Redefining Your Purpose in the Wake of the Pandemic
For many of us, the pandemic changed our purpose. It’s time to embrace this period of transition and reimagine both your personal life and your work. In this journey of self-reflection, first, identify what’s permanent — those sources of meaning that will never change, whether it’s being a parent or the urge to work in health care. Next, reject stagnation. Identify areas where you feel stuck, and find ways that you can change them or let them go. Finally, embrace others. Reach out to others in transition and support each other as you navigate this new phase of life and experience these shifts in purpose together.
What happened to you these last two years? Did you lose a job, or quit one? Did you relocate, opting to work remotely from a new place or to be closer to family? Did you see what life would be like spending more time (or less) with friends and family? Did you get seriously ill or lose a loved one?
Life is full of major transitions. People graduate high school. They leave home. They enter the workforce, get married, have kids, and eventually retire. And these pivotal life events often lead us to reflect and alter our lives in major ways. In my book, The HBR Guide to Crafting Your Purpose, I argue that purpose isn’t singular (one big thing) but plural — the myriad sources of meaning that surround us each day. And over the course of a life our purposes are rarely stable. Instead, they shift over time. The most dramatic of these shifts come during periods of major transition, like those listed above, when we fundamentally reevaluate the structure and focus of our lives.
What’s unique about this remarkable moment in history, however, is that we all just experienced a major life transition at the same time during the Covid-19 pandemic. For some it was brutal. For others, beautiful. But almost no one in the world lived through 2020 and 2021 without experiencing major change. And, consequently, for perhaps the first time since at least World War II, almost everyone in the world is processing major shifts in their sources of purpose simultaneously.
This is seismic and tumultuous. It’s a primary driver of the Great Resignation. It’s altering the geography of major countries like the U.S. It’s led to political instability, mass crises of mental and physical health, and cultural turmoil. It’s causing all of us to wonder how we will measure our lives, at home and at work.
The pandemic changed your purpose. The only question now is if you will consciously embrace this transition and use it to craft an intentional, meaningful future in its aftermath.
This will be hard. Everyone’s process of reflection and action will look different. But I’d encourage a few basic principles for each of us as we embrace this period of transition together and reimagine both our personal lives and our work.
Identify what’s permanent.
While many sources of purpose are transitory — working as an intern, living abroad, or searching for a romantic partner — some are core to our identities. These permanent sources of purpose are the anchors in life that keep us stable and help us weather life’s most difficult storm. For me, these include my religious faith, my role as a father, my commitment to my spouse, and my love of writing. For you, they may be different.
There are sources of meaning at your very core that will never change and that help to define who you are. Identifying those, leaning into them, and learning to build around them is the foundation upon which you build a fruitful life transition. Sometimes these are professional — a deep and abiding calling to be a physician, for example, or to work with children. Other times, those core identities (e.g., father) may impact the way in which we structure how we want to work (e.g., more flex time at home).
Your pre-pandemic life is gone, and it’s unlikely your pandemic era habits can persist unchanged. If you’ve been quietly confined for much of this period, you’re now (or soon will be) reentering the world, whether that means visiting restaurants or the office. If you’ve worked remotely for two years, chances are you’re going to shift habits again and find a balance between virtual and physical community. If you’ve been clinging to a job that makes you feel stuck, now’s the time to reinvent it or move on.
What areas of your life were stagnant two years ago, particularly in your work? What pandemic habits have you fallen into that you need to pull yourself out of? Don’t go back to who you were in 2019, but also don’t hold too tightly to who you were in quarantine.
There’s rarely been as universal an opportunity for reinvention as this moment, and it requires each of us to reject stagnation. Was the daily commute unhealthy? What might that look like moving forward? Were you in a professional rut with your learning stalled? How might you craft your work to reinvigorate it?
Learn to let go.
A necessary part of rejecting stagnation is letting go. Perhaps you learned over the last two years that you no longer love your job, but you clung to it out of fear. Now is the time to reinvent it or leave it. Perhaps you’ve experienced great grief — the loss of a loved one, isolation and loneliness, fear and anxiety — that you now need to slowly move beyond. Maybe you developed habits of isolation or distance that you need to ditch to feel part of a community again. And maybe after two years of relocating, you need to decide whether you’ll actually return to the apartment in the city you once loved. What is it in your life you need to leave behind to be happier and more fulfilled in the years ahead?
If you’re beginning to think it’s time to switch jobs (or even careers), now, during the flux of the Great Resignation, could be a good time. You should always think carefully about a big change, but if the signs are there that you should leave, begin thinking through how to leave for something and not just from something. Reflect now on what a flourishing work future could look like. And embark on a structured set of next steps to get there.
The best part of us all experiencing this shift in life and purpose together is that none of us are alone. As you navigate one of the most important transitions in your life, you’re surrounded by scores of people experiencing the exact same change.
Reach out to them. Offer your support in their journey and seek their advice on yours. There’s never been a better time for a peer mentoring group, a book club, or a job transition group (even virtually). That empathy you feel for everyone else’s transition? They feel it for you, too.
Embrace others as you navigate this new phase of life and experience these shifts in purpose together. This is particularly true of professional transition. Start or join a “work transitions” group of friends or acquaintances considering a similar move. Join a professional association or conference for the field in which you’d like to work. Surround yourself with others who can help to think through the transition, demystify it, and make it more rewarding.
Any major inflection point in life can feel terrifying. Finding new sources of meaning is hard. And like many life transitions, the pandemic was not a welcome or pleasant one. The biggest question we all face now is what’s next — and how can we embrace purpose in our post-pandemic future.