Do you know the larger direction you want to go in after volunteering?
Or do you feel—like a lot of us—a little stuck between doing what you think the world needs, and doing what you enjoy?
On the one hand, of course, there’s so much across the country and world that needs supporting, speaking up for, healing right now. You care deeply. What else can you do but devote yourself to the people and the larger issues that need the most support?
On the other hand, maybe you really love yoga. It relaxes you and helps you walk around more centered and grounded. You feel like a more whole, present you—better for you, and better for others. Should you get certified to instruct yoga—or open a holistic wellness center?
The short answer is yes to both—you should do what the world needs, and do what you enjoy on a deep level. That’s what the world asks of each of us, and what we get to do.
And the powerful part is, they actually live in the same package.
How do you find that sweet spot for you? Start by remembering two key things:
1. Duty and guilt aren’t enough to run on.
They just aren’t.
Most volunteers I know had what they consider to be fairly privileged and often sheltered upbringings.
Many of them didn’t feel they understood the injustice that exists across the US and the globe until they volunteered—and now that they’ve seen, they feel they are responsible.
They’re right, of course: Each of us is responsible to each other, the earth, and future generations. And the fact that service generally helps deepen this realization in us is a huge reason the volunteer experience is so transformative.
The challenge is that sometimes volunteers feel so overwhelmed with the needs in the world—and as well as guilty about the privilege they were born into—that they feel they don’t have a right to enjoy themselves. They think:
When I’m indulging myself, aren’t I ignoring my responsibility to other humans?
Look at Mother Theresa. What gives me the right to live a life with selfish parts when there’s so much suffering in the world?
If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone.
And to be clear, duty and guilt may have served you well to an extent in the past.
Maybe they woke you up and got you going—motivated you in ways you’re proud of to push beyond expectations in important work. And you may have serious gratitude for that.
In terms of choosing a focus for your work and larger life moving forward, though, they aren’t enough to sustain you.
Guilt is draining, heavy, bottomless. Guilt tells us that whatever we’re doing it’s never enough for what the world needs.
Operating from this place, we get tired and resigned. Smaller and tighter. Worst case, we became martyrs, suffering unnecessarily and even making others suffer. Energy spreads. If you’re exhausted and unenergized consistently, the people and cause you’re working with feel that.
We aren’t meant to live that way. And there’s also something larger that’s lost when we do.
When you force yourself in a direction you think you should follow, you crowd out the voice trying to tell you how you actually can serve the world best.
Which brings us to:
2. What you enjoy on a deep level is a map to what you’re here to give.
Imagine a time when you were very happy.
What were you doing? What was it about it that made you enjoy it so much?
How did you leave that activity and walk into the world afterwards?
When we’re happier, we’re more relaxed, move loving and generous, more energized, more peaceful. We can weather more and get things done more easily and efficiently. It’s easier to be present with others and see the larger picture since we’re not so preoccupied with our own worries. Having more space in ourselves, we have more space for others, too—and can go deeper with them.
In short, we’re on another plane spiritually. But there is also something more specific happening.
What makes us happy on a deeper level is the same as what the world needs most from us. In fact, it’s designed to be a map to it.
We each have something unique in us that the world needs, that no one else can give. I call this life purpose.
If we don’t live ours, we’re not only letting ourselves down, but the larger community, because it’s not getting what’s ours alone to give.
The author and civil rights activist Howard Thurman said, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
I think of alive as a deeper version of happy.
What makes us alive means something to us. What makes us alive moves us—not just on a surface level, but in a lasting way. And what makes us alive is something that by nature, serves a larger good.
What makes us alive gives us profound joy, but it doesn’t make us beam all the time. Sometimes it makes us hurt viscerally, breaks us open, because it matters to us so much.
Yet underneath it, there is a larger satisfaction that our time is overwhelmingly well spent when doing this thing. And our life doesn’t quite make sense without it.
I’m not talking about the pleasure you get from your hobbies—though that’s valuable in its own right. Hobbies are things you sometimes use to get away from your life, and they don’t define you.
What makes you alive on a deeper level does—and it’s what brings you meaning.
Bottom line, true aliveness is a feeling that literally, we’re doing what we’re on earth for… because we are.
This may be non-profit work, but it may as easily be teaching yoga, running a business, or building certain relationships.
For example, perhaps you feel very moved and energized when you help people become more present in their daily lives—and you know yoga can do that. A yoga center can be a completely—and uniquely—transformative place if it has that kind of deep, personal meaning for you. It can ripple out into the wider community in ways we can’t possibly imagine.
Take some time now and let yourself focus a bit. Vicki Robin, author of Your Money or Your Life, helped influence me with the sequence of the following questions. Know that it’s safe for you to explore them—it’s even safe to have fun exploring them:). You can’t do this wrong. Let yourself breathe and release a little weight. Get paper for notes if you want. Then ask:
- What brings you most alive? Look across your whole life, starting from childhood. What kinds of books, speakers, and activities have you been most interested in—especially the kind you’ve revisited over and over?) What has made you feel part of something larger than yourself? What work would you do (and perhaps have you done) even if you weren’t paid for it?
- What’s a specific area of pain and suffering among people and/or the world that affects you deeply, and makes you want to act? It may be a need that’s widely recognized by others (e.g. supporting education for rural African children in poverty), or something subtler that not everyone would relate to (e.g. supporting women who grew up in households with addictions, and now have anxiety around needing control). The point is that you relate. Perhaps it’s a type of despair, grief, or other difficulty you’ve experienced yourself, or seen others you care about experience. What matters to you and breaks you open?
- How can you bring some aspect what came up for you above (in either or both of your answers) into your life this week for 15 minutes or more? In other words, start with where you are. One thing that trips us up is assuming we have to find the perfect paid job immediately to bring everything together for us. You will find a way to make your purpose part of your paid work if it’s true to you and you decide to. But for now, what is a small action you could take this week that would have passion, love, and meaning for you?
Then do it!
You benefit all of us when you do:).
This is a leap for a lot of us to think that it’s not either what helps the world or what makes us happy, but there’s a third way where we can do both. Have faith that it does exist for you.
You’re not meant to do everything or to become anyone else. To do our best for others and truly do our part in this life, it turns out all we need to do is become more and more alive—which means more and more ourselves.
If you found this blog valuable, please consider sharing it with others who might benefit, too. Want more support living as your best, most alive self? Sign up for my free starter course, 5 Steps to a Fulfilling Life After Service, right here.
PHOTO CREDIT: Mason Wilkes