How can I figure out how to make my "ding in the universe"?
November 21, 2011 10:59 PM   Subscribe

How can I figure out how to make my "ding in the universe"?

I want to be successful and make an impact on the world. I want to make the world a better place, somehow, and I'd also like to earn a decent living while I do it, if I can. I want what I do to be something that I'm genuinely passionate about and that makes use of the things I'm uniquely good at.

Perhaps the best way to explain it is, I see these biopics on TV or the Internet that profile great people - Steve Jobs is a good example - and I really admire that what they did with their lives had real meaning, not only for them but for the people around them and for the world. I look at that and I say, "I'm a smart person. I have good ideas. I treat people right and want what's best for everyone. The difference between them and me is determination. I just need to decide what I'm going to do, and then go for it."

So the thing is, I'm having a hard time figuring out HOW to make an impact. I don't know what things I'm unique good at, the gifts that I could use to better the world. I also don't really know what I'm passionate about. I'm someone for whom things generally came pretty easily in school, so whenever something was difficult for me, I assumed I just wasn't "meant for it" and that it wasn't worth struggling through, so I'd quit, supposedly in order to go do something that I was more naturally inclined towards, but that meant I never got particularly good at anything. Now that I've grown up, I've realized that almost everybody has to struggle through a period of not being good at something before they become good at it.

I would like to change the way I approach life and pick a field to really dedicate myself to so that I can struggle through it and come out on the other side with a useful skill that I can use to make a real contribution to the world.

But I'm having a really hard time figuring out how to decide that... I can't think of anything that I really love with an obsessive passion. (I've felt that for some hobbies in the past, but eventually the shine faded and I moved on.) I would like to find that feeling again for something that I can learn and turn into a sort of "life calling". Or I guess, what I'm really wondering is, how do I figure out what that "life calling" is? What is it that is unique and special to me, that I can put forth in the world as my life's work?

I have done the whole "get out there and try a bunch of things" and I plan to continue doing so. It's taken me many years and I'm finally focusing more on the arts, which I had been avoiding because I had forever told myself that I could never be an artist, I think out of fear of failing, of being judged. I'm starting to dip my toe into that area now, and it's a very different world and I'm having a hard time figuring how to set my insecurities aside, so that I can listen to myself - but I'm also have no idea what I should be listening for, or how I can help encourage my purpose finally come out and show itself to me. Who knows, it may not even be in the arts. That could just be a stopping point along the way.

Sorry this is so long. I guess what I'm wondering is: What's the secret? How do you figure it out?
posted by inatizzy to Work & Money (16 answers total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
Go volunteer somewhere and help people who are standing right in front of you. If you want to make a difference, that's the way to do it. If that's not "enough" good, not "enough" of a difference, then you may be actually seeking self-worth, vindication, or fame. So start small, and help someone in a way you believe makes their world a better place. Then do it again. Repeat as necessary to change the world.
posted by davejay at 11:36 PM on November 21, 2011 [8 favorites]

Do you see anything in the world you would like to change?

Change it.
posted by Sys Rq at 11:42 PM on November 21, 2011 [3 favorites]

Mod note: A couple of comments removed; debating how great famous people are or aren't isn't really the question here. Condensed version: how do you find your passion/purpose?
posted by taz (staff) at 11:51 PM on November 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

I think the danger is that you're imagining your obituary rather than what you can do with your life. Or the affect you will have on other people, which is not necessarily easily quantifiable.

The two people I remember most in my daily life didn't really achieve all that much in terms of 'wow' factor. But they were decent people who often struggled against the odds and I know a great number of people who remember and talk about them with deep, deep affection. I don't give a flying toss about Steve Jobs or any of these famous people, but I remember John and Gerry and always will. They made a huge impact on my life and on the lives of a number of people. I can only wish I were as fondly remembered as they are.

This is a long-winded way to say: be kind, be good, be decent. And people will remember you and honour your name. And maybe you will have a greater impact in the end than some of the flashier people.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 11:58 PM on November 21, 2011 [7 favorites]

It's important to understand that the people you see profiled online or on TV or in magazines are not just people who had an impact but are also, by definition, famous. Take being famous off your list of goals and you have ample opportunities. People around you that you don't even see make a huge difference to the lives of the people they reach with no fame and little thanks. If you want to dedicate yourself to a field you can struggle through that can make a real difference when the people in it genuinely care, look at things like social work, teaching, hospice work, non-profits, open data... the list goes on. The world is literally filled with quiet heroes.
posted by DarlingBri at 12:11 AM on November 22, 2011 [5 favorites]

Maybe this W.H. Auden poem is worth reading as well:

"A shilling life will give you all the facts:
How Father beat him, how he ran away,
What were the struggles of his youth, what acts
Made him the greatest figure of his day;
Of how he fought, fished, hunted, worked all night,
Though giddy, climbed new mountains; named a sea;
Some of the last researchers even write
Love made him weep his pints like you and me.

With all his honours on, he sighed for one
Who, say astonished critics, lived at home;
Did little jobs about the house with skill
And nothing else; could whistle; would sit still
Or potter round the garden; answered some
Of his long marvellous letters but kept none."
posted by lesbiassparrow at 12:20 AM on November 22, 2011 [7 favorites]

Let me tell you a story, a true story, about a guy named Gus. Gus wasn't famous. Gus wasn't rich. Gus didn't invent anything or perform acclaimed acts of selfless heroism or artistic daring.

Gus ran a hot dog shop.

He worked there seven days a week for more than forty years. His hot dogs were delicious. They were affordable. Almost everyone liked them, and almost everyone liked Gus.

His hot dog shop was in a city known for deep divisions and distrust between people of different races, classes, and outlooks. It was a tiny place. People stood shoulder-to-shoulder to eat Gus's hot dogs, and he welcomed anyone with a couple of dollars to spend on a couple of hot dogs. So eating a hot dog at Gus's place might mean standing next to an attorney, who was standing next to a homeless guy, who was pressed against a banker, who was leaning on a construction worker. And because the place was so small, people were polite. If you were at one end and Gus was at the other, your hot dog might pass through several hands before it reached you. Some people found that repellant. I thought of it as a rather lovely form of secular communion.

Gus died, and his shop closed. His kids were grown, with careers of their own. They didn't want to be tied down to the hot dog shop that had put them through college.

Hundreds of people went to Gus's funeral. Hundreds of people, who represented the thousands and thousands of people who knew Gus.

The city asked his family if they would donate his shop's famous neon sign to the historical society. The sign came down, the shop sits empty.

And every day, someone walks by that empty shop and feels a twinge of hunger, a pang of something lost.

Gus's passing left a Gus-sized hole in the world. It's a small hole. Not a Steve Jobs-sized vortex. But it's a hole, and people know it, and they miss him and what he stood for and what he offered.

My point is this: very, very few people wake up one morning and go out and change the world. But many millions change their little corner of it. By dint of hard work and the accretive accumulation of tiny gains. See, it really doesn't matter what you do. What matters is how you do it. What matters is how you treat people, what you give, never what you get.

And if you work hard, and you treat people well, and you do a thing not for the sake of fame or fortune but for the sake of the thing itself, and if you continue to do this, if you persist, you will begin to shape your little corner of the world, and when you go, you will leave behind your imprint.

And that's all you can ask for.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 1:04 AM on November 22, 2011 [65 favorites]

Hold on to that image of your obituary in Time magazine and then look around for niches. Observe where there are gaps in the system or field or area you wish to, seek what's missing, this in itself will be a project in its own right. Once you find that gap or opportunity space, one that fits what you are able to do in order to fill, seek the best means to fill it. Then forget about that obituary and continue filling that gap or hole the best you can. Eschew all thoughts of it being a race or there even being competition. There will be no measure of your progress but where you were before. And there will be no real confirmation either of whether you'll get that obituary either (Van Gogh was a famous failure in his lifetime) but you, in the meantime, would have filled/will be filling a you sized niche.

An old cliche but one I've always considered apt in this regard has been Shakespeare's words,

This above all: to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man
posted by infini at 1:45 AM on November 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I think you need to consider how important fame is to you; you use the phrase "make an impact" multiple times, apparently in reference to people like Steve Jobs who were behind popular consumer products.

For example, art -- lots of people never make it big, and of those who do, many historically have not done so until after they died.

If you are passionate about helping people, or about understanding the human body, you might choose to become a doctor -- but you will probably not become famous, so if fame is important enough to you, you likely won't consider that option.

It could turn out that you are passionate about cooking. Unless you happen to be Gordon Ramsey, you won't become famous. You also may not help people -- but you could find that you live a nice life as a chef and that it's something you love.

Honestly, the trick for most people is to live life with a passion, not to find work that is an all-consuming passion. But if I were you and had your goal here, I would make a list of all the hobbies you have been obsessed with in the past, then list all of their characteristics, then try to isolate recurring characteristics or ones that feel important to you for some reason. That would be a starting point in figuring out what kinds of things appeal to you.
posted by J. Wilson at 5:52 AM on November 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

As another example, here is a guy who spent most of his life doing quiet geeky research in a field you would think would be LAST place one would find, fortune, or make much of an impact outside publishing a few papers, read by a handful of colleagues. In the end, he won a Nobel Prize, and is credited in saving the lives of over a billion people. Norman Borlaug.
posted by timsteil at 5:59 AM on November 22, 2011

Best answer: For most of us, there is no perfect passion, nothing that will make us go THAT'S IT, THAT'S WHAT I SHOULD BE DOING WITH MY LIFE. In fact, I think that idea is a fairly harmful myth, and that there are some very lucky people who cannot do anything but what they do, but most of us have to kind of fumble along. I have my own little pet theory that the people who have that burning passion are the ones who get famous and highly successful at a young age, while the rest of us wait until our 30s or 40s to really hit our stride in our field. I am kind of fascinated with stories about late bloomers. There was a great article by Malcolm Gladwell (with whom I have issues, but I do like his shorter pieces) about late bloomers in the New Yorker. Which is not to say that you're a late bloomer, but if you're asking questions like this, odds are you're also not a baby genius. Part of the reason I think that this myth is harmful is that adults see kids with some smarts or talent and think "I will make a genius out of you!" and so they get our expectations for ourselves up a little too high and then we're shocked when we get out into the world and have not become Albert Einstein. Or maybe that's just me. High expectations are great, but with that kind of treatment as a kid, you don't really learn how to get anywhere, you just learn about where you're supposed to be.

That doesn't mean that we can't be extremely successful at whatever it is we end up doing. I intend to be extremely successful, and if I'm not, well, I will have at least gotten somewhere, and maybe it won't be a bad place. All this just means that we should not waste our time waiting for epiphanies or endlessly questioning our career choices.

Here's what you do: You think about what interests you for a while, and you narrow that down until you've found a career path. A loose career path that situates you in your area of interest. A path that will easily bend towards opportunities that arise in your life, and which will also allow you to support yourself, because I think that if we're not doing something related to the awesome person we want to become as a career, we will be wasting a lot of time just making money.

Then, whatever you've chosen, you work really, really hard at it. I am convinced that to be extremely awesome, to have an effect on the world, you must simply work, and that if you work, things will happen. This is, I think, the most challenging part of all of this--it's kind of hard to find what you care about and understand that "care about" is enough and it doesn't need to be "live and breathe and think of nothing else," but it's way harder to then just work and work at it. The people who are coolest, the successful people I follow on twitter, the people I admire, they all work their asses off.

Sometimes I think that when we are looking for our passion, what we're really doing is trying to find something that is easy for us to work at. While some people totally find that, I have not, and I don't really know anybody else who has, either, though I do know successful, awesome people. There is such a thing as flow, but most people struggle to get to that state, and you have to keep working at this stuff even when you can't get to any kind of beautiful state of mind that allows you to work without effort.

This stuff is boring. It doesn't feel dynamic, right? And that's what you want. But I think that to move mountains, this is how it is.

You can take all this with a grain of salt, as I have not yet become extremely successful and as of yet just dream big and work on learning how to work hard. But I think I'm right about some of it.
posted by hought20 at 6:34 AM on November 22, 2011 [6 favorites]

Best answer: P. S. My definition of success for myself is not fame, really. Instead, it is to be someone brought in as an expert on an NPR show.

I am a dork, yes.
posted by hought20 at 6:43 AM on November 22, 2011 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: I really appreciate all of you who took time to answer here, especially after I posed such a rambling question. (That's what I get for posting in the middle of the night.) The message that really rang true is that there is not just one "ultimate passion" that I need to somehow discover before I throw myself into the hard work. It sounds like it's more a matter of just deciding on something myself and then making the choice to dedicate myself to it and practice it and work hard at it, even if it doesn't come easily at all times.

I also appreciate the comments that point out the distinction between making an impact and being famous - I'm interested in the former, because I want to spend my time on this planet doing something that actually matters, and it's a good reminder not to confuse that with getting recognition for those efforts.

Thanks again, everyone.
posted by inatizzy at 9:41 AM on November 22, 2011

Do what's put in front of you.

Not kidding.
posted by tel3path at 4:05 PM on November 22, 2011

Best answer: Don't set yourself up for imagining that you've failed if your name doesn't fill newspaper headlines. If you start with your grandiose plans, and really believe in them, you're bound to feel shitty when they don't happen just as you imagined.

As tel3path said, do what needs to be done. Do it well. Help those around you. Do what you can to make your presence in other people's lives a positive thing, not a negative thing. Be good to your friends, kind to strangers, and decent to people who you don't agree/get along with. Whatever calling you find, do it well, and enjoy doing it. If you don't enjoy it, it will affect your ability to do it, and make you less able to be a positive part of the world. Find something else. Do it, do it well, and you'll make as much of a mark as (most) anyone can.
posted by Ghidorah at 6:19 PM on November 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

« Older Can I install my son's OS on my wife's computer?   |   "Symphony of roses..." Line? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.