Use Your Purpose to Manage Stress, Anxiety, and Depression (Issue #351)
Owning your life's mission gives you more control over your physical, mental, and emotional health
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Please note: This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical or mental health condition.
Every day, I talk with someone who wants to quit their job. They’re frustrated, angry, and stressed about their projects at work and relationships with coworkers and management.
They feel anxious about their performance and fear that they will get a bad review or even lose their job. The thought of continuing to work for their employer every day for several more years is depressing.
I hear statements like:
“They don’t appreciate me.”
“I don't feel respected.”
“My employer isn’t investing in me.”
“I never receive any training.”
“I don’t feel like I’m growing.”
“I want to walk away, even though I don’t have another job lined up.”
“I’ve lost faith in my abilities.”
“I’m beginning to doubt myself.”
“I’ve lost my mojo.”
These feelings are more common than you might think. Our work has a significant impact on our sense of wellbeing.
I’ve shared this data before from research by Clarine M. Jacobs, Ph.D., published in Ineffective-Leader-Induced Occupational Stress:
~75% of employees said their leader is their most significant source of stress.
~70% of employees said their work is a substantial source of stress.
~80% of employees experienced stress-related physical symptoms (e.g., fatigue, irritability, anger, lack of motivation, headaches).
It can take several months or even years to recover from a toxic work environment or a bad boss who tears you down. I've experienced that. In one case, I didn’t feel “back to normal” for almost six months after I quit a job that had an incredibly negative and political culture.
I thought I could push through the stress and anxiety that I was feeling in that job. But, I paid a steep price for not dealing with it. My health suffered considerably. But, I finally took steps to get it under control and changed my life forever.
Last year, I shared some strategies and techniques to relieve stress. I’ve found that actively managing my stress levels also dramatically improves my work productivity. Maybe some of these can help you too!
However, these strategies still feel more like a painkiller than an actual solution. That is, they treat the symptoms more than they stop the stress and anxiety from happening in the first place.
I’ve had a year to think more about this problem, work with clients struggling with stress and anxiety, and manage my own issues and struggles with depression. I still use all of the techniques I shared last year to manage my symptoms. But, I’ve found that it's better to head them off at the pass sooner.
One of the most effective and lasting strategies is to take complete control of what you believe is your life's mission vs. simply adopting your employer’s mission and giving your heart and soul to some company. Owning your sense of purpose gives you more control of your physical, mental, and emotional health.
I made that mistake earlier in my career. I “drank my employer’s Kool-Aid” and threw myself 100% into my job. My sense of identity was tied to my job title and the company’s mission. That was a huge mistake.
You are vulnerable if you let someone else (e.g., a boss or employer) hold the keys to your wellbeing and a sense of purpose. Tying your identity to your employer, its mission, and a specific job title is always risky.
When the project fails, you feel like a failure.
When your boss gets upset with you, you feel stressed and anxious.
When your world-changing project gets canceled, you get depressed.
What happens if your employer makes a strategic pivot away from the mission you’ve been committed to for years?
What happens if your company gets acquired and the new leadership changes everything (e.g., your title, role, projects, etc.)?
What happens if you get demoted or lose your job?
Don’t fall into that trap as I did. Yes, you should absolutely have a job or run a business that feels meaningful. But, your sense of purpose needs to rise above that. It should endure beyond the boundaries of any specific job or company.
When you have a sense of purpose, and your efforts have meaning, you can keep going and push through almost anything. But, they need to be under your control.
When I work one-on-one with my clients, they receive “homework exercises” to explore and create their personal vision and mission. We discuss how this can become their purpose in life instead of solely focusing on what an employer wants them to do (e.g., help them acquire more users, increase revenue, and beat the competition).
I know that when I create my own purpose, I feel more in control, and that reduces my anxiety. I look forward to every day because I will be working on my mission. Having a meaningful sense of purpose takes the edge off my seasonal depression, which has become a little less seasonal and a little more persistent over the past two years.
For most of my life, I didn't feel like I had a purpose. Years ago, I probably had some shallow, corporate, materialistic answer to the question, “What is your purpose in life?”
But, now? Now, I finally feel like what I'm doing matters.
When I launched Invincible Career and started working with people who were frustrated with their jobs, feeling sad about their careers, and wondering about their future, it made me realize that I was finally doing something that actually helps people. I could see the change in their confidence, happiness, and hope for the future. I’d never experienced that before in my corporate jobs.
So, this is how I answer that question today:
"My purpose in life is to empower good people and give them the confidence to plan, create, and live the life they deserve."
I want to give you a sneak peek at some of the homework I give my clients. We work on this very exercise of exploring and defining their purpose, vision, and mission to align their career path with what matters most to them.
A calling vs. passion
Over the last few years, it has become quite popular to tell people to follow their passions. I’m not a fan of this recommendation because I think it misleads people. They believe that they can identify a passion and then make a living from it. Easy, right?
My problem with this is:
Something might be a passion (e.g., playing guitar), but that doesn’t mean that you are actually good at that thing.
You may have a passion for something (e.g., birdwatching), but it doesn’t solve a problem or meet a need for anyone else. Therefore, no one will pay you to pursue this passion.
Finally, when someone turns a passion into a way to make a living (either as an employee or an entrepreneur), they often lose their passion for that very thing. For example, there are many stories of people who loved singing for fun but lost their passion for it once it became a job to pay the bills.
I prefer to have my clients think about their “calling.” A calling isn’t necessarily a passion, although you can feel passionate about pursuing a calling (many people do). It also isn’t necessarily fun to pursue a calling, but you feel drawn to it and driven to make it happen. Some might call that an obsession. I prefer to think of it as finding meaning and fulfillment in life.
I see a calling as something that taps into your core talent, strengths, knowledge, and experience in a way that changes the world or improves the lives of others in a meaningful way. It is valuable enough to these people that you can, indeed, turn it into a living for yourself. Your unique way of bringing this to the world gives you purpose every day.
What do you feel compelled to do?
What would you say is your calling?
Your vision and mission
I’ve used a vision and mission framework to propose new corporate projects and formalize business ideas. But, I also find it useful for my clients to help capture their thoughts around their calling and purpose.
It helps to think about yourself and the world we live in since a purpose has more meaning when it improves the world and helps others. The following questions can help.
What does the world need? What problems need to be solved? What are the big opportunities?
What are you great at doing? Think about your natural talents and the skills you’ve acquired. What are your unfair advantages (e.g., you’re brilliant, naturally persuasive, people seem to like you, etc.)?
What do you love doing? Most importantly, what do you love doing that you’re also really good at doing?
What can you get paid to do? Unless you’re financially independent, you’ll want to align your purpose with some way to make a living.
Here is an example of how someone might turn the answers to these questions into more meaningful work:
”Sarah has a passion for teaching people how to use new technology. She is great at it and loves doing it. She feels that her calling is to help educate disadvantaged children, thus combining what she loves and what the world needs. Obviously, the world needs educators and you can get paid to be an educator. So, she created a business to get paid to educate children through online workshops. Now, she is focused on scaling her technology platform and the workshop programs to reach more children. She does this to have a larger and more positive impact on them and the world, but also to generate more income for herself.”
In this example, Sarah said that her calling is to help educate disadvantaged children. She could expand on this to create a more detailed vision and mission statement for her business.
What is a Vision statement? It’s an aspirational view of the future that would inspire yourself and others. As you think about your vision, what would your life ideally look like at the end of the next 15-20 years? How would you like to change the world? What impact do you want to have on others?
What is a Mission statement? Your mission is the realistic endeavor you believe will enable your vision to come true. Your personal mission statement will be what you want to commit to for your vision to become a reality.
For example, Sarah might create the following statements for her business:
Vision: Every child is prepared for the future of work.
Mission: We provide disadvantaged children with affordable and accessible educational opportunities to learn the latest technologies to prepare them for their future careers.
Exploring your purpose
You are absolutely unique. No other person on this planet has experienced the same life as you.
No one else has the exact combination of who you are, what you know, and what you are capable of accomplishing. I find that someone’s exact purpose is just as unique as they are.
For some people, their purpose is deeply tied to a creative act. They can’t imagine life without making “the thing” that gives them purpose every day. This could be writing, designs, music, art, code, etc.
These creators feel compelled to bring their work to life. Even if they weren’t getting paid to create it, they would do this.
For others, their purpose is instead deeply tied to people. They can’t imagine life without helping certain types of people every day.
Some teachers obviously feel this way about children. Some medical professionals feel this way about patients. So, this type of purpose is less tied to a specific act of creation and more about helping the people they care about the most.
Sometimes, these two types of purpose overlap when a creator uses what they create to help a specific kind of person (e.g., a children’s author who wants to entertain and educate young people).
Now, consider yourself. Do you feel compelled to create something, and you can’t stop doing it no matter what?
Or, do you feel drawn to helping specific types of people, and you believe that your purpose in this world is to make their lives better? You may even be one of the few whose sense of purpose lies at the intersection of both.
What are your thoughts on your purpose?
Once you have your own vision and mission statements, you’ll probably find it easier to define your purpose in life. Your purpose will be to follow your mission to make your vision of the world come true.
Your purpose is larger and more significant than any single project. It’s more meaningful than the work most employers ask us to do. It belongs to you and gives your life meaning beyond the jobs that come and go.
I find that defining and following a purpose — your life’s mission — gives you more control over managing your physical, mental, and emotional health, too. Focusing your energy on making your vision come true takes the edge off any stress or anxiety you might be feeling in a job, which suddenly feels a little less important.
Of course, when you pursue an Invincible Career, the ultimate goal is to rebuild your career around your own vision, mission, and purpose. Getting there might take years. But, when it happens, you can then dedicate all of your time to something that you find personally fulfilling and meaningful.
What is your purpose?
I’d love to hear your thoughts on your purpose. What do you feel is your mission in life? What vision do you want to make come true? How do you want to change the world?
Feel free to share with me in the comments if you’d like. Or, reach out to me. I’m always here to listen.
This week’s Invincible Career exercise
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Larry Cornett is a leadership coach and business advisor who hosts a private mastermind community for ambitious professionals with weekly challenges, office hours, and confidential support. If you’re interested in starting your own business or side hustle someday (or accelerating an existing one), check out his “Employee to Solopreneur” course (launching later this year).
Larry lives in Northern California near Lake Tahoe with his wife and children, and a gigantic Great Dane. He does his best to share advice to help others take complete control of their work and life. He’s also on Twitter @cornett.