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5 ways to use intuition to find your unique career path

Previously , on finding your unique career path (Part 1), we explored several insights from poetry about intuition and taking risks.  In this installment, we further debunk “mental constructs” for finding meaning, and introduce five practices that can help cultivate an intuition of our unique paths in life. 

It’s easy to get caught up in our thoughts and lose stillness, which in turn means to lose ourselves.  Recent scientific studies by Timothy Wilson and team – in which participants were more willing to shock themselves than sit quietly – suggest that Americans have an incredibly difficult time sitting still.  (See summaries of the study by Kate Murphy, New York Times, and by Nadia Whitehead, Science).  Blaise Pascal once observed, “I have discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber.” (Pascal, p.39, Pensées (1958), cited by Mark Muesse, in The Spirituality of Men, Philip Culbertson, ed. (2002))

So in terms of finding meaning in our lives, what if we are thinking too much?  What’s at risk when we ignore our intuition?   By intuition, here I mean an inner sense or confidence about what actions you should take in a given situation.  It’s not the same as the urgent sort of intuition described by Malcolm Gladwell in Blink (2005), or Gary Klein in Sources of Power (1999).  Rather, it’s more of a deep knowing of yourself and what’s best for you, and you know it once you feel it.  But if you live a noisy life – constantly interrupted and moving between streams of information and others’ demands on your time – you may not yet have had a chance to listen to yourself.  Indeed, the stillness might feel maddening.

Thich Nhat Hanh, a popular Buddhist meditation teacher, speaks of a unique motivation within each of us:

Volition is the driving motivation behind our thinking, speech, and actions.  It determines everything.  Every one of us has a strong goal for our life.  We want to achieve something.  We feel a ball of energy in us, a tremendous, powerful source of energy.  We want to feel truly alive. (Thich Nhat Hanh, The Art of Power, p65)

In The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers debunk the mental concept of “finding meaning,” in favor of finding an experience of being alive:

Moyers:  I came to understand from reading your books – “The Masks of God” or “The Hero with a Thousand Faces,” for example – that what human beings have in common is revealed in myths.  Myths are stories of our search through the ages for truth, for meaning, for significance.  We all need to tell our story and to understand our story.  We all need to understand death and to cope with death, and we all need help in our passages from birth to life and then to death.  We need for life to signify, to touch the eternal, to understand the mysterious, to find out who we are.

Campbell:  People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life.  I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking.  I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical [level] will have resonances within our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.  That’s what it’s all finally about, and that’s what these clues help us to find within ourselves. 

Moyers:  You changed the definition of a myth from the search for meaning to the experience of meaning.

Campbell:  Experience of life.  The mind has to do with meaning.  What’s the meaning of a flower?  …What’s the meaning of the universe?  What’s the meaning of a flea?  It’s just there.  That’s it.  And your own meaning is that you’re there.  We’re so engaged in doing things to achieve purposes of outer value that we forget that the inner value, the rapture that is associated with being alive, is what it’s all about. (p. 4-5, The Power of Myth)

Here is the Tao Te Ching with some playful anti-intellectualism:

The great square has no corners.
The great vessel is finished late.
The great sound is scarcely voiced.
The great image has no form.
TAO hides, no name.
Yet TAO alone gets things done.

(Lao Tzu; Addiss and Lombardo translation, #41 excerpt)

Last, Sir Ken Robinson, the influential writer, education expert, and public speaker, writes:

When you’re in your Element, your sense of time changes.  If you’re doing something that you love, an hour can feel like five minutes; if you are doing something that you do not, five minutes can feel like an hour. …Being in your Element gives you energy.  Not being in your element takes it from you. …

Finding your Element is a quest to find yourself…it is a two-way journey:  an inward journey to explore what lies within you and an outward journey to explore opportunities in the world around you. (Finding Your Element, p. 5)

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How can we get in touch with our inner landscapes?  Robinson suggests a few techniques, which I’ve listed and commented on below.  See his recent book Finding Your Element (co-written with Lou Aronica) for more detail and exercises:

  1. Meditation.  I highly recommend a practice that focuses on cultivating awareness, as opposed to cultivating trance-like states or other esoteric abilities.  The reason being that the former can ultimately help significantly in daily life, while the latter may not, and may even make practical daily living more difficult.  Practicing Mindfulness: an Introduction to Meditation (Mark Muesse), a Great Courses program, is a fascinating, comprehensive, and secular introduction to mindfulness meditation.  (As a preview, Professor Muesse will soon appear in an interview series with XY Culture slated to run in October and November.)  Or for readers interested in sampling a range of Buddhist practices, including lovingkindness and breath awareness, you may like Quiet Mind (Susan Piver, ed.).  This is a short book and includes a CD with guided meditations by experienced teachers of each type of meditation.  Third, there are approaches that may appeal to readers with particular belief systems, such as Christianity (e.g., centering or contemplative prayer), Hinduism (e.g., yoga), and Islam (e.g., Sufism).
  2. Changing your perspective, by challenging your or other people’s assumptions. This is generally a journaling or writing exercise to explore underlying assumptions.
  3. Mind Mapping.  This is an exercise to quickly generate associations between concepts in your life or that you want to explore, and it can “trick” the analytical elements of your mind into calming down. Background here.
  4. Vision Boards.  See Robinson’s book for a description, p13-14. Robinson writes, “A vision board is a collage of images that reflection your aspirations, hopes and dreams.”  Also, Timothy Pike at “Dream, Play, Write” recently posted a pithy and inspiring summary of how he uses a vision board.
  5. Automatic writing (or what I’ve called active journaling before).  Here I would recommend either Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way (as does Robinson) or At a Journal Workshop (Ira Progoff).  One word of caution on the former, it uses some “God” language and so may not appeal to everyone.

This advice resonates with my own experiences.  As I unwound a career path focused first on medical practice, and then on ambitious corporate jobs, and started to figure out a different way (currently a mix of freelance writing, teaching, and health care consulting), I relied heavily on some of the above techniques, especially meditation and journaling.  You may find some of these work for you, or that trying them leads you to other approaches.  I found that intuition helped me with situation assessment and exploring solutions.  When I got quite still – for instance, during some meditation sessions – I would sometime have powerful daydreams of myself writing and teaching.  These scared me because I carried much negative baggage about these as career paths.  How would I make money?  How would I proceed with no degree in the humanities or teaching?  But that fear also intrigued me.  I knew, somehow deeply, that I would regret not turning towards it.  What would I feel like, if I live into old age, and were able to look back and wonder about that time I could have tried writing?

When I did experiment with writing– we’ll cover experimentation in Part 3 of this series – I felt a visceral excitement!  Even when the writing was emotionally harrowing, it was therapeutic and engaging.  Time would sometimes disappear and hours would go by without needing food, bathroom, or a distraction.  That paled in comparison to my office job, when after a ten or twelve-hour day, I would come home feeling nauseated and exhausted, and lie belly up on the floor – just another rug staring at the ceiling (this was before we had kids).

Where do frameworks fit in?  You may have seen charts like the below circulating on social media:

purpose Shapland

It seems the intention of a chart like this (from teacher and blogger Dorothy Shapland) is to inspire people to think of the elements in their lives that could contribute to a sense of “bliss,” which in turn is another way Joseph Campbell described “rapture” or “an experience of being alive.”  But I think these charts can cause more problems than they solve.  For one, this is a mental framework and so by definition is at odds with each person’s creative discovery of what is alive within you.  If you’re trying to optimize things by evaluating this or that dimension, in other words, you’re already on a false path that is taking you away from feeling alive.  Second, you may not agree with the underlying assumptions that leads to these categories (or like me, you may not even understand what some of the categories mean.  What does “what the world needs” mean?  It’s very subjective and easy to tie yourself into anxiety knots worrying about whether you’re having enough “impact” in the world while doing job X, when you might be doing job Y).  You may, for instance, feel that what you need to be doing is caring for a sick loved one or slogging away at a job because you are the only person in your family able to work.  In these situations, you may not care much about splitting hairs over whether something is a profession or vocation or calling.  It’s all nonsense, and you’re living your life the best you can.  You may not also agree that you need to be making money, or that money is important other than for sustenance.  Last, a chart like this tells me nothing about what I might change in my life.  What actionable steps can I take to do more of what I love vs. what I do well?  I’ve got a unique opportunity?  Should I do it, if it doesn’t move me from the outside to the center on this chart?  To be fair, Shapland’s original post actually agrees with a lot of what I’ve written here; perhaps what I’m criticizing is the circulation of these charts out of context by various readers on social media.

By contrast, we’ve discussed 5 actions you can take to work on your inner understanding of your truest genuine desires for your life.  And we’ve explored philosophical insights from a wide variety of cultures and historical periods that all point to the importance of cultivating your intuition to find your way in life.

Certainly “mental” thinking has its place – strategy, planning, problem framing, and analysis.  But what’s the point of analysis when we don’t even know ourselves?  Frameworks can hobble your understanding if applied too early in a creative self-discovery.  We need less scriptwriting and more going off-script.  Less outlining, more stream of consciousness.

Here’s how Ghalib (from Robert Bly’s collection of poetry,  “The Soul is Here for its Own Joy”) described both the wild appeal of following your intuition or innermost “desire”, and the sometimes terrifying sense of uncertainty when frameworks fall apart, and the sand mocks their very idea in the desert when no clear path presents itself:

In this world of infinite possibility
I look around for the second step
of desire–
All I see is one footprint!

Readers, which of the above techniques appeal to you or have you tried?  What in your heart have you always wanted to try, or have felt afraid of trying?  Try quickly listing 5 to 10 ideas.  Then in a second column, list why you haven’t tried them yet.  Can any of these be explored with small steps, like taking a class or talking to people already in a particular profession?

In our next installment, we’ll explore how you can experiment with your interests and ideas, and evaluate whether they resonate with your intuition.

Like what you’re reading?  Please join hundreds of email subscribers who receive our biweekly digests of recent posts, and access to special content like full-length interviews and eBooks .

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