Validating Your Calling
An exercise in self-healing and self-discovery from the lens of a previously burnt out entrepreneur
Imagine a large, beautiful room—a blank canvas. In this room, you get to create or practice anything your heart desires. There’s a catch though; anything that happens in this room can’t leave the room. No one will ever know what you did in this room. You can’t sell anything you create, as you can’t take it with you. What would you do? What would you create?
This thought experiment was born after a lengthy duration of reflection in my journey of self-healing and self-discovery. I wanted to figure out what I would want to do if there were no external rewards. I wanted to explore how the complex nature of motivations played a role in my sinking mental and physical well-being.
After 5 years of growing my business, I burned out and crashed while blindly pursuing my passion. At my rock bottom, I was left with a bankruptcy in my mind, my body and my spirit. While many things contributed to this crash, one thing that sticks out is motivation.
The two forms of motivation are intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation is when you enjoy doing an act, without the promise of external rewards. Extrinsic motivation is when you do the act because of its rewards. Although it may sound simple, there is a complex and dynamic nature to motivation.
For example, let’s say you take on ceramics as a hobby. You enjoy doing the work—it brings you a sense of calm, you enjoy working with your hands and obtain a great deal of pleasure from turning a ball of clay into a functional or decorative piece. After a few years, your work explodes in popularity—you become well-known in creative circles, showing up in magazines, speaking on panels, receiving book deals, and getting contracts from restaurants, design firms and interior decorators.
At the beginning, it’s easy for motivation to be mostly intrinsic. However, once the external rewards start appearing in the form of money, reputation, and legacy, your motivations may morph without you even noticing. Social media exacerbates this shift as you start to craft an image and projection of yourself. Here, we often begin to move our focus towards external validation and comparison.
A common pitfall for many is tying their work to their identity. This can increase anxieties, pressures, and expectations, causing people to become obsessed and develop a narrow, singular focus. The irony lies in the fact that this narrow focus is usually detrimental to their work and their well-being. Our egos tend to create stories around this identity, which can create a rigidity that sacrifices our ability to grow in unexpected ways.
Success can also morph your hobby into a system of work. As you move up the hierarchy due to your growth, new problems arise. Red flags go up when you start seeking the external rewards more than the pure enjoyment of your work. If you subscribe to the Buddhist idea that all craving leads to suffering, then letting metrics like engagement, money and reputation guide your life will be a quick way to burn out your passion candle. Success at the end of the day should be the by-product, not your guiding light.
Connecting back to the room - would you perform your passion work inside the room? If the answer is no, you might have to find ways to rekindle your love for your work. If you don't, you might hit burnout way quicker to the increased conflict you face.
So how do you balance this? Find some rituals and habits that fill up your cup to prevent burnout. Look at well-being from a holistic standpoint. Seek out age old wisdom—stoicism and Buddhism can be a great starting point. Use the room to find other hobbies to help create more balance in your life. Receiving accolades or praise isn’t bad, but question your internal response when you do. Dwelling on it and seeking more of it can be an indication to get curious around your response. Accept the praise, and then get back to focusing on the work you enjoy. Finally, look at your self-talk. Is it healthy? Would you speak like that to a child or a best friend?
The stories we create in our minds can get in the way of these rituals—meditation can help to quiet the sense of self that desperately seeks comfort and status. While we may uncover some hard truths when reflecting inward, it poses an opportunity to make productive changes in your life.
Take a second, take a breath, and imagine your blank canvas. Look past the ego and ask yourself: What’s pushing you to do the things you do? What are you getting out of it? You are your habits. Are the things you’re doing every day shaping the person you want to become?