3 Things No One Tells You About Finding Your Life’s Work

on September 18, 2011 | in What the F Should You Do With Your Life?, Work | by

In his book Onward, Howard Schultz, ceo & chairman of Starbucks, describes the experience that fueled him to create the Starbucks we know today. Schultz was on a business trip in Milan when he made his way into an Italian espresso bar.

“‘Buon giornio!’ an older, thin man behind the counter greeted me, as if I were a regular. Moving gracefully and with precision, he seemed to be doing a delicate dance as he ground coffee beans, steamed milk, pulled shots of espresso, made cappuccinos, and chatted with customers standing side by side at the coffee bar. Everyone in the tiny shop seemed to know each other, and I sensed that I was witnessing a daily ritual.

‘Espresso?’ he asked me.

I nodded and watched as he repeated the ritual for me, looking up to smile as the espresso machine hissed and whirred with purpose.”

This is not his job, I thought, it’s his passion.

Passion—today let’s talk about it.

For the entirety of my adult life, I’ve wanted to find that passion—that thing that drives me. It was never a question of existence—with everything inside of me, I’ve always known that there was something I wanted to do with all my soul, something that was inseparable from my sense of purpose, of aliveness, my sense of self. Yes, I’ve always known that this thing existed. The maddening part, though, was that I hadn’t a clue what it was.

There comes a point—say, sometime in your mid-to-early twenties, often coinciding with your graduation from college—when people all of the sudden expect you to know exactly what you want to do with your life. The conversation typically goes something like this:

Aunt Sally at the family barbeque: “Wow, you’re graduating from college already! So what do you want to do after graduation?”

Since you’ve already chosen a major (somewhat blindly, mind you), you rattle off an answer somewhere along that line: “You know, like, um, something in business.”

“Like in operations? Or on the finance side? What kind of work are you thinking?”

Your face goes blank.

“Um, I think…”

All you can do is stare at that blob of barbeque sauce that’s fallen onto her shirt, right above her boob.

“I think, uh…”

Uncle Bob all of the sudden chimes in: “You know, I know this guy who does, like, negotiable securities and stuff for [XYZ Company]. I should get you two in touch.”

You nod and play along, all along wondering in the back of your head what the hell are negotiable securities?

And so you talk to a few people and you end up getting some job as an analyst at a bank or whatever because, hey, what else is there to do, really?

You have no clue what you’re getting into—I mean, just because you studied something in school doesn’t mean that you have the slightest idea about what it’ll actually be like to do real work. You know, like a real grown-up job.

Soon enough you learn, though, and it’s OK and all, but you still spend your days and nights wondering what the hell you actually want to do.

So what to do about it?

Guys, it’s not easy. Trust me, I know.

But somehow, somewhere in between working my day job and pondering this weird thing called life, I’ve finally touched upon it—I’ve finally found that thing that drives me.

When I’m writing; when I’m spreading messages and building community; when I’m doing exactly what I’m doing right here and right now—this is when I feel the most alive. It’s that thing that wakes me up at night, that thing that whispers to me whether I’m driving in my car or walking in the park or washing the dishes. It literally won’t leave me alone, and I’m so freaking OK with that. In fact, it’s become so much a part of me that I have no choice but to do it.

I can’t say how or when it’ll happen for you, but here are some things that I’ve learned along the way.


I was looking back at some of my old journals the other night, and I found a lot of entries just like this one, written the year after I’d graduated college:


It seems like my life has been consumed lately by trying to figure out where I want to go with my life and what I want to do. But the more I think about it, the more confused and frustrated I get.


Guys, this was over four years ago, and only recently have things started becoming clear for me. I wondered about this crap for well over five years before anything began to make any sense to me at all. I know how it is, guys—it’s maddening. You want the answers to come to you right now. You want to wake up tomorrow and jump out of your bed with purpose, shouting, “AHA! Finally I know what I was put on this earth to do!”

But let’s get real. It almost always takes time to figure things out—usually years, not days. And once you figure one thing out, it’s on to the next thing, anyhow. I’ve discovered what I love to do and what makes me come alive, but now I’m in the process of figuring out how or if I can make it into my day job or even my side job.

So be patient. Life is a question that never ends. Even as you keep searching for the answers, see if you can learn to live in that mystery and to be OK with the unanswered questions that lie before you. See if you can learn to be OK with the fact that you don’t know how or when they’ll come to you.

I think what I am starting to see is that this is not necessarily something I can plan,” I wrote later on in my journal.


“This is not something I can just think about for awhile and come up with an adequate answer. It seems that what I need to do, despite that it is the most difficult thing for me to do, is not to plan, but to accept that ‘I don’t know.’”

You don’t know right now, and that’s OK. Can you let go of needing to know and instead accept the fact that it may take some time for you to figure things out?

Our culture teaches that to find our purpose, we must control our future actions and make a plan and stick to it. Paradoxically, the movement we desire comes just at the moment when we stop being so afraid.

– Carol Adrienne

OK… that’s cool and all, you’re thinking, but what the hell do I do in the meantime?

Well, you just keep doing the very best that you can do right now. You use your best judgment and you do what you need to do to pay the bills—what else can you really do, anyhow?

I’d also recommend exploring lots of different things outside of work and seeing what pushes your buttons (read more about this here). Stay open, and most importantly, stay patient.

There are few other things that will help you while you’re waiting, too.


This might be weird or nerdy (or maybe it’s both), but I ask for guidance every day. Not guidance from my teachers or parents or mentors (although this can be a good thing, too), but guidance from… well, life. Or God. Or whatever you want to call he/she/it.

“Please show me the path I need to take to find the answers I’m seeking,” I ask. “Please give me the strength to walk this path even though I don’t know where it will lead. I’m open to your guidance and I trust that I’m being led to the people and places and experiences that will bring me home.”

The thing is, you don’t have to do it all by yourself. Especially when you don’t know where you’re going, you can ask for guidance and for patience and for strength. You don’t have to figure it out on your own—something greater and stronger and wiser than you is always here.

Just to be clear, this has nothing to do with religion (unless you choose for it to). Anyone can do this, and everyone probably should.


Whatever you’re doing in the meantime, whether it’s ringing up groceries or writing up reports or making sales calls to customers, ask yourself how you can bring purpose into whatever it is that you’re doing right now. The thing is, we’re always looking for passion and purpose somewhere else, but it often turns out that we can find it right here, right where we’re at.

Our purpose, I believe, is not a thing, place, title, or even a talent. Our purpose is to be. Our purpose is how we live life, not what role we live. Our purpose is found each moment as we make choices to be who we really are.

– Carol Adrienne

This isn’t to say that you should stop striving to find  something that drives you or that you should stay at a job you hate, but it is to say that the answers aren’t always out there. If you haven’t yet found those things that speak strongly to you, just try focusing on how you can bring presence into your current situation. I think you’ll find that purpose and passion already exist for you.

If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.’

-Martin Luther King, Jr.

So there you have it: the three things that no one’s ever told you about finding your life’s work. Or at least, the three things that no one ever told me.

Here’s wishing you all the passion and purpose and clarity that your world can handle. And as always, thank you for reading, my friend.

– Therese : -)

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[Image by enggul]

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  • Ah, the dreaded: “What do you want to do after graduation?” question. I hate that question and any other resemblance of it. My answer was always “I have no idea.” I’ve been out of school since May and my answer is more or less the same. After sleepwalking through four years of college and working as a student-hire for the Navy I realized what I did NOT want to do after graduation. I knew that I wasn’t cutout for grad school, I didn’t want to spend eight hour days in a cubicle, and I wanted to do something I could be personally proud of. For the greater part of the last year or so I’ve had an idea in the back of my mind that I have been wanting to pursue. Yet, when asked what I wanted to do after graduation I told people I had no idea. I think the reason I reacted this way was because I wasn’t 100 percent committed to the idea myself and I was afraid of what other people might say.

    Lately, I’ve become more confident in this idea after seeking guidance (from God, for me). It’s amazing what seeking guidance can do for someone. So in that sense I do encourage others to try it for themselves. My mother gave me this prayer, which I’ve been praying since June:

    O God, you know that today–or very, very soon–I must make a decision which is going to affect my whole life. Help me to choose rightly–and to choose the right way. Grant me your guidance, and with it grant me the humble obedience to accept it. Help me not necessarily to choose what I want to do, but what you want me to do. Grant that I may not be swayed solely by fear or by hope of gain, by selfish love of ease or comfort or by personal ambition, by the desire to escape or the longing for prestige. Help me today in humble obedience to say to you, Lord, what will you have me do?…and then await your guidance and accept your leading. Hear this prayer and send an answer so clear that I cannot mistake it. This I ask for your love’s sake. Amen.

    • therese

      Chad, thanks for sharing that prayer. I really like it and may use parts of it myself.

      One thing you point out is that you figured out what you did NOT want to do after graduation. This is a really important thing to know! Even knowing this, without being clear on exactly what you DO want to do, is a huge step in the right direction.

      However, it sounds like you do have some idea about what you want to do– you’re just held back by some fear and uncertainty, is what I’m hearing you say. If you want to talk about this, feel free to send me an e-mail (thereseschwenkler (at) gmail (dot) com). I’d love to chat with you about what you’re thinking.

      One last thing: you’re right in that the decision you make will affect your whole life. However, I’ve found that sometimes it helps to stop looking at it as such a big, scary, all-or-nothing life decision. It seems like the biggest decision you’ll ever make, but in reality, it’s far from permanent. If you make a decision and you later realize that it wasn’t the right decision for you, you can always move in a different direction. I wrote the following post in order to provide this type of a perspective change, from thinking of the decision as “all-or-nothing holy SH** I’M SCARED!” to “this is an important decision, but it’s far from permanent and I can always change directions if it’s not for me”:


      Hope this helps, although it sounds like you’re already gaining some clarity.

  • Therese – one tip that has worked is the process of elimination. Heck, we’ll never really know what we want to do but we clearly know what all we don’t want to do in life. By eliminating what we don’t want to do, we narrow in on our life’s work. Each type of work we don’t like, brings us closer to discovering what our life’s work is.

  • “Life is a question that never ends”
    Absolutely true. I don’t think anyone ever fully figures it out. I guess if we did life would get boring and you would have nothing to strive for. I think the key is being OK with the not knowing, and being detached to the outcome. I think so much of our time is consumed with how it will all turn out, we often don’t enjoy what is going on in the process. The joy of discovery. I need to take my own advice. lol!

    • therese

      Very true, surfergrrl. It’s sometimes difficult to experience “the joy of discovery” when we have fear about what the future will bring– in the end, we’ll probably experience a little bit of both, and that’s ok!

  • Holy crap. This site is so freakin’ cool. Is there an obvious ‘required reading’ (top 5 posts) for new readers?

  • Kahla

    I totally agree with Michael… I just found this site through your guest post on Life After College, and after cracking up through your happiness quiz and reading this, I’m in love with your blog!

    It’s so cool to hear you talk about things I know I and many of my friends are experiencing during our senior years in college and after graduation (eek!) in a way that’s funny and oh-so-true (Aunt Sally conversation) and, at the same time, thoughtful (“Life is a question that never ends.”).

    I can’t wait to check out the rest of your site! :)

    • therese

      Thanks so much, Kahla! I love hearing your thoughts.

  • I always tell people not to feel pressured to come up with some canned response to people who ask about what you’re doing. You don’t owe them anything!

    • therese

      True! If you can look someone in the eye and say, “I have no clue and i’m ok with that,” then you are pretty dang cool!

      • Rezemble

        My mother keeps on reminding me that my dad is gonna be retired after few years and he won’t be able to support us…and she is forcing me to become a DOCTOR …I actually had interest before in this field..but now I don’t ..I really don’t wantto become a doctor ..I don’t have that kind of brain ..
        I am stuck
        And my mother is making me feel worse..
        She compares me to other kids who are doctor engineer doctors etc…my dad is a engineer in military so he gets lots of respect..and gets enough salary..so this puts double pressure on me..nobody is supportive in my family…I feel like dying …I love my mom and dad..but I don’t why I feel like a loosed… :'(

        • rezemble


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  • Rad

    As a kid, I was never allowed to really have fun, or follow my passions. I’ll be graduating from college soon, and my family friends always ask me, “what do you plan on doing after college?”. I always answer with “I don’t know”. Which always leads to an awkward silence. I know I’m having some fun with my blog, and God is trying to steer me towards my life’s purpose through the blog somehow. I don’t know. I really hope I do find my life purpose. In high school I would always ask myself, “Why am I here?”. I’m just waiting to find that one thing, that one activity that makes me happy and excited. I trust in God to help me find my passion, and make a living off of it too.
    Thank you for this bangin’ post!

    • It’s a great thing that you’re asking what your purpose is, Rad. KEEP ASKIN’ THE QUESTIONS, keep asking for guidance, and keep trusting! It’s a process, a lifetime process (and maybe we’re already right where we need to be…)

  • Hi Therese,

  • Hi Therese, I just found your blog and this post is very reassuring, especially the Carol Adrienne quote. I recently decided to quit music and start on a whole new path, though I’m not exactly sure what that is yet. Like Rad, I have a feeling that my blog will lead me to something. I just have to remember to be OK with not knowing, and enjoy life in the meantime. Thanks for this post!

  • Amanda

    I found your blog at the time I needed it most, and have been asking “life” and the powers that be where I should be going, what I should be doing. I have been taking courses, and “career planning” with fear that it won’t work out, and I will again have wasted money on education! I have spent most of my maternity leave obsessing about returning to work and leaving my baby, to the point that I haven’t been enjoying what I have now (all day every day with my baby, the love of my life). So I plan to start today enjoying what I have, and will pursue other career options closer to when I am due to return to work. And thanks to your blog, I can do this guilt free!

  • Keren

    Thank you Therese for your blog. You’re telling the truth! Finally a heartfelt blog that’s talking about how it really feels to be alive. None of this happy clappy “you are loved” or “set measurable goals” bullcrap. You’re ok with being lost and conflicted, and being aware of that. You are so right and so refreshingly honest. Thank you for giving me permission to be lost and conflicted today! I should be sorting out my stuff since I’m flying to New Zealand on a working holiday visa in 3 weeks. But I feel shitty and depressed and don’t want to go anymore. I don’t want to stay home either. I can’t change my ticket. I don’t have a job. I invested time and energy and debt into a career which wasn’t right for me, a career I had wanted all my life. And it was completely wrong for me. It made me so ill I couldn’t get out of bed for months. I ended up so burned out I was unable to even walk my dog whom I adore. No-one seems to understand how serious this all is. They tell me “oh you’ll find something else” but I know I won’t. I won’t find another carefully pre-planned path, another little box to live inside. Life is raw. I am raw. I can’t go back even though my future is so terrifyingly blank. I’m learning to be ok with suicidal thoughts, to accept these dark feelings and not try to “solve” them or “fix” myself. For so many years I thought I was broken for feeling so down when everyone else seemed happy. But I’m seeing now that there is nothing wrong with me at all. My immediate family have never understood me. And that’s ok. They never will. I refuse to hurt myself anymore by searching for things which don’t exist. Maybe none of this makes sense to anyone else. But I just wanted to say thank you. You have inspired me today to get up (literally) and keep going even though I have not the slightest clue where all this is going. I’ll be back to read more! Kxx

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  • venus vences

    Amazing. .this article releases me a bit more from the stress ive been having lately from being haunted of not knowing what I want to do

  • Alana

    This is the best article I’ve ever read. Honestly I almost feel like crying. I have been stressing so much about what the hell I’m going to do with my life and this article has literally taken weight of my shoulders. Thank you.

  • Bilal

    I really enjoyed reading this. Thank you for writing this!!!!!

  • Patil Shubham (Sam)

    Hey Therese, thanks very much for such great blogs, recently I have been freaking out making important decisions. I am afraid that I might screw things up. I m a high school student from India, and I have chose foreign US education after high school… I have been having at lot problems recently , some regarding college choices too, but your blogs made me learn some important lessons in my life.

    Once again I thank you very much for that.

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