On Finding “The Thing You Love More Than Yourself”

This post was originally published on June 10, 2014.

As we round the corner out of graduation season, the platitudes of commencement speeches ring loudly: follow your passion, do what you love, celebrate failure, don’t give up, keep going. But when push comes to shove, when your back is up against the wall, which of these actually work?

“How Do I Do This?!”

There was a point in 2013 where I looked out of the windows of my studio apartment with a mixture of hope, prayer, and slight desperation. How? I wanted to ask the array of lower Manhattan buildings in front of me, as if they could answer me out loud. How do I do this? How do I make it here? How do I navigate through this fog? Is there a way out of this muck of uncertainty?

It was a Saturday night, and I was alone. I had eaten two granola bars for dinner with a cup of tea because I wanted to save money on food, and tempting though it was to numb my feelings with a glass of wine, I had sworn off alcohol for the year knowing it was going to be a doozy.

I wiped out my savings account to get the apartment I was asking these questions from. It was December, not yet halfway through a cold and dreary winter, and I felt totally, thoroughly lost. I was doing what I loved at a macro level (coaching, speaking, writing) but I didn’t know how to best apply these skills in my business moving forward. I was in the thick of my own pivot, and didn’t realize at the time just how close I was to bouncing out of it.

I had procured my new housing the month prior by withdrawing out every last precious penny from my already-dwindled savings account. This terrified me, as I have always placed a premium on the soft landing pad I saved up in my years of working at a start-up and Google.

But after a rollercoaster year it became clear that I needed a change, and I knew New York hadn’t given up on me just yet, nor me on it. I plunked down the first month’s rent plus THREE month’s security deposit (entrepreneur tax) in one fell swoop on a leap of faith that, after two years of living with a roommate, I could “make it” in New York on my own.

I Didn’t Know Much, But I Did Know This:

New York City and my own business would have to drag me out kicking and screaming. I was not going down without a fight. There was something refreshing and empowering about this level of certainty and conviction. That I was willing to feel so low, so lost, and still keep going. I believed in my business and this city much more than I was ever aware of during the “boom” times.

Still, my gremlins sat on my shoulder telling me I was delusional and should just go get a job.

But my inner pilot light was saying something else. It told me to keep going. That this was just the storm before the calm. This was just another initiation, another doorway, to the life and career that I knew in my heart and my gut were waiting for me on the other side.

Vague Ideas Count

At a certain stage, pivoting successfully is about doubling-down on strengths, support, systems, and creating a more effective strategy for the way forward. Tactically, it is often true that “what got you here won’t get you there.”

But before all that can happen, there’s a fundamental foundation that must be set. For me, the solid ground that I could stand on when everything else felt uncertain was this: focusing on my driving purpose in life, which is to be of service.

I’m not big on the whole “craft a fancy mission statement” version of purpose — though that can certainly be helpful if you have one. For me, one of the biggest (and only) things that kept me going in the darkest moments, aside from the love and support of close friends and family, was an unwavering conviction that the purpose of my life is to be of service.

On my most confused mornings, during my meditation I would simply ask, “Let me be of service. Help show me the way. I turn myself over to you, universe, so that I may work for the benefit of as many people as I am able.”

I know, without a shadow of a doubt, that I am happiest when I am giving, sharing, helping and contributing. Vague as it may be, I know that my “purpose” is to experience things, process them, read and research like a maniac, then figure out tools to help others through similar transitions in the future.

Six months later and I have more work than I can handle. I’m in my stretch zone and loving it, and I see the abundance of work as a fun invitation for further ninjafication of all systems. The best part is that I’m doing new types of projects that I’m absolutely crazy about — building companies and tools from the ground up, in addition to my speaking and coaching — but more on that in my next post. :)

The point is, pivoting is uncomfortable as all hell sometimes, but the other side of the risk and uncertainty is growth, confidence, and feeling ALIVE.

Elizabeth Gilbert On Success, Failure And The Drive To Keep Creating

Elizabeth Gilbert nailed this concept of returning to your core (and knowing what it is in the first place) in her TED Talk. I’ve excerpted generously below because her call-to-action to “find the thing you love more than yourself” is one of the only things that really works for me in times of great confusion or stress:

“For most of your life, you live out your existence here in the middle of the chain of human experience where everything is normal and reassuring and regular, but failure catapults you abruptly way out over here into the blinding darkness of disappointment. Success catapults you just as abruptly but just as far way out over here into the equally blinding glare of fame and recognition and praise.
And one of these fates is objectively seen by the world as bad, and the other one is objectively seen by the world as good, but your subconscious is completely incapable of discerning the difference between bad and good. The only thing that it is capable of feeling is the absolute value of this emotional equation, the exact distance that you have been flung from yourself. And there’s a real equal danger in both cases of getting lost out there in the hinterlands of the psyche.
But in both cases, it turns out that there is also the same remedy for self-restoration, and that is that you have got to find your way back home again as swiftly and smoothly as you can, and if you’re wondering what your home is, here’s a hint: Your home is whatever in this world you love more than you love yourself. So that might be creativity, it might be family, it might be invention, adventure, faith, service, it might be raising corgis, I don’t know, your home is that thing to which you can dedicate your energies with such singular devotion that the ultimate results become inconsequential.”

She wraps up with a great reminder that the only way to find our way back home is through diligence and respect:

“Look, I don’t know where you rightfully live, but I know that there’s something in this world that you love more than you love yourself. Something worthy, by the way, so addiction and infatuation don’t count, because we all know that those are not safe places to live. Right? The only trick is that you’ve got to identify the best, worthiest thing that you love most, and then build your house right on top of it and don’t budge from it.
And if you should someday, somehow get vaulted out of your home by either great failure or great success, then your job is to fight your way back to that home the only way that it has ever been done, by putting your head down and performing with diligence and devotion and respect and reverence whatever the task is that love is calling forth from you next. You just do that, and keep doing that again and again and again, and I can absolutely promise you, from long personal experience in every direction, I can assure you that it’s all going to be okay.”

Watch the full 7-minute speech here.

I’d love to hear from you in the comments:

What kept you going in moments you felt paralyzed or ready to give up?What’s your “home” — the thing you love more than yourself?