doesn’t it? Even positive. But I find this Venn diagram and most of the others I see circulated on social media like it to be a harmful thing. It’s not the way I want to frame my life and definitely not a trap I want my kids to fall into.
Some version of this diagram – sometimes with only three circles, often with different graphic design – comes around every month or two on my various feeds, shared by people whose ideas I usually think are pretty positive and open-minded. It seems like a great idea. You’re asking people to look at their lives and think about how to bring different pieces together, to find meaning, to help others, to think about what they do well. It sounds great.
The problem is that this graph is not achievable for a huge number of people. Getting paid to do something is outside your control to a large extent. Your passion may be something that simply isn’t marketable or easily monetized. And your gifts may not include monetizing your passions. In fact, monetizing one’s passions has a cost for that passion for many people, a cost that some people are uncomfortable paying. So where are you stuck then? Supposedly without a purpose.
It surprises me that I’ve seen so many homeschool moms share this graph because we all have a calling to educate our children. No one is willing to pay us for it, yet we persist. According to this, we have no purpose in our lives. In fact, we’re not even allowed to call education our vocation because according to the Venn diagram, that requires money.
I find an incredible amount of purpose in my life teaching my kids. At this moment, while I do have other things in my life, teaching my children is my driving force. It’s the thing I do all day, the thing that brings me meaning and fulfillment.
Of course, those “other things” are important too. I write, I see friends, I read, I make art. Those things are also an important piece of my purpose and fulfillment in life.
I think this graph is a trap that we build for people in our society. We tell each other that the only path to meaningful lives is to find a career that will do everything for us, a career that we love, that gives us purpose and a comfortable life. We tell ourselves that unless we are paid in money for something, that is has no value. Since others are who pays us, we allow others to determine the value of our work on every level. For a few people, life does work out that way. But for most people I know, they may like their jobs and even find some level of purpose in them, but it’s through their creating unpaid art, coaching their kids’ sports team, passionately discussing books with friends, volunteering at a local charity, sustaining their church or other such work that they actually find a huge part of their fulfillment. The job is what lets them live comfortably and may even be enjoyable work, but it isn’t what brings everyone purpose. That’s the “other things.” And this graph devalues them. It says they’re not important to the real picture. The graph says that shouldn’t be the goal. It’s settling for something lesser.
You see, I’ve also seen people struggle with this and feel like they can’t be happy unless their job is what brings them happiness. It’s looking for paid work to bring us all the answers. Sometimes it can, but sometimes the answers are in unpaid work, family, community, or hobbies. We make it harder for people to find that sense of purpose when we tell them that everything must come together and they should get paid for it. Money is important. There’s no getting around that. If you don’t have enough money to provide basic food and shelter, then you’re never going to have the level of happiness that you need. But if you can achieve that level of basic financial security, I think it’s possible to find purpose in your life and a job doesn’t have to be the source of that purpose.
So I say if being a lawyer is what brings you purpose, then great. if playing role playing games is what brings you purpose, that’s great too. If volunteering at a food bank is what brings you purpose that’s great. If baking fabulous cakes for everyone’s birthday is what brings you purpose, don’t feel like you have to open your own bakery or it isn’t really purpose. If teaching your children is what brings you purpose, then that is purpose, even if no one is paying you. If you get purpose from a bunch of different, unrelated things, that’s great too. Your job doesn’t have to do everything for you.
I want my kids to grow up knowing this. Knowing that if they’re out of work for a year or stuck in a job they dislike but can’t leave for awhile when they grow up, it doesn’t mean they can’t look for fulfillment and meaning in other places. It doesn’t have to mean they have no purpose. If they choose to do a job mostly for the money, it doesn’t mean they aren’t allowed to look for meaning through arts or writing or dance or acting. I want them to know that giving away your time can be more fulfilling and purpose filled than a paying job. And that the world needs people who make money and carefully give it away. I want them to see that this is only one model for living a happy live. It’s not the only model and certainly not the only way to find purpose.