Ask yourself these 3 questions when your purpose isn't obvious.

My life changed a lot in 2015. I went from being an unfulfilled bank teller who wrote articles like “What You’re Getting Out of Your Menial Job (Besides a Paycheck)” to being a full time student with a purpose. I stand by everything I wrote in those articles and do not regret my time as a teller (I actually learned a lot and made some amazing friends), but damn, my life improved tenfold in one day after finding my purpose.

I found my passion as an undergraduate, but what I didn’t realize was that passion (in my case, wanting to do Great Big Things to improve public health around the world) is simply not enough. Passion doesn’t look great on a resume.

What you need is to have a specific purpose within your passion. Passion is what consumes your heart and mind. Purpose is how you use that passion in a concrete way, moving it along from idea to reality. In short, passion is expressed through your heart, purpose is expressed through your hands. That’s how I see it, anyway.

I would still be an unfulfilled bank teller if it was not for seeking guidance. I reached out to an undergraduate advisor who no longer had an obligation to help me out, but graciously agreed to meet with me anyway. There’s a small lesson to be gleaned there: never assume someone won’t help you. People are more generous than you think.

I had so many options in front of me about how to go after my passion. I felt like Harry Potter in Ollivander’s, gazing at a wall of wands. Most of the wands would be an awful fit for me. Which was the magical wand that would fit my hand? My urge was to just pick up a wand and try it (i.e., just apply to a nursing program or something). My advisor could sense that I was panicking. He asked me some questions that helped me, in a matter of hours, find the answer.

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3 Questions That Helped Me Find My Purpose In One Day

One of the first questions he asked was why?

Why was I so hellbent on working in public health? My answer was simple: it’s endlessly interesting to me. I want to read papers about public health for the rest of my life and talk to people at conferences about it and work into the wee hours of the morning finding solutions to make it better. All in one breath, that was my answer. Next question.

The second question was: what specifically about public health interested me?

So I think public health is interesting, but I also think quantum physics is interesting. I was inclined to say all of it.

After more thought, I realized that I loved looking at how people presented information. I loved the maps, the charts, the figures. Even more, I loved that it represented ordinary people. It’s not theory, it’s not philosophy; behind those figures are people like my aunts and uncles, best friends, and neighbors, each of them with complex lives that can never be adequately summarized by numbers and figures, but whose health might depend on a pattern found in a mountain of data.

Just like writing here on GenTwenty, I loved the idea of communicating that complex information in an accessible way.

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The last question: what do you want your day-to-day life to look like?

Do you want a lot of face-to-face with the public, or are you more comfortable in front of a computer? A clear no-brainer. After a year and a half as a bank teller, I could safely say the public was not my cup of tea. So much for that panicky decision to become a nurse; that wand would have blown up in my face.

In just three questions, my answers were all pointing in a pretty specific direction. Clearly, I should be in the business of creating the visualizations I love, making complex issues digestible for the public. It’s so specific that I had never heard of anyone doing it as a career, but lo and behold, it’s a real thing that people can do. They have diverse titles: web programmers, cartographers, graphic designers, etcetera, but many of the same skills apply.

When you find something that feels right, you have to go for it right away. After the meeting, I contacted the director of the graduate program I would need to get into. The application deadline had passed months earlier, but I told her all the honest details of my situation. I was accepted within the week.

Another little lesson: don’t be afraid to ask for exceptions to seemingly strict rules.

What was so important about that meeting was that the focus was on what I can do rather than what I should do. We discarded any pre-conceived notions about what my career should look like. People create their own careers all the time, so I don’t need to point to one person who is already doing my dream job and emulate what they’re doing. Yes, what I want to do is already being done by others, but I might do it in a totally different and better way. Once I get the hard skills in my arsenal, it’s up to me to decide where to point my wand (last Harry Potter reference, I swear).

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To find your passion, I suggest starting with these three questions. Talk them through with a mentor or two.

1) Why are you passionate about it?

2) What is the ridiculously specific thing that gets you excited about it?

3) What do you want your day-to-day work life to look like?  

These three questions should help orient you. Maybe you won’t find the specific job title you’re aiming for, which is okay. Maybe your future job doesn’t exist yet or maybe there is a long list of job titles underneath one big umbrella of skill sets, in which case you can focus on gaining those skills.

When you figure out what the next step should be, go after it. Don’t wait until you hit the one year mark at your current job, or after you lose some weight, or after your savings hits the $5,000 mark. Go after it now.

Send some emails, stalk some offices, apply to programs that aren’t accepting applications anymore if you have to. 

Things might start to take shape way faster than you can imagine. Maybe it’ll only take one day.