There are two stories we often hear when it comes to pursuing our life's work, two lies we believe about success, and neither is very satisfying.
These are the stories many parents tell their kids. Maybe they're the ones your parents told you. Chances are, you probably heard at least one or the other at some point. And sadly, these are the very things that hold us back from achieving our dreams.
But what if neither was true?
Lie #1: You can be whatever you want
In this all-too-common tale of the self-made man, we see an individual defying the odds to achieve success. And all it takes is sheer tenacity. If you follow the plan, the logic goes, you will succeed.
But something about that has always bothered me. When does life ever go according to plan?
The truth is you cannot be whatever you want. We all have limitations and obstacles, certain impediments and weaknesses. But maybe those things that we often think of as bad really aren't all that good? And what if being whatever you wanted wasn't the point at all?
Lie #2: Only special people succeed
In this story, you don't really have control over anything. If you aren't given some special circumstance or opportunity, then you must be doomed to failure.
This is called fatalism, and in this paradigm, life has little meaning and there's nothing you can do to change that. Whatever will be, will be. Your destiny is inescapable.
But where is the adventure in that, in having everything scripted out for you? And what do we make of the countless stories of people lying on their death beds, full of regret?
Surely, there must be another way.
A surprisingly satisfying alternative
When I was working on my latest book, I stumbled upon some stories that turned these ideas of success upside down. What if you couldn't be whatever you wanted? But what if hidden in your worst weakness was your greatest strength?
This new way of approaching life with open hands aligned with most success stories I encountered in interviews and biographies. By no means was it a one-size-fits-all approach to discovering meaningful work, but it revealed a familiar pattern amongst those who have found their purpose.
One story was the tale of a five-year-old boy who beat brain cancer, then ran a dozen triathlons, hiked Machu Picchu, and became an Eagle Scout. And he did it all being legally blind, with more impediments than most of us can imagine.
When I asked young Garrett if he thought any of that good stuff could have happened without the bad, he said absolutely not. It wasn't that having cancer was good necessarily, but it was a means of bringing focus to his life, forcing him and his family to make the most of every moment.
We can learn a lot from that, especially when it comes to figuring out what to do with our own lives.
Understanding the journey
Many people are considering their life's purpose, wondering if they were born a destiny. Are we imbued with an innate reason for living, or is it something we have to create ourselves? The truth is that the route to your life's work is not what you have been told.
Finding your calling is not some carefully-laid plan. It’s not a goal you set and plow through life to achieve. At the same time, it isn't a series of random events, either. It's a mix of mystery and intention, both practice and introspection, and it tends to happen in stages.
The process begins with awareness, with “listening to your life” and looking for common themes that emerge. Then it leads to action, where you learn that your purpose won't just come to you — you'll have to work for it. And then, you move into legacy, the phase in which you realize your vocation isn't about you but rather the impact you have on others. And all of this becomes your life's work.
Everyone has a right to do work that matters. In The Art of Work, I lay out a path that emerged after studying the lives of countless people, reading their stories and interviewing them myself. This is the way that many others have walked for thousands of years, so it can be trusted.
There's something beautiful about following in the footsteps of others while still being able to make the path your own. Understanding the process before you will help you make sense of your journey and know the next step to take. It'll also reinforce a lesson I learned over and over while writing this book:
What makes a life extraordinary aren't the chances we get, but what we do with them. [Tweet]
We all have opportunities we've been given, although sometimes we don't realize it. And we all have a chance to do something incredible with our lives as Garrett did. The question is, are we willing to embrace what we have or keep waiting for something else?
I hope you don't wait another second and get started today.
Don't forget: Until Mar. 23, you can pre-order my book at no cost to you when you just pay a flat rate shipping (if you live in the US or Canada). International people can order here. You can also download a sample chapter to learn more.
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Do you ever find yourself believing these lies about success? Share in the comments.